Said and read – May 2018

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Like last month, I didn’t get as far this month as I’d have hoped. I was rushing to finish two school assignments to close out the term (and launch into the final thesis), which of course meant I was reading a lot of stuff about development/relief work while trying to come up with a plausible topic for a thesis. But there was some good reading during May, and here is the random collection of thoughts on that. In fact this really does not qualify as “thoughts” – it’s more of a list without any reflection (beyond what I did in my head).

You can also find out what I was liking, thinking, reading in April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

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Thoughts on reading for May:

*FactfulnessHans Rosling et al

Ah, the late Hans Rosling gave us one last gift – this book that is so sorely needed in these times of factlessness. Some hope – the world is actually getting better. It’s just very hard to see. But the numbers, as much as they can be manipulated, do tell us a nicer story.

*The View From Flyover CountrySarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior has been one of the most “factful” and insightful voices of reason since the early days of Trump’s rise. For people who have no understand of middle America and how the Trump phenomenon came to be, Kendzior’s collection of essays puts it all into perspective

*Each Happiness Ringed by LionsJane Hirshfield

Poetry. Beautiful poetry.

*Skinned – Selected PoemsAntjie Krog

More poetry. I don’t think anyone who has ever read this blog imagines that I love anything more than I love poetry.

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Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*The Hummingbird’s DaughterLuis Alberto Urrea

When I started reading this one, I had no idea what to expect; it was a random library choice. It took a while to grow on me but I came to enjoy it a lot.

Without any connection to formal religion, I do feel bound to try for “the selfless practice of love, of good, of service” (as cited below). I am struck by those who claim to be “most religious” who have nothing but hatred and violence in their hearts, and have to dehumanize other groups of people to such a degree to be able to feel that way.

“For God,” she preached from her porch, “religions are nothing, signify nothing. Because positive religions are generally nothing more than words—words without feeling. Religions are practices that focus on the surface of things, that affect only the senses, but that fail to touch the soul, and fail to come from the soul. For that reason, these words and practices fail to reach our Father. What our Father wants from us is our emotions, our feelings. He demands pure love, and that love, that sentiment, is found only in the selfless practice of love, of good, of service.”

*Reporting Disasters: Famine, Aid, Politics and the Media  Suzanne Franks

Somewhat connected to my studies, I enjoyed reading about the way disasters and subsequent aid efforts are reported, what gets attention and what doesn’t and how mystifyingly complex it is.

“The configuration of aid, media pressure, NGOs and government policy today is still directly affected, and in some ways distorted, by what was—as this narrative reveals—also an inaccurate and misleading story. In popular memory the reporting of Ethiopia and the humanitarian intervention were a triumph of journalism and altruism. Yet alternative interpretations give a radically different picture: that the reporting was misleading and the resulting aid effort did more harm than good. This book explains the event within the wider context of international news broadcasting, especially by the BBC, and looks at the way it has influenced the reporting of humanitarian disasters in subsequent years.”

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Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The CircleDave Eggers

This book made me sick – in that good way where you feel moved (whether in a positive or negative way). I was moved by that creepy, crawly disgust that comes over you when you’re sitting in a huge room full of brainwashed people. And you think, “My god, am I the only one who thinks we’re being indoctrinated into a cult?”

“There’s this new neediness—it pervades everything.”

“So many people who don’t want to be found but who will be. So many people who wanted no part of all this. That’s what’s new. There used to be the option of opting out. But now that’s over. Completion is the end. We’re closing the circle around everyone—it’s a totalitarian nightmare.”

*A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind – Siri Hustvedt

This was a difficult book to get through. Some of it was very engaging; some was difficult, but in the right frame of mind, it’s incredible. Perception and context, of course.

“Nevertheless, the larger point that may be extrapolated from Plassmann’s experiment and countless others, which often remains unsaid, is instructive: There is no pure sensation of anything, not in feeling pain, not in tasting wine, and not in looking at art. All of our perceptions are contextually coded, and that contextual coding does not remain outside us in the environment but becomes a psycho-physiological reality within us, which is why a famous name attached to a painting literally makes it look better.”

*The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual EconomyPeter Temin

A key analysis for our fraught times.

“A dual economy exists when there are two separate economic sectors within one country, divided by different levels of development, technology, and patterns of demand. This definition reflects the use of the Lewis model in the field of economic development, and I adapt it in this book to describe current conditions in the United States, the richest large country in the world. This is less paradoxical than it sounds because the political policies that grow out of our dual economy have made the United States appear more and more like a developing country.”

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Coincidences

*Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineGail Honeyman

For the entire week before reading Eleanor, SD was overdosing on semi-recent episode of Law & Order: SVU because he wanted to watch one of his man-crushes (Raúl Esparza) in action. He was especially interested in finding out whether Esparza’s sartorially smart ADA Barba wore his vest (waistcoat in UK English parlance) properly, i.e. with the bottom button left unbuttoned). He was delighted to discover that the “sexy bastard” did indeed don his waistcoat exactly as prescribed.

One wouldn’t think that this kind of detail would surface again in the same week. But as it happens, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was offered up to me after spending months on the library waiting list. I didn’t really have expectations and didn’t know what the book was about. It’s not exactly my normal reading fare, and I don’t have my finger on the beating pulse of contemporary popular fiction. I, in fact, knew nothing at all about it (except maybe that Reese Witherspoon had scooped up the film rights, which, yeah… tells me nothing about the book. Or maybe it does).

I started reading and almost immediately, the titular character echoes exactly the same things SD and I were just talking about:

But last night, I’d found the love of my life. When I saw him walk onstage, I just knew. He was wearing a very stylish hat, but that wasn’t what drew me in. No—I’m not that shallow. He was wearing a three-piece suit, with the bottom button of his waistcoat unfastened. A true gentleman leaves the bottom button unfastened, Mummy always said—it was one of the signs to look out for, signifying as it did a sophisticate, an elegant man of the appropriate class and social standing. His handsome face, his voice . . . here, at long last, was a man who could be described with some degree of certainty as ‘husband material.’

Indeed, a few pages later, one woman character called another “hen“, and I realized, to my surprise, that this book is Glaswegian through and through. SD is a Glaswegian (and I’m an ‘honorary’ one), and almost no one else (other than Scots in certain parts of Scotland) refers to women as “hen”.

SD and I stumbled across so many of these random coincidences – talking animatedly about some (often obscure) detail only to have it pop up again and again in the ensuing days. (Strangely, we had only the day before I read this discussed how Smirnoff vodka is not top-shelf stuff, and yet SD encountered a lot of customers when he worked in bars who turned their noses up at much nicer vodkas for some reason. And what happens in Eleanor? I had only intended to purchase two bottles of Glen’s, but the promotional offer on Smirnoff was remarkable. Oh, Mr. Tesco, I simply cannot resist your marvelous bargains. And that’s ultimately why I mention this book… the strange coincidences that overlap my own conversations and experiences. (The book, too, acknowledges the delight of such serendipities):

I shook my head, and was about to discard the newspaper when a small advertisement caught my eye. The Cuttings, it said, with a logo of a bullet train hurtling along a track. I noticed it because the answer to twelve across in yesterday’s crossword had been Shinkansen. Such small coincidences can pepper a life with interest.

But did I like the book? I love that its canvas is Glasgow without being painfully obvious like many books that make a show of being set in a specific place, going over the top with ‘local’ details, as though it’s necessary to prove the writer was there. I’m thinking here of Douglas Coupland‘s overreach for authenticity, for example, in Microserfs; some people find the level of detail engaging; locals reading his books will nod in agreement with the accuracy, but he always goes a little too far, right over the thin line of what is clever, coming across as artificial. In Coupland’s case, as in most cases, I find it smug. I feel a need for something more subtle – like Honeyman’s use of Glasgow).

The book, though… I have mixed feelings on the book itself and on how the character of Eleanor Oliphant comes across and develops. It’s not bad at all; perhaps it is just not quite my style. I can buy into the lack of self-awareness or lack of worldliness in which Eleanor has cocooned herself. But after spending more than half the book creating this well-meaning, but not pleasant and mostly deluded (or at best uninformed) character, I don’t quite understand how, seemingly suddenly about three-quarters of the way through the story, this awkward woman who plowed through the world following her own routines, saying everything that came into her mind and judging everyone harshly with little or no self-reflection, is questioning, self-aware, confronted by a moment of clarity about herself and her delusions.

I am not saying this is not possible, nor am I saying that there is not character development leading to this (Eleanor starts to change, slowly, seeing that the world is bigger and offers more possibilities than she had allowed herself to imagine. She becomes more social and starts to live, all the way through). But the suddenness of her being slapped in the face by reality does not feel earned or quite realistic. We might have gotten there at some point. But how does she go from blind and deluded certainty about something outlandish to instantly waking up to one’s complete disconnect from reality? Is the suddenness intentional? I don’t know.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

Happily (!) I didn’t hate anything enough to include something in the ‘disappointment’ category.

Images by SD 2018

Contextual past and eventual becoming

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“I am writing for the person I used to be. Perhaps the person I once left behind persists, standing there, still and grim, in some attic of time – on a bend, on a crossroads – and in some mysterious way she is able to read the lines I am setting out here, without seeing them.” –A General Theory of Oblivion, José Eduardo Agualusa

In If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino hints gently at context, and by envisioning parallel, fictional realities, we may be ripping some gem from its intended context and stuffing it into another to serve another purpose, to enhance another context. These are not even close to his words, and in fact, in my own paraphrasing I have moved his original words (in translation no less) quite far from their origin and intended context to justify my own. It is the intent, perhaps, that a reader should interpret and ‘steal’ concepts (I know that in one of the multitudes of books I have read this week, there was a passage somewhere about stealing and refashioning good ideas – but I don’t know if I saved the quote. A shame).

But this is my pattern. I read aggressively, voraciously, feverishly highlighting meaningful passages (stopping briefly to wonder if I might highlight different passages and quotes if I were in another frame of mind, or context). And later I find some application – or context – for those passages that meant most to me in some way.

Behavior eventually shows its hand and establishes a pattern if you wait long enough. I can change these patterns to change behaviors, but the underlying drive comes out the same. I shifted from television addiction to a reading addiction, which I would argue is the better of the two addictions. But both are addictive and almost compulsive behaviors. To compensate, I seek and find some balance, and my constant underlying drive is not just the search for balance but the search for change. And for me, change is always about the future and ensuring some otherness or difference from the now and the past. It is not about dragging vestiges of the past with me into new scenery; it is likewise not about erasing that past or its experience. It does not mean cast off the you who was, but does mean give careful consideration to the you who will be.

“This is what I mean when I say I would like to swim against the stream of time: I would like to erase the consequences of certain events and restore an initial condition. But every moment of my life brings with it an accumulation of new facts, and each of these new facts brings with it its consequences; so the more I seek to return to the zero moment from which I set out, the further I move away from it: though all my actions are bent on erasing the consequences of previous actions and though I manage to achieve appreciable results in this erasure, enough to open my heart to hopes of immediate relief, I must, however, bear in mind that my every move to erase previous events provokes a rain of new events, which complicate the situation worse than before and which I will then, in their turn, have to try to erase. Therefore I must calculate carefully every move so as to achieve the maximum of erasure with the minimum of recomplication.” If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

While many recognize and complain about their patterns, they do nothing to alter them. Change, after all, is what we most avoid. Because of this aversion to change, at least some kinds of change, the complaints are idle and the angst projected about them contrived. But we all have our blind spots, especially when it comes to other, unpredictable, people.

“…but at that moment it was as if an undigested bit of the past had come back up his throat.” –The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Paolo Giordano

Yes, people. Unpredictable people who jump around in the timeline of our lives. Almost dead within our archives, yet somehow we live on, almost as living, breathing people in the daily existences, of which we are (almost) no longer a part. I can control my books or tv viewing or the lengths of walks in the rain (though I cannot yet control the rain). I can control how much I sleep and how deeply involved I become in my mad dreams (how I love these). But people… and how much the past wears on and continues to affect (and infect) people.

Someone told me recently that “the past is a foreign country”, which sounds, not unlike my allusions and references to Calvino, like something lifted from a literary source (with which I am not familiar). This is poetic, but Calvino himself manages to describe the pernicious nature of the past with a far more apt simile:

“The past is like a tapeworm, constantly growing, which I carry curled up inside me”.

The past, and the people who populate it, has a voracious appetite and will eat away at one from the inside, if one lets it.

The interesting part is that the phantoms, those living in the past as though it were yesterday: they are often the most honest ones. Maybe not about how the past was (they can in fact be quite blind and/or deluded), but they aren’t hiding their intentions or papering over their defects. And the people laboring along in the firm belief that they are living in the present and looking toward the future? The veneer of calm does not hide the high-strung individual underneath, paddling away from reminders of the past like poor swimmers with no instinct for floating – there is no actual serenity in those who so desperately seek it. Maybe, like Daniel Hall writes in “Love Letter Burning”: “The past will shed some light/but never keep us warm”.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.”Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

Content is all I have ever been about – but it’s misunderstood

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If you read marketing industry blogs or publications at all, you will have been gagged to the point of choking on the idea that “content is king”. This little phrase, apparently coined by Bill Gates circa 1996, has been bandied about to the point of near meaninglessness and debated to an almost unfathomable degree.

For people who are not content or digital marketers – what do these terms mean and why do you need to care? I am finding that as straightforward as the term “content” is – or should be – it’s actually sort of misunderstood. A lot like the oft-thrown-about term “digital”. What does “digital marketing” really consist of?

Content is not the king. (You know very well that Elvis still is, and always will be, the king.)

Content is drop-dead important. But without context, relevance and a plan, content can be fairly meaningless. Just a fountain of uselessness that does not achieve anything. You are not going to get anywhere without good content that supports whatever your mission is. Content drives everything and even though it’s front and center, it is also kind of a behind-the-scenes engine – you get followers, shares, attention, discussion – by creating content that is worth talking about. Relevant. Not spun BS. Not repetitive garbage. Hopefully not jargon-filled nonsense. Everywhere you look, you are advised to “create content worth spreading” – and for all purposes, this is true. Get content right and your job is easier.

In much of my freelance work, I have wanted to yell at my clients: “Stop chasing trends and buzzwords and focus on the real meat on the bone – and the bone itself.” Good content is almost all that is going to get you the right (target) audience or traffic – and of course you need to drive traffic from somewhere. But content plays the most important role in that as well. You can’t really have an effective SEO strategy without focusing on content. (Search algorithms are actively taking quality and freshness into account.) You can’t effectively distribute content if you have not really got something worthwhile to put out there.

As far as content goes, I am well aware that this blog post is generic and serves mostly to air my own frustration about how much mileage this topic gets without people gaining any deeper understanding of how they need to focus on content development and content marketing. I almost feel like there are a lot of people in business who read a lot of articles about this elusive “content” and spout a lot of stuff about how content needs to be – but they are not really content creators themselves and therefore have no hands-on understanding of how it fits into and supports their goals.

To calm the nerves, then, a song from ages ago. “Sheffield Park” – The Mekons