Said and read – March 2020

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Image used courtesy of S. Donaghy

Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.The OverstoryRichard Powers

Were we ready when March began for the way the world has changed? How casually and spontaneously we jumped on airplanes and flew from place to place without even thinking about it. How every activity was about time and convenience, nothing to do with whether or not it would be life threatening to leave one’s house. Sure, when March began, we knew the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading – we saw the tragic consequences unfold in more distant parts of the world (depending on where in the world you are, of course). But even now self-isolation orders (and adherence) is piecemeal, fragmented and inconsistently applied and enforced. Until we feel the pain or fear of personal loss, we don’t seem to care very much. We see the death toll rise, but unless it’s touched you, we express a collective, “Oh that’s too bad” kind of semi-indifference. When does that change? It may be an ideal time to reassess who we are in the world and who we want to be.

I want this not only for artists and writers, but for any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized. A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” –How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

We haven’t seen the extent of the way the world will change. We just don’t know if it gets better or worse from here. And while I go on in my own long-term self-isolation (this is my normal lifestyle), I continue reading. I wish I had the language to discuss reading and books more interactively, but I don’t. I find that many people tell me they “love” reading, only to discover that they are talking about audiobooks (ugh) or scifi/fantasy novels, and then I just don’t have common ground any more. I want people to read; I want to read. I want to share this passion, but then I find I reach a certain point where it becomes private and insular, and no one can reach me on the ground I tread.

Past editions: 2020 – 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 March:

Highly recommended

It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.” –On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

*On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

It’s a narrative work from poet, Ocean Vuong, and you can tell it’s written by a poet. The language is evocative, emotionally resonant and beautiful.

You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.

*How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.

I am not sure that there could have been a better book for this moment in time of “manifest dismantling” than Odell’s How to Do Nothing. While many of us are forced to abandon what we think of as valuable productivity, and face who we are day to day without the trappings of what we think of as “normal life”, we are reflected back at ourselves. Since the various lockdown levels have rolled out globally, friends and colleagues have begun to exhibit signs of minor meltdown, insisting after two days at home, “I’m bored.”

Even with the technologies we insist we rely on at their disposal, which have been so immersive and all-consuming to the detriment of human connection, isolation is unbearable. When these people did have the opportunity to commune face to face with other humans in public spaces, they didn’t – they communed with phones and devices, which now – only now – aren’t enough for them. Who would have thought? And now they demand entertainment. Probably this is more a function of being human – needing connection and validation – than of just being unimaginative and boring (as grandma said, only boring people get bored), yet it’s still perplexing – and mesmerizing. What should you be doing? And if not now, when should you think more deeply on this subject?

“The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

I will never run out of things to do. Why are these people so bored? Is the need to socialize and be productive in a collective way so compelling – compulsive?

If you become interested in the health of the place where you are, whether that’s cultural or biological or both, I have a warning: you will see more destruction than progress.

What has marked all of my memorable reading this month is how accidentally it has fallen into thematic alignment with the pitting of the momentary against the longevity of the durable and persistent … and what these things mean, and whether those definitions can and do change. That is, in Odell, Powers, and Sinclair we see long-term ecology and culture stretch out over unseen time, beyond this frenzied economic cycle, beyond our envisioned or predicted lifespan, beyond the life of a single tree from one geologic epoch to another…

“Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new in the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation. But this seeming contradiction actually points to a deeper contradiction: of destruction (e.g., of ecosystems) framed as construction (e.g., of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress, production, and innovation relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like so many weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if we sincerely recognize all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.”

Good – or better than expected

*UnaccompaniedJavier Zamora

Powerful poetry from Salvadoran poet, Javier Zamora.

*The OverstoryRichard Powers

I have no way to describe why I liked this. It just had some beautiful, evocative passages about trees, nature… and chestnuts. Just after I’d discussed chestnuts with someone, stating that I was not sure I’d ever tasted them, I started reading and immediately was struck by the mildly erotic (?) description of the flavor of a chestnut.

“The charred nuts are comforting beyond words: sweet and savory, rich as a honeyed potato, earthy and mysterious all at once. The burred husks prickle, but their No is more of a tease than any real barrier. The nuts want to slip free of their spiny protection. Each one volunteers to be eaten, so others might be spread far afield.”

The “overstory” essentially is like the often lengthy life of a tree. Life’s decisions are not one-dimensional, one-generational, their consequences not immediately felt. They appear later, throughout time, like the rings of a tree.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Lifespan: Why We Age – And Why We Don’t Have ToDavid A. Sinclair

There’s also a difference between extending life and prolonging vitality. We’re capable of both, but simply keeping people alive—decades after their lives have become defined by pain, disease, frailty, and immobility—is no virtue.

When confronted by propositions about living forever, aging and the disease of aging, scores of questions follow. How do we value life, relationships, commitments if we remove mortality from the equation? Would we reevaluate “old age” if being elderly didn’t inevitably mean infirmity? Would we really want to live forever – or even for hundreds of years? What do things mean when they are no longer finite?

If the epigenome had evolved to be digital rather than analog, the valley walls would be the equivalent of 100 miles high and vertical, and gravity would be superstrong, so the marbles could never jump over into a new valley. Cells would never lose their identity. If we were built this way, we could be healthy for thousands of years, perhaps longer. But we are not built this way. Evolution shapes both genomes and epigenomes only enough to ensure sufficient survival to ensure replacement—and perhaps, if we are lucky, just a little bit more—but not immortality.

I read this book in large part because my brother talks obsessively about aging (and why we don’t have to age the way we think of aging now). For now, Sinclair’s impressive book, ostensibly about aging and how we can prevent it, is full of different strategies and avenues medicine, science and research are taking to tackle the problem of aging. It aims to challenge the shared narrative of aging as we know it as a natural phenomenon, and instead of redefine it (i.e., infirm aging) as a disease.

Yet, this book has struck me more for its focus on the ubiquity, totality, danger and promise of data… Sinclair argues that we give away copious amounts of personal data as a form of currency every single day, but we are reticent to do so when it is medical in nature, even if this data might be the most vital we could offer in ‘rejuvenating’ humanity.

Perhaps there are people out there who’d be happy to drive without any dashboard at all, relying solely on their intuition and experience to tell them how fast they are going, when their car needs fuel or recharging, and what to fix when something goes wrong. The vast majority of us, however, would never drive a car that wasn’t giving us at least some quantitative feedback, and, through our purchasing decisions, we have made it clear to car companies that we want more and more intelligent cars.

Surprisingly, we’ve never demanded the same for our own bodies. Indeed, we know more about the health of our cars than we know about our own health. That’s farcical. And it’s about to change.

Thanks to wearables, we already have the technology in place to monitor the body temperature, pulse, and other biometric reactions of more than a hundred million people in real time. The only things separating us from doing so are a recognized need and a cultural response.

Most of us aren’t “the world’s most connected man” (side note: I had read about this dude, Chris Dancy, online a few times and then a few years later was seated next to him on a plane), but we’re connected enough that any illusion of privacy we cling to is… a fantasy. Why do we not embrace it?

Indeed, most relevant at the moment is Sinclair’s writing (from 2019) on a future pandemic that is poised to wipe out huge swathes of the global population and how data might help. It’s timely right now, but clearly, the pandemic is already here.

Coincidences

Apart from more than three different books I recently read citing the film Gattaca, I didn’t stumble on any great coincidences in March.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Girl, Woman, OtherBernardine Evaristo

This was by no means a bad book; I simply had my expectations built up, so anything would have been disappointing. What I can say about it is… it is dynamic, told from multiple points of view – and that’s a hit or miss proposition for me.

Tourist Season in Western Sweden

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Tourist season has begun. Hordes of Germans and Dutch and their cars usually flood into western Sweden when May/June starts, but today I even got behind a slow-driving, confused and ugly French car. Worse than any actual French car (Renault, Citroen or Peugeot) is a Nissan Juke. I think this is one of the ugliest cars with THE dumbest car name possible. Who chose “Juke” and what is it even supposed to mean? (“Please meet not only our least favorite car of 2012, but our least favorite car of our quarter century lives.“)

It’s also a time of year when people decide to put giant, handmade, ugly neon signs that read: “VÄRNING! ÄLG!” (“WARNING! MOOSE!”) everywhere.

Elg Norwegian warning sign

Elg Norwegian warning sign

In most places in Norway and Sweden there are actual signs that warn of moose – but here in this rural area it is all a DIY effort. The Norwegian signs (the real ones) look like real moose, but the Swedish signs, if you don’t look carefully, look a bit like panthers. Haha. Beware all those wild Swedish panthers.

Swedish älg warning signs

Swedish älg warning signs

The earlier cited article about Dutch people in Sweden actually made me think of a point that I sometimes question (and it’s not why someone writes the word “assassinate” as “assinate” and posts it on their blog): immigrants (those who have moved completely by choice, like the Dutch woman cited in the article, often report the following feeling: ““In the Netherlands, everyone is always in a hurry. When I went back there recently, I kept thinking: ‘Do you ever take the time to live a little?’.”

This made me wonder whether immigrants (again, by choice) are just by nature more “slowed down” in many cases than those born in a certain place. That is, it is easier to opt out of (or never join in the first place) things that are sort of like family and social obligations that one is often subject to at “home”. My life for example was always full of obligations, greater speed and involvement and integration where I came from – and no matter how I aimed to integrate and ingratiate (haha), I still was kind of “apart”, which naturally slows me down. Did I entirely choose to take the time to live a little or is it a matter more of circumstance because I am not totally integrated and also don’t feel like I have to fit into some preconceived idea about what I have to do and what is expected of me? I hear this “moving abroad helped me take time to live a little” – and immigrants often credit the “slower, more appreciative culture” to which they have moved – but I doubt very much that it is wholly or even appreciably attributable to the adopted country’s culture (in many cases) as much as it is the immigrant’s interpretation and place in that culture.

Sound du jour: John Grant – “That’s the Good News

You cannot trust me/I will stab you in the back/I’ll sell your grandma on the street to buy some crack/if crack is not available, I’ll buy gelato/you have to take things as they come that is my motto…

I have been fucked over a thousand times or two, and now I feel that I must take it out on you…

The Lone(ly) Immigrant

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The roughest part of moving to a new country on your own – without a real reason, going somewhere without a support network – is the making connections and friends. You do not often meet the kind of immigrant who moved to a new country just because he or she wanted to. If not following love/the heart, following a career path or deciding to study abroad (which is its own protected cocoon that barely counts as “living abroad”), you are just out there somewhere, on your own, adrift in this new place with no inside track on how to meet people or interact. The whole thing is a wild ride, a learning curve, negotiating the place between who and where you are and who and where everyone else is… finding a comfortable place in between.

I am too headstrong and naturally weird (other people’s assessment more than my own) to “fit in” anywhere I go so have never been one of those zombies who moves somewhere and professes love for a place without reservation. I don’t go native. I am who I am – and I won’t impose me on others, but I don’t want to be too changed by them either.

Long ago when I volunteered (oh, the sense of adventure) to be an immigrant, I struggled with the whole maze of bureaucracy and adjusting to the little things that make up a new place. You never really think about how things operate elsewhere. Things that seemed like second nature where you came from are often done in a completely different way elsewhere. The mind is conditioned to think that the way it’s done wherever you came from is “the right way” – but part of adjusting and assimilating is not just finding out how these things work but also acknowledging that perhaps the new way is better or more efficient.

All of that is easy enough to accomplish – it is a matter of changing the way you think. But making genuine connections with people – locals or other foreigners – is so much more difficult than that. Moving to Scandinavia especially (not the warmest or most social place), it’s hard to break into the already formed social circles and make even acquaintances (although forming lasting friendships does mean something when you finally get there). I have never been a really outgoing or friendly person, so making friends has always been difficult.

At one point almost ten years ago I decided I had nothing to lose by attending a course for immigrants who wanted to start businesses in Iceland. It was a three-weekend course, quite inexpensive and perhaps would lead me to forming a business (I was already actively freelancing). The course was a bit of a joke; designed and run by Icelanders, they automatically assumed all the immigrant attendees wanted to open restaurants. That’s right –that is all we’re good for. Food service. People from all over the world took the course – people who were highly educated, had been working in professional fields in their home countries – but yeah, we all want to open a food cart.

What I had not banked on was meeting three people who actually changed – and elevated – my quality of life. Two Australians and an Italian – people who became my best friends and who still are.

It happens – but the life of an immigrant can be a lonely one.