Said and read – January 2021

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“Freedom is as mortal as tyranny.” – Alan Dugan, “Argument to Love as a Person”

Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, 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 January

Escaping the clutches of a diseased 2020 didn’t provide the respite one would hope for. There was death before and death after, the arbitrary threshold of one year ending and another beginning meaningless. Loss sometimes means remembering – and memories can be bitter, painful and unexpected.

To iron out the jagged edges of reality, books continued to work their magic.

Time feels as though it has accelerated, and I pack every day with so much that January (and all its books) feels like years ago already. For that reason, and in the interest of brevity (haha I hear you laughing as you scroll and scroll and scroll to the never-appearing end of this; there’s nothing brief about this book report), I’ll briefly mention books here without any kind of format (I tried to categorize my previous book reports). I don’t have the focus, time or energy to create categories. There were just too many books overall in January, so I’ve excluded some that were very engaging, wonderful books that just …didn’t end up making this list.

It’s all stream of consciousness now.

*A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution – Jeremy D. Popkin

No explanation. I just liked it. The French Revolution. What’s not to like?

*Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American LandscapeLauret Savoy

“History as taught to me in grade school tried to box all that is known of a fixed past into a universal, sequential story. A story that was innocent, independent, impelled. A story beyond human manipulation. … But that sense of history neglects our relationships to each other and to what is ‘known’ and ‘not known’ of the past. How and why do we know what we know? Who is doing the (re)collecting then telling?”

A beautiful book itself, but it struck me at the time I read it because Man’s Search for Meaning was cited. I had just finished re-reading Man’s Search for a second time before picking this up, and it added a certain richness and depth as an accompaniment. Then again, the more you read, the more there are pieces interwoven with other works and ideas, so considerable overlap isn’t unexpected. If you read enough, you discover that there are source materials that writers across disciplines return to, and Frankl happens to be one, appearing also The Upside of Irrationality, another book I consumed in January. Hannah Arendt is another. These repeated references stand to reason because they continue to make sense, and resonate deeply with more universal truths and clarity.

This is something I love about reading: interconnectivity. It is almost like a tonic or antidote to bite-sized, sensational, fast-paced and often fake “news”. An historical record that we can draw upon, question and interpret within a kind of shared intellectual milieu that’s always being built upon and enriched.

Trace explores memory and sense of place as well as point of view: what is history, who gets to tell the story?

“What to remember, what to forget. Colonial historian Bernard Bailyn writes that memory’s ‘relation to the past is an embrace. It is not a critical, skeptical reconstruction of what happened. It is the spontaneous, unquestioned experience of the past. It is absolute, not tentative or distant, and it is expressed in signs and signals, symbols, images, and mnemonic clues of all sorts. It shapes our awareness whether we know it or not, and it is ultimately emotional, not intellectual.”

Of course reading a lot eventually leads to drawing parallels with other aspects of pop culture. I recently watched the HBO series How To with John Wilson, and it touched on the subject of, and subjectivity of, memory. The human mind distorts memory to the extent that we can be 100% convinced that something happened the way we remember. And yet it didn’t. Sometimes this mass misremembering extends to large groups of people, which is often called “the Mandela effect“. Wilson examines this, diving into some unusual communities who do, despite being shown they are misremembering, continue to believe they are right, but that their memories took place in some kind of alternate or parallel universe. Yes, Wilson’s show is that kind of rabbit hole.

On a more personal level, I often have to remind myself that just because I’ve shared an experience or relationship with another person, my memory of it is an entirely different reality. The larger canvas of history is no different.

“That inhabiting the same time, sharing a past, doesn’t mean sharing common experiences or points of view was never clearer than on the tour of Walnut Grove. We live among countless landscapes of memory in this country. They convey both remembrances and omission, privileging particular arcs of story while neglecting so many others.”

*The Artificial Silk GirlIrmgard Keun

““Why do you laugh this silvery laugh, you sweet creature?” And me: “I’m laughing because I’m happy.” Thank God men are far too full of themselves to think that you could be laughing at them! And he told me he was an aristocrat. Well, I’m not so dumb to believe that live noblemen are running around in the streets these days.”

A German must-read, banned by the Nazis, focused on a young woman dreaming of being a starlet but never quite satisfying that — or any — hunger.

“If you’re human, you have feelings. If you’re human, you know what it means if you want someone and they don’t want you. It’s like an electrified waiting period. Nothing more, nothing less. But it’s enough.”

*The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismEdward E. Baptist

For anyone who doubts slavery ever ended and wants to know how the American capitalist nightmare machine was built (and on whose labor and at what human cost). Which, frankly, should be everyone. But sadly won’t be.

*Smoke but No Fire: Convicting the Innocent of Crimes that Never Happened Jessica S. Henry

Henry immediately tells the reader that she knows a great deal about wrongful convictions. But even she, armed with the statistics, was shocked (as most readers would be) to discover that one-third of “all known exonerations involve people wrongfully convicted of crimes that never happened”. Yes… crimes that never happened at all.

What?!

“No-crime convictions start with the fictional narrative that a crime occurred. That fiction can be based on honest error, tunnel vision, lies, or corruption, but in every case it is an illusion manufactured from whole cloth. The entire criminal justice system then steps in to process an innocent person where no wrongdoing occurred—and somehow, the error is undetected at every stage of the proceedings. Society has no recognizable interest in spending the time, energy, and resources in identifying, prosecuting, convicting, and punishing a criminal suspect for a crime that never happened. Yet we do. More often than anyone could have imagined. No-crime convictions are based on phantom crimes. But for the wrongly convicted in no-crime cases, they are all too real.”

*Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our OwnEddie S. Glaude

“It is exhausting to find oneself, over and over again, navigating a world rife with deadly assumptions about you and those who look like you, to see and read about insult and harm, death and anguish, for no other reason than because you’re black or black and poor or black and trans or…For me, the daily grind consumes.”

A beautiful book, visiting places and steps James Baldwin took in forging his identity against a backdrop of both historical and present-day racism and the lie (a thematic signpost returned to several times) that America is driven by some kind of inherent goodness or redeeming quality. Baldwin, and through this exploration, Glaude, have exposed the rotting core of this lie.

“Narrating trauma fragments how we remember. We recall what we can and what we desperately need to keep ourselves together. Wounds, historical and painfully present, threaten to rend the soul, and if that happens, nothing else matters.”

*The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s EconomyStephanie Kelton

As usual my reading is all over the place. A lot of stuff about systemic inequality, but the rhetoric of why this is the way it must be rests on misleading arguments about debt, and more frequently, deficit. The system is broken, and we think about it, are taught about it, and discuss it in ways that betray our lack of understanding about it, according to Kelton.

“MMT radically changes our understanding by recognizing that it is the currency issuer—the federal government itself—not the taxpayer, that finances all government expenditures. Taxes are important for other reasons that I will explain in this book. But the idea that taxes pay for what the government spends is pure fantasy. I was skeptical when I first encountered these ideas.”

“The economic framework that I’m advocating for is asking for more fiscal responsibility from the federal government, not less. We just need to redefine what it means to budget our resources responsibly. Our misconceptions about the deficit leave us with so much waste and untapped potential within our current economy.”

Reading Kelton’s book took me back to a public sector economics course I took over 20 years ago. Our professors hammered the idea home that deficits don’t really matter. And, like Kelton, I struggled with this idea. Having been indoctrinated into the idea that lowering the deficit is somehow a worthy economic goal, accepting the idea that people do not, as Kelton writes, “deserve” to ask more from their government because it’s fiscally irresponsible.

“In a now-famous speech from 1983, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared that “the state has no source of money, other than the money people earn themselves. If the state wishes to spend more it can only do so by borrowing your savings or by taxing you more.”5 This was Thatcher’s way of saying that the government’s finances were constrained in the same way our personal finances are constrained. In order to spend more, the government would need to raise the money. “We know that there is no such thing as public money,” she added. “There is only taxpayer money.” If the British people wanted more from their government, they would have to foot the bill. Was it an innocent mistake or a carefully crafted statement designed to discourage the British people from demanding more from their government?”

I’d be genuinely interested to hear more thoughts on the assertions presented in this book. Some of them make a lot of sense, but others have been simplified to the degree that I think, “I must be missing something fundamental here.”

“Your taxes don’t actually pay for anything, at least not at the federal level. The government doesn’t need our money. We need their money. We’ve got the whole thing backward! When I first encountered this way of understanding how taxing and spending work in actual practice, I recoiled. It was 1997, and I was midway through a PhD program in economics when someone shared a little book called Soft Currency Economics with me.8 The book’s author, Warren Mosler, was a successful Wall Street investor, not an economist, and his book was about how the economics profession was getting almost everything wrong. I read it, and I wasn’t convinced.”

Thoughts?

*The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly ProsperousJoseph Henrich

“Beliefs, practices, technologies, and social norms—culture—can shape our brains, biology, and psychology, including our motivations, mental abilities, and decision-making biases. You can’t separate “culture” from “psychology” or “psychology” from “biology,” because culture physically rewires our brains and thereby shapes how we think. Psychological changes induced by culture can shape all manner of subsequent events by influencing what people pay attention to, how they make decisions, which institutions they prefer, and how much they innovate.”

Yes, yes and more yes. I had not given a great deal of thought before going into the formal study of psychology to the problem that almost everything we think we know about human psychology comes from a very limited and relatively homogenous group of WEIRD people. That is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.

“…almost everything we—scientists—knew about human psychology derived from populations that seemed to be rather unusual along many important psychological and behavioral dimensions. Crucially, there was no obvious way to tell whether a psychological pattern found in Western undergraduates would hold cross-culturally, since existing research going back over a half century had revealed differences across populations in people’s susceptibility to visual illusions, spatial reasoning, memory, attention, patience, risk-taking, fairness, induction, executive function, and pattern recognition.”

And how wouldn’t this skew “findings” that cannot necessarily be replicated or observed cross culturally?

Reading Henrich’s book reinforced one of the takeaways from my study: if you only have access to fellow university students as your study subjects, which is almost always the case as a student, how can you credibly claim to have concluded anything? The questions I was most interested in exploring had to do with things that no student population could possibly answer. For example, the perception of risk in people experiencing geriatric pregnancies. But how would one go about finding enough willing subjects for an investigation like this within the confines of a university-length semester?

Another key takeaway: the WEIRD societies the book describes, and their psychology, are individualistic.

“But, the WEIRDer your psychology, the less inclined you’ll be to focus on relational ties, and the more motivated you’ll be to start making up invisible properties, assigning them to individuals, and using them to justify universally applicable laws.”

In any case there were other fascinating points in the book, which had come up at various points in my previous academic career as well, for example, the influence of literacy on both cultures and on the brain.

“Learning to read forms specialized brain networks that influence our psychology across several different domains, including memory, visual processing, and facial recognition. Literacy changes people’s biology and psychology without altering the underlying genetic code. A society in which 95 percent of adults are highly literate would have, on average, thicker corpus callosa and worse facial recognition than a society in which only 5 percent of people are highly literate.”

By extension, it seems culture and religion has shaped the likelihood of one becoming literate, e.g. “literacy rates grew the fastest in countries where Protestantism was most deeply established”; “In Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands, adult literacy rates were nearly 100 percent. Meanwhile, in Catholic countries like Spain and Italy, the rates had only risen to about 50 percent. Overall, if we know the percentage of Protestants in a country, we can account for about half of the cross-national variation in literacy at the dawn of the 20th century”.

And what would my book report be without a shout-out to my beloved Scotland?

“When the Reformation reached Scotland in 1560, it was founded on the central principle of a free public education for the poor. The world’s first local school tax was established there in 1633 and strengthened in 1646. This early experiment in universal education soon produced a stunning array of intellectual luminaries, from David Hume to Adam Smith, and probably midwifed the Scottish Enlightenment. The intellectual dominance of this tiny region in the 18th century inspired Voltaire to write, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization.”

*The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in HistoryJohn M. Barry

“One cannot know with certainty, but if the upper estimate of the death toll is true as many as 8 to 10 percent of all young adults then living may have been killed by the virus. And they died with extraordinary ferocity and speed. Although the influenza pandemic stretched over two years, perhaps two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a period of twenty-four weeks, and more than half of those deaths occurred in even less time, from mid-September to early December 1918. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black Death of the Middle Ages killed in a century; it killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS has killed in twenty-four years.”

Who can resist books and films about pandemics when living through a pandemic? For many, focusing on previous health crises induces greater panic, but I find these kinds of materials comforting. They describe a panic, a critical turning point in culture and understanding of disease, but ultimately provide some reassurance that humanity as a whole gets through these things. This, coupled with having a better grasp of the trajectory of the pandemic itself, provides solace of a kind, i.e. it will get better, or at least the death toll is nowhere near that of the flu pandemic of 1918. Small consolation, I suppose, for those who have experienced tremendous upheaval and loss this time around.

“During the course of the epidemic, 47 percent of all deaths in the United States, nearly half of all those who died from all causes combined—from cancer, from heart disease, from stroke, from tuberculosis, from accidents, from suicide, from murder, and from all other causes—resulted from influenza and its complications. And it killed enough to depress the average life expectancy in the United States by more than ten years.”

Certainly it’s not for everyone. But I recognize that people take comfort in whatever ways they can. I was thinking earlier about how people return to the same vacation spots, reread the same books, and eat the same favorite meals repeatedly. I, who thrive on novelty, change and constant learning and stimulation, would not enjoy this, but the depth of my understanding of people’s need for comfort and familiarity has increased, particularly during our own era’s seemingly infinite pandemic.

*Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the StoryAngela Saini

Having more women in science is already changing how science is done. Questions are being asked that were never asked before. Assumptions are being challenged. Old ideas are giving way to new ones. The distorted, often negative picture that research has painted of women in the past has been powerfully challenged in recent decades by other researchers—many of whom are women. And this alternative portrait shows humans in a completely different light.”

*Superior: The Return of Race ScienceAngela Saini

“‘In the modern world we look to science as a rationalization of political ideas,’ I’m told by Jonathan Marks, a genial, generous professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is one of the most outspoken voices against scientific racism. Race science, he explains, emerged “in the context of colonial political ideologies, of oppression and exploitation. It was a need to classify people, make them as homogeneous as possible.” Grouping people made it easier to control them.”

*Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First CenturyDorothy Roberts

First – read all of Dorothy Roberts’s books. Just read them. Do it.

Second:

“The emerging biopolitics of race has three main components. First, some scientists are resuscitating biological theories of race by using cutting-edge genomic research to modernize old racial typologies that were based on observations of physical differences. Science is redefining race as a biological category written in our genes. Second, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are converting the new racial science into products that are developed and marketed according to race and that incorporate assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level. Finally, government policies that are officially color-blind are stripping poor minority communities of basic services, social programs, and economic resources in favor of corporate interests while simultaneously imposing on these communities harsh forms of punitive regulation. These dehumanizing policies of surveillance and control are made invisible to most Americans by the emerging genetic understanding of race that focuses attention on molecular differences while obscuring the impact of racism in our society.”

I’d highlight the whole book if left to my own devices, but it’s such an important topic, and hidden behind a veneer of “science” (meaning average people don’t question, if they are aware at all), that you should read the entire book.

“Like citizenship, race is a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations. Race is not only interpreted according to invented rules, but, more important, race itself is an invented political grouping. Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.”

*Under the Udala TreesChinelo Okparanta

The thought occurred to me: Yes, it had been Adam and Eve. But so what if it was only the story of Adam and Eve that we got in the Bible? Why did that have to exclude the possibility of a certain Adam and Adam or a certain Eve and Eve? Just because the story happened to focus on a certain Adam and Eve did not mean that all other possibilities were forbidden. Just because the Bible recorded one specific thread of events, one specific history, why did that have to invalidate or discredit all other threads, all other histories? Woman was created for man, yes. But why did that mean that woman could not also have been created for another woman? Or man for another man? Infinite possibilities, and each one of them perfectly viable. I wondered about the Bible as a whole. Maybe the entire thing was just a history of a certain culture, specific to that particular time and place, which made it hard for us now to understand, and which maybe even made it not applicable for us today. Like Exodus. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk. Deuteronomy said it too. But what did it mean? What did it mean back then? Was the boiling of the young goat in its mother’s milk a metaphor for insensitivity, for coldness of heart? Or did it refer to some ancient ritual that nobody performed anymore? But still, there it was in the Bible, open to whatever meaning people decided to give to it. Also, what if Adam and Eve were merely symbols of companionship?

*Godless Citizens in a Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public LifeIsaac Kramnick

Atheism is not typically a philosophy of nihilism stripping all meaning from human existence but a position of principled conscience grounded on commitments to reason and science and open debate. Hypocrisy is what empties the public square of moral purpose, and nothing encourages hypocrisy more than a god of convenience who finds sin not in what we do but in what our political opponents do.”

A great book. Living as an atheist, agnostic or even a non-Christian in the “godly republic” of America, the themes Kramnick wrote about here are familiar and deeply felt.

What matters in our story is how events conspired to keep nonbelievers under the same cloud of suspicion. Was it credible in the twentieth century that people who did not believe in an afterlife and divine judgment were more likely to lie than people who still believed in hell? The truth is that most perjurers in American history have happily professed religion and have freely taken an oath to tell the truth.”

Unable to chip away at the omnipresence of God in official political discourse, nonbelievers are marginalized, even stigmatized, as well, by their fellow citizens. This was true in the past and it remains true. No surprise then that candidates for public office would be silent about nonbelief.

*The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious NationalismKatherine Stewart

Christian nationalism is not a religious creed but, in my view, a political ideology. It promotes the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation. It asserts that legitimate government rests not on the consent of the governed but on adherence to the doctrines of a specific religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage. It demands that our laws be based not on the reasoned deliberation of our democratic institutions but on particular, idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible.

Along similar lines and themes as Kramnick’s book on the marginalization and demonization of atheism, here we take a look at the rise of religious nationalism. The ultimate hypocrisy, really, when America will condemn and possibly even go to war with states because they are “oppressive theocracies”. If that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black…

“‘I will occasionally mention political topics from the pulpit but not partisan ones,” he continues. “The Bible is inherently political in that it routinely speaks against people who abuse their power in order to oppress other people.’

*The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for FailureJonathan Haidt

“What is new today is the premise that students are fragile. Even those who are not fragile themselves often believe that others are in danger and therefore need protection. There is no expectation that students will grow stronger from their encounters with speech or texts they label “triggering.” (This is the Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.)”

Compassion, understanding, empathy and humanity underpin almost all of my interactions in life. One might imagine then that Haidt’s book on the coddling of the American mind, the removal and excoriation of all ideas and debate that create discomfort (at threat of violence and ostracism), would fly in the face of this commitment to compassion. In fact, no. There is ample space for sensitivity and constructive, respectful discussion. But that’s what has been lost. We are either at extremes, being as insensitive and offensive as we please, or we are tiptoeing around subjects and even words that might “trigger” someone. Is this a kind of censorship? Maybe. When it’s taken on as policy or code of conduct, probably. In individual university classrooms, where this problem has been most evident, it has become problematic to the point that professors have lost jobs and the support of their peers.

Where is the line between pushing the envelope, dissecting even the most abhorrent of ideas, to learn to argue and debate in a reasonable, fact-based and respectful manner and gross negligence toward other people and their lived experience? What else is university for than to encounter entirely different, new worldviews, philosophies and ideas? Why have people become so cocooned and fragile that they need to be protected from and encased in “safe spaces” from words and ideas?

Students were beginning to demand protection from speech because they had unwittingly learned to employ the very cognitive distortions that CBT tries to correct. Stated simply: Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.”

Sure, I get that ideas are dangerous. But isn’t that all the more reason to make a truly safe space for diving into them more completely and find out how and why they have the power to control, to trigger, to incite? By ignoring and burying unpleasantness, we threaten ourselves, our children, and society as a whole with a kind of collective amnesia and an inability to deal with even minor hardship or trauma.

If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experiences, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella. The modern obsession with protecting young people from “feeling unsafe” is, we believe, one of the (several) causes of the rapid rise in rates of adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide…”

No, this is not as simple as I’m making out, but it’s worth thinking about how far the pendulum has swung away from open expression and how much more harm we might be doing by shielding people, especially children, from the full range of experience. It’s like allergic response to peanuts. By protecting babies from peanuts, the argument goes, you are actually creating a greater sensitivity than if you had introduced low-level exposure earlier.

Children, like many other complex adaptive systems, are antifragile. Their brains require a wide range of inputs from their environments in order to configure themselves for those environments. Like the immune system, children must be exposed to challenges and stressors (within limits, and in age-appropriate ways), or they will fail to mature into strong and capable adults, able to engage productively with people and ideas that challenge their beliefs and moral convictions.

I don’t know what to make of the book’s account of a troubling episode at The Evergreen State College (a frequent lightning rod for matters of political correctness and free expression) in Washington State. Having studied there many years ago, I found it difficult to balance the pursuit of pure academic ideas and following them to their conclusion against entrenched political ideas/ideals both within the student body and the faculty. I loved Evergreen and the flexible approach to learning. Indeed, I could always count on other students and faculty to challenge my ideas and thinking. That was purportedly one of the founding philosophies of the school.

Yet if your narrative, field of inquiry strayed too far from safe guardrails, you could find yourself ostracized within the community. But at the same time, there are two competing narratives about what happened in the so-called “attempted student coup”. There’s the “the left turns on its own” thread and then “alt-right media infiltrates to silence student protest” thread.

Probably valid points on both sides, but there’s no clarity about what actually happened – nor will there be. As Trace (written about above) declares, a shared history or shared experience will never produce the same recollection twice. But this is, I think, where Haidt is going: we should be able to discuss and consider both sides and the nuances of these in order to understand and strengthen our theories.

*Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-Up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White HouseRachel Maddow

“Because Agnew’s is a story of a scandal so brazen that, had it not occurred at the same time as Watergate, would likely be remembered as the most astonishing and sordid chapter visited upon a White House in modern times. Heck, in any times. Agnew’s is a tale of a thoroughly corrupt occupant of the White House whose crimes are discovered by his own Justice Department and who then clings to high office by using the power and prerogative of that same office to save himself.”

Overshadowed by Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, the unambiguous and out-in-the-open corruption offensive that characterized Vice President Spiro Agnew’s career could well have served as Donald Trump’s presidential playbook.

His now-all-but-forgotten story has also turned out to be an odd historical doppelgänger, almost a premonition, for what the country would go through with the next Republican president who would face impeachment, after Nixon.

Why sermonize about the superiority of your ideas and values when it was so much more effective to attack the motives and character of your opponents, to call them names, to question their love of country.

Maddow delivers a wildly entertaining and informative book about a moment in history we’ve largely overlooked, but which tells us in no uncertain terms that history repeats and snake-oil salesmen will slither out every few years to attempt to put a legitimate face on criminal enterprise.

*Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult TimesKatherine May

Everybody winters at one time or another; some winter over and over again. Wintering is a season in the cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider.

Just a beautiful book. Stop, take stock, breathe. Hibernate. Do what you need to do to accept and embrace winter.

More than any other season, winter requires a kind of metronome that ticks away its darkest beats, giving us a melody to follow into spring. The year will move on no matter what, but by paying attention to it, feeling its beat, and noticing the moments of transition—perhaps even taking time to think about what we want from the next phase in the year—we can get the measure of it.”

*Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtJames Nestor

Evolution doesn’t always mean progress, Evans told me. It means change. And life can change for better or worse. Today, the human body is changing in ways that have nothing to do with the “survival of the fittest.” Instead, we’re adopting and passing down traits that are detrimental to our health. This concept, called dysevolution, was made popular by Harvard biologist Daniel Lieberman, and it explains why our backs ache, feet hurt, and bones are growing more brittle. Dysevolution also helps explain why we’re breathing so poorly. To understand how this all happened, and why, Evans told me, we need to go back in time. Way back. To before Homo sapiens were even sapiens.”

I wouldn’t have thought that a book about breathing would be so inspiring, but I enjoyed it and became a lot more mindful and aware of how I breathe.

*Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up BubbleDan Lyons

I remember the hubbub in both tech and mainstream media when Dan Lyons, well-known technology journalist dude in his 50s, was hired at marketing automation startup wunderkind HubSpot. It made a few headlines because it seemed to fly in the face of the “youth is power” ethos that dominates startup tech hiring. Lyons’s account doesn’t do anything to change the idea of ageist bias, or my own experience that startups are often blind-leading-the-blind crap shoot enterprises. If they succeed, it’s not usually because they are well-organized and driven by great leadership or great products. Rather:

“It seems to me that HubSpot is not a software company so much as it is a financial instrument, a vehicle by which money can be moved from one set of hands to another. Halligan and Shah have assembled a low-cost workforce that can crank out hype and generate revenue. HubSpot doesn’t turn a profit, but that’s not necessary. All Halligan and Shah have to do is keep sales growing, and keep telling a good story, using words like delightion, disruption, and transformation, and stay in business long enough for their investors to cash out.”

Some of what Lyons scoffs at (organizational terminology, generational priorities, political correctness) is just par for the course – he’s a fish out of water. Drinking the Kool-Aid isn’t on his menu. And I get that. But it’s not like this is exclusive to the startup environment. Go to any company, of any size, and you’ll get the same things. It’s just that he went very far outside his comfort zone. If one went to one of the news rooms he describes, I don’t know that they would find instant comfort there either.

Still, Lyons’s chronicle of the layer upon layer of ridiculous isn’t misplaced and it isn’t wrong. I’ve seen reflections of this in almost every tech unicorn (and wanna-be unicorn) I’ve seen, and many books about working within the early stages of various now-massive companies that once had nebulous goals and business models confirm these impressions. Also, underneath the layer of ridiculing the inexperienced labor by which he’s surrounded, Lyons gets around to making some sharp points.

This is the New Work, but really it is just a new twist on an old story, the one about labor being exploited by capital. The difference is that this time the exploitation is done with a big smiley face. Everything about this new workplace, from the crazy décor to the change-the-world rhetoric to the hero’s journey mythology and the perks that are not really perks—all of these things exist for one reason, which is to drive down the cost of labor so that investors can maximize their return.”

And

In tech, the concept of culture fit is presented as a good thing. Unfortunately what culture fit often means is that young white guys like to hire other young white guys, and what you end up with is an astonishing lack of diversity.

Once again, yep.

 

Lunchtable TV Talk: Mindhunter and Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered – The Lost Children

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Not unlike many fans of Netflix’s gripping Mindhunter series, I am ashamed to say I had never heard of the Atlanta child murders, a focus of Mindhunter‘s season two. When the actual murders took place, I was little more than a toddler myself, but this is never an excuse for ignorance. After all, I find myself frustrated when I talk to youngsters who claim to “love Ted Danson” but know him only in the context of The Good Place, claiming never to have heard of Cheers because it was broadcast originally long before they were alive. So what? Sergeant Pepper was released long before I was born, but I know it, can sing along with it. The Donna Reed Show predates my entire existence, but I’m fully aware of it. We have had reruns in perpetuity. Perhaps we live in an age devoid of all memory, despite being able to conjure up the past with an instant internet search – nothing is ever gone. We are surrounded by and immersed in noise and content from the past and present. Maybe it’s too difficult to swim through all of it to find the linear path of, for example, Ted Danson’s long television history, given the onslaught of everything we are steeped in and the expectation to keep moving forward.

This digression is altogether too frivolous for the subject matter, though. Watching Mindhunter, I found myself having to Google whether the spate of murders it depicted was based on reality. I wasn’t alone. As the story unfolded, it grew more terrifying and shocking – all the more because, until recently, it is a story that seems never to have made lasting headlines. No one I asked (even people much older than me who regularly followed the news at the height of these crimes) had ever heard of this story. The horror of the crimes is viscerally disturbing enough, but what has disturbed and occupied me since seeing Mindhunter is the widespread ignorance to the fact that these serial murders ever happened.

These disappearances and deaths of children in Atlanta occurred at the tail-end of the 1970s and early 1980s – not too long after the high-profile reign of terror wrought by serial killer Ted Bundy. The difference? The Atlanta murders were all black children. Bundy killed young white women. As ever, who gets the public spotlight? This is not new, so I should not be surprised. Not knowing about the Atlanta children until nearly 40 years later makes me feel hopeless and helpless … not just because I didn’t know about it but also that this information has not been in the public eye at all during my entire lifetime (while Bundy remains, unfathomably, the object of constant discussion and fascination). Only now has a comprehensive HBO documentary series about the child murders been released… and even this does not seem like enough. It is not easy viewing – nor should it be.

My rambling has little point. What does a frivolity like Ted Danson have to do with something so completely soul-crushing? It’s a keen reminder that the past, whatever it is, is easily forgotten. Some of history’s most heinous events can be entirely lost, particularly if too little note was paid to them in the first place. And it’s an even keener reminder that, as a society, we see only what we want to see and what we are shown. It’s no wonder that we live in most fraught, divided and painful times, when not every life – wrongly – is seen as having the same inherent value.

Photo by Ronny Sison on Unsplash

Said and read – June 2018

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I can’t explain why, but June, despite having had some vacation time, wasn’t filled with as much reading as I’d have liked. This disappointing sentence seems to be a variation on my opening sentence for every single one of these monthly posts. I may finish about 20 (or a few more) books by the end of the month, which of course is shy of the book-a-day pace I’d (however unintentionally) set through most of the early part of this year. I realize it’s not about quantity, but somehow having neglected reading for so many years, I feel as though I am playing catch-up. And I know I will never ‘catch up’. Catch up to what exactly?!

…I’d prefer to begin with some riveting tale about how I feel that too much can be read within a person’s eyes – it’s out of their control and completely unguarded, and each time I try to tell myself to be more open, don’t judge anyone by what their eyes immediately tell me, my initial reaction to a person’s eyes seems accurate. I wish this were not the case. These stories, too, about people’s eyes betraying their true nature, might be more interesting than how I start these chronicles of my random reading.

It might also be more interesting to go on wild tirades about the tyranny and insanity of several world governments at the moment, but what can I really add to that collective outcry? Many books have been and are being written about related subjects – last month I unabashedly recommended Sarah Kendzior‘s The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, for example; Peter Temin‘s The Vanishing Middle Class is another good one that illustrates that the US is not the ‘best country in the world’, as it boasts in the loudest, most bellicose, violent way possible but is rather a developing country. There are really too many to count.

I can also calmly reaffirm my great love for Scots and how it sounds. A friend shared The Allusionist podcast about my beloved Scots language with me, and I think it’s worth sharing onward.

Dig further into what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating in May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

Thoughts on reading for June:

Highly recommended

*StonerJohn Williams

I did not know what to expect from Stoner – first mentioned to me by a friend not long ago, which caused me to add it to my to-read list. I was never sure when I’d get around to reading it. Some books, after all, linger aimlessly and endlessly on this expansive list (in many cases because the books are not available as e-books or because they are entirely out of print and not easy to get my hands on).

But the simplicity of the narrative – the heartbreaking simplicity and humanity – make Stoner an enduring, if under-the-radar, classic. William Stoner, a farm boy in Missouri who has modest aims and wants, goes to college to study agriculture, and ends up pursuing literature and philosophy and becoming a professor. His life is beset by the troubles and pains of … the average. He never sought much, and his modest needs and wants ensured that he had a life of contentment, marked by his principled nature, even if there were professional struggles, domestic unpleasantness and a brief but intense love affair that ends. It’s almost sad for its/his lack of striving, or at least never striving beyond what he could reach (apart from early on breaking away from a future in farming). Hard to describe what is so compelling, which is largely why it’s a must-read.

“And it might be amusing to pass through the world once more before I return to the cloistered and slow extinction that awaits us all.”

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

“Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.”

*Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequencesEdward Tenner

The last book I read in June, and also the one that put me at 200 books for the year so far. Like many books I find myself immersed in, this was a random choice, a recommendation sourced through some other article. It’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed this book. I think on the surface of it, it is interesting because it chronicles the unintended consequences of some of the most ingenious inventions and innovations (some good, some bad… some positively catastrophic), but at a deeper level, it coaxes the reader to think more holistically about how anything and everything can have unintended consequences and almost prompts one to think in a different or more careful way about planning and implementation of virtually anything, while at the same time, pointing out the folly of believing that even the most careful of risk assessments and examinations of ‘domino effects’ can foresee all the consequences.

“Doing Better and Feeling Worse.” This phrase from a 1970s symposium on health care is more apt than ever, and not only in medicine. We seem to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this is because the safer life imposes an ever-increasing burden of attention.”

*FuelNaomi Shihab Nye

Poetry. Need I say more?

*Anything by Donald Hall

US Poet Laureate Donald Hall died near the end of June, and it was the perfect opportunity to revisit his poetry. I re-read a few volumes and don’t have one single book to recommend but think you’d do well to start with any.

When he died the other day, I reread and shared this piece about solitude and loneliness, moved anew by the love for solitude but the possibility of finding solitude while still coming together with another person, as Hall did with his partner, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, with whom, as he wrote, he shared “the separation of our double solitude”, and from which each day they would emerge to be together as it suited them.

*Olive KitteredgeElizabeth Strout

I had long ago seen the HBO film adaptation of Olive Kitteredge, so it was hard to form new ideas about the characters (e.g. Richard Jenkins as Henry and the formidable Frances McDormand as Olive… impossible to erase while reading). Still, I had forgotten so much of what happened in the film that the book was almost like a new experience, and I was carried away by the beautiful, fluid writing, the vivid characters and their lives (and stages of those lives) and by how moving the entire thing was overall.

“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.”

Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*What is the WhatDave Eggers

Dave Eggers isn’t really the story – he’s just the writer of the story. And the story is a heartbreaking and challenging story based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese child refugee who migrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program.

“Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.”

*IndignationPhilip Roth

I came late to reading Roth (the last two years), and I don’t love everything he wrote. That said, there’s still quite a lot for me to read. I don’t want to recount the plot of Indignation, but there were some thoughts that I took away that have stuck with me for several days, which is, I suppose, one of Roth’s hallmarks: planting thought-provoking seeds, however little or much they have to do with the story.

“I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.”

“If you ask how this can be—memory upon memory, nothing but memory—of course I can’t answer, and not because neither a “you” nor an “I” exists, any more than do a “here” and a “now,” but because all that exists is the recollected past, not recovered, mind you, not relived in the immediacy of the realm of sensation, but merely replayed. And how much more of my past can I take?”

“Because other people’s weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength. A person so unstable is a menace to you, Markie, and a trap.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Order of TimeCarlo Rovelli

I don’t know what I can write about Rovelli and the way he presents physics and complex concepts in … elegant and beautiful ways that make them transcend the page and provoke thought, imagination and curiosity indefinitely.

“How does one describe a world in which everything occurs but there is no time variable? In which there is no common time and no privileged direction in which change occurs?”

“The difference between past and future, between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention . . . in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, there is no such difference.”

Coincidences

* Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 QuestionsValeria Luiselli

In keeping with what I wrote above about all the books that chronicle our difficult times, in the most timely fashion, coinciding with the Trump administration’s child-migration concentration camps (I cannot even believe I am writing those words), I read the brief but important Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, in which Valeria Luiselli writes about the legal crisis and cruelty facing children who come to the US from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc. She wrote her reflections before the latest nightmare (detention camps filled with children put in cages, separated from their parents), but it was nonetheless stark and painful in the narrative it painted. Who would have imagined it could get worse?

“From the beginning, the crisis was viewed as an institutional hindrance, a problem that Homeland Security was “suffering” and that Congress and immigration judges had to solve. Few narratives have made the effort to turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children involved. The political response to the crisis, therefore, has always centered on one question, which is more or less: What do we do with all these children now? Or, in blunter terms: How do we get rid of them or dissuade them from coming?”

We have also seen the resurgence of old books that foretold the kind of rise in tyranny and dictatorial rule that we’re seeing in chilling abundance now, such as Sinclair Lewis‘s hastily written 1930s/Depression Era *It Can’t Happen Here. As he himself writes, “The hell it can’t.”

And when I just can’t take more of the timeless and timely old warnings (yes, somehow the US avoided becoming a fascist/Nazi state in the 1930s, but just as well might not have, as Lewis imagines, or as the recently passed Philip Roth envisioned in his alt-future imagining, The Plot Against America. Having resisted these tendencies once certainly doesn’t inoculate one from future tyranny. The same concerns and fears seen, for example, in the 1930s, have echoed in the present day and led to a dictatorial moron to the WH. Despite some brilliant passages and predictions in Lewis’s book, the book itself was not smooth reading and felt both like it was rushed and dragged out at the same time.

“(but)… that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!

“Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.”

*My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace Ehud Barak

It does not exactly qualify as a coincidence so much as it was a random fluke that I decided to read this autobiographical account of Ehud Barak’s life. I never would have considered it except that one morning while heading out for a coffee in Oslo with AD, we ran into one of her acquaintances (because it’s impossible to go anywhere in Oslo without running into at least one person she knows). This particular acquaintance, squinting into the sun on one of Oslo’s blazing, and unusually, hot early June days, immediately started telling us how he was reading this particular book, and if I may say, sort of mansplained Israel, (cultural) Judaism, kibbutz culture and military strategy and Ehud Barak’s role in all of the key moments of Israel’s brief history. Yes, I suppose I have often complained about Norwegians knowing nothing about Judaism, so someone having a clue is surprising – but having a man (however ‘enlightened’ and committed to equality Scandinavian men are purported to be, middle-aged men of all nationalities seem particularly keen on demonstrating their knowledge… maybe in some bid to seem important, intelligent, relevant?) try to explain Judaism and Israel to me is not a surprise but is completely laughable.

Nevertheless, having heard him recount much of the book himself, I decided to read the book. Mostly I could have done without it, although there were a few key passages that capture, I think, fairly succinctly many of the strategies and ways of thinking behind Israeli military actions (not recent actions, as the country has moved further and further right). That’s not to say I would concede that any of the actions made sense – just to say that it was interesting to get the insight.

Overall the book itself could be skipped. Heavy on detail of Barak’s life running in parallel with the birth and development of the state of Israel and his role in it. Maybe a bit more detail than I needed at times, but, as I said, a valuable POV of someone who was inside the fateful moments and decisions in Israel and the Middle East as a whole – including some circumspection. Not perfect but … worth the read if only for the epilogue alone, which was oddly moving.

“The cause to which I’ve devoted my life—redeeming the dream of Zionism in a strong, free, self-confident, democratic Jewish state—is under threat. This is not mainly because of Hizbollah or Hamas, ISIS, or even Iran, all of which I feel confident in saying, as a former head of military intelligence, chief of staff, and defense minister, are real yet surmountable challenges. The main threat comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded, and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history.”

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*War & WarLászló Krasznahorkai

I didn’t despise anything I read, but for some reason had had high hopes for War & War, but it ended up being disappointing. I suppose this is because expectations always betray us. It was not a bad book – it just didn’t hold my interest.

“16. Should we die, the mechanics of life would go on without us, and that is what people feel most terribly disturbed by, Korin interrupted himself, bowed his head, thought for a while, then pulled an agonized expression and started slowly swiveling his head, though it is only the very fact that it goes on that enables us properly to understand that there is no mechanism.”

Images by SD 2018

Goodnight, sweetheart – lies of reality and images

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Could that illusion have only been a single year ago? Baudrillard has argued that ‘reality barely has time to exist, if it does at all, before it has begun disappearing’. It’s a bit like the last (spoiler) part of the HBO modern classic, Six Feet Under, in which Nate appears posthumously to tell younger sister Claire that she cannot capture the moment with a photograph – it’s already gone. (And this is pretty much its own snapshot of how I feel about photography. An image can be a trigger for a memory, ‘moments, nostalgia but incapable of capturing reality in its ephemeral and disappearing(ed) state’. Actually Baudrillard deals with this, too (in The Intelligence of Evil: or, The Lucidity Pact):

“Can photography exempt itself from this flood of images and restore an original power to them? To do so, the turbulent operation of the world would have to be suspended; the object would have to be caught in that single fantastic moment of first contact when things had not yet noticed we were there, when absence and emptiness had not yet dissipated . . . It would, in fact, have to be the world itself that performed the photographic act, as though the world were affording itself the means to appear, quite apart from us.”

And

“At any rate, the lens simultaneously captures the way we are there and the way we are no longer there. This is why, before the eye of the camera, we act dead in our innermost being, as God does before the proofs of his existence. Everything in us crystallizes negatively before the material imagining of our presence.” (italics – mine – as usual)

Go figure. The way this is described almost breaks my heart. Weakling.)

What does photography reveal in this possibly-real reality, though? Do we get anything from it? Especially in a now-visually-desensitized age, where a microsecond glance-and-swipe constitutes a dating decision?

“The worst thing for us is precisely the impossibility of a world without image feed – a world that would not endlessly be laid hold of, captured, filmed and photographed before it has even been seen. A lethal danger for the ‘real’ world, but also for the image, since where it merely recycles the real and immerses itself in the real there is no longer any image – not, at least, as exception, illusion or parallel universe. In the visual flow submerging us, there is no longer even time for the image to become image.” (italicized emphasis mine, emphatically mine)

It is a peculiar feeling, to be in one’s own life, or to see images of that life, and feel as though, in either case, upon reflection, you were not really there. Just outside watching it unfold, as though a secondary observer, but through a looking glass.

“This is the miracle: that a fragment of the world, human consciousness, arrogates to itself the privilege of being its mirror. But this will never produce an objective truth, since the mirror is part of the object it reflects.”

The reality is real and can be reflected but isn’t anything that can tasted, touched, felt ever again. Was it truly felt the first time… in that momentary, illusory glimpse of reality that possibly existed?

Image (c) 2018 S Donaghy (an image as good as any to convey the randomness of the simultaneously ephemeral and interminable moments of life…)

TV renewal tease: The Brink

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No!

It’s one thing when a TV show just gets unceremoniously cancelled. It’s entirely another when a show you like is declared “safe” and gets renewed for another season… only to have the network pull out the proverbial rug from under you. Seriously, HBO… why did you renew and then renege on the brilliant, satirical The Brink?

Tease!

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Affair and Ballers

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Sometimes inspiration for writing about the TV I love does not come easily. Sometimes, for some shows, no inspiration comes at all. There’s no way to know what will hit the spot and what won’t. For example, there are many shows I watch(ed), love(d) and would recommend, but unless I think of some particular angle that I feel I want to express, I will never bother to write specifically about them.

Mad Men is one of those shows. It was analyzed, torn apart, beloved, criticized and everything else you can do to a TV show from the comfort of your couch (by professionals and amateurs alike). I don’t have anything to add to that discussion, apart from noting how Don Draper seemed to be something like a drunken traveling handyman there near the end. (And I was able to note the semi-subtle red Coca-Cola thread sewing the final season together, but I only did that in order to compare and contrast it to another already-dead series about ad men, HAPPYish, which also got into the ring with the Coca-Cola theme.)

There are others. It might not be that they were revered and torn limb from limb and sucked dry of all their marrow. It might just be that I would not know what to add. The upcoming second season of Fargo counts among these. The first season was untouchable, and my rambling about it would not do it justice or be a very good use of my time. (But who am I kidding? Is any of this a good use of my time?) What about stuff like Boardwalk Empire? Slow, simmering, complex, an acquired taste, not for everyone… what could I really write that could give that epic its due? No, there is nothing. Maybe one day I will feel some great urge to “unpack” (one of those overused-of-late terms I hate, which seems to have seeped from academia into corporate jargon) Bobby Cannavale’s performance in Boardwalk or Boardwalk’s courageous and unusual choice of offing one of the leads early (setting the “no one is safe” tone early) or effusing about Michael K Williams in yet another unforgettable and iconic HBO role. But probably not.

In fact, writing about things I love is considerably more challenging than writing disparagingly about content that just does not make the cut. The more disappointing something is, the easier it is to excoriate.

And that’s how I reach my tale of watching The Affair, and my increasing hostility toward it. The only good thing about it: Richard Schiff. Seriously. Actually in the first season, which started off with some promise and a lot of positive buzz, Joshua Jackson stood out as both a good performance and as a good character. Every other character was so unlikable and selfish – and I mean everyone, right down to the main guy, Noah’s and his wife, Helen’s, kids – particularly the oldest daughter. Maybe the self-centered nature of man (and woman) is what the story is meant to be about. Every man for himself. And the actors in the roles play that selfishness and the slivers of perspective we get (when they point of view shifts from one character to another) to a T. I have read plenty of analysis about this show and its squandered potential, so I won’t bother in that vein.

I mostly wanted a reason to write that Richard Schiff commands the screen even when he only appears for two minutes. I mean seriously – I watched the show Ballers the other day just on the strength of his being in it. He is not even in it that much, but again, his presence elevated the show. And, oddly, because I did not go into Ballers with any expectations except maybe believing I would find the show stupid, I was pleasantly surprised (particularly in the episode in which Michael Cudlitz shows up… because, you know, Cudlitz always shows up. He’s almost as everywhere as the frighteningly omnipresent Tom Skerritt and still has plenty of time to increase his presence – and maybe join a ballet production – to reach Skerritt-like levels).

All I can say for these things – TV expectations, letdowns and surprises – is go figure.

Lunchtable TV Talk: True Detective – It would take a detective to find something good about this

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What made the first season of True Detective delightful was its sense of coming out of nowhere with something unexpected. No pretension, no weight of expectation. Sure, some of the dialogue was out there, but the unexpectedly great Matthew McConaughey delivered even the strangest dialogue.

Under the heavy weight of expectation, the second season has been bogged down in a convoluted mess pushed further into laughable territory by the presence of Vince Vaughn. I suppose he and his handlers expected a career boost or surge along the same lines as McConaughey – maybe we had all been underestimating Vaughn all these years and he had just never been given a role that allowed him to sink his teeth in. McConaughey had been perceived for many years as a one-trick pony too even though much of his long career is studded with hidden gem performances, the likes of which do not fill out Vaughn’s resume.

Every scene with Vaughn was eye rolling. The script was not great to start with – he was asked to pull off some babble that no one would ever say. But a greater actor might have been able to do it without the viewer feeling the need to laugh. And the constant lingering of Vaughn’s character’s wife (played by British actress Kelly Reilly)… what was that all about? Throughout I was expecting that maybe she would play some larger role in the end game – otherwise what other point does her constant presence and artificial brooding play? If it was just to try to humanize Vaughn’s character, it didn’t work. Their conversation is so stilted, so fake, so forced. It looks like two people who joined an “intro to acting” course at a community college and are just fumbling their way through their first scene together. NO chemistry. And hilariously in the finale, Reilly states, “You can’t act for shit. Take it from me.” Haha. Guess what? Neither one of you can act, and the script sucks!

The season ended, and those questions about her role were not answered. What purpose did Vaughn’s wife really serve other than perhaps being some kind of glorified nanny/part-time mum for Rachel McAdams’s kid? Even if the plot questions were more or less answered, the bigger question – what was the point of any of this? – was not.

The end did not satisfy and ended up being just as stupid as the rest of the seven episodes preceding its unceremonious fizzling out.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Togetherness: The ark of the ache of it

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The ache of marriage
-Denise Levertov

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary. I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage as an institution. It is not something I ever really wanted, and as I have become older, it seems less than desirable and more of the “ball and chain” that it’s classically described as. Not being a religious person or in need of some kind of monetary or tax benefits that might come from legal marriage – and not being particularly sentimental – marriage is not a priority. That said, I also think a lot about marriage and the equality of access to it. If someone – anyone – wants to marry, s/he should be legally permitted to.

Fie on Love
-James Shirley

Now, fie on foolish love! it not befits
Or man or woman know it:
Love was not meant for people in their wits;
And they that fondly show it,
Betray the straw and feathers in their brain,
And shall have Bedlam for their pain.
If single love be such a curse,
To marry, is to make it ten times worse.

But then, I see a nuanced TV show like HBO’s Togetherness and wonder why anyone would want to sign up for marriage. The ache of marriage is fully alive here. I wasn’t totally into the idea of Togetherness when I read about it. It sounded like an unfolding tableau of overprivileged ennui, as middle-class midlife boredom clashes with midlife identity crisis. People stop being individuals, give up on their dreams, are stuck in the humdrum of daily life. This is at the heart of Togetherness, and could easily have been either as dull as HBO’s Looking or as self-indulgent and preachy as the recent miniseries The Slap. But Togetherness walks the tightrope and avoids conventional appearances – largely because of its cast, and the handling of its creators, the seemingly ubiquitous Duplass brothers, Mark and Jay, and Steve Zissis. It could easily sink to a whiny, pretentious semi-sitcom focused on a 30-something married couple with two small children. They seem to have everything a young couple, Brett and Michelle (Mark Duplass and a transcendent Melanie Lynskey) could want – the marriage, the happy family, the house and the white picket fence. Against this “stable background”, Brett’s best friend (an out-of-work, down-on-his luck actor, Alex, played by Steve Zissis) and Michelle’s sister (Tina, an event planner, played by Amanda Peet) both move into Brett and Michelle’s place temporarily, and this change seemingly upends the bored equilibrium Brett and Michelle have settled into.

Both “sides” see the beauty of the other side. Alex and Tina, who have a really powerful chemistry but keep denying it, represent the initial spark we all recognize that comes from the beginning of a relationship and envy what Brett and Michelle have – but only because they are not trapped by the constraints. Brett and Michelle envy the freedom Alex and Tina have, and start to search outside the relationship for diversions – not necessarily diversions that lead them to infidelity. But just other entertainment, other sparks, ways to find their way back to who they used to be before middle-aged family life.

The bottom line, what I took away, what Togetherness imparts, with some humor and humanity, is that whether or not we are “together” with someone, we are still alone. We swallow so much of ourselves, not because someone else forces us to, but because we let some of ourselves go naturally with the march of daily responsibility and priorities. In following this path, sometimes when we are together with someone, we are more alone than ever.

“Together Alone” – Crowded House

Lunchtable TV Talk – Cucumber: “It’s a gay TV!”

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After enduring the tiresome and boring Looking on HBO, I wondered if it were possible to find something funny, real, sad, multidimensional and human on television that was just a normal but engaging depiction of gay life. Not caricatures, not some empty, juvenile idea of what gay life is. Something that feels like a genuine slice of life in a gay/LGBTQ context. And Cucumber is it. At least partly. Nothing is ever quite the whole package.

Cucumber’s creator, Russell T. Davies, brought us groundbreaking TV content in the past, such as Queer as Folk (the original UK version of course, which featured the now well-known Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones. Davies delivers in Cucumber (and in the accompanying, more lighthearted, half-hour program, Banana, which focuses on younger, secondary characters) all the things viewers could have hoped for in Looking. (Incidentally, Davies praised Looking and explained his view that perhaps it just went over viewers’ heads and that those who did not get it are “dumb”. He thought it was brilliant, but I don’t see it and don’t think there was anything deep to understand. Cucumber and Banana together deeply explore the themes, both comedic and tragic, that Looking could have elucidated without being a whiny, self-serving drag. It’s kind of Davies, though, to give Looking so much credit. Looking broke some new ground in certain areas – story for another time – but was not remotely relatable. Maybe the fact that we are left to compare these very different shows to each other is the bigger issue – TV shows that depict gay life aren’t a dime a dozen. Maybe there is a whole new paradigm we should be exploring.)

I care about these characters (both those in Cucumber and in Banana). In Cucumber, they can be frustrating, infuriating, silly, charming, funny, heartbreaking, showing the full range of their lives, relationships, fears – whether it is fear of and anxiety about sex (“Sex is for sexy people and the rest of us can just give it up.”), fear of aging, fear of being alone, fear of feeling and so much more. (Not everyone agrees, of course, as there was some backlash about Cucumber when it originally aired in the UK, with viewers finding “the characters unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird”. I can see those complaints, but at the same time don’t think it’s possible to create anything to absolute perfection. Unlikable, tonally weird or not, and unclear on whether it’s “light” or “dark”, Cucumber does not always walk the tightrope delicately. Both Looking and Cucumber, as the aforementioned article from The Daily Beast notes, are “about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction”. In contemporary entertainment channels, Cucumber is still better than anything else of its kind, which, if nothing else, should inspire storytellers and networks to raise the bar.)

Cucumber‘s most shocking episode, and the catalyst for where Henry (the main character) ends up, begins with Lance (Henry’s long-term partner until the show begins) wandering in the grocery store, where all of the episodes begin. It ends up revealing the timeline of his life and is actually so powerful and separate from the overall narrative in many ways that it could almost stand alone without the context of the rest of the show’s seven other episodes. You would not necessarily need to know the characters or the story that led to this point to feel his angst, his joy, his uncertainty, his humanity, his pain, his fear and his untimely end.

It reminded me, strangely (not in tone or theme but as a storytelling device) of a disjointed episode of Hell on Wheels that focused on the character Elam Ferguson (Common) after he had disappeared the previous season to go look for lead character, Cullen Bohannon. It also ushered in the surprise ending of a well-loved character. We suddenly see, near the end of the next season, that Ferguson, who had been mauled by a bear at the end of the previous season, survived the attack and is being nursed back to health by an Indian tribe. The entire episode is like a self-sustaining capsule that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series. (Mr Firewall happened to be visiting when that episode aired, and it was the only episode he had ever seen, so he did not get an accurate impression of the show at all.) The idea of taking a character out of the normal run of things, away from the rest of the ensemble, and telling a tale that is uniquely his makes these episodes highly unusual.

Cucumber succeeded in creating a tense, terrifying and real hour of television while Hell on Wheels devised a very slow-moving tale of recovery that falsely led us to believe that Elam would even have a triumphant homecoming (we were misled/cheated. Elam does return in another episode and has gone so completely mad that he is gunned down like a rabid dog – so what was the long road to recovery episode even for?).

Cucumber‘s near-standalone episode six was heartbreaking. Lance was so desperate to please and to find someone he loved that he first spent nine ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying years with lead character, Henry, who spewed hateful, vile stuff at Lance as they split up, ultimately told Lance that he had no spine and that Lance would wait for him to return. And when that relationship really ended, Lance pursued a conflicted, identity-crisis-ravaged, violent caveman who could not admit his own sexuality or accept even his own sexual curiosity. The Twittersphere came alive with a lot of “It’s 2015 – why do gay characters have to succumb to violence?” exchanges, but such statements ignore the realities that sexual minorities (or perhaps all kinds of minorities) face. Society has seemingly moved forward – legally and on a superficial level – but there will always be haters (whose hatred is really for themselves above all, even if it is unleashed on others). It’s a universal this sense of wanting something so much that ignoring danger makes sense. Hope springs eternal. Is the one night with a handsome man really worth it? Lance gets a warning – “go home, go to bed and sleep. You could walk away, right now… never look back. But he’s so damn handsome.” Devastating when you know what’s coming.

I’d say that though the show is focused on 46-year-old Henry, facing a midlife crisis and struggling with a stagnant relationship, Lance is its heart. Henry moves out of their common home into a warehouse apartment with two younger guys whose sexuality is a lot more open and fluid, which introduces the very different generational dynamics at play in the gay community. But Lance is what we care about and hope that maybe, just maybe, Henry will come to his senses and go back to Lance. When we lose Lance, we lose the sappy American idea of the “happy ending” reconciliation and see Henry grieve on all the different paths grief takes.

As stated, with a dearth of content on TV that focuses on the daily minutiae of LGBTQ life, comparisons between mostly dissimilar shows with only a similar theme in common are inevitable, e.g. Cucumber and Looking. The look that both take at discontent and dissatisfaction is telling in, as quoted above, a time when gay marriage is closer to becoming legally sanctioned in a majority of western countries and gay/LGBTQ relationships are becoming more openly accepted. Does this acceptance take away from or redefine the gay identity – usurp what many gay individuals need to feed their perceptions of themselves (e.g., young Dean, who features in both Cucumber and Banana, pretends to be alienated from his unaccepting, homophobic family, but we learn that he actually has a very accepting and loving family. He seems resentful of the fact that he cannot shock them with his being gay or “sexually subversive”). Does it change the foundation of what LGBTQ people thought their lives would be?

“Many of the arguments against marriage equality in the United States, an issue that may soon be settled nationally, have centered on the idea that admitting same-sex couples to the institution would irreparably alter it. But making marriage an option for those couples inevitably changes LGBT life too, if only by widening the scope of experiences available to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.” … “Advances towards equality still leave us, no matter who we are, with our own very human, very personal problems.”

LGBTQ on TV: Let’s not get it on

Maybe this is partly the point. Gay sex, gay identity, gay openness is not shocking enough to the average person any longer. I don’t want to diminish the reality of homophobia (the aforementioned “Lance” episode of Cucumber illustrates tragically that homophobia in all its forms is alive and well). While having sex probably does not define any individual or group, many people have long tried to insist that the LGBTQ experience is only about sex. When we reach a point at which it no longer shocks a wide swath of the population, and characters like Cucumber’s Henry are somewhat sex-averse (he has never tried penetrative sex, which is an unusual plot point, in that it flies in the face of what most non-gay audiences would imagine about gay men, and gets to a question recently addressed in an article on Salon), it is no longer just a story about people having sex.

The Salon article asserts that TV’s gay characters are a fairly sexless bunch, and that gay sexual lives on TV are too tame. It’s tempting to overreact to this article – to claim that shows like Banana and Cucumber, and for example, HBO’s Six Feet Under, have not shied away from gay sexual encounters at all (any more than any show in America at least – real, non-commoditized sexuality and nudity are still something of a taboo on American TV).

The article argues that the sexlessness is attributable to America’s squeamishness about seeing gay sex (or overt suggestions of it) on mainstream TV. Is this true? Does mainstream America at “family time/prime time” (i.e. before 22:00 in the evening) want to see overt sexuality from anyone? Plenty of innuendo but nothing explicit, so it is hard to say. Similarly the argument rests on the idea that Cam and Mitchell, Modern Family’s married gay couple, are so innocuous and sexless and appear to barely like each other. They are popular and easy to cheer for as gay characters because they pose no threat. While this might be true (because other characters are sexualized to some degree in the same show), it is still a primetime show, so nothing is overly sexual in its time slot. If you move a little later in the evening, you get the openly bisexual Nolan Ross on Revenge or Cyrus Beene on Scandal. And even ABC Family’s The Fosters, while presumably less “alarming” to middle America than gay men, focuses on a mixed-race, married female couple who are not only affectionate with each other but openly discuss their struggles to make time for sex with the demands of their careers and large, and always growing, family.

It is true that a lot of the best, most realistic, LGBTQ characters and couples don’t appear on mainstream, network TV – certainly not the most sexually active and adventurous characters. But cable channels (particularly paid channels, like HBO and Showtime) have always led the way with groundbreaking content, and in this sense, this is not an exception. Showtime’s Shameless gave us a truly fresh perspective on the subject with its improbable young couple, Ian and Mickey. HBO’s True Blood gave us a glimpse at very different kinds of sexuality in general, not just the out and proud sexuality of Lafayette. But various characters are changing the face of TV in subtle ways: Captain Ray Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a black police captain who faced both racism and homophobia in his work and who enjoys a loving, long-term interracial relationship with his partner; Omar Little the Robin Hood-like criminal in The Wire; David and Keith in Six Feet Under – another interracial relationship that came to be only after the uptight David could accept his own sexuality; Kevin and Scotty in Brothers & Sisters (and eventually Kevin’s Uncle Saul, who comes out quite late in life); Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins in Grey’s Anatomy; John Cooper in Southland; numerous characters who live unhappy, closeted lives because of the times they live in (Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey, Sal Romero in Mad Men along with many other subtle and ambiguous characters who have come along throughout the seven season run of Mad Men, Nurse Mount in Call the Midwife). I did not always buy everything these characters did, and sometimes the stories involved them could feel a bit “placed” and token in nature. But it is encouraging that, slowly, this array of LGBTQ characters has become the new norm.

We have come a long way from the Jodie Dallas character in Soap, who started as a gay character who offered to have a sex-reassignment operation to be with his ultra-masculine football player boyfriend. Advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, and for a while the show stood its ground. But eventually Jodie had relationships/flings with women and fathered a child. While he as a character maintained all along that he was gay, his character was a lightning rod in that he did not satisfy gay rights groups (justifiably concerned that the character would appear stereotypical or at the very least not representative of the gay community) and he did not make conservative groups happy simply because the character existed. But the character was a kind of pioneer – and we can at least see that the variety and depth of representation has changed a lot since the late 1970s when Soap was on the air.

With everything else that has changed in how the LGBTQ population is seen and accepted and has changed in how entertainment is produced and consumed, we should be able to think more creatively about how to produce and present things outside of the standard template.

Lunchtable TV Talk – The Returned – I am not returning

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I like seeing Battlestar Galactica alums in current TV shows, but for every Grace Park kicking ass on Hawaii Five-0 or Katee Sackhoff solving crimes in an equally kick-ass fashion on Longmire (am I alone in being beyond relieved about Longmire being saved by Netflix after its merciless killing at A&E’s hands?), there’s something sort of dreadful, like Tricia Helfer (and Michael Trucco) in the rightfully short-lived Killer Women – or Aaron Douglas in The Returned. These misfires aren’t the faults of Helfer, Trucco or Douglas. The shows they’re in just aren’t good.

I am always impressed with Aaron Douglas – and his performance in The Returned is as good as any of his work. It’s just that the show doesn’t quite cut it. I have not seen the original French Les Revenants but tend to believe the original source material usually can’t be beat or recreated (with notable exception – I was quite taken with the US version of The Bridge, for example). The Returned, at its most basic, is about individuals who return suddenly from the dead and the effects this return has on the community in which these resurrections take place. Five episodes in, I don’t really know what’s going to happen but am not interested enough to care.

I love some of the actors in the US version of The Returned. I’ve already cited Douglas; Jeremy Sisto is masterfully diverse; Kevin Alejandro is a pop-up-everywhere kind of guy. India Ennenga is not bad either – her role in HBO’s Treme explored (as much as that giant ensemble of loosely intersecting stories could) teenage grief and identity. Oh, and I almost forgot – the inimitable Michelle Forbes! She dominates (in a good way) everything she’s in – had nearly forgotten her Battlestar connection. She almost makes me want to keep watching The Returned… but not quite.

But I don’t have enough time to keep watching things for which I don’t feel either love or hate. Just a few actors I happen to like isn’t reason to tune in. I’ve chronicled my hate-watching and desire to give up some of the shows, like The Following, that cry out for ridicule. I’ve also written about shows I love. But the mediocre middle ground, where shows like The Returned live, isn’t a place I want to spend more time.