Said and read – February 2020

Standard

Image courtesy of S Donaghy, 2020

“The anxiety and insecurity engendered by the danger of losing what one has are absent in the being mode. If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. My center is within myself; my capacity for being and for expressing my essential powers is part of my character structure and depends on me. This holds true for the normal process of living, not, of course, for such circumstances as incapacitating illness, torture, or other cases of powerful external restrictions.”To Have or To Be?Erich Fromm

The mildest winter I’ve experienced in Sweden is nearly behind us. As usual, February was dark in every way that dark exists. Reading is the antidote to this, and everything else.

As far as book reports go, here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – 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 February:

Highly recommended

“I can get through. I was right, but only just. You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person” –The TestamentsMargaret Atwood

*The TestamentsMargaret Atwood

I approached this book with some uncertainty. I find Atwood to be a hit-or-miss thing for me, and having overdosed on the excessive torture porn nature of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t know if I could stomach more of it here. But then, it’s better to see what the original writer of these tales would share. I was pushed in the direction of “read” rather than “not-read” because I spoke with a guy who’d praised it; he seemed exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful despite clinging religiously to Oxford commas (which is his right) but insisting on his lack of respect for anyone who did not share this adherence.

As an aside, I’ve become a relaxed pseudo-sociolinguist in relation to how language is used for communication purposes. I used to be a rigid grammarian as well, but I’ve lived long enough, in enough places, to see that rigidity in everyday life serves no one. Sure, this flexible, fluid approach didn’t win me any points with that particular dude, but I don’t really care. I explained to him that I apply the style guide required (thus, am accepting of the Oxford comma when called for), as dictated by the project I’m working on, or company I’m working for. He didn’t seem to find this acceptable.

Back to the point: The Testaments was better than I expected, shifting points of view throughout, and illustrating deftly how there are occasions when very different ideologies at times overlap to achieve a shared goal (albeit for very different reasons).

““But why did she do it?” I asked. “Did she want to die?” “No one wants to die,” said Becka. “But some people don’t want to live in any of the ways that are allowed.””

*To Have or To Be? The Nature of the Psyche Erich Fromm

We can all recognize the existence of two modes of being – having and being. We may, however, be blinded – particularly by the greed/have-oriented society we live in – to the fact that we don’t even know what it is to be in the “being mode”.

BECAUSE THE SOCIETY WE live in is devoted to acquiring property and making a profit, we rarely see any evidence of the being mode of existence and most people see the having mode as the most natural mode of existence, even the only acceptable way of life. All of which makes it especially difficult for people to comprehend the nature of the being mode, and even to understand that having is only one possible orientation. Nevertheless, these two concepts are rooted in human experience. Neither one should be, or can be, examined in an abstract, purely cerebral way; both are reflected in our daily life and must be dealt with concretely. The following simple examples of how having and being are demonstrated in everyday life may help readers to understand these two alternative modes of existence.

A valuable book to read to understand the “proprietary” approach we take to living, and how we might disentangle ourselves from the ownership model into which we have been indoctrinated.

“MOST OF US KNOW more about the mode of having than we do about the mode of being, because having is by far the more frequently experienced mode in our culture. But something more important than that makes defining the mode of being so much more difficult than defining the mode of having, namely the very nature of the difference between these two modes of existence.”

*White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo

In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts.

This is a powerful book, and one I must recommend (along with most of the works DiAngelo quotes throughout this book and lists in the resources section at the end of the book).

You’ve just got to read it for yourself. “You’ve” here refers mostly to white people, even if everyone can benefit in one way or another. Yet no one but white people needs to confront the reality of the social, political, historical constructs that make up racism and privilege white over anyone else.

White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism. Challenging this cocoon throws off our racial balance. Because being racially off balance is so rare, we have not had to build the capacity to sustain the discomfort. Thus, whites find these challenges unbearable and want them to stop.

Racism, as DiAngelo argues, is an endemic system – not just a mindset or an act. Like it or not, we are all part of a racist system, and until we can understand, acknowledge and act on that, we are not seeing things as they are or challenging the “racial status quo”, as DiAngelo frames it.

Instead I ask, “How does this claim function in the conversation?” If we apply this question to these two sets of narratives, one color-blind and the other color-celebrate, we see that all of these claims ultimately function in a similar way; they all exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem. They take race off the table, and they close (rather than open) any further exploration. In so doing, they protect the racial status quo.

*The Nickel BoysColson Whitehead

This book broke my heart. Less because it’s so tragic, which it is, but more because of how real it is. I find injustice more difficult and painful to bear all the time, and get angrier and angrier because I don’t know what to do about it. And books like this bring it home.

*The White Album Joan Didion

“We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Each time I read Didion, I think I will find it tired and not to my liking, and I am surprised every time by how engaging it is. You’d think I’d learn, but can we easily unlearn preconceived and ill-informed ideas? At least I attempt again and again to act against these preconceived thoughts.

“We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.”

Whether making general but pointed statements about how we live and think, or very geographically specific observations that challenge false logic, Didion always comes across as effortless.

“…suffering severe drought, many people in water-rich parts of the country seemed obscurely gratified, and made frequent reference to Californians having to brick up their swimming pools. In fact a swimming pool requires, once it has been filled and the filter has begun its process of cleaning and recirculating the water, virtually no water, but the symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting: a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body. Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.”

*The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better LifeAnu Partanen

Re: America: “In this country you are at the mercy of your employer. You really don’t have any rights. Because of that you live in a constant state of worry.”

Please bear with me (keep scrolling if you must)… I am including a large number of direct quotes from this book because it’s that important.

This book chronicles so clearly and in such detail the things I saw and always felt were missing from American life, and, despite not knowing any better (since I grew up there), knew didn’t have to be. The true and surprising ease and freedom of Nordic life, which has given me such comfort, still at times feels insecure to me only because I am coming from this ingrained insecurity and can’t trust that anything can be this … stable and free.

“Yet the longer I lived in America as a Nordic immigrant, something became clear to me. Regardless of whether Finland was the “best” country in the world or not, most people in the United States, as well as many of my Nordic countrymen back home, did not fully realize that to leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time. As a Nordic immigrant to the United States, I noticed something else, too. Americans, and many others around the world, did not seem fully aware of how much better things could be.”

Instability is the name of the game in American life, and I so much wish I could impart to Americans that the definitions they have been force-fed about their lives and non-American lives are so politicized that they are incorrect. People are sold a bill of goods that insists that they are free, but how free are you when everything is so complicated, opaque, decoupled, and you are tied to your job, your insurance, your insanely high loans, and processes that Nordic people are free from (it took me a long time to realize that actually I don’t have to go to a bunch of different offices to license my car or fill out a million unintelligible forms to file taxes, etc.)?

“The unknowable “new price,” of course, would be much, much higher. It was all part of a way of doing things in the United States that, as I would gradually realize, forced you to be constantly on guard, constantly worried that whatever amount of money you had or earned would never be enough, and constantly anxious about navigating the complex and mysterious fine print thrown at you from every direction by corporations that had somehow managed to evade even the bare minimum of sensible protections for consumers. Things didn’t improve when it came time to file my first tax return for Uncle Sam. I tried to research my tax situation on the Internal Revenue Service Web site, and was soon tearing my hair trying to comprehend the pages and pages of fine print and the endless exceptions and loopholes. In Finland filing my taxes had always been quick and simple. But here in America, buried under IRS instruction booklets and terrified I might make some crucial and costly mistake, I gave up and hired an accountant, something I’d never had to do back home.”

“The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met—and the more American I myself became—the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity—freedom, personal independence, and opportunity—that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today.”

“Gradually it dawned on me how much people in America depended on their employers for all sorts of things that were unimaginable to me: medical care, health savings accounts, and pension contributions, to name the most obvious. The result was that employers ended up having far more power in the relationship than the employee. In America jeopardizing your relationship with your employer carried personal risks that extend far beyond the workplace, to a degree unthinkable where I came from.”

“By now I was used to hearing the Nordic countries dismissed as “socialist nanny states.” But ironically it was here in America that businesses trying to manufacture products and make a buck had somehow gotten saddled with the nanny’s job of taking care of their employees’ health. Surely, I thought, Milton Friedman, the great free-market economist, must be turning in his grave! From a Nordic perspective, it seemed ludicrous to burden for-profit companies with the responsibility of providing employees with such a fundamental, complicated, and expensive social service. People in the United States were aware of this contradiction, of course, and in discussions of the American business landscape, experts often pointed to the burdens that health-care obligations placed on companies, especially on small businesses. But no one seemed to be talking about the other side of the coin: the unhealthy dependence on employers that this creates among employees receiving, or hoping to receive, these benefits. It was an old-fashioned and oppressive sort of dependence, it seemed to me, completely at odds with the modern era of individual liberty and opportunity. I could see the consequences in the lives of everyone I knew.”

“All the advantages I gave up when I left Finland and moved to America—universal public health care, universal affordable day care, real maternity benefits, high-quality free education, taxpayer-funded residences for the elderly, even the separate taxation of spouses—were not gifts from the government to make me a servile dependent on the state’s largesse. Rather the Nordic system is intentionally designed to take into account the specific challenges of modern life and give citizens as much logistical and financial independence as possible. This is actually the opposite of a community-centered system, or socialism, or whatever you want to call it. This is also why the supposed social solidarity of people in the Nordic nations is not really as noble an undertaking as it is often made out to be.”

“However, what really motivates Swedes and other Nordic citizens to support their system isn’t altruism—no one is that selfless—but self-interest. Nordic societies provide their citizens—all their citizens, and especially the middle class—with maximum autonomy from old-fashioned, traditional ties of dependency, which among other things ends up saving people a lot of money and heartache along with securing personal freedom. According to Trägårdh and Berggren, Nordic countries are, in fact, the most individualized societies on the face of the earth.”

And of course the endless argument I hear is that our taxes are SO HIGH. Guess what? They aren’t that high.

“So what income tax rates are people actually paying in different Nordic countries? The OECD has compared average tax rates for a single individual without children in thirty-four developed countries, including federal and local income taxes, along with an employee’s social security contributions. In 2014 Denmark had the third-highest average tax rate at 38.4 percent, but this was still lower than in Belgium and Germany. Finland came in ninth, at 30.7 percent, and—here’s a shocker—Sweden fell under the OECD average with a rate of 24.4 percent—less than the United States, which came in at 24.8 percent. It may seem hard to believe, considering how much more Nordic citizens get in exchange for their taxes, but average Finns pay income taxes and employee contributions at a rate only about 6 percentage points higher than the rate paid by average Americans, while average Swedes pay less than average Americans.”

And good timing for election season, as we listen to entitled billionaires insist that they alone understand economics and business because they built their empires through their own hard work…

“The reason for setting up such requirements is simple, and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren put it eloquently: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.””

And … just generally, people in the Nordics can make their choices without worrying, which is key given how anxiety levels have shot through the roof everywhere.

“When I look at my Nordic friends now, they seem so free to me. They work and have children, they engage in hobbies, they travel the world, and they never seem to worry about really going broke. They have health care, day care, and pensions. They can study whatever they want, and they don’t have to risk their financial future to do so.”

This is so true. I have watched all my friends have families, make the choices that suit them best in rearing their children, not lose ground in their career paths or earning potential, and so on. My friend can stay home and take care of her kids because she wants to – but she could equally go back to work and negotiate for a flexible part-time schedule and be welcomed. The system is set up to support people in this – and many other – way(s)… and I can’t imagine a better way/place to be.

Good – or better than expected

*Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene

“‘You should dream more, Mr Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.’”

A darkly comic and satirical tale of a vacuum-cleaner salesman, Wormold, who rather accidentally stumbles into becoming a secret agent.

‘We’re not shocked by that any longer.’ ‘It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.’

Exposing the incompetence and farcical nature of bureaucracy and how easily people and institutions see only what they want to see, holding a mirror up to where we are today, e.g. what is shocking erodes constantly so that previously unthinkable acts of corruption are ho-hum, who cares, regular blips on a radar screen full of malfeasance.

“‘I told them even if I’d known I wouldn’t have stopped you. I said you were working for something important, not for someone’s notion of a global war that may never happen. That fool dressed up as a Colonel said something about “your country”. I said, “What do you mean by his country? A flag someone invented two hundred years ago? The Bench of Bishops arguing about divorce and the House of Commons shouting Ya at each other across the floor? Or do you mean the T.U.C. and British Railways and the Co-op? You probably think it’s your regiment if you ever stop to think, but we haven’t got a regiment—he and I.” They tried to interrupt and I said, “Oh, I forgot. There’s something greater than one’s country, isn’t there? You taught us that with your League of Nations and your Atlantic Pact, NATO and UNO and SEATO. But they don’t mean any more to most of us than all the other letters, U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. And we don’t believe you any more when you say you want peace and justice and freedom. What kind of freedom? You want your careers.””

*CleannessGarth Greenwell

It was difficult to resist the beauty of the prose in this brief book. It was at times brutal, at times tender – and always human and difficult to read, difficult to pull away from.

“Of course it wasn’t his fault, I would say, of course he was blameless, entirely blameless; there wasn’t any invitation he could have given, even if he had wanted it there wasn’t any permission he could give. But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

*The Memory PoliceYoko Ogawa

No matter how careful we are, we all leave behind little bits of ourselves as we go about our lives. Hair, sweat, fingernails, tears…any of which can be tested. No one can escape.”

In an island society where everything eventually disappears – from roses to one’s own limbs – what has value? What role can memory, or nostalgia, play when one’s own memory is slowly wiped away and forgetting is enforced? Can one even trust memory at that point, or does everything just slip away?

While I am not sure entirely what to make of this book – it bears the hallmarks of many contemporary Japanese novels – more stylistic than plot driven, very atmospheric without much action – I found it nevertheless enjoyable and worthy of thought.

“Would you really like to remember all the things you’ve lost?” R asked. I told him the truth. “I don’t know. Because I don’t even know what it is I should be remembering. What’s gone is gone completely. I have no seeds inside me, waiting to sprout again. I have to make do with a hollow heart full of holes. That’s why I’m jealous of your heart, one that offers some resistance, that is tantalizingly transparent and yet not, that seems to change as the light shines on it at different angles.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest PredatorTimothy C. Winegard

“’We are not makers of history,’ conceded the esteemed Dr Martin Luther King Jr. ‘We are made by history.’ The mosquito prods our human journey along its uncharted course and stimulates our swing through time in mysterious, if not macabre, ways. She connects historical, at times seemingly unrelated, events separated by distance, epochs, and space. Hers is a long and warped reach.”

You wouldn’t imagine that a lengthy book about mosquitoes would be such a feat of gripping storytelling, but it is. It’s well-written and engaging, and paints the mosquito as a resilient and villainous adversary. It is no exaggeration when the author references something (DDT possibly) as the mighty mosquito’s Kryponite; nothing stops the mosquito, and DDT was only a temporary setback in its onslaught.

The book weaves together various moments and major turns in history that may well have been altered significantly by the humble but disease-ridden mosquito. Almost silent but deadly.

*Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and TrollsCarrie Goldberg

“Let’s be clear: Coercing someone into sending an intimate picture and then distributing that image without consent isn’t “sexting.” It’s a violation and a crime. And the first step to protecting young people from this kind of abuse is to teach about consent. I’m talking about no-holds-barred conversations with real-world examples of what pressure and coercion look like. As in, Yes, asking a girl over and over again to send you a nude is PRESSURE. And, Someone threatening to dump you if you don’t send a pic is COERCION. And, Sharing someone else’s naked pics with all your friends without their consent in many states is a fucking CRIME. Teaching sex ed to the digital generation is not only the responsibility of parents. Safe sexting should be taught in middle school, when most kids get their first phone (and also hit puberty). It should be woven into the plots of teen movies and disguised as listicles on BuzzFeed (“Ten Reasons to Not Send Your Friends That Nude Pic of Your Ex!”). This is an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

I did not enjoy this book. It would be impossible to enjoy it. It’s a really fucking scary account of the things people have gone through at the hands of stalkers, psychos, etc. – in particular in the wild west of the digital age, where laws haven’t understood or kept up with the new, pervasive and unforeseen threats and the far-reaching damage that can be done. People seem to understand less about the idea of consent and what they need to have consent for as technology makes spying, stealing, sharing easier than ever. Is there any such thing as privacy any more?

This leads pretty directly to the idea of better education – sex education, consent education, and even legal education (both for the layperson and for the legal field). And leads to the next book I read about building empathy despite the proliferation of technology (see below). As we become less connected with our fellow humans, and objectify them, how can we prevent the kinds of horrors that Goldberg describes in this book?

Coincidences

*The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed WorldKaitlin Ugolik Phillips

What has actually happened for many of us is that robots have seeped into our lives and our relationships somewhat without our notice. AI is part of the fabric of so many of the tools and services we use every day. How many people think critically about their relationship with Alexa and whether it’s healthy from an emotional or philosophical perspective? Does my skepticism of her, and my tendency to call her “her,” mean I am failing to ‘apprehend the world accurately’?”

The older I get, the more I think about the past and the barely remembered people who populate it. I have clear memories of so many colleagues, for example, who seemed very important at the time when I had to spent eight hours a day with them, but over time, some of the details have grown hazy. Don’t get me wrong – I remember an insane amount of detail about people with whom I was never close, but then big pieces are missing (if they were ever stuck in my brain to begin with). Not long ago I was thinking of a driven, confident, possibly even forceful, but gregarious woman I worked with 25 years ago, but I could only remember her first name and a ridiculous level of detail about parts of her life. But I couldn’t remember her surname for the life of me.

Imagine my surprise then when I selected a book to read at random, got about a quarter of the way into it, and came across a familiar name. I thought to myself, “Do I know this person?” And it was in fact the woman I’d worked with 25 years ago with whom I have had no connection at all. I had no reason to imagine that this book, its subject matter, would have had any connection to this woman from the past. She was, back then, completely focused on her vocal studies (she was a singer). But there she was, Celeste Headlee, cited as a “conversation expert”.

I am constantly stunned by how small the world is, how our paths sort of cross again and again. In this particular book, the author approaches Headlee with questions on how we might build conversations and connections in a tech-obsessed age. Headlee points out that tech is “a tool like any other” and is not the problem. I’d tend to agree. Tech can work for or against us; in this case, tech has actually helped me connect the dots about this long-ago acquaintance to confirm that yes, in fact, it was her I was reading about.

A secondary, but no less relevant, sort of coincidence related to this book was yet another mention of Stanley Milgram and his experiments in obedience to authority. This book referred to studies in human-robot interaction.

“Human-robot-interaction researchers have even replicated the historic Milgram experiment, in which Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram claimed to show how far people will go to obey authority by asking participants to apply shocks to a screaming person in another room. (Milgram’s results—in which 40 percent of participants stopped before reaching maximum voltage—were recently shown to have been manipulated.) In 2006 and 2008, Christoph Bartneck, of the Human Interface Technology Lab in New Zealand, and his colleagues found that all twenty of their research subjects were willing to apply the highest voltage to a robot with facial expressions that could move and talk. On the other hand, while all participants in a later study involving Microbug robots (little crawling toys) complied with instructions to destroy the bots with a hammer, they felt bad about it. Some said they didn’t enjoy “killing” the “poor robot” because it was “innocent.””

“a study by Peter Kahn of the University of Washington in 2012 brought it all home for me: 98 percent of children who participated were against putting a person in a closet, and 100 percent said it was OK to put a broom there—but only 54 percent were OK with putting a robot called Robovie in the closet. They knew the robot wasn’t a person, but they still felt bad treating it inhumanely.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59Douglas Edwards

After reading the Marissa Orr book (Lean Out) I really was not ready for another Silicon Valley tell-all. And this one was horrible. Orr’s book, at least, at some keen insights. This one just seemed like some dude who got bored and wanted to tell us how he ended up at Google in its infancy, and it reads like someone who actually never quite fit in no matter what he did. Sure, it’s interesting to see how precarious the early days at Google felt, but I don’t think this comes as a great surprise to anyone. They got lucky, and they had the smarts or good fortune to have hired a few people who kept things on track and could see more clearly than others. However, the book chronicled organizational and political growing pains that almost all companies endure, which made this less than remarkable.

In some cases some of what this dude wrote seemed contradictory. In one case, it is possible that the writer’s earlier complaints about not fitting in, not understanding what was expected of him, and not understanding the thinking of Google’s founders eventually passed, and his understanding began to fall into place, but the following passage seemed to contradict so much of what he wrote up until this point:

“Larry’s product-review meetings created a central information nexus. I could sit on the black couch, plug directly into Larry’s head, and get root-level access to all that I needed to know. Nothing helped me do my job better than downloading directly from Google’s wellspring of strategic direction. Cool draughts of clear vision washed away ambiguity about user interfaces, product features, and competitive positioning. I basked in my unobstructed view of the deliberations driving our company’s creation, blissfully unaware that I would soon be banished from this information Eden and forced to forage for the info bits that I had come to rely upon to do my job.”

Later he did something similar when he wrote about his anger that the company was not going to follow his advice about sticking with the CRM they were already using by bringing in some acquaintances with an untested CRM instead. The founders argued that by bringing them in, getting them to build to Google’s specifications, they would get exactly what they wanted without having to pay for some fraction of what they wanted, and eventually they acquired the company for peanuts. He eventually decided that the founders were wise and that this worked beautifully for them. But nearer to the end of the book he writes:

“One business-development person warned me that Microsoft’s MO as a company was to get close to startups, suck them dry, and then throw them away. Microsoft was methodical about it, giving generous terms to keep the startups alive, but essentially turning them into captive research-and-development centers. Microsoft would become the startups’ biggest customer and thereby drive the direction of their development, perhaps offering to provide informal technical help, which necessitated a look at the startups’ proprietary code.”

How is this any different, really, from what they did with the CRM startup?

I do not feel lucky for having made the misguided choice to read this book.

*Click: The Magic of Instant ConnectionsOri Brafman, Rom Brafman

I did not particularly care for this book – I don’t care much in general for popular psychology, and even though this was interesting enough, it didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know.

*Dead AstronautsJeff VanderMeer

Hated it. Like someone else said – this felt like a word salad that wasn’t meant to just be read.

*The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern ConflictWilliam T. Cavanaugh

I had to read this for my studies, so it’s not like I expected a lot from this book. Still it looked more interesting than it turned out to be. Most of all, I found its key point valid but then the author repeated it so frequently, presumably to make the argument through various lenses, that it lost its resonance.

“‘I argue that there is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion and that essentialist attempts to separate religious violence from secular violence are incoherent. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of different configurations of power.

That’s the disappointment here, but I didn’t hate the book. I found the argument valuable and salient – nationalism and the opportunity to wage war or die for nationalist causes, for example, is somehow seen as acceptable while violence perpetrated in the name of religion is defined as “other”, when they do in fact seem like the same thing.

Said and read – January 2020

Standard

“It isn’t the risk of death and fear of danger that prevent people from rising up,” Leonel once said, “it is numbness, acquiescence, and the defeat of the mind. Resistance to oppression begins when people realize deeply within themselves that something better is possible.” He also said that what destroys a society, a state, a government, is corruption—that, and the use of force, which is always applied against those who have not been convinced or included. He was always talking about corruption: trying to prevent it, expose it, eradicate it. He was dedicated to the task of bringing the sin to the eye.” What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceCaroline Forché

As a new year is well underway, I can’t count the things that have changed. I can’t explain how trying to care for someone ends up driving them away. How the silence that is normally a welcome comfort feels isolating as it never has before. How people can surprise you with both extremes of pettiness and kindness. How different perceptions can be – what seems insignificant to me is serious to someone else. And most of all how there are so many people in the world lacking in self-awareness, who exist as sexist, passive-aggressive bullies, and as men, plow blindly and blithely through the world despite the wreckage they leave in their wake. How is this knowledge newly and repeatedly a fresh surprise to me at my age?

Something else that surprises me is the search terms that lead people to this blog. Sometimes they are astounding. Today: “Is Phoebe Cates HIV positive?” I have no idea how they’d end up here based on that search, but that’s the fun of the internet, is it not?

I’ve gone a bit crazy on reading in January (cracking through 61 books during the month). I don’t know how to explain how I managed this either except that I felt myself crumbling underneath extraordinary stress — and just needed some outlet to forget it.

Here’s what you missed in the last nearly two years: 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:

Highly recommended

“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” –Dept. of SpeculationJenny Offill

*Magical NegroMorgan Parker

It’s poetry, and it’s powerful.

*Blue Nights Joan Didion

“On this question of fear. When I began writing these pages I believed their subject to be children, the ones we have and the ones we wish we had, the ways in which we depend on our children to depend on us, the ways in which we encourage them to remain children, the ways in which they remain more unknown to us than they do to their most casual acquaintances; the ways in which we remain equally opaque to them. The ways in which for example we write novels “just to show” each other. The ways in which our investments in each other remain too freighted ever to see the other clear.”

Good – or better than expected

*Dept. of SpeculationJenny Offill

A slight but naggingly thought-provoking wee book. Written in a distant, impersonal tone that nevertheless draws you in and makes you feel all the “fog” of never questioning until suddenly you find yourself questioning – speculating about – everything. Open your eyes. Suddenly everything seems different.

“The wife reads about something called “the wayward fog” on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream. All of this has to do with chemicals in the brain, allegedly. An amphetamine-like mix, far more compelling than the soothing attachment one. Or so the evolutionary biologists say. It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. “What are you reading about?” the husband asks her from across the room. “Weather,” she tells him.”

*What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceCaroline Forché

“I would try to learn from Leonel how to listen to what was said but also to what was not said, and I would also try to learn how to detect deception in others, which, he assured me, is a skill that can be acquired. I would learn to review my experiences for the missed details, and to keep in mind that while I was observing others, they were also observing me, and I would become less (how did he put it?) readable, and when necessary, I would attempt, in his words, to “manage the perceptions of others” so that, of the “five versions of the truth,” in any given situation, mine might prevail. “This place is a symphony of illusion,” Leonel often said, “and an orchestra needs a conductor.””

Poet Caroline Forché recounts her experiences in 1970s pre-civil war El Salvador in a stark memoir. As a young, and arguably naive, American woman, Leonel Gómez Vides, an activist and organizer, turned up on Forché’s doorstep demanding that she come to El Salvador to truly see what was going on there in a way that he believed only a poet could see or explain.

“So you can’t say it. You can’t write it. Even in a poem. If you had a photograph of the goddamn thing no one would believe you. As for your man in the basilica, your observations are imprecise. Next time pay closer attention. Someday you will be talking to your own people. Writing for your own people. I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.””

*Girl at WarSara Nović

What is one’s personal experience of war, and is it ‘war’ when it’s an indirect and mostly symbolic thing? Nović’s book begins to draw out these kinds of questions by contrasting the breakup of Yugoslavia and horrors that accompanied it with the post-9/11 war on terror (“more an idea than an experience”).

“It was now six months since the attacks, and the everyday things were returning to normal, first through an attitude of compulsory courage—fear means letting them win—then in a slow reinstating of routines, until we were again wrapped up in the mundane inconveniences of city life: knocking radiator pipes, subway construction reroutes, and the usual array of vermin. The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. In Croatia, life in wartime had meant a loss of control, war holding sway over every thought and movement, even while you slept. It did not allow for forgetting. But America’s war did not constrain me; it did not cut my water or shrink my food supply. There was no threat of takeover with tanks or foot soldiers or cluster bombs, not here. What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia—what must have been happening in Afghanistan—that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.”

How does one go on after war of the Yugoslav or Afghan type, how to reclaim some of the everyday that permeated life almost unnoticed before everything fell apart?

““What about a portable air conditioner?” I said. “In New York people get little window units.” But the suggestion was met unanimously with looks of horror. “Air-conditioning will give you kidney stones,” Luka said. I was gradually recalling those mundane moments—the ones that had until now given way to more traumatic memories—of a childhood governed by collective superstition: Never open two windows across from each other—the propuh draft will give you pneumonia. Don’t sit at the corner of the table; you’ll never get married. Lighting a cigarette straight off a candle kills a sailor. Don’t cut your nails on a Sunday. If it hurts, put some rakija on it. I tried to think of a singularly American superstition. I’d learned a few from the Uncles—something about not letting one’s shoes touch the kitchen table—but those were all imported from the Old World. Perhaps a country of immigrants had never gotten around to commingling the less desirable pieces of their cultures. Either that, or life there wasn’t difficult enough to warrant an adult’s belief in magic.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Lean Out: The Truth About Women, Power, and the WorkplaceMarissa Orr

“In the early twentieth century, employees who left their job on an assembly line didn’t take the company’s resources along with them. Their vacancy was filled with another warm body to perform the same mechanical tasks. When knowledge is the currency, however, employees who leave their job take a precious piece of supply along with them and often leave their teams scrambling to fill the gap.”

Much of Marissa Orr’s book, Lean Out, struck a nerve. The whole Lean In ‘revolution’ is predicated on the idea that all women – and all people – want to be climbing the same corporate ladder. I don’t care to climb; I don’t care to take on the responsibility and the politics that come with executive-level positions. The idea that we lack ambition, drive, passion, interest in our jobs or companies, if we are not building our lives around making this climb, is pervasive.

“I often wondered what would happen if, instead of the parade of powerful women, a lower-level manager juggling a household, kids, a husband, and a personal life took the mic and said, “Raise your hand if you’re apathetic about your job because it’s all politics and bullshit anyway.” Would the majority of us once again have our hands in the air? Perhaps. We can’t know for sure because nobody ordinary appears onstage, and it’s a question no one ever asks. The lack of authenticity wasn’t isolated to public conversations on female empowerment. It also governed the politics of our individual careers. As I discovered right away, the first rule of being a woman at work is to never tell the truth about all the reasonable feelings and concerns you have about being a woman at work. I’ve always been bad at knowing what I can and can’t say in certain situations, so I learned this painful lesson early and often. “

_____

“Indifference toward climbing the corporate ladder is treated universally as a negative. The entire goal of women’s leadership seminars and training programs is to help you advance along with your male peers. Voicing reluctance is tantamount to exposing some secret failing and is a betrayal to our identities as modern, empowered women. As a result, there’s a distinct lack of honesty in the public conversation about women at work. Dominated by a singular chorus of voices, we focus on tangential things…”

Orr has done a fine job in telling this story, and what it means for the many who do not conform to the expected desire to climb.

“Part of the reason we’ve failed to solve the gender gap is because the spotlight is on the trunk of the elephant, which we’ve mistaken for the whole animal. Do women who were born to be the boss suffer penalties for acting out of type? Absolutely. But would the majority of women say that being punished for their bossiness is the biggest obstacle to their career success? I doubt it. We’ve over-indexed our time and attention on problems that plague a smaller subset of women, while ignoring the ones that are more common and perhaps more troublesome. You can see them only if you zoom out to see the whole elephant. And that’s why it’s so important to hear various perspectives from women on all rungs of the corporate ladder.”

——–

“Imagine that we asked women, “Do you aspire to be a corporate executive or CEO?” If the majority of women answered yes, then helping them climb the corporate ladder would make sense and be a worthy endeavor. However, as previously stated, the majority of women have said no, they don’t want to be corporate executives. The leadership ambition gap works by disregarding the answers as irrelevant, suggesting that the only reason women say no is because they’re culturally conditioned to say that. Taking our thoughts, feelings, and desires into consideration is pointless, I suppose.”

She also touches on the other side of the coin: what it means for employees and companies when the wrong kinds of people are eager to – and do – ascend.

“Perhaps the biggest threat to trust and profit are bad managers. According to a Forbes article, “Regardless of one’s level in an organization, your day-to-day relationship with your direct manager is invariably crucial to your well-being.”16 If employees feel, among other things, that their supervisor takes a real interest in their development, or offers frequent praise and recognition, they’re likely to be engaged. No matter how many perks or how fancy one’s office space, they hardly compensate for a tyrannical micromanager lording over you and your work every day. It’s impossible to improve organizational trust without rethinking the scope of a manager’s authority and how companies deal with bad bosses. Management is a universal prize given without consideration to whether a person is capable of the task. Given the steep price a company pays for a bad boss, it’s astounding how little attention is paid to the matter. Being a great manager, or even just a moderately good one, requires a specific skill set.”

So, I liked this a lot because I hate the lean-in idea that we should all want the same things – that we are not valid or successful if we are not climbing the same ladder. That we should strive to do what men stereotypically do. There is a lot of good stuff here, marred only occasionally by a few too many name-dropping moments that seem almost bitter. And maybe Orr was bitter. It appears that by unshackling herself from expectation, she landed on her feet doing something that suits her better.

*All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial CrisisBethany McLean

It’s impossible when reading as much as I have been not to have all kinds of crossover and coincidence appear. No sooner had I read a Robert Coles book, Doing Documentary Work, on how the observer’s influence and perspective cannot help but drive the work, and in which he discussed Dust Bowl era photography, e.g. Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, than I was digging into something related to help a friend do research on something entirely different but which was heavily influenced by Lange and Walker.

In the case of Bethany McLean’s gripping (as all of McLean’s well-researched backstory/exposé works are) account of the chain of events that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, I ended up with a strange crossover with Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. In Mbue’s book, things fall apart for two immigrants to the US, in part, because of the unraveling of the entire financial system’s deceptions and fraudulence. I happened to read this the day after reading McLean’s opus on the crisis. Incidentally, Behold the Dreamers was a good book, too.

I’d recommend just reading the book for yourself, but one thing I took away was actually McLean’s citation of Robert Rubin‘s memoir (italics mine):

“His fear stemmed from something almost no one else in government could claim: actual experience with a derivatives meltdown. It happened in the late 1980s when a sudden, unexpected shift in interest rates – unforeseen by Goldman’s risk models, needless to say – wrecked havoc on the bond and derivatives markets. ‘Bonds are derivatives products began to move in unexpected ways relative to each other because traders hadn’t focused on how these securities might behave under the extremely unlikely market conditions that were now occurring,’ Rubin writes in his memoir. ‘’”Neither Steve nor I was an expert in this area, so our confusion was not surprising. But the people who traded these instruments did not fully understand these developments, either, and that was unsettling. You’d come to work thinking, We’ve lost a lot of money but the worst is finally behind us. Now what do we do? And then a new problem would develop. We didn’t know how to stop the process.’ He concludes: ‘What happened to us represents a seeming tendency in human nature not to give appropriate weight to what might occur under remote, but potentially very damaging, circumstances’.”

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

I didn’t hate anything I read in January although I read a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t bother mentioning, as it had no influence one way or the other.

Free for a storytelling spree

Standard

Another one of those aimless, sprawling collections of thoughts, quotations, snippets floating freely in my brain … all on the vast topic of writing and reading. Thinking about how ideas come to fruition and lead to a story or a storytelling spree of some kind. I know I am doing little more than collecting a bunch of random quotations and thoughts – not doing anything particularly creative myself, and certainly not weaving together a story. But I am, as I write about below, creating new links and networks in my brain… which I guess is part of my process (also noted below).

The ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.” Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

“In the place of the ever-changing cloud that we carried in our heads until the other day, the condensing and dispersal of which we attempted to understand by describing impalpable psychological states and shadowy landscapes of the soul—in the place of all this we now feel the rapid passage of signals on the intricate circuits that connect the relays, the diodes, the transistors with which our skulls are crammed. Just as no chess player will ever live long enough to exhaust all the combinations of possible moves for the thirty-two pieces on the chessboard, so we know (given the fact that our minds are chessboards with hundreds of billions of pieces) that not even in a lifetime lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make all possible plays.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino

To write is to embrace a certain freedom and break free from constraints you did not even know were there. Sometimes to write is to buckle down and find your way. Free to write our stories, or some story, we have to find the way to do it – and seize the freedom that allows us to… even if, as Calvino cautions, we shall never live long enough to make ‘all possible plays’.

This can be a considerable enterprise, depending on how you experience writing, the process of writing and creativity. And the how you do it does not even begin to touch the why.

The write way

For some, writing is like giving difficult birth, laborious, long and painful. Or like a marathon, tapping into the reserves of the entire being while also still being a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other exercise.

“Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

For others, it’s almost dissociative, but still subject to much self-doubt and criticism as well as somewhat cynical self-reflection.

“…there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion

For others, it’s casual and easy. (I tend to fall into this category but only because most of what I write is not ‘personal’ and I am not personally invested in it.)

No matter what the process is like, or what the results, it’s still a process. Entirely unique to the storyteller. This is true whether the story is a work of fiction that many will read or a technical manual that only a handful will read. Being able to delve into and engage in this process is a kind of privilege, necessarily implying that the abilities and time exist to produce – something.

The process

When I think of the “process” I think of two different things. One is the literal process of sitting down and being surrounded by certain comforts or habits, which many writers discuss. I suppose mine is closest to that offered by Gary Shteyngart: “I write in bed next to a coffee machine.” There are so many other well-thought-out and explained processes (or non-processes), when for some, it’s literally, in the end, just rolling over, grabbing the computer and putting the coffee machine to work. (Admittedly I don’t have a coffee machine next to my bed, but I make cafetiere after cafetiere and bring them with me to the bedside table where I think, read, work and write most of the time.) Each person has his or her routine, largely, I assume, governed by the impulses that inspire or force one to write and by the aforementioned way a writer experiences writing (hard work, escape, etc.).

The second part of the “process” relates to everything that leads up actual creation and development. How do ideas form – how do they grow from embryonic seeds into a multicellular life?

The eyes and ears have it

“There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

This stage can start out in the vaguest of ways. For example, I see something or hear something and jot it down, whether it’s the URL on the side of a van: eloped.se (which I figured would not be about eloping but about an electric moped), or a much fuller vignette. In the case of the URL, it is not that I will write about the URL, the van, or even the misunderstanding/difference in the language but only the fact that some piece of cognitive dissonance jolted me out of the moment, stuck in traffic, to think about other connections and linguistic associations. It’s about keeping the brain working and linking seemingly disconnected concepts together.

The ‘sprout’ of a fuller idea might be planted by a conversation. For example, when someone told me that he ended up with a copy of Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album in every breakup he ever had, without ever having had the album himself in the first place. Now the proud owner of six copies, all of which were relics of relationships gone by, existing on media ranging from vinyl to cassette to CD, representative of the eras of which they – and the failed relationships – were a part. Perhaps a flimsy premise for anything, but certainly a human anecdote to fill in the flesh of a skeletal character.

The read way

Every writer is a reader first.”

The other part of this ‘germinating ideas’ is preparation, however unconscious. It’s sparking the brain constantly to think in different ways, walking down new paths. This is largely done with (excessive) reading. It doesn’t matter if you remember everything you read: “Books also change, via our mental models, the very reality that we perceive.

And this is the whole point. Changing the perception of the world around you, the people around you, taking on understandings you did not have before… and applying this newfound understanding to your own creativity – freely.

Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -“When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov

It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it? In this way, the reading and examining process, too, is like writing. And it’s through this other level of understanding, of seeing the written word presented in many unexpected and unusual ways, defying expectation, that the freedom of creativity is cultivated.

The freedom of creativity

“No one, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion by lies and constraints.”The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

Regardless of what hard work it can be, the ability to create at all confers a form of freedom.

That is, when I reach a stage in my mind when I am ready to finally throw my hands up in the air at the powerlessness of having to tow the line, speak the party line full of marketing gobbledygook and corporate branding BS, of feeling rendered inert by the anodyne ‘voice’ of large corporations – either silencing me from within (restraint at being able to only say so much) or outside (as academics and journalists experience when entities like Google have outsized influence on what they can publish. Don’t be evil, my ass),  I am asking ‘what for’? To go on, continuing down this path of non-creativity forever until self-respect shrivels up and dies a merciful but none-too-early death? No. This is not what I was made for. I was, like many others, made to tell stories. I was not made to censor. I was made to create characters. I was not made to sit silently in offices and nod while someone describes another ‘campaign’ that will lead nowhere.

“Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist? What right does one have to play around with collective memory? Is there any credibility in getting these sometimes-disparate characters in tune? The starting point for all these characters was the thirst in them.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Yes, I live in the real world, and for now, my creativity has to be partly channeled into this environment. And sometimes, strangely enough, reaching this stage of frustration, as described, opens the door to new clarity, a new approach to communicating in different terms, circumventing the “rules” imposed in these narrow frameworks. And isn’t that what true creativity is? Being able to find a completely fresh way to describe or communicate about something?

I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino

Defiant

Standard

The other day, reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem, I was struck when reading her writing on Joan Baez by the statement:

She “…was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme.”

These words evoked for me the feelings I have long had about, and the image of, Sinéad O’Connor in the late 1980s, an embryonic personality driving and sometimes hindering a skyrocketing career and startling voice. I’d always felt back then that the well-publicized “mania” (I wouldn’t really call it this), early in her career, had unfairly stuck to her, giving her a reputation she could never outrun. She was so very young when her career took off, and we forget – today, as always – that people are still quite unformed and incomplete throughout their early adulthoods; I’d venture to say that many people continue to be unformed well beyond youth. She fit Didion’s description: a personality before she was a fully formed person.

O’Connor, though, also experienced very public controversies (which many would dismiss as publicity ploys), public identity crises and shifts, and quite gut-wrenching bouts of depression and battles with other forms of mental illness (and here I mean gut-wrenching for her fans to watch her go through; I cannot even begin to imagine or put into words what these bouts are like for her, undoubtedly something much worse than just “gut-wrenching” – maybe The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon begins to touch on some part of it, but certainly not all of it), which continued well beyond her youth, worsening with the passage of time.

Could one say she never had the opportunity to become a fully formed person, to move beyond the preternatural talent and preconceived ideas people had about her? And, given the revelations she has shared over the years about her own experiences with abuse and mental illness, how could she ever become a fully formed person? How could she not struggle, often – again – very publicly?

I thought about all of this rather without aim while plowing through the Didion writing, humming tunes from The Lion & the Cobra album to myself, overcome by memories of the summer of 1988, listening to this album repeatedly (when I finally got it on vinyl, after waiting forever), so in love with its extremes of ethereal wave and primitive scream. How, oh, how, I was asked by classmates, could I like this? (Perhaps another case of people failing to look beyond the shaved-head surface.) Eventually Sinéad gave us I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which, at least for a while, turned her into a mainstream favorite, and the masses could finally understand what I had been saying since 1987.

In one of those all-too-frequent little coincidences, it was only a week or so after being reminded of Sinéad by Didion’s writing that Sinéad herself posted a heart-rending video of herself on her Facebook page talking about her diagnosed mental illnesses and recent suicidal thoughts. It feels exploitative to post the video again (certainly in its complete form), although it’s on her official Facebook page to see. A cry for help, a need to be heard, a voice reaching out to others who perhaps felt as she did? In a way, this act felt very much like the Sinéad O’Connor who has always existed, no matter how lost she feels: she won’t be silenced; she won’t care if you, we, anyone doesn’t want to hear what she has to say; she is, despite being devastated by the effects of her illnesses and the rejection she has perceived from her loved ones, still defiant in the way only she can be. Hopefully it will be this defiance that keeps her going.

Photo by Jenu Prasad on Unsplash

Contextual past and eventual becoming

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mediocre egg roll

Standard

When I spend such a vast amount of time reading – losing track even of how many hours pass with my nose in a virtual book – of course I see connections. Most often these are thematic connections that crochet together, however loosely, disparate books and ideas from different parts of the world.

Sometimes though there are just coincidental mentions that seem strange – for instance, choosing randomly to read a Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus) in which he mentions egg rolls, only to be followed immediately by a Joan Didion (Play It as It Lays), which also mentions egg rolls.

It has no significance. But why is that the one connection… and the one thing I remember? (I do recall my last trip to Iceland when my dear Jane brought over egg rolls and had somehow ordered two orders of them rather than just two egg rolls, and it was actually the best thing about the meal – they were quite good!)

Overdosing on reading, I took a little break Friday evening to watch a “triple feature” of Jaime Rosales’s understated, slice-of-life, ultra-realistic films (on MUBI, of course). And what do they show other than the tedium and brevity of life, punctuated as it is by bits of bad news, manipulative people and occasional dramatic events that upend our lives and sometimes disturb our very souls. And yet the backdrop remains the same: the humdrum, the mundane and the mediocre. And this is a place where the small, almost imperceptible happinesses reside: where a character meets a waitress who comments on how cute her baby son is, where a character can enjoy how much light comes into her flat, where characters at dinner can comment at length on how simple and good the meal turned out, where a character can move little by little past the individual and collective tragedies. We don’t get to see this “striving for normal life” much, certainly not in mainstream films, and certainly not in films that exceed two hours in length (as Solitary Fragments/La Soledad was) or which are essentially without dialogue (Bullet in the Head/Tiro en la Cabeza).

The films were there for me to watch at exactly the right time. After reading an article about the desire for a mediocre life, which unexpectedly struck chords with many of my friends, and thinking about how the simplicity and calm of an average and non-dramatic life is exceptionally fulfilling, the normal and mediocre nature of life as portrayed in these films was illustrative and almost life-affirming. And the things in life that often give us the most are the things that are the most unassuming, the least glamorous. These things, as a 2016 University of Otago study concluded, are small, daily creative pursuits that foster feelings of “flourishing” and make us want to do more. For me, it has often been baking (everyone knows that once I start, it’s hard to stop because I feel productive joy from this simple act and giving the results to others); for others, it is long-distance running; for others, like my mother, it’s knitting. Things that don’t necessarily require excessive resources or expensive equipment, exciting or exotic locations or anything particularly demanding.

Especially after being hit Friday evening with a brief wave of deep sadness and a feeling of loss that sprang up seemingly from nowhere to choke me as I waited in a long, endless Friday evening line at the store.

By the end of the night the feeling had completely washed away, soothed by returning to reading (The Things They Carried and I Do Not Come to You By Chance) and some always-restorative words from a fellow, in his words, “misanthropic mugwump”.

Photo (c) 2011 Annie used under Creative Commons license.