Said and read – February 2020

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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.

the current

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“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine

“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (more or less the same idea as Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”)

My father gave me only one piece of valuable, if obvious, advice in life, and it happened many years ago. Nothing he said before or after that has been useful or indeed true. Long ago I had a friend – a best friend, whom I loved to pieces. But this friend was also, possibly, the most unreliable person I have ever known. Once, after a particularly harrowing series of experiences that tripped over each other in their increasing lunacy and inconvenience, much of which blew up because of this friend’s inability to commit or follow a plan (and these kinds of debacles happened often enough that I found myself exasperated more often than not), I complained about it to my dad. I never have conversations with my father; the fact that I spoke to him about this indicates the level my frustration had reached. Before I got very far into my spiel of disappointment and anger, he stopped me and said, “Look, if you want to continue with that friendship, if you value the good parts more than you are put out by the bad, you have to accept that this is the way it is.”

I think of this frequently because it’s true in almost all cases with people in our lives. I’ve struggled, like all people, not to be judgmental – not just in the sense that I don’t want to judge other people’s flaws, faults, journeys, decisions or lack of decisions – but also in the sense that I don’t want to attach expectations to their lives and ‘progress’. For example, while I don’t judge an alcoholic in my life for being an alcoholic, for struggling with it constantly, and ‘falling off the wagon’ repeatedly, I also have to let go of any idea that change is required in order to care for him. He tries; he makes incremental steps in a positive direction, but this progress is constantly undermined and undone because after a month, or three months, or some period of sobriety, he slips back into old habits, and the drinking begins again and erases not just the sobriety but the stability he achieves on other fronts in his life (the parts I invest a lot of time in helping him with). It’s always back to square one, and this is inevitably disappointing.

But then I realize: this is its own form of judgment. I have to, if I continue to be a support to this person, discontinue all notions of ‘square one’ and ‘progress’ because, for him, it really is literally one day at a time. (“Self-regulation does not refer to “good behavior” but to the capacity of an individual to maintain a reasonably even internal emotional environment.” – Gabor Maté) I can’t hold these ideas about how he was doing ‘so well’ up as a kind of yardstick, measuring how far he has moved forward from last week or last month because it can all be wiped out in minutes. It’s that precarious, and no one hates himself more than he does when it all goes awry.

Life (and its series of relationships) is defined by, as we are aware, our choices. The alcoholic chooses to drink, even if there is something that drives him to do it that is beyond his control. My friend from years ago chose somehow not to be reliable, or at least not to be reliable for me. I choose, for example, to be (hopefully) an enduring friend, even to those who may not ‘deserve’ it (if I were tallying up some sort of score card). I choose to eliminate any notion of a score card or insistence that friendship always be a two-way street. I have written about it many times – there is often an imbalance, but to be a good, compassionate person or friend, it is not about what you get back from the people in your life. In an ideal world, you would not just give and give without getting something back. But it is not an ideal world, and as it happens, you get what you need from other sources.

Life is also defined by our non-choices, which is something we don’t consider much until we get older. I have had many conversations on this topic recently. In my younger years, I actively chose to continue difficult friendships, even when they were painful. I chose to believe in things that I knew were doomed. But each choice concealed a non-choice. I didn’t choose my own comfort at every turn. I didn’t choose to pursue or complete specific actions, which let outcomes float aimlessly toward wherever the current pulled them. I have been carried by life’s current to places I would not have consciously chosen if I were trying to make a plan.

Sometimes this path has been enlightening and joyful, and sometimes quite painful. And often leads to considerations of the paths not taken, by chance or by choice and all the infinite possibilities those paths pose(d).

 

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

nostalgia’s impotence

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“My bitterness over nostalgia’s impotence to revive and resurrect becomes a tearful rage against God, who created impossibilities, when I think about how the friends of my dreams – with whom I’ve shared so much in a make-believe life and with whom I’ve had so many stimulating conversations in imaginary cafés – have never had a space of their own where they could truly exist, independent of my consciousness of them!”-The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa

Nostalgia is no new topic here or anywhere. We dwell in nostalgia’s hallways and cellars too frequently – so frequently it is almost indecent, ignoring the obscenity of the inability to let go, elevating it in fact in many cultures and languages to be the highest form of memory and admiration.

“Even if time is just a manmade construct and has no inherent evil whatsoever. All that is truly deceptive about it is our human caprice and wont to waste time, playing games – or rather waste feelings, being petty and not doing what our heart really desires in life. Time and our perception of it imbues us with false confidence, with fear, with nostalgic sentimentality.”

In previous writings on the subject I had been writing about my memories of Japanese language camp, the passage of time and nostalgia without even touching on the Japanese-language term “natsukashi”, which is roughly the same as “nostalgia”, filled with the same push-pull of longing/sadness and sentimentality/if-only/some-other-life feeling. How many times have I spoken to a Japanese person who, with that telltale faraway look in their eye said wistfully, “Natsukashi…”, their voice trailing off as the mind traveled into the murky mists of the past. Even in citing Japanese poet Tamura and writing: “It is also the nostalgia – looking back at people, events – what has deeply affected and wounded us, things we carry for years, imprinted on us even when the person or event is long ago and the deep impression we have belies the brevity of these memorable encounters”, I still didn’t think of ‘natsukashi’.

But then ‘natsukashi’ leapt to mind yesterday when I had a long conversation about living in the past, not being able to let go, nostalgia and how difficult it is when one lives in her own conception of how the past was – her own nostalgia – and eventually faces the reality that the others who populated that storied past do not share the same perception of that past. It shouldn’t be necessary to reconcile one’s own view of the past and sense of longing for it with another’s view, in which longing plays no part. In fact without these mismatches, I imagine we’d have much less of the bittersweet poetry, literature and music we covet; I imagine we’d have nowhere near as much invested in nostalgia: in fact an integral part of nostalgia may in fact be that we are grasping for something that never really existed.

What Cannot Be
Odysseus Elytis

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Photo (c) 2017 – SD

And you give yourself away

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Birthdays are a funny time when you hear from people you never hear from; often people you have never heard from or actually talked to in your entire life, thanks to the wonders of invasive Facebook (of course it is only invasive because I let it be).

A guy with whom I had no actual acquaintance in junior high (and even less in high school), never sharing so much as a single one-on-one conversation but perhaps shared a handful of sarcastic group conversations, mostly arguing the (non-)merits of U2 (with whom I was abnormally preoccupied as an adolescent, steeped in the mania of the freshly released Joshua Tree album), popped up in my Facebook messages.

Back in junior high, my then-best friend and I were certifiably obsessed, and preached full-on religious zealotry like televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker at their zenith: Deliver U2 to the ignorant heathens: “THROW YOUR MONEY AT THESE IRISH LADS!” (I find these ‘lads’ in their past-middle-age incarnation to be rather sanctimonious, just as they were then – but a 12-year-old girl can’t see shit through the rose-colored glasses and distant, mystical music that plays silently when you mentally mythologize the Irish in any context.) That’s not to say that I don’t find The Joshua Tree to be an end-to-end marvel of aural achievement – only that my interest in U2 as a group dissipated along with most of the persistent drilling of teenage madness. Never again have I been as fervent a defender or ardent fan of anything, despite my wide-ranging passion for music. Perhaps after the U2 period, I moved fluidly into a ‘Madchester’ and shoegaze phase, but the musical palette continued to expand (and continues to this day), so U2 is a kind of speck on the horizon, even if they were the spark toward painting that multi-hued horizon. (And are, apparently, atop the list of anodyne sounds programmers report listening to while they work.)

But the point, though, was that this barely-an-acquaintance guy, who seems as an adult to be a genuine, cool and lovely person, but who had seemed in our youth, however vaguely I ‘knew’ him, like a too-cool, textbook-definition total dick (but this may well have been surface-level bravado; how many times have I written about the surface versus what’s underneath? We were all assholes at times, me included.), wrote to wish me a happy birthday and added: “U2 is still touring and playing the Joshua tree album, I was wrong in 8th grade and you were so right.”

In some weird way, I was touched, and this (here I am laughing) ‘vindication’ of my aggressive passion (he and his friends slagged off U2 at the time, but I don’t know if that was just to be contrary the way teenage boys are when they don’t have any idea how to actually communicate) was like its own happy little birthday present.

one more hour

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I have one more hour in which I am allowed to mope.

Therefore, I give you … Sam Phillips’s “I Can’t Stop Crying”. All at once a jagged, near-power-pop painful reminder of spring/summer 1989, a reminder of the wandering-through-Reykjavik spring of 2008 (my final months in Iceland) and a trigger for the current waves of disturbance in otherwise calm waters.

“I saw black and you saw red
Crawled to separate corners
the line went dead I closed my heart up tore your love
for me to shreds

Tangled wires, love can’t breathe
pulling tighter to my ruthless need
Don’t look down I want you unconsolably

I can’t stop crying
Stubborn distance closes in
with your assistance bitterly begin
To build a wall of silence cutting soul in two
Cloudy water in my eyes
I’m ashamed of words with secret knives
In dream I scream but you can’t
Hear me calling you

I know that this heartache is
A speck in the sky of love
But it’s all I feel around me”

Meandering memories with The Stone Roses

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Sometimes I fantasize
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars they burn below me
Don’t these times fill your eyes
When the streets are cold and lonely
And the cars, they burn below me
Are you all alone?
Is anybody home?

It was 1990, and I was in the full throes of my short-lived but passionate anglophilia. I tried to remake my suburban American life in the shape and form of something entirely different, and what better way to make anything new and beautiful – and most importantly – different – than through music? What different sound could I find that could firmly establish this otherness without the freedom to go be a part of some otherness? These were slow times when overexcited teenage musical discoveries were like hard-fought battles with near-exclusivity the spoils.

Lucky for me, I had been obsessed with reaching out into the wider world through my penfriendships, and exchanged letters with Peter, a bricklayer from Durham, England. I will never be able to express the mania, madness, joy that washed over me when his parcels would arrive, filled with cassettes (!) of exactly this otherness I had desperately sought. The first tapes he sent: The Stone Roses’ first – and in fairness near-only – album (the second could never live up to that debut). It transformed everything. He continued to send me more tapes of everything that characterized the ‘Madchester’ scene and other music from the same period. I felt like I had stumbled into a goldmine into which only I had access (it was a while before America was fully on board, and even if enclaves of people embraced this music, it was not as though it made its mark on my community).

I distinctly remember a day, walking home from a PSAT or SAT practice test (or something like that – a Saturday morning sacrificed to standardized testing, in any case), with “Made of Stone” playing on my Walkman. Is it overstating it to say that everything seemed different to me after that time? In some way, it was. It was – even if other friends adopted the music and we shared it – an assertion of my own tastes and identity outside of that of my friends. The first step toward something different. Sure, that something different did not turn out to be moving to England, which, in my youth, I long believed I wanted to do. But it was a big stepping stone to figuring out tangibly that there was a much bigger world out there with a lot of different kinds of people in it. Some of them were working as bricklayers and writing letters to fawning American girls. Some of them were making music and going to raves in a depressed late-80s Manchester.

Today, returning from Manchester, where I spent a few days with my brother seeing The Stone Roses reunion, seeing the iconic Haçienda transformed into apartments and generally taking it all in, I am starkly reminded of how I felt, how it was, to feel such intense feelings about music, about the sense of place (the sense of wanting to be in a different place). It’s been 26 years since I walked through the streets of the town where I grew up, overcome by and elated at this new sound – these new possibilities.

Today I am wandering the streets of Oslo, bound by sun and a few clouds, wondering in some way how I got here. In life, that is. Scandinavia was nowhere on my radar back in 1990, and yet this is where I feel happiest and at home. And listening to the Roses as I walked around the sun-dappled Oslo train station and opera house, I create new and very different memories around these same songs that carried me through suburban American streets and experiences. The songs are the same but are no longer the ones that made me feel lonely but understood – and held the promise of different ‘othernesses’ – and now hold this bittersweet nostalgia in every note and word.

Of course with nostalgia there is also the past – whatever happened to the northern boy bricklayer Peter, who introduced me to all of this and spoke in an accent I could not begin to understand? My best friend from that period, too, where has she gone? I thought of her so much as I wandered Manchester and saw this concert we would have killed to see when we were 15. I know neither she nor I are the people we were then, but the heartstrings were pulled. Hard.

 

Striking midnight: Just your ghost passing through

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I have been forcing myself to get into bed by midnight every night. I might not fall asleep immediately, but I am there, mostly tucked in and ready for the cuddle that isn’t coming. Haha.

Tonight I am listening – for the first time in ages – Tori Amos‘s Boys for Pele. I had a bunch of Shiseido stuff sitting on my kitchen table for some reason, and I can’t hear or see the word “Shiseido” without thinking of the lyrics from “Muhammad My Friend“:

And on that fateful day, when she was crucified, she wore Shiseido red, and we drank tea by her side…

This is, incidentally, the only reason I am listening to this album, even if there are other bits of it that resonate with me still. Tori Amos is a very 1999-2000 thing for me. A transitional cache of music that carried me through the end of a relationship (that seemed unequivocally adult at the time, but reflecting, I see I was little more than a child in many ways – as he’d said, “You are two years old – maximum!”) and saw my decisionmaking take twists and turns that seemed illogical at the time but have slowly led me to where I am now.

I was never one of the rabid fans, didn’t jump on board right away during the heyday that followed Tori’s first two albums. It was later, looking for CDs (you know, when CDs were a thing) in a Borders (you know, when Borders was a thing) bookstore (erm, yeah, uh, you know when bookstores were a thing!) in Kahului, Hawaii, to serve as the soundtrack of our driving around Maui for a week. I found only Tori CDs and decided, despite having lukewarm feelings about her music, these would have to do. They struck a nerve for me, forever tied to that summer of intertwined endings and beginnings. The Maui sun, the tying up loose ends on the master’s thesis, the summer-long departure for a dreadful European bus trip (it was even worse than that sounds, despite all the things I saw and experiences I had). The culmination of it all in Iceland – the first time in my life that I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. Driving from Akureyri back to Reykjavik with Anna in the middle of the night at the end of Verslunarmannahelgi weekend through the thickest fog I have ever seen – trying not to hit an errant sheep and stay awake while blasting Tori’s Under the Pink.

Tori Amos was the soundtrack of these transitions – but by 2005 I did not care any longer, and The Beekeeper is the last album I am conscious of seeking out. By then, it was all just treading old ground, and if you know me, you know I don’t like doing that.

It is still raining in Tokyo

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As I fell asleep last night the meteorologist on Al Jazeera English stated, “It is *still* raining in Tokyo.” A deliberate pause and emphasis on “still”. I was half asleep, but it is amazing how a simple statement like, “It is still raining in Tokyo” immediately jolts vivid memories into the active mind.

I was suddenly walking in a downpour in Tokyo, perhaps the only one on the busy street without an umbrella. It was September, hot and even more humid.

the things that excite-sadden-inspire-create-suffering in us

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Meeting a guy who professionally sold office supplies and offered me an endless supply of different pens on a regular basis. Yeah, back then, that was fab. But not the kind of guy I was going to, say, marry. But back then fistfuls of pens would get me really excited.

These triggers for excitement change a lot… strange to think that nowadays I get really fired up talking about infection control or antibiotic resistance or cutting-edge plastic surgery techniques.

Or that I am excited when new web browsers come into the world.

And then the things that make us inexpressibly sad. US Vice President Joe Biden and all the loss he has experienced. Reading an MIT commencement address delivered long ago by former politician Paul Tsongas (before he died, young). Lachrymose, feeling this mortality and the grief unfolding. More nostalgic than normal.

Seeing that Duran Duran will play the WA State Fair… igniting Duran nostalgia, reminding me of a third-grade field trip back when chaperone parents were still allowed to drive kids in private cars – I went with a guy whose mom had a new Camaro or something like that and we listened to Seven and the Ragged Tiger over and over. I envied that her car had a cassette deck and could automatically reverse and play the tapes. My parents’ car, which eventually became my car, had nothing of the sort.

In junior high my best friend and her “former” best friend from elementary school went to see Duran Duran on their sort of “comeback” tour in 1988 – funny to think of it being a comeback since they had not really gone anywhere. They had just gone quiet for a handful of years. I imagine that I protested and pretended to like Duran less than I did because I was jealous that my friend and her former friend (just because their parents would buy them tickets, of course) were going to the concert.

I write about this former friend a lot, especially in the throes of nostalgia, because so many things remind me of her. Hearing U2, Robyn Hitchcock, Crowded House, being in Scotland, seeing Starburst candy (which is not the norm here in Sweden), making snickerdoodle cookies or cinnamon rolls (she was always the one to make the glaze).

We drifted apart long before we actually lost touch entirely. For so many years I wanted to have closure or to know that she was okay. She really just disappeared from the face of the earth and there was no way for me to find her. She is one of the few people without a discernible web identity/presence. It’s almost impressive. I went out of my way trying to find out for a really long time, making a nuisance of myself at times.

I have mostly let go of that, and I have come to understand the selfishness of that need. Maybe she wasn’t okay and my demanding to know she was could have been just another nagging thing for her. Especially because her well-being is and was not my business. Our past friendship creates no obligation for her to share any of it. I still hope she is well, regardless. Sigh – the intensity of youth friendship and that compact worldview of youth make it hard to imagine a closer friendship even if, reflecting, there was very little to it.

Shifting perceptions: “Show some class”

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My feeling that Norway is living eternally in the second half of the 1980s is not going to change, even if all the rest of my perceptions shift constantly. Evidence to prove this: every time I get in my car and drive somewhere, Norwegian radio is playing Michael Jackson. Never the same song, but it’s Michael all the time. And when it’s not Michael, it’s Richard Marx, it’s Bryan Adams, it’s Berlin, it’s Billy Ocean or some other thing I don’t want to hear – in the 80s or now.

As a corollary to this everlasting musical 80s timewarp, I have become known as the harbinger of death because I seem to trip over news of celebrity deaths accidentally (am watching or listening to news almost constantly) or just know about past celeb deaths.

I was in the car the other day, and got immediate proof positive of this 1980s assertion: Jermaine Stewart‘s one-hit wonder, “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off”, blasted from the radio. I listened to the lyrics as if for the first time and could not really figure our why a song like this would exist. And who the bloody hell would drink cherry wine?

My firewall and I spent the whole evening singing it and reveling in the cheesy nostalgia.

But then, being me, I just had to know: what became of Jermaine Stewart? One hit and then gone… well, DEAD is what he is. Apparently he died in 1997 of AIDS-related liver cancer. What? Maybe because he was not really that famous, his death came and went without much fanfare. Or I was just not paying attention.

Whether or not Stewart knew his infection status in 1986 when the song was a hit, knowing this information, I hear the song filtered through that mid-80s terror of AIDS. It is more a safe-sex anthem than anything else (like many songs of the era) but it had never once occurred to me that that song fit such a bill. But listening to it armed with this information, it’s like a completely different song.

But there are new filters and lenses for everything, really. I was listening to Jim Croce the other day, remembering listening to him and looking at an album cover (a close-up of his distinctive face) when I was 4 years old. My mom explained that Croce had died a few years earlier in a plane crash. He was 30. I recall even today what I was thinking when she gave me this background information, “So what? He was old. He did everything he needed to do.” The level of a 4-year-old kid’s reasoning: 30 seemed like a good, full life. Looking at it now, of course, I am taken aback reflecting on his youth, the promising career cut short, the 2-year-old son he left behind.

I admit it. I am feeling nostalgic, contemplative about the shifting filters and perceptions that come with age and time. I am feeling mortal.