Said and read – May 2019

Standard

By making one’s reading public, it becomes performative – by default – and that is not to everyone’s taste. We read a book; we tell other people; they infer what they will. What alters the meaning of the transaction is context. There is a substantive difference between recommending a book to a friend in conversation and publishing an illustrated recommendation on the Internet. But why keep that enthusiasm bottled up? Why hoard it?” –Andy Miller, essay, Boundless

I haven’t been bottling up or hoarding my renewed passion for reading, and I have never cared about the reactions. But I had also never really considered that anyone would have a reaction – at least not as strong a reaction as Miller describes. More on that later…

May did not start off by yielding much time for reading, and what reading I did ended up feeling like a chore. I continued on the tear through Joyce Carol Oates territory, as I did last month, and quickly tired of her style, which – prior to this extensive reading – I had somehow believed to be more wide-ranging than it proved to be. But once I started, much like with hated television shows or unpleasant experiences, I could not stop. I just have to complete the mission and see how it turns out (even if I am reasonably sure that it will turn out exactly as badly as the entire journey has gone). I also, for some reason, wasted a lot of time reading works by the Marquis de Sade – something I had thought I would do in high school; having now read them, I think they read as the complete vulgarity that would provoke much-craved shock value… in high school.

I knew that I would have limited time and thus did not want to invest in picking up books I was truly excited about (perhaps these kinds of books can wait for a bit of summer holiday), and instead took e-books from the library that held no meaning or excitement for me at all. And it’s in this way that I thought my reflections from May reading would be as lacklustre as the things I ended up reading.

But toward the latter half of the month, things started to pick up (coinciding, I suppose, with loads of two and three-hour flights I had to take, which always lead to uninterrupted concentration for reading and absolutely no other distractions or things to do instead). May, then, didn’t turn out too badly in terms of reading; I’ve come closing to catching up to the pace I prefer (approximately one book per day) without going overboard.

Anyway, previous Said and Read blog posts to see what I was reading and rambling about in the past can be found here: 2019 – April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

“No matter what the grief, its weight, we are obliged to carry it” –Dorianne Laux

Sometimes reading feels like a distraction in which one can lose herself completely to escape everything else. We may, as Dorianne Laux has written, be obliged to carry our grief, but does that mean we must face it? When one has a world of books to insert oneself into and feed on, one need not face any reality all the time.

Highly recommended

*My Name is Asher LevChaim Potok

*The ChosenChaim Potok

“I am not satisfied with it, either, Reuven. We cannot wait for God. If there is an answer, we must make it ourselves.” I was quiet. “Six million of our people have been slaughtered,” he went on quietly. “It is inconceivable. It will have meaning only if we give it meaning. We cannot wait for God.”

It was a random choice to pick up Potok’s The Chosen, but it inspired me enough to get My Name is Asher Lev. Both are steeped in the unfamiliar but fascinatingly rigid worlds of Hasidic and Orthodox Judaism, and the personal/identity conflicts that come about both within these communities and navigating outside of them.

*Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?Frans de Waal

I don’t really have my own words to describe why I loved this. I like Frans de Waal in general; I love animals – and as naive as these descriptors sound, I don’t think it needs more embellishment.

I don’t think we can deny the intelligence of animals, and we do so only out of some weird need to feel superior. Intelligence, we must recognize, exists in so many different ways that we as humans are too arrogant sometimes to realize or even understand. Indeed there are kinds of cognition that certain animals have that we as humans never needed to develop because they would be irrelevant to our experience and environment (“Cognitive evolution is marked by many peaks of specialization.“)

Every species deals flexibly with the environment and develops solutions to the problems it poses.

But what about skeptics who believe that animals are by definition trapped in the present, and only humans contemplate the future? Are they making a reasonable assumption, or are they blinkered as to what animals are capable of? And why is humanity so prone to downplay animal intelligence?

Again and again, de Waal posits that our ‘tests’ of intelligence, instead of proving that an animal does not understand the problem we want it to solve proves that we do not understand the animal. Reimagining tests often produces very different results (and this is probably true when testing intelligence in people with different kinds of cognitive ability/strength).

Researchers concluded that they just didn’t get the problem. It occurred to no one that perhaps we, the investigators, didn’t get the elephant. Like the six blind men, we keep turning around and poking the big beast, but we need to remember that, as Werner Heisenberg put it, “what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

This book, too, informed much of what I was doing in my psychology studies, including interesting thoughts on the “theory of mind” concept that dominates much of developmental psychology. As de Waal points out, can we eliminate the idea that animals (or small children) hold a theory about the minds of others? But this terminology, as he argues, makes the whole enterprise entirely scientific and disembodied. Even completely formed adults don’t contemplate that they grasp the mental states of others at an abstract level – so it ends up further questioning and assigning attributes that are meant to conclude that the lack of “rational evaluation” in perceiving something like theory of mind equals a lack of intelligence.

Good – or better than expected

*The Woman in the DunesKobo Abe

Atmospheric, vividly claustrophobic and terrifying.

*Juliet, NakedNick Hornby

I had never read Nick Hornby and mostly got from his writing what I expected – a quick read and a hearty helping of manchild BS. I was ‘rewarded’ with having my expectations met, particularly in the book A Long Way Down, which just felt… sloppy? It had one redeeming thought amidst describing the criss-crossing of the lives of a diverse suicidal group who end up not … ending it.

The guy who jumped had two profound and apparently contradictory effects on us all. Firstly, he made us realize that we weren’t capable of killing ourselves. And secondly, this information made us suicidal again. That isn’t a paradox, if you know anything about the perversity of human nature.” (from A Long Way Down)

Having nothing to compare it to, especially since my Hornby knowledge is mostly based on film and television adaptations, I got exactly what I expected. Which, I guess, was kind of disappointing (because one hopes that their low expectations will be exceeded).

Thus when I read Juliet, Naked, I expected more of the same but was somewhat surprised to find that the book was slightly more engaging and its characters slightly more alive. Am I alone in picturing the single-minded obsessive but otherwise unmotivated Duncan, despite his clearly being English, as some variation of Rainn Wilson? No idea why he came to mind. Side note: I guess I never knew until I just Googled Wilson that he’s from Seattle, which is itself a mecca for a lot of obsessive music types like Duncan. Perhaps because this book was told largely from the point of view of a put-upon, tired, supportive-to-a-fault girlfriend who finally breaks free of the boyfriend’s near-lifelong obsession with a somewhat obscure musician who disappeared into the mythology created by those obsessive fans who try to keep them alive via obsessive internet forums, it was more relatable than much of Hornby’s catalog.

When the girlfriend finds her voice, calling Duncan out on the fact that he wouldn’t have a personality at all were it not for his obsession with this phantom musician, we begin to see some of the pains of the kinds of halfhearted relationships that outlive their efficacy, if not their use (even the dead relationships that live too long – one-third too long, if you believe Ayelet Waldman – have some use to us), and never quite reach one’s aspirations. It hits home in its discussion of the never-had conversations about having children and the suppression of some very strong desires because one partner has put the other to sleep, as Hornby phrases it.

In this book, in fact, Hornby captures best of all the distance we grow to feel from ourselves, our feelings and our own lives – the way things we should feel become symbolic and abstract, whether because we have insulated ourselves or have been self-centered – we end up at the same place:

Anyone can say they haven’t done anything. Today I learned that I am going to be a grandfather. As I don’t really know the pregnant daughter in question—I don’t really know four of my five children, by the way—I was not able to feel joyful. For me, the only real emotional content of the news was the symbolism, what it said about me. I don’t feel bad about that, particularly. There’s no point in pretending to feel joy when someone you don’t know very well tells you she’s pregnant, although I suppose I do feel bad that various decisions I’ve made and avoided have reduced my daughter to the status of a stranger.

*Love and TreasureAyelet Waldman

I have not enjoyed previous meanderings into Waldman’s writing, but this book used aspects of World War II as a backdrop, which is generally a storytelling draw. Here Waldman has woven together a contemporary story with a historical one, and it’s through the historical detail that she pulls you in:

The wealth of the Jews of Hungary, of all of Europe, was to be found not in the laden boxcars of the Gold Train but in the grandmothers and mothers and daughters themselves, in the doctors and lawyers, the grain dealers and psychiatrists, the writers and artists who had created a culture of sophistication, of intellectual and artistic achievement. And that wealth, everything of real value, was all but extinguished.

Waldman does have something of a gift for dialogue that casually casts out nominally philosophical, hard-won, life-experience-style gems:

“I am developing a theory of relationships. Would you like to hear it?” “I would.” “It’s called the Principle of One-Third. Each and every love affair lasts for precisely one-third longer than it should. If you’ve been together for three years, then the last year was a waste of time, more pain than pleasure.” “And if you’ve been together for thirty years?” “Shame about that last decade.” He laughed. “Okay, then. What about a week?” “You should have gotten out midmorning on the fourth day. I’m telling you, the theory works for every relationship. The only problem with the Principle of One-Third is that it’s only once the relationship is over that you know how much time you’ve wasted. You don’t know that the last decade was pointless until you’ve been with someone for the whole thirty years. And you definitely don’t know that your husband will start fucking an ERISA lawyer in year ten until you get to year twelve and realize that the last four were a farce.”

Or:

“Sort of. We lived together, but we went to different schools. He went to Boston University. I went to Harvard.” “You are smarter than he is.” “I got better grades, that’s all.” “This is something so curious to me about women. If it were Daniel who went to Harvard he would say, ‘Yes, I am smarter.’ But because you are a woman, you say only ‘I got better grades.’ ” “You think that’s gender related?” “Men are more confident than women.” “Maybe some men are more confident than some women.” “Maybe most men are more confident than most women.” “Okay,” she said. “I think I can give you that.”

*The Satanic VersesSalman Rushdie

Certain words are ruined for me.

Whether it is the hypochondriac repeating words like “agony” and “excruciating”, stripping them of all meaning, or the overenthusiastic reader who strikes gold in some concept he has never heard of before and therefore overuses. I think here of a guy I met who constantly referred in his own writing to the djinn/jinn, leading me to think, knowing what I knew of this particular guy, that he either just read a bit of Salman Rushdie or read/watched American Gods. I can no longer, in my intolerance, see or hear those words again. Each time the word “djinn” turns up anywhere, I am reminded of this man and how readable were his motives, how transparent his immediate influences. But he is not unusual in this.

We all learn things and come to love them and cannot help ourselves from repeating them to death. Or maybe we latch onto things we never thought we would care about because someone we love loves them. By extension we come to love or care about them. I am trying to figure out where the line is – where does it pivot from someone loving or learning about something sincerely into someone overusing, performing ‘fandom’ or love, showing off? As Andy Miller describes about sharing his passion for reading, it can come across as ‘performative’; he also writes in his book (discussed below), which is the perfect encapsulation of the more charitable interpretation I wish I were always capable of ascribing to repeat offenders: “When we find a painting or a novel or a musical we love, we are briefly connected to the best that human beings are capable of, in ourselves and others, and we are reminded that our path through the world must intersect with others. Whether we like it or not, we are not alone.”

I cannot describe or see the performative pivot, but I can always feel where and when the turn comes.

Awkward pivot

Using the word “pivot”, incidentally, makes me think both of a former colleague who kept pronouncing the word as PIE-vot, as well as a newer (and very young) colleague citing an episode of Friends and Ross’s forceful, impatient instructing, “PIVOT! PIVOT!” when the characters were attempting to move a couch (which is what we were doing in the office – it was a fitting use of the reference).

Strange to think of the enduring – even fervent – popularity of Friends. All these youthful colleagues streaming it obsessively and telling me about it like they’ve discovered something new. I finally understand how my Boomer parents and their ilk felt when kids tried to introduce them to music from the 60s (or newer music that was blatantly mimicking 1960s-era originals). There’s validity in remembering and even enjoying some of Friends, but so much of it is outdated – not in the sense that you look at it and think you’re watching a relic of a bygone era, but so much of the homophobia and archetypal tropes feel insensitive and painful – they did then, too, but it was not as “done” to say so then. I recently read a thoughtful take on this in the award-winning Everywhereist blog – all about Monica’s imperfections, but most of all her history as a ‘fat girl’.

Geraldine (that’s the Everywhereist, don’t you know?) hits the nail on the head:

“The fat girl inside of me really wants to go,” Monica says. “I owe her this. I never let her eat.

The audience laughs, but it is a singularly heartbreaking sentiment. Monica is a chef, constantly surrounded by food she will never touch. It’s a modern-day Greek tragedy. The idea is never said explicitly, but it is there: that no matter how kind and loyal and giving you are, fatness will make you an outsider, fatness will make you weird and flawed. And even if you lose the weight, you can’t get rid of that.

As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, our cultural obsession with female thinness “is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience.” Monica suppressed a part of herself that was never problematic to begin with. And she genuinely seemed less joyous as a result.”

Thank you, Geraldine. Thing is, though… this particular discrimination is just as accepted and encouraged now – as well as being mined for throwaway but cruel laughs – as when the show originally ran. I am sure there are a lot of people who watch Friends reruns and take away the same kind of feelings Geraldine put into words. But there are a whole lot more who never thought about this at all, and still won’t.

“I don’t think it’s going to pivot any more” “You think?

Why am I awkwardly pivoting from how words get ruined to how TV shows get ruined to the complete lack of compassion we feel, how inured we are to the experiences of people we see and judge only based on what is right in front of our faces? Especially when this is ostensibly a description of why The Satanic Verses surprised me by being enjoyable? I wish I had an expert way to weave into words all the threads that connect this in my mind, but it remains a roundabout that can’t be sewn into a wearable garment. Incidentally I dreamt last night that I was going to “fix” a pair of tights and rapidly ran them through a sewing machine, essentially making one of the legs unusable. That’s a bit how I feel about having introduced all this information into what has turned into absolutely nothing about The Satanic Verses.

I know what a ghost is, the old woman affirmed silently. Her name was Rosa Diamond; she was eighty-eight years old; and she was squinting beakily through her salt-caked bedroom windows, watching the full moon’s sea. And I know what it isn’t, too, she nodded further, it isn’t a scarification or a flapping sheet, so pooh and pish to all that bunkum. What’s a ghost? Unfinished business, is what.

I suppose the only real connection I can make is that I have tried to read The Satanic Verses and other Rushdie works many times over the years. I kept coming back but it was never compelling enough. And it has haunted me (i.e., unfinished business).

Finally it stuck this year, and I suppose that’s the pivot here – and ties together all this senseless rambling, if loosely. One can see something, like Friends, or words, or one’s overly enthusiastic/performative way of using them, in one way at one juncture – and in entirely another way – later, with more experience and compassion. That’s how I approach my reading here.

Not being versed in any kind of religious teaching, nor being religious, I don’t really know what I’d consider “offensive” about this book. It’s filled with sex – that’s all I can think of. I cannot reflect analytically about this book, but I found it enjoyable, and a few passages thought-provoking, if only because they reminded me so much of people in my life and their own experiences.

The avalanche of sex in which Gibreel Farishta was trapped managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ. By the time of his illness he had all but forgotten the anguish he used to experience owing to his longing for love, which had twisted and turned in him like a sorcerer’s knife. Now, at the end of each gymnastic night, he slept easily and long, as if he had never been plagued by dream-women, as if he had never hoped to lose his heart.

But then, it also seems like a work that garnered a lot of unwarranted attention (certainly more than it would have received without the fatwa issued against Rushdie), exerting an outsized cultural influence and reach to which the actual work can never live up. I wonder if, in that sense, Friends somehow enjoys more cultural currency – well, certainly it does since it’s made for the masses, but even in its undeserved but potentially lasting cross-generational potency and legacy, it outlives the infamy/notoriety of a solid book that misses ‘greatness’.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Your Brain’s PoliticsGeorge Lakoff

Reading anything by Lakoff always sets my brain on fire. When I think about how intertwined metaphors are with our existence, and how we are producing them unconsciously, I reignite so many intellectual paths never-followed from my youth, but also – at least briefly – consider language on a deeper level. This, too, has informed a great deal of the psychology study I’ve done in the last year.

Today we know that metaphors are by no means a matter of “language and language only”. Metaphors structure our everyday cognition, our perception of reality. They are a matter of thought, they are a matter of language, and they are a matter of actions.

What are ‘metaphors’ (literally)?

Let me tell you, then, what is written across busses in Athens, “metaphoroi”. The word “metaphor” stems from Greek and literally means, “to carry things to another place.” Metaphoric cognition, thus, means that we resort to elements from one cognitive domain—commonly one that we can directly experience in the world—in order to reason about another cognitive domain—commonly one that is more abstract.

I could easily ramble about this, but it’s perhaps better to limit writing on this subject to how little the average person thinks about how linguistic framing and selective metaphoric use shapes the way we think about things (and can thus be manipulated). Lakoff has argued that conservatives/Republicans (whatever you want to call the right) have used this to their advantage, and the left has struggled because they haven’t mastered this framing.

In the US, for instance, conservatives do a great job of implementing their own frames in public debate, while progressives lag behind in terms of proactively framing issues in terms of their worldview. Moreover, progressives often negate the frames that conservatives use. They constantly get caught up in arguing against conservative ideas. And they lack a well-functioning communication infrastructure that ensures adequate, moral framing of issues across progressive groups on a daily basis. Conservatives are just much better organized when it comes to these things.

*Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal Yuval Taylor

Perhaps a bit of a dramatic title, I discovered this book by accident while browsing the online library. Zora Neale Hurston has always been something of a mystery – a staple of American high school reading lists with her classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, undeniably one of the greats to which I can return again and again, Hurston herself feels elusive. Even after reading this book that chronicled the friendship and falling out between two of the Harlem Renaissance‘s central figures, Hurston and Langston Hughes, Hurston feels distant. As much as is made of Hughes’ distance and keeping people at arms’ length, it is still Hurston who feels mysterious. She remains the force one wants to know about; her work endures, both within literature and anthropology. During her lifetime, she fell from favor, perhaps because she refused to embody the anger and resentment her contemporaries exhibited toward white people; because she refused the ‘fight’ without accepting the idea of being ‘lesser than’. She didn’t write about race and discrimination or being black in relation to a predominantly white society – she wrote about life and what she observed, in many cases in all-black communities. This voice was unique, and has finally been recognized as such, even if it didn’t fit the narrative for what black writers were “supposed to” produce. Hurston didn’t do anything according to what anyone expected:

Moreover, what Zora’s black critics failed to grasp was the reason behind Zora’s lifelong practice of minimizing the resentment of African Americans in her work. It was a simple one, really: “Bitterness,” as she put it in Dust Tracks on a Road, “is the graceless acknowledgment of defeat.” Zora recognized that those who are bitter and resentful are seen by themselves and others as victims, and the very existence of victims justifies, in a real way, the acts of the victimizers.”

*HungerKnut Hamsun

It is hard to imagine a time when wealthy, well-heeled, socialist Norway was the hard-up, impoverished farmer/fisherman cousin to Sweden. While not everyone suffered terrible privations, Norway was only ushered into the era of ‘too much’ in recent decades. Hamsun’s chronicle of experiencing hunger – both figurative and literal – is gripping.

A quick but engrossing read – as usual taken in while flying here or there. As the narrator attempts to keep a roof over his head and keep himself fed while making a “living” (you could never really call it that) while submitting articles for a few kroner here, a few kroner there, one gets a sense of how much he will give up for his work – and exactly what phases of delirium and want someone starving will go through. Its vivid characterizations of feelings and perceptions, filtered through this hunger, bring both the mental state and the scene to life.

The word stood out sharply against the darkness before me. I sit with open eyes, amazed at my find and laughing for joy. Then I start whispering: they might be spying on me, and I intended to keep my invention a secret. I had passed over into the sheer madness of hunger; I was empty and without pain and my thoughts were running riot. I debate with myself in silence. With the oddest jumps in my line of thought, I try to ascertain the meaning of my new word. It didn’t have to mean either God or amusement park, and who had said it should mean cattle show?

*The Sorrows of Young WertherJohann Wolfgang von Goethe

Must it be, that what makes for man’s happiness becomes the source of his misery?

I didn’t really enjoy this book, but it was filled with thoughts I found myself nodding along to and wanting to quote. Most notably, which I immediately used elsewhere:

“People would have fewer pains if—God knows why they are made this way—their imaginations were not so busily engaged in recalling past trials rather than bearing an indifferent present.

Or, as I often wonder why people are obsessed with wanting to live forever, particularly when they are obsessed with youth – and the longer they live, the further they get from this mythical youth – and the more poor is quality of life. But does quality of life truly matter to most other than as a slogan?

When I observe the restrictions that lock up a person’s active and probing powers, when I see how all activity is directed toward achieving the satisfaction of needs that in turn have no goal but to prolong our miserable existence, and that all reassurance about certain points of inquiry is only a dreaming resignation, since one paints with colorful figures and airy views the walls within which one sits imprisoned

After all, we are essentially cogs in wheels and not at all aware of the lack of freedom we have – and we would not know what to do if we found it:

I don’t know what it is about me that attracts people; so many like and attach themselves to me, and it pains me when our paths coincide for only a short stretch. If you ask what people are like here, I have to say: like everywhere! The human race is a monotonous thing. Most people work most of the time in order to live, and the little freedom they have left over frightens them so, that they will do anything to get rid of it. Oh, the regimentation of mankind!

Coincidences

*The Year of Reading DangerouslyAndy Miller

“The trick is to keep reading.”

I had pretty much thought I was done with May reading when my friend, Mr Nichols, he of deeply impeccable taste, sent a link to an article (cited above) about one man’s ‘excessive’ reading and how “something so innocuous can provoke such a range of strong responses”. Andy Miller shares in essay form how he feels compelled to redact the number of books he has read because it seems to provoke disbelief, anger, accusations of all kinds, and much more. Mr Nichols said it reminded him of my monthly collection of random thoughts (yes, this very post and its predecessors) on my own excessive reading (which has mostly generated the ‘wow! that’s shocking!’ response from people and very little of the anger or accusatory rhetoric Miller has experienced, although I suspect if I were actually known by anyone and this experiment of mine had more visibility, the negativity could get ugly).

I thanked Miller for sharing his relatable experiences; he thanked me and stated that he is glad not to be alone in this. He definitely isn’t – there are loads of us out here.

But me being me, Miller’s essay was not enough. Reading it through on my phone while waiting for a bus on a sunny but windy Oslo day, I knew I must get the book. Getting into the book was even more of a delight because immediately, Miller starts off sharing that he had modest ambitions in getting back into reading but then could not stop. I could have written this myself: three years ago when I came out of an embarrassingly long non-reading coma, I thought 26 books was a reasonable goal for a year (even if I continue to say that it’s not about quantity – because it isn’t). My own journey is completely devoid of theme or goal, but the non-existent endpoint is… not being able to stop.

I did attempt a kind of theme last year – still limiting myself to 26 books (which I blew through within the first month of the year) – but insisting that they must be in non-English languages. The only reason I note this is because Miller starts off his own journey with Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita, which is a book I read in English translation for the first time over 20 years ago and have since reread and gifted copies of to all kinds of people. But the idea that I should attempt it in its original Russian crossed my mind more than once. I abandoned this idea quickly in favor of simpler Solzhenitsyn prose in tackling Russian. (Miller, incidentally, also reads Anna Karenina during this period of reviving his passion for reading, reveling in its “like the real world, only better” quality; it is one of those I am making my way through in the original – it’s just taking a long time.) I am not sure I will ever again have the wherewithal even to even think of Margarita in this way. Miller gets it right: the book is difficult and absurd, very difficult to dive right into and stick with, but with patience is transcendent. When he noted that he didn’t know what “Komsomol” was when he started reading, I realized that there is the additional layer of difficulty if one isn’t already ‘indoctrinated’ to the Soviet/Russian period and its institutions. I luckily had that going in, but would this have proved to be a barrier otherwise? I consider this as I think of all the people on whom I’ve forced this book. But, as Miller writes, those readers who follow through do not need the definitions and minutiae of institutions; this book endures because “words are our transport, our flight and our homecoming in one. Which you don’t get from Dan Brown.” So true.

In fact there are so many strange parallels in this book that it’s as though it’s an alternate version of what I could have written myself. From the travel to East Germany as the teenage human embodiment of the dour nature of the country itself to skipping Bukowski because it was the go-to for a certain type of male reader and, indeed, reading more than one (which I’ve done) would be a waste of time because they are like carbon copies of each other. In my case, strangely, I bought a bunch of Bukowski for an East German guy with whom I had a Russian class in college. Seems like a lot of crossed threads there. I actually ended the school year by buying books for my professor and the other person in my class – I just don’t remember which books I bought for them. It was years before I bothered to read Bukowski myself – I don’t mind being able to say I read him, but it’s still time I am not getting back.

It also delighted me to see that someone else is nerdy enough to write ‘fan mail’ to a writer. Miller wrote to Michel Houellebecq; I did so a couple of times last year, but not to the writers one would expect. I don’t engage much with bestsellers and mainstream/popular fiction (even if there is nothing at all wrong with it); even if I do, I don’t imagine that those writers need more praise piled on. No, instead, I wrote, for example, to a professor who studies teeth through the lens of evolutionary biology (I loved and learned so much from two books he wrote) to profess my fascination for his work/field; he wrote back thanking me because I guess, as he wrote, I made his day. I don’t imagine that such diligent and passionate researchers get much recognition or fan letters from outside their discipline, so I was pleased to contribute that little bit because -seriously- TEETH!

And it further delighted me to read (bold text is mine), despite my own proclivity for the convenience of e-books (I still love the real thing so much more, even if I’ve mostly eschewed collecting them as I move from country to country):

I accept that this story illustrates that it is technically possible to buy a copy of Moby-Dick on what passes for the high street. It might also be advanced as further evidence of the adaptability of the book. But to me it demonstrates how marginal good books might become in the future. Surely Moby-Dick deserves to be something more than just a sliver of content on a screen? I feel much the same when I see books piled up on pallets in big-box stores, like crates of beer or charcoal briquettes, and I am shocked to be reminded that there is nothing intrinsically special about books unless we invest them with values other than ‘value’ and we create spaces in which to do it.

Reading is a broad church. But it is still a church.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

The artificial endures. Living wears out.” –Black Dahlia, White RoseJoyce Carol Oates

I have already stated above that I hated my Joyce Carol Oates and Marquis de Sade readings. I read a lot of things this month that bored me (Bright Lights, Big City, for example), but nothing worth capturing here at any further length. Oh, no… I despised Chuck Palahniuk‘s Beautiful You; not that I expected otherwise. It was beyond stupid – felt like the scribblings of someone who thought maybe he could put one over on everyone. That is, let’s write something outlandish and exaggeratedly sophomoric and see if someone is dumb enough to publish it.

admonishment to vigilance

Standard

“‘Drive,’ she said when she sat down next to Sami. ‘Where to?’

She thought for a moment. Without looking at him, she said, ‘To where the country ends.’

‘For me it ended a long time ago,’ he hissed.” –To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Each day, the least democratic thing we could imagine (or even couldn’t imagine) happening happens. And then the next day, something even less democratic happens. This is true in the political realm, and it’s increasingly apparent in technology (now that we have algorithms deciding for us what we can/will see).

“‘I went,’ he told her, ‘because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.’” –The Plot against America, Philip Roth

How much of what we think and see is influenced by what we are fed pre-emptively? How can we think for ourselves and discover new things when there are limits on what we see (thanks to algorithms and our blindly, blithely feeding all of our own data into massive data crunching/manipulating machines)? I have been thinking about this for some time. Most of the jobs I’ve had were directly within or at least adjacent to/dependent on the collection, analysis and use of data about users and their behaviors and habits. Many companies exist solely because of their access and ability to harvest data – it has created entirely new business models and applications. But it’s never been mysterious what was going on (even if most average people don’t consider the implications). I don’t know why people are now, suddenly surprised.

Just as I was trying to figure out how to discuss this, an article appeared on HBR.org:

“The ability for an elite to instantly alter the thoughts and behavior of billions of people is unprecedented.

This is all possible because of algorithms. The personalized, curated news, information and learning feeds we consume several times a day have all been through a process of collaborative filtering. This is the principle that if I like X, and you and I are similar in some algorithmically determined sense, then you’ll probably like X too. Everyone gets their own, mass-personalized feed, rationed by the machines.

The consequences are serious and wide-ranging. Fake news and misinformation are pervasive. Young kids are being subjected to algorithmically generated, algorithmically optimized pernicious content. Perhaps the least concerning implication is that there is systemic bias in our information feeds, that we operate in and are informed by tiny echo chambers. It’s a grotesque irony that our experiences of the world wide web today are actually pretty local, despite warnings from the likes of Eli Pariser back in 2011.”

My own words – base oversimplifications – are totally inadequate to deconstruct and intelligently discuss the complexity of these issues. But almost every book I read contains a warning. Almost none are direct cautionary tales in the vein of 1984, but almost all advise us to consider what we have and how easy, without vigilance, it is to lose:

“Because civilization isn’t a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, re-created daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible. And if he wishes to live, he must do what he can to prevent the world he wants to live in from fading away. As long as there’s war, life is a preventative measure.” –The Cellist of Sarajevo, Stephen Galloway

But then, we also need to consider that the erosions and explosions of “civilization” also come about because not everyone agrees about what constitutes civilization – this fundamental disagreement poses its own dangerous fragmentation.

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

new reality

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I have been writing a lot about my own feelings and thinking and blahblahblahblah, which of course has bearing on my daily life and how I proceed through it.

But it is so insignificant. We are barely more than a week into the new political reality. Since Trump’s inauguration, it is as though he started so many huge fires that we – the public, the media, anyone paying attention – cannot even keep track, cannot focus and shine enough light on any one thing long enough to develop a sustainable plan of attack against any of the brutality and inhumanity of it. Bombard and divert. This is exactly how he ran his campaign – ramp up the hate speech, the crazy, the threats to ever-higher levels of insanity day by day so that the daily new level of shock topped whatever came before (and made us forget the previous affronts as we focused on yet another new one) but also inoculated us to the shock, meaning that we became numb to it all or… just incapable of believing that THIS somehow could be what we would end up with.

“This is the result of a manipulation strategy described long ago by historian and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky: “Keep the adult public attention diverted away from the real social issues, and captivated by matters of no real importance.” Leftists such as Chomsky argue that this is what capitalist elites do, but I know it as a common tactic of kleptocratic regimes such as Vladimir Putin’s in Russia.

There’s even a term for the tactic: “diversionary conflict.””

And somehow, believing in the institutions of the democratic America we have long been brainwashed to believe in, we did not realize they were as fragile as America’s crumbling infrastructure. That all it would take to topple these institutions is one demagogue lunatic and too few people willing to believe from the get-go that he would unilaterally push through his changes without using the democratic process. All the arguments about checks and balances keeping him in line, all the discussion on how the sheer overwhelming nature of the office of the presidency would temper him… who really believed those things? How is anyone surprised by any of the things unfolding right now?

Photo (c) 2011 Adrian Scottow

Brexit: unintended and unforeseen consequences – but who cares?

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I wrote a lengthy and relatively well-researched piece on the consequences of Brexit, looking at all the things that came to my mind about Brexit’s mostly negative implications. I even took a moment to meander into random musings on how the little European star-circle symbol on people’s car license plates will have to change in Britain – back to the Union flag or to individual country flags, like those in Norway and Iceland.

And then… in not at all dramatic fashion, my computer automatically restarted, and WordPress had not saved the latest draft. Not one single word of it.

I don’t remember a time in recent memory that I have been so angry. Mostly at myself for not obsessively pressing “save” or writing it in Word from the get-go.

Despite the post being about the UK and its future following its vote to exit the EU, the exercise of thinking about and researching it also led to a great deal of thinking about the United States and what it will soon face. I had written quite a lot about America at the same time as elucidating the potential problems of Brexit – about how Britain is just earlier to the “party” in terms of heading down what may well be a very dangerous path. America is bringing up the rear, but still roaring toward voting against its own best interests and isolating itself, rolling back human and civil rights and essentially creating a living nightmare. (Is this hyperbole? Perhaps. But we can’t sleepwalk through all of it in any case.) I wrote a lot about how rights fought for and won, such as the right to abortion, are precious and should not be taken for granted. Just as at least half of the UK, and more than half of the Scots and Northern Irish, once had all the rights granted to EU citizens – and now, that is in doubt. (Much of the reason the Scots voted against independence a couple of years ago is because they were promised that the UK would remain in the EU.)

At any given moment, the whole political and social landscape can change and become little more than a circus in which politicians become clowns and verbal acrobats and contortionists and individuals are essentially powerless circus animals. In the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, whole countries were powerless in the end.

As the clown car that was the US Republican primary process emptied out, leaving the biggest clown of all, Donald Trump, in the driver’s seat, it dawned on the “reasonable” half of America that we should all be scared shitless (but not scared into inactivity). A Trump presidency will be a disaster. Beyond which, Trump just named Indiana governor, Mike Pence, as his running mate – and, as Robert Reich describes in a Facebook post, Pence is “one of the most extreme right-wing officials in America” and went on to describe how.

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As we can see from the continued and contentious tug-of-war that defines the right-to-choose (which is a personal liberty and health issue – not a moral issue no matter what religious zealots claim), these issues are never set in stone or decided finally. Things can change, which is both good and bad. While the right to abortion may erode, which is a bad change, we can also see that the right to marriage equality has moved forward, which is a good change. But rights are always in a state of flux and subject to the winds and whims of change. This is especially true when no issue, no political candidate, no momentum ever enjoys a very clear majority – everything is split closely down the middle. No huge majority exists, generally, on one side or the other of any issue.

Only slightly more than half of the UK voted to exit the EU, meaning that Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted with a larger majority to remain in the EU, are dragged along with England and Wales’s bold-but-stupid plans. By extension, this means that a slight majority of Americans choosing Trump can drag the entire country toward chaos against its will. (We saw something similar when Bush II became president after a too-close-to-call, contested election in 2000 versus Al Gore. We see how that turned out.)

The point: We always have to be vigilant – about rights we already have and about continuing to vote (hopefully against lunacy).

This is why Brexit is perplexing. It feels like we are moving backwards, like when you are stuck in a nightmare and try to run but are stuck no matter how fast your legs move. Brexit was sold to the British public as a way to “take back control”: but take back control of what? Your own circus burning down?

No one framed the losses of Brexit better than political journalist Nicholas Barrett. Do read the whole eloquent thing, but what it boils down to is:

  • The working class who voted to leave will be the ones most adversely affected by Brexit (voting blindly against their own best interest)
  • The youth of both the UK and Europe both lose the right to live and work freely in each other’s countries; the older generation has taken away an unknown world of experiences, relationships and opportunities from the younger generation
  • Anti-intellectualism wins: “We now live in a post-factual democracy.” (Bush, Blair, Trump are all examples of how facts have less and less currency.)

This last point is most telling – and has been barreling toward disaster for a long time, even if it seems that the trend is more like a pendulum. Americans elected an intellectual (Barack Obama), who also happened to be America’s first black president, but will go to the extreme anti-intellect next time. At the same time, they will blindly and blithely claim, post-factually, that we live in a post-racial society because we once voted a black man into the office of president. All the facts speak otherwise, as a deeply insightful piece from Henry Rollins illustrates.

Bill Clinton was fairly intellectual, so a lot of people thirsted for the anti-intellect of George W. Bush in the post-Clinton era. (And the sliver-thin difference in number of votes between Bush and Gore left the country without a declared presidential election winner for more than a month. The fact that it was even close is what alarmed me more than the results themselves. That was the final straw for me as far as living in America goes. I had already moved away, but that cemented my resolve to never go back.)

I have given a lot of thought to these points and tried to look at them through the Brexit lens: demagogue leaders rush into Brexit without a plan, lie to the voters (who, by and large, are average people – meaning that they are not going to dig for real information for themselves; they are reactionary) and their issue wins. Once the vote is over, and they gloat (see Nigel Farage) but also backtrack on promises, back away from the supposed “facts” (see the lies about the money Britain was sending to the EU that could be used for the National Health Service) and do the most cowardly thing possible: they stepped down and said they accomplished what they wanted. Fine, that sounds Farage-like. But Trump-clone-blowhard Boris Johnson stepped away from power only to be handed the office of Foreign Secretary when a new government was basically appointed (I realize that’s how the system works but is mightily undemocratic seeming). And David Cameron was the idiot who set all of this in motion, somehow underestimating the power of the post-factual world we live in and the apathy of most voters – and the passion of single-issue and uninformed voters who have been scared into voting against their own interests. And now we seem to be heading toward a refrain of Britain in the 1980s: ultra-conservatism, economic uncertainty and unemployment and… if we are lucky, a surge of great music (since that is all there will be to cling to).

What will Brexit mean in real terms? People have had time to digest it, and with the (in)digestion, heartburn is setting in.

One journalist, Ian McConnell writes: “It has been difficult to escape the growing feeling, since the Brexit vote, of being stuck in one of the more shambolic episodes of Dad’s Army.”

Caveat: I am not British so it’s not really my deal – but it affects the whole world, all of Europe, and most of all, Britain itself. I have my own British interests in that I co-own a business there, have relationships there (well, in Scotland anyway), and have, like most Europeans, enjoyed the freedom to visit and stay as long as I wanted or needed to. I out myself here as a pro-Scottish independence, SNP supporter who forces all my Scottish friends to educate themselves, register to vote and vote – I might be deluded, but I think Scotland would be better off without England and remaining a part of the EU (as they voted to do). In this case, Scotland knows what it would be getting into if it were to vote to leave (i.e., “taking back control”), completely unlike the UK’s slapdash and uninformed vote to leave, which has left the country in a kind of tailspin – anything but in control – regardless of the British stiff upper lip they’re trying to display to the world.

A lengthy but not exhaustive list of what Brexit may mean (I am not a lawyer, an economist, any kind of expert or a psychic – but I have enough common sense to know that these may be among some of the results):

Currency value/price increases: Even before the Brexit vote, the value of the British pound started fluctuating on fears of an exit vote. The very morning of the vote’s result announcement, the currency plummeted and continues to struggle. The value of British people’s money, thus, has decreased, so in “taking back control”, they have not only made their own holidays abroad more expensive for themselves, in the short term, they have voted to probably raise the costs of their everyday goods in the long term, both in the sense that they will pay more directly and in the sense that everything will cost more as import costs rise, which will be passed on to consumers (and maybe, to make up for shortfalls, VAT will rise too – who knows?). These price hikes and less valuable money all come at a terrible time, of course, because the vote also means… uncertainty rippling throughout the entire economy.

Business uncertainty: In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, companies started preparing exit strategies, no doubt, because of the uncertainty of the business climate and no idea when the details of Brexit will be ironed out. Essentially these contingency plans have led to businesses deciding to leave Britain (a boon for other countries), scale back operations or investment within Britain and/or cut back on staff.

And what does that mean? “Taking back control” means job losses for BRITONS – not just for all the immigrants they imagined were flooding in and stealing all the jobs. It’s not just the big multinationals (think finance/banking here) that will create these holes; small businesses are already feeling the punch to the gut (and who owns small business in Britain? Quite often it’s Britons, yet again!), announcing layoffs, scaled back investment or growth plans and price hikes.

Unemployment and possible loss of employment rights: Yes, unemployment is likely to rise. The aforementioned business uncertainty and probable exodus of companies to other locations means that job cuts are inevitable. It’s going to make those previously referenced price hikes that much more painful; it’s going to make it harder to afford to go away on holiday (if the freedom of movement problems stirred up don’t bar your way first).

A Credit Suisse report warns that a Brexit recession could lead to an increase in the unemployment rate that equals about 500,000 lost jobs. The report expects an increase in the overall unemployment rate from about 5% to 6.5% by the end of 2017 (maybe sooner, depending on what happens). In the week after the Brexit vote result, the number of posted job ads in the UK fell by 700,000. Pretty significant.

By being a part of the EU, workers in the UK actually gained a number of protections and guarantees that were never guaranteed by the UK alone – and some of these pertain to (un)employment rights (as well as family leave, just so you know). Will these rights continue to be guaranteed/enforced, or will they be like the slippery and contentious rights Americans grapple with keeping, as highlighted above?

Since the mid-1970s, the European Union has played an important role in protecting working people from exploitation and combating discrimination. These EU rights have provided an important counter-balance against pressure for the UK to adopt a US-style hire-and-fire culture where there is an absence of statutory employment rights.”

Beyond the sheer rise in unemployment, though, Brexit makes the UK a much less attractive place for foreign direct investment, which could have contributed to economic growth and created a lot of new jobs.

FDI: Foreign direct investment is not something most average people think about. The UK has long been one of the world’s most attractive FDI recipients because it had a unique set of attributes that companies looking to locate and invest need and want, including being an English-speaking country with (at least in London) an international, multilingual population, great infrastructure and access to the European single market.

Britain now risks a very unvirtuous circle in which a slowing economy and growing trade and immigration barriers cause companies to leave, spurring even more economic pain.

“Brexit makes the UK a less attractive environment to invest in, particularly for companies that rely on the UK’s access to the single market,” said LSE economist Thomas Sampson. “Some companies are likely to relocate some of their activities to continental Europe, though probably not every company that threatens it is going to do it.”

I take FDI more personally, as I have worked in this industry for some time and have seen how the trends move. A company – large or small – looking at its options for relocating and investing will benchmark UK against other European locations, and where once UK competed favorably, the exit from the single market will exclude the UK from serious consideration. It’s quite complicated and multifaceted. (Ireland will probably benefit from the UK’s “taking back control”.)

Economic slowdown: Economic slowdown can mean a lot of different things, which encompass many of the other points in this list (stagnant growth, unemployment, etc.). It also includes a downturn in business output and in optimism, which have already been affected by Brexit. It can also mean that a recession is coming. The uncertainty I wrote about above also leads to a “deer-in-the-headlights” effect, where businesses are fearful of taking any action, which can likewise contribute to negative economic consequences.

Trade fits into this equation. With Britain exiting the EU, Britain will no longer be party to the trade agreements made by/within the EU. It will probably have to renegotiate and start from scratch on trade arrangements (more than 100 of them), and while the Leave campaigners claimed this would be easy, that Britain had so much to offer – so much leverage – nothing is further from the truth. US President Barack Obama even stated as much, saying Britain is at the back of the queue.

Property values/housing: In a classic case of people voting on an isolated, single issue – and not really understanding the complexity of it, many voters cited (potential) property price decreases (the Treasury warned that house prices would decrease as much as ten percent) as their reason for voting to leave the EU. Aside from the fact that voting should be about benefit to the entire country, not just what you individually think you can gain, this is naïve voting. Maybe property prices decrease as a result of Brexit, but it conversely means that property values decrease, so those Britons who already own property may experience negative equity, which could be particularly acute in northern England and real losses on their investment. The danger in focusing on a single issue also fails to take into account all the other factors at work, e.g., unemployment, wage stagnation and recession, which may lead many people to not be able to afford a home no matter how far property prices fall.

Freedom of movement: The free movement of people is one of the central tenets of the European experiment/experience. And nothing has been more central to the heated arguments around Brexit. Three million Europeans live in Britain; 1.2 million Britons live in the EU. They have jobs, pay taxes, are married to other Europeans, own property, study, etc. All of this has been thrown into a bewildering state of inconclusiveness. No one knows if they will be allowed to stay or what Brexit means for their rights (inside or out of the UK). And Theresa May’s government has not done anything to make this clearer.

A large part of the Leave campaigning focused on “taking control of” immigration and the borders of the UK; most Britons, though, did not think about what leaving would mean for their own mobility. Or what that would mean for their friends, family members and colleagues who already live in Britain – and what that uncertainty and what a mass expulsion of Europeans would mean for the economy (no, it does not automatically mean that there will be floods of open jobs for British citizens; so many Europeans work in Britain in the first place because companies often have unique needs and Europeans unique qualifications that match up; some Europeans will do jobs that British people don’t want to do).

This reasoning also failed to consider that Britain already has exceptions in place that keep people from completely freely showing up in Britain. Britain never joined the Schengen area and thus controlled its borders much more tightly than other Schengen-area countries.

Breakup of the country: The breakup of the United Kingdom is a topic I should not have passionate feelings about and don’t think it’s one about which I can be objective. (Not that I have been totally objective throughout my points here.) On this topic is even more personal. I’ve spent a huge amount of time in Glasgow and feel an exceptionally strong connection to Scotland and see its potential outside of the UK. I supported the independence referendum last time, despite having no vote, and I “activated” all the people I know in Scotland to educate themselves, pick a side and vote.

I understand why “remain” won the first time. It’s scary to leave. I know it sounds hypocritical to be angry that the UK voted to leave the EU while supporting a “leave” vote for Scotland from the UK. However, I support this now – and supported it before – because Scotland is not being represented (while the UK is within the EU) within the UK. Scotland was promised many things as a trade-off for voting to stay part of the union; those promises have not been fulfilled. And now Scotland has been yanked out of the EU without its consent. Sure, maybe they signed up for that by remaining within the UK. But that doesn’t mean they should not leave now.

I don’t necessarily think independence is going to be an easy option. But I support it. When the SNP launched the first bid for independence, they had a lengthy manifesto and a detailed plan and platform. By contrast, there was NO plan for the UK outside the EU, despite it being an even more complex divorce.

Reigniting Northern Ireland problems: I don’t feel the same passion about Northern Ireland as I do about Scotland, but I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of the (T)troubles there. Northern Ireland is a high-stakes Brexit gamble. It’s the UK’s only hard land border with another EU (or any) country (the republic of Ireland), and what happens to this border now that the UK has voted to leave? Will this vote kick up new calls for reunification with the republic of Ireland, and will that reignite the “bitterness and bloodshed” that remains an explosive possibility. The really young may not remember firsthand the violence between Protestant Unionists and the Catholic nationalist minority and the terror that surrounded this battle. It’s not something anyone wants to see repeated, and while it may feel like peace was achieved “long ago”, it’s still less than 20 years.

Science/research/tech startups, etc.: There are a million articles online about the effects of Brexit on science, research, collaboration and EU funding. And UK policy toward science and research is shifting (probably not in a good direction). This may also be applicable to startups and tech firms. The UK, though, may have voted itself onto a path of stagnation rather than innovation.

You can search and read endlessly on these topics and do not need my help.

Food: There are areas Brexit will affect that the average voter probably did not even think about. One of these is food (and how much food is imported, and what that could mean for availability and price).

“Now that the Leave campaign has won the referendum on Europe, it is clear that far more was at stake for British food in the E.U. than our right to misshapen fruit.

Part of the driving force of the EU’s foundation was to ensure the food supply for entire populations; Britain produces only about half of its food needs. You do the math. More than a quarter of UK food imports came from within the EU as of 2015 – and what happens to that now?

There could also be a knock-on effect to British farming, which will lose EU agriculture subsidies.

Music: Maybe because I care so passionately about music, films and the arts – but mostly music – I am most concerned about its future. What happens to the industries and the touring musicians and the legal/copyright stuff? It’s complex….

And that is the thing – every single industry is facing similar complexities, extricating themselves from the ties that bound them within and often protected them from “going it alone” on so many of these fronts, often offering Brits and Europeans collective benefits that aren’t to be enjoyed outside that “togetherness”.

Alienation/isolation: The price of going it alone and “taking back control” could be isolationism and, as mentioned, moving to the back of the line. There is no certainty that the UK will end up in isolation – the world is a bit more globalized than that. But was the risk worth it? Is the “control” you think you took back keeping you warm at night and comforted?

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Heeding the political precedent

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Media, political parties, political analysts and pundits, popular culture and just about any person you talked to in the US or abroad laughed off the Donald Trump presidential candidacy as a joke. Whether because Trump himself would lose interest, because it was such an outlandish proposition that it seemed impossible, because eventually he’d go too far and no one would stand for it any longer, because people love sensationalized stuff (they do, after all, love drama and reality television), because one of the “serious” candidates would surge ahead, everyone chose to ignore what was unfolding. And they chose to ignore the real-world precedent of the laughed-off, joke candidate who swept into power and did real damage.

World history is full of examples (Ronald Reagan was just a bad actor), but I think back again to watching the Italian TV series, 1992, which explored the idea of Berlusconi as an unlikely, laughable political leader (and its joking about how that would be as ridiculous as a Schwarzenegger political career…). No one seems to heed the warnings of these previous disasters, and we are doomed to repeat what we have not learned from.

Photo is from Piñateria Ramirez’s Donald Trump piñata via the Piñateria Ramirez Facebook page.

My political platform: Bringing back capes, gloves, postage stamps, anti-hypocrisy and flexible work options!

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It’s another one of those random days where random thoughts are weaseling their way into my brain too fast to keep track of them.

I’m not sorry we loved, but I hope I didn’t keep you too long.

First of all, I overthink. All the time. All weekend in between working and then taking breaks from that work to do other work, I was beating myself up over the realization that it is always just when you ease into a comfort level, feeling like you can let your guard down, that you are at your most vulnerable, a victim to be gutted. You know, gutted and chopped into pieces, not unlike a poor, hapless young giraffe minding his own business in a Copenhagen zoo (and see below). Trust me.

In other news (or non-news), what the hell is wrong with Fox News and other conservative talking heads? I cannot come up with words – nothing that has not already been said. They have started blabbing about how free healthcare disincentivizes working. Who says it best? Why, Jon Stewart, of course!

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-february-6-2014/terror-on-bulls–t-mountain

Writing (oh so seamless the segue) about disincentives to work and purported laziness, I was heartened to see a series of articles from Virgin on the future of flexwork (Richard Branson is a big supporter of flexible work solutions). Three cheers! It’s one thing for me to bang my own pots and pans on the subject of flexible, remote and virtual work (only I hear the ceaseless clanging – and maybe a handful of other folks who happen upon this blog). It is another thing entirely when someone as respected and well-known as Richard Branson puts his weight behind this flexibility.

The website covers different aspects of flexible work – which can include remote work, shared locations, next-gen workspaces and enabling “intrapreneurship”. Be still my heart.

Of course, another aspect of flexible work, as I have learned since the dawn of my professional life, is doing the most flexible kind of work there is (and that means you will get a lot of flexibility but you are going to have to be equally flexible in kind – and sometimes to your own detriment): freelancing. I find these days that when I apply for jobs that are not ideal for me but my skill set matches some other need a company has, I get calls on occasion offering me freelance projects, and I cannot complain.

On a slightly tangential note, I will never get used to how potential employers in Scandinavia, in formal interview settings, often use the word “shit” in interview conversation. This must be a failure to understand that “shit” is not quite the casual profanity that they imagine it to be. (It makes me laugh.)

As for the music and magic of hypocrisy, who embodies it better than my favorite punching bag, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! disaster fame? The Virgin remote work segment highlights the hypocrisy and head-scratching quality of Mayer’s decision to end distance-work options for her employees (“How odd that the head of a tech company that provides online communication tools doesn’t see the irony in that statement?”). Mayer has become the lightning rod for this issue, really. One article I read questioned the fairness of piling all the blame on Mayer when other large corporations scaled back or eliminated their distance work options at the same time (e.g. Best Buy). The hypocrisy of it – the real rub – is precisely what the Virgin article on supporting remote work points out – a tech company supposedly at the forefront (or wanting to believe it is still at the forefront) of innovation and online communication is taking the workplace back to horse-and-buggy days when most of the tech world is, I don’t know, driving a Tesla or taking a high-speed train.

Another nod to hypocrisy, even if not an entirely matching overlap, is the recent decision of a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark to kill a perfectly healthy young giraffe in its care and feed it to the zoo’s lions. I posted something about this on my Facebook wall, which sparked an immediate argument between two people who are strangers across the world from each other. One argued that those of us who were lamenting the giraffe’s senseless death were hypocrites who cannot handle how nature works when it’s shown to us with transparency. While I can appreciate the argument on its surface, the bottom line is – this happened in a ZOO, not the wild. This took place, apparently, in front of zoo visitors (the killing and the feeding pieces to lions). Yeah, if a family went on safari somewhere or were out in the wild, maybe “nature” and its transparency would be expected. In the zoo? Not so much. The zoo has defended its decision and now is paying an unfortunate price (I saw on the news that the zoo’s employees are receiving death threats now).

Back to the flexwork thing – all the articles come down to one thing: trust. Flexwork is possible when you have trust and no need to micromanage. You would also think we could trust a zoo not to kill a juvenile giraffe, and maybe once upon a time, people would have thought Marissa Mayer would not take a giant tech company back to Little House on the Prairie.

Why I Can Never Make Up My Mind: John Edwards

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Today, under George W. Bush, there are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America – middle-class America – whose needs Washington has long forgotten, another America – narrow-interest America – whose every wish is Washington’s command. One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a president.” – John Edwards, 2004

Poverty – particularly among the working poor – has really only started to become a headline-worthy issue in the last four or five years when a significant number of people who had perhaps been just on the edge of poverty fell into it thanks to the economic collapse of 2008. At various points in history, of course, poverty and welfare have appeared on the mass media radar, and occasionally escaped from the lips of politicians. Mostly it has been all talk or has been negative, “shaming” talk (much like the 1980s rhetoric of Ronald Reagan demonizing the mythical “welfare queen”).

John Edwards, in focusing on poverty and inequality in America, may have been well ahead of the curve by focusing with laser-like intensity and precision – at the risk of his own political rise. Of course his penis and lies about what he was doing with it unzipped and undid him faster than his dedication to poverty-related issues, which is a shame when you look back on his rhetoric and ideas about America. He has been, as this article in The Atlantic described, been whitewashed from the Democratic Party, despite the fact that the platform the party stands on today is one he essentially built himself. I acknowledge that. It’s easy to gloss over the good Edwards did and would have tried to do given the mess he made of his personal life.

Who among us does not make a mess of our personal life? Most of us screw up – sometimes on a grand scale – but most of us are not in the public eye and won’t suffer serious consequences – like becoming a national joke, destroying whatever is left of our very public marriage, sacrificing any and all chance of holding political office. Unfortunately, Edwards’s fight against economic inequality will always be overshadowed by his personal choices and lies.

Edwards championed those who can rarely speak for themselves and highlighted hard truths about class and economic divisions in America (that many Americans, struggling or not, do not like to admit about America. But it is still hard to make my mind about him – I suppose my approach can be as complex as who Edwards actually is. It is not as though by making very poor decisions and very public mistakes (more than once) negates his role as a thought leader, activist or intelligent man. I suppose it just means that he was perhaps not that well-suited to become president.

The daily schmear – Sleazy topic overload: Dirty habits, dirty minds, dirty looks

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“Fucking cocaine!” he muttered (at :45 seconds)

“You know I was really so successful at everything I did – business, politics, hell, I could handle anything. Except cocaine. Only I didn’t know that because of cocaine.” (RIP Larry Hagman)

Dirty habits

Cocaine has been in the news – and news parodies in particular – a lot lately. We can thank North American politicians for the rapid uptick in cocaine-related news, even if, every time cocaine is mentioned, I think of the aforementioned clip from the film Primary Colors. (Or I think of the music of Rosa Eskenazi, a Greek singer, who sang a lot about drugs, back in the early part of the 20th century.)

Both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were fixated on cocaine and its crack cousin this week, thanks to Toronto mayor Rob Ford and Florida Republican congressman Trey Radel and their drug-related indiscretions.

Trey Radel cocaine

Daily Show coverage of Trey Cokehead Radel

One Colbert story, though, comedic as his presentation was, actually struck a chord in my nerd side. Apparently University of Pennsylvania researchers have found that a male cocaine users’ sperm DNA (okay, granted we’re talking about male rodents, not humans) is altered to pass on some kind of immunity to the effects of cocaine, making his male offspring less susceptible to cocaine addiction.

Colbert – cocaine study

Of course when I passionately rattle off details of studies like this as well as the observed symptoms and effects of various drugs, I scare my colleagues – but it is just general knowledge, gleaned from talking to people who have done these things. I’ve never even been drunk. Actually in a former workplace, one colleague and I were joking that all the aluminum foil accumulated in our office (because I wrapped all my baked goods in foil for transport) could help us smoke crack. Except we only imagined that you needed foil to smoke crack because we had no idea at all how one would actually smoke it. We have no idea how to take any drugs, let alone how to get them.

Dirty minds: Multicultural Swedish fika

In Swedish, “fika” is a concept beyond just a “coffee break”. It is a sacred cow – to the extent that any talk against or threat of eliminating this treasured event from Swedish work life is met with loud protest of a kind that Swedes are rarely wont to undertake. It is so ingrained and expected that HR recently felt it necessary to discuss its centrality to the culture with the global staff.  Apparently they wanted to emphasize that people should feel empowered to take fika, to explain that we actually do not have enough fika today and that people should not succumb to the pressure of people giving them “dirty looks” when they seem to disapprove of their “fika-taking”.

Let’s not get into the multicultural challenges of fika. Even the word fika sends nonplussed, flustered Italians into a tailspin, not knowing where to look, averting their gaze, not knowing what to do with themselves when we exclaim excitedly, “FIKA TIME!” (Check out the word “fica”, and you’ll get it.)

Dirty looks

In a recent discussion on these “dirty looks” that (presumably) non-Swedish colleagues give to active fika-takers, one Swedish colleague misunderstood “dirty looks” to mean something sexual. Yes, every time you take a fika, someone will give you seductive looks! In which case, Italian men would hang around and wait for fika to happen constantly.


Political debate analysis, losing sight of the big picture, frustration, transportation difficulties and dulce de leche bundt cake

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Sometimes I can be so forgetful. When “staging” the baked-good offerings in my office (which involves a considerable amount of labor that goes well above and beyond the mere baking of these things), the process involves packaging, packing, transporting and then somehow getting everything from the car into the office, which is on several floors with varying levels of available space and quality for “preparing”, and then hopefully feeling motivated enough to take pictures of the final products. Sometimes I do this during the baking process, but sometimes I cannot be bothered, leaving me to at least photograph things just before they are eaten, but sometimes, while I manage to take a few pics, I don’t get to the point where I cut a cake or cupcake open to get a good view of what the inside looks like. I wish I had pictures of, for example, the inside of the dulce de leche cake, in order to display the ribbon of dulce de leche that is baked into the subtly dulce de leche-flavored cake.

But, as I wrote, I can be so forgetful. Or maybe even just lazy. This week I took the baked bounty to the office the night before serving and spent most of the night carrying the baked stuff from parking garage to the various floors of the building (I distribute the baked stuff to several floors so people can more easily access it) and setting everything up on plates as well as frosting the cupcakes (which I don’t do until I get to the office, making them far easier to transport). I wanted to make sure I would get to see the entire US presidential debate. My debate viewing was a leisurely affair, alone in the office in the middle of the night spreading blobs of frosting onto cupcakes while listening to Mitt Romney go on an aggressive attack – which strikes me as both uncivilized and unbecoming behavior in a potential president, particularly when lying, bluffing and playing fast and loose with the facts. (But we already know how little facts matter.) When it was not the facts, it was just disingenuous bullshit – him stating with false concern in his voice that he is running for president to help the middle class and because people are suffering. Suffering? What would Romney understand of suffering – either in reality or conceptually? After his “47% of people are freeloaders who do not care about their own well-being (and who believe they are somehow entitled to food!?)” comments (which sounded very real and sincere, particularly since he did not know he was being watched or filmed), I do not see how anyone can trust him or regard anything else he says as honest.

While I fully understand that Obama did not roll out his best debate performance, I think most pundits and commentators, and indeed people, lose sight of the fact that these debates are merely that – performances. A 90-minute event, hitting an imaginary ball back and forth. What does the behavior of each candidate in the debate tell us about how he might govern? Maybe nothing. Maybe it will tell us that Romney will continue to flip-flop and change his mind and pander to whomever he is speaking to at any given time. (The “Etch-a-Sketch” presidency to which various media outlets are constantly referring.) Beyond which, we never heard a single specific thing Romney might do other than throw Jim Lehrer (as well as Big Bird) out on his ass by cutting funding to PBS (as if that would contribute so much to deficit reduction).

I feel that the incumbent president, despite needing to fight for his job, has an obligation to be a bit less aggressive and more sober. After all, he is the sitting president. He is still doing the job of the president. He needs to be a bit less defensive and more reflective. That said, Obama may have done well to refer to some of Romney’s gaffes, tying the extensive talk about Medicare and health care to Romney’s careless and heartless comments on the “freeloading” half of the population for whom Romney supposedly felt such compassion on debate night. (And maybe only on debate night. And even if we give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume that he does actually care about people and their suffering, the idea that he talks about them in disparaging terms in certain company but paints a totally different picture in other company, illustrates clearly how he will say whatever he needs to say but never just stands his ground and, more broadly, lacks character and conviction.)

In another broad sense, I am constantly amazed – but somehow not remotely surprised – by how basic political conversations (like the debates, including all the debates in the last few election seasons) are surface level and not at all substantive things. Worst of all, the commentators and media idiots follow the debates with opinions that claim the debate/discussion was “heavy on policy” and “wonky” … are people so lowest common denominator that just mentioning the word “policy” or “plan” in a debate somehow makes people edgy and bored and makes them think they are hearing something complex and in-depth? It pains me, and perhaps it always has, to think that the media feed this kind of opinion to consumers, in part because American consumers ARE fast-food and surface-level in their approach and in part because they have been conditioned to be this way by a crumbling, uneven education system and a media that focuses on entertainment, sound bites and the short-term game over real analysis and long-term views (and yes, facts). The debate was disappointing to me not because Romney, in media review, “kicked Obama’s ass” but because the American media and American public actually view the debate process this way at all – a win-lose competition as opposed to an exchange and debate of ideas and differences between two candidates (and parties). What we saw was one desperate man who would have said anything he had to to “win” and another man who just did not seem to want to be there at all.

-End of rant!-

By the end of the debate, the baked goods had been redistributed (what a socialist I am!) to three floors of the building, and freely available (even to those who share the building with us but do not work in our company). One day perhaps I will identify an easier, more streamlined way to bring the baked goods to work, but for now, it remains a challenge.

Dulce de leche bundt cake
1 1/2 cups dulce de leche (for an easy dulce de leche recipe, click here)
1 cup softened butter
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt (if you used unsalted butter)
3 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350F/175C.

Butter and flour a 12-cup bundt cake pan.

Whisk dry ingredients together and set aside.

Cream butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy. Add one cup of dulce de leche. Mix well, then add the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix in the vanilla.

Turn mixer to low speed and alternately add in the dry ingredient mixture with the buttermilk.

Mix until just combined. Put about half the batter into the prepared bundt pan. Using the other 1/2 cup of dulce de leche, add the dulce de leche to the cake, making a ring of the dulce de leche in the center of the cake batter in the pan. Once this is done, carefully add the rest of the batter evenly on top of the ring of dulce de leche. Smooth it out.

Bake about 50 to 55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the center comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 20 minutes before inverting the cake onto a wire rack to remove from the pan. Allow the cake to cool completely.

You could create a caramel sauce for the cake before serving, or do as I did – simply sift vanilla sugar on top of the cake.