Said and read – March 2021

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“While our coming migrations may not proceed fast enough to keep pace with our shifting climate, a growing body of evidence suggests they may be our best shot at preserving biodiversity and resilient human societies.” – Sonia Shah, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move

Previous book reports: 2021 – February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for March

A lackluster month in many ways – overly long, filled with churning through the process of just trying to get things done. Reading hasn’t been the priority, and I feel its loss when I don’t have the time to indulge.

Still, I read quite a few things, but nothing really stood out.

*When the Body Says NoGabor Maté

“…people do not become ill despite their lives but rather because of their lives. And life includes not only physical factors like diet, physical activity, and the environment, but also the internal milieu of thoughts and unconscious emotions that govern so much of our physiology, through the mechanisms of stress and the unity of the systems that modulate nerves, hormones, immunity, digestion, and cardiovascular function. Much disease could be prevented and healed if we fully understood the scientific evidence verifying the mind-body unity.”

Can stress kill you… or contribute to your early demise?

“The dynamics of repression operate in all of us. We are all self-deniers and self-betrayers to one extent or another, most often in ways we are no more aware of than I was conscious of while “deciding” to disguise my limp. When it comes to health or illness, it is only a matter of degree and, too, a matter of the presence or absence of other factors—such as heredity or environmental hazards, for example—that also pre-dispose to disease.”

Dr Gabor Maté, well-known for his work on addiction, argues that stress and trauma, particularly that which has been repressed and never dealt with, can be fatal.

“A U.S. study, for example, found that women who are unhappily married and do not express their emotions have a greatly increased risk of death compared with similarly unhappy women who do not repress their feelings. Canadian research has shown that people abused in childhood have a nearly 50 percent increased risk of cancer in adulthood. Such data are manifestations of what the psychiatrist and author Daniel Siegel has termed “interpersonal neurobiology,” or what, going a small step further, we may call interpersonal biology. Our relationships help shape our physiology.”

One of the salient points in the book is one that emerges from discussion about human health more generally: we ignore the whole in favor of the part, specializing in or focusing on one thing, only to end up without insight into the bigger picture. The human body can suffer most of all from this short-sightedness and perceived lack of connection between the mind and body.

“The more specialized doctors become, the more they know about a body part or organ and the less they tend to understand the human being in whom that part or organ resides.”

Additionally, dealing with stress or trauma also requires understanding what to  do with the absence of stress: after a life lived under the weight of the burden of it, the lack of stress itself can cause another type of stress.

“For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, Hans Selye observed. To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.”

*Kubernetes for Full-Stack Developers – various authors

*Kubernetes for Developers – Joe Heck

So let’s start by saying that I am not a developer and even though I work in a tech environment, these kinds of books aren’t part and parcel of what I need to do or know. They are not designed for me. Not at this level of hands-on or specific depth anyway. But it’s still interesting following along passively as technology and application development change shape.

*The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the MoveSonia Shah

“Human migration is not exceptional. Long isolation did not differentiate our species into separate races. Feats of navigation are not the sole province of “white gods” from the West. The oceans can be crossed by canoe. And humans aren’t the only ones who move across the landscape, leaping over continents and oceans. Plants and animals do, too.”

Migration is nothing new – it has been done forever.

“By describing peoples and species as “from” certain places, we invoke a specific idea about the past. It traces back to the eighteenth century, when European naturalists first started cataloging the natural world. Assuming that peoples and wild creatures had stayed mostly fixed in their places throughout history, they named creatures and peoples based on those places, conflating one with the other as if they’d been joined since time immemorial. Those centuries-old taxonomies formed the foundation for modern ideas about our biological history. Today a range of fields from ecology to genetics and biogeography allude to long periods of isolation in our distant past, when species and peoples remained ensconced in their habitats, each evolving in their separate locales. This stillness at the center of our ideas about the past necessarily casts migrants and migrations as anomalous and disruptive. Early twentieth-century naturalists dismissed migration as an ecologically useless and even dangerous behavior, warning of “disastrous results” should migrant animals be allowed to move freely. Conservationists and other scientists warned that human migration, too, would precipitate biological calamity.”

Sonia Shah tells the story of migration – of animals, plants, people, explaining its additive rather than disruptive or negative force.

*Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect UnionRichard Kreitner

We tend to think of the United States as an always-united concept apart from the horror of the Civil War. But the idea of disunion and secession has always been woven into the ethos of the American experiment. It continues now, particularly during the turbulence of the last few years (the lead-up to and during the Trump presidency).

*The Invention of SolitudePaul Auster

Impossible, I realize, to enter another’s solitude. If it is true that we can ever come to know another human being, even to a small degree, it is only to the extent that he is willing to make himself known.

Amen.

Image (c) 2021, S Donaghy

Said and read – February 2021

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A vort iz vi a fayl: beyde hobn groyse ayl. A word and an arrow are alike: both make a speedy strike. The idea that words have great power and potential to inflict harm is implied in the following: Verter darf men vegn, nit tseyln. Words should be weighed, not counted.” –How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed YiddishIlan Stavans

“Mouth tissue makes an excellent urethral stand-in. For one thing, it’s hairless. Urine contains minerals that, were there hair growing in your urethra, would build up on the strands. The stony deposits are troublemakers, obstructing flow or breaking free and getting peed out in a blaze of pain. The surgeon, James Jezior, has been over at the scrub sink going at his nails. He joins us now, hands front, drying. He has blue eyes and fine sandy hair and a mischievous wit. I would use the adjective boyish, but on paper he is very much not a boy. He’s a chief (of the Walter Reed urology department), a director (of reconstructive urology), and a colonel. “Also,” says Jezior, “the mouth is tolerant of pee.” He means that the mouth is built for moisture. It’s possible to create a urethra from hairless skin on the underside of the forearm or behind the ear, but the frequent wetting from urine can degrade it. A kind of internal diaper rash may ensue. Inflammation eats away at the tissue, tunneling an alternate path for the waste, called a fistula. Now you are dribbling tinkle from a raw hole in your skin. Just what you need.” – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at WarMary Roach

Previous book reports: 2021 — January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February

February has historically been the slowest, darkest and most depressing month of my life – every single year. In the last few years, though, perhaps by virtue of keeping myself ridiculously busy, I have managed to avoid the worst of it. And reading helps, although as predicted, I didn’t get to read as much as I’d like in February and didn’t stumble on anything truly extraordinary during the month.

Nevertheless I have a few thoughts running through my head.

First is the frivolity of this endeavor. I read and then scribble down some things about what I read, and I try in some way to impart how important I think some of the books are. Then I look at social media channels and all the outrage about the state of the world we live in and a lot of commentary about how if you’re posting frivolous stuff rather than topical, political stuff, you’re part of the problem.

I wonder about the reasoning of this and feel like we can’t be turned-on, angry, vitriolic, political animals all the time without burning ourselves to the ground. And what good would that do? Don’t we need to reset and ground ourselves in ideas sometimes? I recognize that I am lucky to have the choice.

Another thing has nagged me as I’ve continued my years-long pursuit of sharing poetry daily. I love discovering and sharing poetry, particularly voices of poets who are not featured in our mainstream high school/college textbooks in the western, English-speaking world. And while I share poetry from Black poets and artists all the time, I dedicate a poem a day in February to sharing their voices exclusively, as part of Black History Month. Recently someone pointed out that they thought this felt “performative”, and I’ve questioned this myself. It’s a continuation of my desire to share great poetry, and I wanted to shine additional light on, in particular, the work of Black women. I sometimes feel when I share other people’s poetry – no matter who they are – that I am overstepping. Is it my place to share these things, regardless of how few people might see what I share?

This questioning isn’t terribly related to my “reading post-mortem, but it’s nevertheless what plagues me at night during those few nights when sleep is fleeting. I suppose it isn’t a bad thing to repeatedly interrogate yourself: Am I part of the problem? And if so, what can I do to remedy that?

So here we go…

Strangely I was overenthusiastic and included some of my February reads in my January book report… for example, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly ProsperousJoseph Henrich and Wintering, which I will write a bit more about later. Oh well. What can you do with an (over)abundance of enthusiasm?

Again these aren’t in any particular order and mostly reflect various things that stood out to me rather than anything that I expressly loved.

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

“However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.”

Continuing to champion this lovely book because it fit so perfectly, and concisely, into the sharpest parts of winter, and the introduction to the first months of a new year.

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.”

A passage that particularly spoke to me was May’s description of how doing everything starts to look like nothing – it just blends together. How can we keep ourselves from falling into the crevasse of a life of blur?

“The problem with “everything” is that it ends up looking an awful lot like nothing: just one long haze of frantic activity, with all the meaning sheared away. Time has passed so quickly while I have been raising a child and writing books, and working a full-time job that often sprawls into my weekends, that I can’t quite account for it. The preceding years are not a blank exactly, but they’re certainly a blur, and one that’s strangely devoid of meaning, except for a clawing sense of survival.”

*Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that MattersRyan Singer

This is a strange segue perhaps, but May’s attention to “everything looking like nothing” gave me pause to consider whether all the things I do, and the way I work, could look more intentional. Productivity is one thing, but what is the point without purpose?

I don’t necessarily think the philosophy outlined in Ryan Singer’s book, Shape Up, which explains in detail how Basecamp works in six-week cycles rather than in popular but fairly meaningless two-week sprints, works flawlessly. But it tries. Aiming to swiftly develop and ship something within each six-week cycle, things move quickly without get bogged down.

Ultimately in reading this for work purposes, I saw some applicability in everyday life. That is, you can’t do everything, so why try? Why not discern what you can do that will deliver the most value to you in your life? Obviously this reasoning won’t work in every case. After all, you can’t rear children in six weeks and ship them onward while you move on to a new project. Many of life’s activities and its most fulfilling commitments are long term.

But some of the things we find ourselves taking on and saying “yes” to when we know it might be deleterious to our quality of life and in the big scheme of things won’t matter if we do them or not … we could avoid them if we thought about what matters.

*Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtJames Nestor

If we were to wager on “what matters”, breathing would be right up there. I mentioned breathing in last month’s book report alongside this unusually inspiring book and wanted to write more about the importance of respiration and the act, rather than art, of breathing. How we take the basic inhale and exhale that mark our lives, a sign of our continued living, for granted.

How, in the middle of a pandemic characterized by breathing difficulties, could it not trigger thought about the fundamental function of breathing? How it literally flows through every single thing we do.

In January a lifelong family friend, who was just four years my senior, died quite suddenly. Again, we’re in the middle of a pandemic in which millions of people have been critically ill with this virus. But this family friend, it turns out, didn’t have Covid-19. She was admitted to hospital in December, diagnosed with pneumonia and discharged. Soon thereafter she experienced respiratory distress again, returned to the hospital, was readmitted, had been tested multiple times for Covid (all negative). Yet her condition kept declining.

From her second stay in hospital, she called my mother (the closest thing to a mother figure she had left), panicking, crying, “I’m really scared. Please tell me everything is going to be fine.” My mother reassured her, knowing of course that she couldn’t make promises but could instead try to be a calming comfort. My mother asked me whether I’d like to send a text message to this woman with whom I’d had virtually no relationship since we were children, and strangely, this entire episode dredged up some terrible memories of what a relentless and cruel bully this woman had been to me when we were children. I hadn’t thought about it in years, but suddenly, her vulnerability brought this flood of memories to mind in such a vivid way.

Of course despite the events of the past, I did send a text, letting her know I would be thinking of her and wishing her well from afar. I never received a reply, and frankly, I don’t think she was conscious much longer after that message was sent. She went downhill from that day, with the respiratory distress getting worse until she was put on a ventilator. This still was not sufficient, so she was airlifted to another hospital where ECMO was available. She did receive a diagnosis finally (a rare, and hitherto undetected, form of cancer), and died soon thereafter. Her prognosis probably would not have been good even if a diagnosis had come sooner, as the cancer was quite advanced to invade in this way. And the presentation (respiratory) coupled with timing (middle of pandemic) may have delayed getting a correct diagnosis as well.

All I could think of was that single, simple act of breathing became labored, impossible until there was no more breath.

In Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes, which I also read in January but didn’t highlight in the book report, briefly discusses the Hawaiian language and reveals the “ha” of the words “aloha” and “haole” means “breath”. Reflecting how central the idea of breath is even to the development of our languages.

*Caste: The Origins of Our DiscontentsIsabel Wilkerson

“The anthrax, like the reactivation of the human pathogens of hatred and tribalism in this evolving century, had never died. It lay in wait, sleeping, until extreme circumstances brought it to the surface and back to life.”

Wilkerson’s writing, as always, is elegant and gripping, which makes it all the more painful to be nodding along and agreeing with her conclusion that America runs under an invisible caste system. No one would acknowledge or speak it aloud, or indeed, even see it (hence its invisibility), but racism and its structures is America’s caste system. Wilkerson makes the case, describing both the meaning of what a caste system is and how/why America is one such example:

“Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions. It is the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a four-hundred-year-old social order. Looking at caste is like holding the country’s X-ray up to the light. A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”

“The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources—which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence—who is accorded these and who is not.”

“Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

More generally, and most damning and true, about America as a society, Wilkerson puts into words why a whole lot of people don’t buy into the myth of the American dream. It’s an illusion reversed for a fraction of the population.

“Compared to our counterparts in the developed world, America can be a harsh landscape, a less benevolent society than other wealthy nations. It is the price we pay for our caste system. In places with a different history and hierarchy, it is not necessarily seen as taking away from one’s own prosperity if the system looks out for the needs of everyone.”

And it has only become more distant in light of recent events:

“The pandemic, and the country’s fitful, often self-centered lack of readiness, exposed “a failure of character unparalleled in US history,” in the words of Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University. The pandemic forced the nation to open its eyes to what it might not have wanted to see but needed to see, while forcing humanity to contemplate its impotence against the laws of nature. “This is a civilization searching for its humanity,” Gary Michael Tartakov, an American scholar of caste, said of this country. “It dehumanized others to build its civilization. Now it needs to find its own.””

Does America have any humanity to find?

*The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of BalanceLaurie Garrett

“Nature isn’t benign,” … “The bottom lines: the units of natural selection – DNA, sometimes RNA elements – are by no means neatly packaged in discrete organisms. They all share the entire biosphere. The survival of the human species is not a preordained evolutionary program.”

Viruses are, as Garrett warns, black boxes. We don’t know where they next come from, how serious they will be, how infectious they are, until of course they appear. As Garrett chronicles the history of unraveling various mysterious diseases as they appeared in the world, and identifying them, she paints a dark picture of what will happen with future viruses. We’re seeing her dire warnings play out now with Covid-19, although her alarm was sounded by the HIV crisis and its cruel and slow mismanagement.

“Through the AIDS prism, it was possible for the world’s public health experts to witness what they considered to be the hypocrisies, cruelties, failings, and inadequacies of humanity’s sacred institutions, including its medical establishment, science, organized religion, systems of justice, the United Nations, and individual government systems of all political stripes.”

“If HIV was our model, leading scientists concluded, humanity was in very big trouble. Homo sapiens greeted the emergence of the new disease first with utter nonchalance, then with disdain for those infected by the virus, followed by an almost pathologic sense of mass denial that dew upon mechanisms for rationalizing the epidemic that ranged from claiming that the virus was completely harmless to insisting that certain individuals or races of people were uniquely blessed with the ability to survive HIV infection.”

“Over the last five years, scientists – particularly in the United States and France –have voice concern that HIV, far from representing a public health aberration, maybe a sign of things to come. They warn that humanity has learned little about preparedness and response to new microbes, despite the blatant tragedy of AIDS.”

The awakening of a “global community consciousness” – certainly as it relates to the ecology/shared earth/environment didn’t do much to stop climate change. And firsthand awareness of both the way HIV unfolded, and now Covid, doesn’t equal action. If anything it may engender indifference in many and an active backlash in others. As Garrett writes in the gripping chapters on HIV/AIDS: **It’s a Sin**:

“Medical research money per se was not usually a partisan matter in the United States. … But AIDS was unique. It touched every nerve that polarized Americans: sex, homosexuality, race (Haitians), Christian family values, drug addition, and personal versus collective rights and security.”

*The Shipping NewsAnnie Proulx

We are far enough removed from the film adaptation of The Shipping News that reading this feels new and isn’t marred by picturing Kevin Spacey in the lead role. Oddly I started reading this the same day as I randomly had a conversation with someone in/from Newfoundland. Not an everyday occurrence. And the book makes mention of saucisson, which was once a well-tread “thing” between a former partner and me. Actually a couple of different partners. One, from whom I learned about saucisson in the first place, attempted to bring it back into the US from France without declaring it, and when I said, “Yeah, it’s a meat product”, he indignantly replied, as if his right to bear saucisson were self-evident, “But it is my saucisson!”

The next partner understood this reasoning perfectly, also relishing the fatty joy of saucisson. He made up a tune: “Saucisson – c’est bon.” I added: “Pauvre cochon.” I am certain he would still claim that the pig was happy to give its life to be saucisson.

Back to the point: Proulx has a distinct voice. I don’t love it, but I can’t deny its pull. I come to her work late, reading mostly the books from which films have sprung. I got around to reading Brokeback Mountain last month, and the film actually hewed so closely and faithfully to the book it was almost painful.

*How Yiddish Changed America and How America Changed YiddishIlan Stavans

Rosten’s approach to language is, in my view, savvy and dynamic. He doesn’t perceive it as an isolated, self-sufficient, enclosed human activity. Instead, he pushes for a more dynamic, functional conception, recognizing the constant effect politics, education, sports and entertainment, and other realms of life have on it. In other words, language is never static; it’s in permanent change, adapting to unforeseen circumstances by lending and borrowing terms and expressions from the environment. His approach, obviously, came from Yiddish itself, a stunningly resilient code whose principal source of sustenance was its flexibility and improvisational nature. To find health in the Pale of Settlement, Yiddish speakers for centuries made their lingo suit the needs of the time. They were polyglots, looking at language not only as a home but also as a way of escape: if one couldn’t do the trick, another one would. Plus, they were adept at the art of translation. To translate is to overcome the barriers of language, to cope with the circumstances by doing what chameleons do: make oneself part of an alien turf.

I was a bit disappointed with the most of this book (apart from the shared passages). I didn’t expect it to be a collection of different stuff but rather expected it to be a historical and linguistic account of the influence of Yiddish on American culture, language and life and vice versa. While the book kind of achieves that, it’s not quite the account I was hoping for.

Still there are moments when the precarious balance between a pop-culture representation of the Yiddish language, which in one way keeps it alive, however hollowed out, and the richer, deeper lived experience of the full language, which disappears with each day.

“Shortly after Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish, a hilarious lexicon of colloquialisms and locutions, was published in 1968, Irving Howe, the deacon of Jewish culture in the United States, irritably reviewed it in the pages of The New York Times. In Rosten’s book, Howe said, “Yiddish is torn out of its cultural context, its integral world of meaning and reference.” He described the book as a catalog of kitsch. He was troubled by the way Yiddish had become distant and unknown among secondhand third-generation Jews, a sign of false nostalgia and lack of authenticity. Needless to say, Howe wasn’t Rosten’s only critic. Accusations of inaccuracy were published in periodicals such as the Forverts. Even Isaac Bashevis Singer, who himself was often accused of misrepresenting Yiddish and who, upon accepting the Nobel Prize, said that the mame-loshn is the only language on earth that has never been spoken by men in power, in private conversations derided The Joys of Yiddish as impure, just as he derided mainstream phenomena like the musical Fiddler on the Roof. One periodical even nominated Rosten for a “shanda award.” (Shanda in Yiddish means shame, scandal.)”

*Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at WarMary Roach

“THE MAIN stressor of combat medicine is absent from every training simulation. No one is shooting real bullets at or anywhere near you. “Training is limited by liability,” said Siddle. He sounded a little mournful. “The high number of returnees diagnosed with PTSD suggests we are not doing enough,” scolds Colonel Ricardo Love in his paper.”

As ever, Mary Roach brings her curiosity and uniquely irreverent voice to another topic: military R&D/technology.

“THE CHICKEN GUN HAS a sixty-foot barrel, putting it solidly in the class of an artillery piece. While a four-pound chicken hurtling in excess of 400 miles per hour is a lethal projectile, the intent is not to kill. On the contrary, the chicken gun was designed to keep people alive. The carcasses are fired at jets, standing empty or occupied by “simulated crew,” to test their ability to withstand what the Air Force and the aviation industry, with signature clipped machismo, call birdstrike. The chickens are stunt doubles for geese, gulls, ducks, and the rest of the collective bird mass that three thousand or so times a year collide with Air Force jets, costing $50 million to $80 million in damage and, once every few years, the lives of the people on board. As a bird to represent all birds, the chicken is an unusual choice, in that it doesn’t fly. It does not strike a jet in the manner in which a mallard or goose strikes a jet—wings outstretched, legs trailing long. It hits it like a flung grocery item. Domestic chickens are, furthermore, denser than birds that fly or float around in wetlands. At 0.92 grams per centimeter cubed, the average body density of Gallus gallus domesticus is a third again that of a herring gull or a Canada goose. Nonetheless, the chicken was the standard “material” approved by the US Department of Defense for testing jet canopy…”

“Not only are chickens easier to obtain and standardize, but they serve as a sort of worst-case scenario. Except when they don’t.”

“This is the sort of story that drew me to military science—the quiet, esoteric battles with less considered adversaries: exhaustion, shock, bacteria, panic, ducks. Surprising, occasionally game-changing things happen when flights of unorthodox thinking† collide with large, abiding research budgets. People tend to think of military science as strategy and weapons—fighting, bombing, advancing. All that I leave to the memoir writers and historians. I’m interested in the parts no one makes movies about—not the killing but the keeping alive. Even if what people are being kept alive for is fighting and taking other lives. Let’s not let that get in the way. This book is a salute to the scientists and the surgeons, running along in the wake of combat, lab coats flapping. Building safer tanks, waging war on filth flies. Understanding turkey vultures.”

And, in tribute to all those who continue to fight against stupidity in the face of… biology (people who wish people would hide menstruation):

“In other words, it isn’t the blood that makes a tampon attractive to polar bears. It’s something uniquely . . . vaginal. Some kind of secretions that, please forgive me, smell like seals. This makes sense, does it not? When a feminine hygiene company hires a lab to test the efficacy of a scented menstrual product, the standardized odor employed for this purpose is known as a “fishy amine.” So alluring is the intensely vaginal/sealy scent of a tampon that a polar bear seems not to notice that it does not also taste like seal. In 42 of 52 instances, a wild polar bear who encountered a used tampon affixed to the top of a stake (scientific nomenclature: “used tampon stake”) ate or “vigorously chewed” it. Only seal meat was more consistently pulled from the stake and consumed. Paper towels soaked with regular blood—here again, nailed to a stake like a skull warning foolhardy jungle explorers—were eaten just three times.”

Said and read – January 2021

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

Previous book reports: 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for January

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

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

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

It’s all stream of consciousness now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The Artificial Silk GirlIrmgard Keun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Superior: The Return of Race ScienceAngela Saini

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

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

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

Second:

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

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

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

*Under the Udala TreesChinelo Okparanta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Breath: The New Science of a Lost ArtJames Nestor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And

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

Once again, yep.

 

Said and read – June 2020

Standard

“Someone who’s on top of the world isn’t much of an observer: happy people are poor psychologists. But someone who’s troubled about something is on the alert. The perceived threat sharpens his senses—he takes in more than he usually does.” The Post-Office GirlStefan Zweig

Image by S Donaghy

Another late book report. No good excuses other than… I kept reading more in July, not stopping to reflect too deeply on the things I read in June. I was also compiling a list of books on dealing with racist ignorance (a list that continues to evolve as I continue to educate myself).

Previous book reports: 2020 – May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for June:

Highly recommended

“But if we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing.” Surviving AutocracyMasha Gessen

*When the Clyde Ran RedMaggie Craig

A great book chronicling the history of socialist Red Clydeside in Glasgow. It’s a bit of a niche read, as most people don’t care about Glasgow, but a valuable history of a city defined by labor movements and fighting for workers’ rights amidst poverty, war and a period of exceptionally rapid and dramatic social and economic change.

*Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law, and Politics of Ordinary AbortionKatie Watson

In a country where abortion has been a constitutional right for forty-five years, we should be able to move on to a richer conversation about ethics and morality. We should be able to acknowledge the complexity of private decisionmaking without threatening the right of private decisionmaking.

I practically highlighted this entire book, which isn’t really helpful when trying to impart succinct ideas in a brief (haha) blog format. Although I wish everyone would read and try to understand it, I know it’s a difficult sell. Abortion is not a topic people are open to reading about, talking about or treating with any kind of nuance. The arguments are well-reasoned, persuasive and, most of all, important.

One result of our public and private silence about the experience of abortion is that doctors and clinic managers have become the public face of abortion. Unlike other health issues, in which patients and families advocate for future patients and the doctors and institutions that helped them, in abortion we ask those who provide something millions of women and families want and need to also shoulder most of the burden of its defense. That doesn’t seem fair, and I don’t think it’s sustainable.”

The “abortion is always a difficult decision” masterplot underscores the moral seriousness people making this decision are expected to have. But people who don’t struggle with an abortion decision are not necessarily less morally serious than those who do—they’re just less undecided. Someone who is clear about who she is, what she values, and what she wants is not casual. She is confident. Yet there are few examples of this type of counter-narrative. Bringing a child into the world is of great moral consequence, yet we don’t frame the decision to have a child as a difficult decision people always struggle with. So why wouldn’t some abortion decisions feel similarly obvious?

But the public rhetoric about abortion treats it as less a personal medical issue and more a moral and religious one. And the mismatch between what is true (actions) versus what is said (ideas, beliefs) is stark. So many more people have abortions than will ever admit it.

“Dr. Willie Parker identifies a related masterplot—“Abortion is always a tragedy”—and in Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, he offers his experience as an abortion provider as a counter-narrative. In doing so, he describes a large number of women whom I’d call confident. One of the cultural falsehoods that I most rail against is this: each and every abortion is a terrible tragedy and every woman who chooses to have an abortion is therefore a tragic figure. In this popular narrative, women are helpless victims—and not clear-eyed individuals making a sensible choice to benefit themselves and the people around them. I know, from seeing women every day, how far this is from being true. Most of the women I see are utterly matter-of-fact about what they’re doing. They’re on my table because they need to be.  … It may be difficult in a misogynist culture to regard women who freely choose sex and who freely choose to have abortions when needed as free agents taking their lives into their own hands. But the alternative is to see them as less than fully human and requiring of paternalistic intervention.”

And once more… the language and words we use matter.

How we think shapes how we talk, and how we talk shapes how we think. That’s why terminology is contested ground in the abortion conversation. But all of our under- and over-inclusive words for embryos and fetuses make me wonder: Is it really that helpful to have seventeen words for snow? Or is the point rather that when you talk about something complex and important you need a range of words to describe it, each of which captures an important element, because none of them can encompass it all?

How could we effectively reframe the language and thinking about abortion to change the discussion and make people see it in different ways? Much of what I read this month comes back to language and how it is used to frame or reframe issues (see the coincidence/Lakoff points below).

It observes that American adults are never required to sacrifice their bodies to save another person, and argues there’s no reason pregnant women should be held to a different standard. The most famous of these arguments was made by philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1971. She posited a parallel universe in which you wake up to find an adult, who happens to be a violinist, is attached to your body. He needs to be plugged into your circulatory system in order to live, and if you disconnect him he will die. She argues that the adult violinist has a right to life, but that is different than having a right to life support from another person’s body. According to Jarvis Thomson, a right to life is a right not to be killed—so if the violinist was flourishing on his own, shooting him at his recital would violate his right to life. But the violinist’s right to life does not include a right to be kept alive—so if he needs your body to stay alive, it is not unethical for you to disconnect him. Sacrificing your body to keep someone alive makes you a Good Samaritan, but it’s not morally required. This leads Jarvis Thomson to reason that even if an embryo or fetus has the same moral value as an adult, abortion is morally permissible.

Organ donation is not called “the obligation of life.” It’s called “the gift of life” because American medical ethics and law both say that no person can be forced to give a piece of their body to another. Our commitment to bodily integrity is so strong that we respect your wishes even after you’re dead—your desire to be buried intact is valued more in our culture than another person’s desire to stay alive.

Pregnancy can be viewed as a form of organ donation. A woman undergoes significant physical changes that can range from uncomfortable to dangerous for months so another’s life can be sustained by her major organs. It occupies her uterus, her heart must pump extra blood to give it oxygen, her kidneys must process its urine, and so on. These similarities mean the choice to lend one’s body to a developing human should also be considered a gift, not a requirement. The American tradition and law of self-defense offers another real-world analogy. When a person breaks into your house, you’re allowed to kill him. (The legal standard usually requires imminent threat of serious harm.) This suggests a woman who experiences an unwelcome pregnancy as bodily break-in by a different type of intruder should be able to respond to the threat of physical harm to her body and irrevocable disruption of her life by taking lethal action.”

*Surviving AutocracyMasha Gessen

“The difficulty with absorbing the news lies, in part, in the words we use, which have a way of rendering the outrageous ordinary. The secretary of education was held in contempt, and this astounding event was narrated in normalizing newspaper prose: probably the strongest description called it an “exceedingly rare judicial rebuke of a Cabinet secretary.” This could not begin to describe the drama of a cabinet member remaining unrepentant for her agency’s seizure of assets from people whom it had been ordered by the courts to leave in peace—sixteen thousand people.”

“When some of the post-Soviet societies developed in unexpected ways, language impaired our ability to understand the process. We talked about whether they had a free press, for example, or free and fair elections. But noting that they did not, as Magyar has said, is akin to saying that the elephant cannot swim or fly: it doesn’t tell us much about what the elephant is. Now the same thing was happening in the United States; we were using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe.”

I doubt that anyone needs more analysis or discussion of the (beyond) dysfunctional, shambolic presidency of Donald Trump. However, coming from Masha Gessen, a voice of authority on the signs of impending autocracy, this is a must-read. Or, in Bálint Magyar’s terminology, we should, through Gessen, examine “the concept of autocratic transformation, which proceeds in three stages: autocratic attempt, autocratic breakthrough, and autocratic consolidation.”

As with Katie Watson’s book listed above, I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is, how much I wish everyone would and could read it. I would end up copy-pasting the entire book here if I were not conscious of how useless that would be. Of course the people who need to understand what has been happening during and before Trump — the lead-up to and introduction of autocratic rule — will never read this or believe what they are reading.

“Both ways of framing the policy—whether by stressing that calling something a lie goes beyond fact and becomes opinion, or by focusing on internal, unknowable intent—place artificial limits on a journalist’s ability to observe reality. In order to assume that Trump was not aware that he was lying when he said that millions of immigrants had voted illegally, or that Obama had him wiretapped, or that his tax cut was the biggest in history, or that the economy was better than ever, or that he was building a wall and this wall would keep out drugs and crime, one had to ignore the very act of repetition. Trump repeats his false statements after they have been fact-checked by the media and, in many cases, contradicted by officials in his own administration—and it is this repetition that gives Trumpian lies much of their power.”

The people who need to read and understand that we are living in an autocracy will never see it, have bought into the lies, are blind to the outright “belief that political power should produce personal wealth” and have drunk the KoolAid. They are ready to die for (perhaps literally, thanks to Covid) this lying criminal alongside the endless churn of his lackeys and sycophants.

“The Reichstag Fire was used to create a “state of exception,” as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: Having amassed enough power to declare a state of exception, the sovereign then, by that declaration, acquires far greater, unchecked power.”

“A study of modern autocrats may show us that a Reichstag Fire is never quite the singular and signal event that changes the course of history, but it will also expose a truth behind the single-event narrative: autocrats declare their intentions early on. We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril.”

“We disbelieve or ignore them at our peril.” This is exactly what we have done. And now look at where we are. Trump has been telling us exactly who he is and what he wants to do for decades, and American belief in institutions and checks and balances — as well as a naive “presumption of good faith” — created an environment not dissimilar to that chronicled by Saul Friedländer (mentioned below) about the years leading up to the Holocaust. It’s not an exact parallel, but enough parallels can be drawn to show similarities: a complacent populace, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, the normalization of inflammatory and violent (often deranged) rhetoric, a failed attempt to impeach, and a continuing naivete assuming that all of this is benign, all of this will pass.

“Trump had campaigned on insulting the government, and he himself was an insult to the presidency. But could someone so absurd, so evidently incompetent, be a true danger? In the early months of the Trump presidency, the hope that Trump would become “presidential” was gradually replaced by the hope that he was too bad at the job to do true lasting damage. We could have imagined, but we could not have predicted, that a pandemic would render his arrogant ignorance lethal. We imagine the villains of history as masterminds of horror. This happens because we learn about them from history books, which weave narratives that retrospectively imbue events with logic, making them seem predetermined. Historians and their readers bring an unavoidable perception bias to the story: if a historical event caused shocking destruction, then the person behind this event must have been a correspondingly giant monster.”

*Praises & Offenses: Three Women Poets from the Dominican RepublicAída Cartagena Portalatín, Angela Hernández Núñez, Ylonka Nacidit-Perdomo

Poetry, of course. I have always loved such collections. This one was a beautiful discovery when researching Central and South American women poets.

*The Invisible Bridge/El Puente Invisible: Selected Poems of Circe MaiaCirce Maia

Another poetry research discovery.

*América invertida: An Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan PoetsJesse Lee Kercheval, ed.

Lovely poetry from Uruguay.

*Survival is a Style: PoemsChristian Wiman

Each time I approach a Christian Wiman book of poetry, I imagine I won’t like it. I don’t know why because each time the collection is full of surprises.

*The Post-Office GirlStefan Zweig

“Indifferent and without desires before, now she’s beginning to realize what she’s been missing. This contact with the overpowering is her first encounter with travel’s disconcerting ability to strip the hard shell of habit from the heart, leaving only the bare, fertile kernel.”

Status and class and the process of becoming aware of that as well as the power wielded by appearances and class – and how easily it can all be derailed.

“There’s nothing more vindictive, nothing more underhanded, than a little world that would like to be a big one.”

“Fear is a distorting mirror in which anything can appear as a caricature of itself, stretched to terrible proportions; once inflamed, the imagination pursues the craziest and most unlikely possibilities. What is most absurd suddenly seems the most probable…”

This is what it is like to live in a capitalist, wealth-obsessed world and highly reflective of the world we live in now.

*Stronghold: One Man’s Quest to Save the World’s Wild SalmonTucker Malarkey

He’d identified a flaw in the system that few seemed to recognize. The Endangered Species Act was not a conservation strategy—it was the emergency room. By the time a species was endangered, the whole system was failing. It was code blue; life support could be administered at great cost, but a full return to health was out of the question.

This is really a book I had no expectations of, and didn’t imagine I’d enjoy as much as I did. Yet it was engrossing – the tale of a strange man, marching to his own beat, whose entire life becomes a mission to save the world’s wild salmon.

I came to regard the fish swimming in our river as shape-shifters. The rainbow trout of the Deschutes could, under certain circumstances, transform their physiology and become anadromous: able to live in both fresh and salt water. They could leave the river as rainbow trout and come back as salmon. I still find it baffling that a creature can start life as one creature and end as another, like a dog going to the woods for a year and emerging as a wolf.

Good – or better than expected

*When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl’s BookNaja Marie Aidt

Writer Aidt writing a thoughtful and melancholy account of life after the death of her son.

*Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural ObjectsEdward Posnett

In Ísafjörður, the capital of Iceland’s remote Westfjords region, a Lutheran pastor compared eiderdown to cocaine. “I sometimes think that we are like the coca farmers in Colombia,” he said. “We [the down harvesters] get a fraction of the price when the product hits the streets of Tokyo. This is the finest down in the world and we are exporting it in black garbage bags.”

I am not sure why this book stuck with me. Most of it was not that fabulous, but it started by telling the tale of Iceland’s eiderdown harvests, and it was so fascinating and evocative — and filled me with a renewed homesickness for Iceland — that I was drawn in. Perhaps I’d recommend this book primarily for the opening chapter, although it tells the unusual and improbable stories of eiderdown, vicuña fiber, sea silk, vegetable ivory, civet coffee, guano, and edible birds’ nests… not exactly subjects about which most of us know… anything.

*The Mountains SingNguyễn Phan Quế Mai

What my uncle said made me think. I had resented America, too. But by reading their books, I saw the other side of them—their humanity. Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.

A story of a multigenerational Vietnamese family over the course of the 20th century. Beautifully written, bringing Vietnam itself to life in the prose, weaving the unwelcome conflicts of the 20th century, and the inevitable ensuing upheaval, into the lives of the characters.

*On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying “No” to PowerErich Fromm

Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience. Not only was his spiritual development possible only because there were men who dared to say no to the powers that be in the name of their conscience or their faith, but also his intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient—disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.

We continue to exist in a world that tries to harness and control people — and disobedience remains a powerful force for change. It also exposes the hypocrisy of the dominant paradigm and powers that be. Just before writing this I was told of a heated exchange on a British talk show in which a middle-aged woman (Carole Malone) decried the removal of a statue, which was replaced by a statue of a Black Lives Matter activist. It was clear that the replacement statue was meant as a statement, an act of disobedience and resistance, but she wasn’t having any of it — this was wrong and clearly a form of vandalism. When asked whether she saw Banksy’s work the same way, she insisted that, no, this was not the same because Banksy is “making a statement”. How and in what world is the statue removal and replacement not making a statement? In this case it was probably less about disobedience and more about Malone’s unconscious racial bias. But still… disobedience and resistance makes news, draws attention to issues and, as Fromm makes clear, is required as an ingredient for freedom.

Freedom may take on different definitions, but a society that is not free to question and resist power, particularly where it’s corrupt, isn’t free.

From socialist principles it follows not only that each member of society feels responsible for his fellow citizens, but for all citizens of the world. The injustice which lets two-thirds of the human race live in abysmal poverty must be removed by an effort far beyond the ones hitherto made by wealthy nations to help the underdeveloped nations to arrive at a humanly satisfactory economic level. Humanistic socialism stands for freedom. It stands for freedom from fear, want, oppression, and violence. But freedom is not only from, but also freedom to; freedom to participate actively and responsibly in all decisions concerning the citizen, freedom to develop the individual’s human potential to the fullest possible degree.

*The Book of Disappearance: A NovelIbtisam Azem

Longing is thorns.

A novel based on the premise that one day all the Palestinians disappear from Israel — what happens then?

*The Child in TimeIan McEwan

I went on an Ian McEwan “bender” during June… one book after another. Some were excellent, like this (which I’ve seen the film adaptation of), and others completely forgettable.

Such faith in endless mutability, in remaking yourself as you came to understand more or changed your version, he had come to see as an aspect of her femininity. Where once he had believed, or thought he ought to believe, that men and women were, beyond all the obvious physical differences, essentially the same, he now suspected that one of their many distinguishing features was precisely their attitudes to change. Past a certain age, men froze into place; they tended to believe that, even in adversity, they were somehow at one with their fates. They were who they thought they were.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Accidental Presidents: Eight Men Who Changed AmericaJared Cohen

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book, but it was actually quite informative. Obviously about presidents who ended up being presidents… by accident.

*Salt: A World HistoryMark Kurlansky

It’s been a long while since I read a Kurlansky book. I recall being stuck in the Halifax airport for the better part of a day, plowing my way through his book on the Basque people. Hard to believe that was already 20 years ago.

At times soldiers were even paid in salt, which was the origin of the word salary and the expression “worth his salt” or “earning his salt.” In fact, the Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word, soldier.

While there was nothing revolutionary here, it was still quite an interesting walk through the history of one of the world’s most common condiments.

They also ate a great deal of salted herring, though they seem to have preferred lightly salted and smoked red herring, perhaps because of their limited salt supply. When these early settlers hunted, they would leave red herring along their trail because the strong smell would confuse wolves, which is the origin of the expression red herring, meaning “a false trail.””

*Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and DemocracyMatt Stoller

Our leaders responded to a financial collapse caused by a concentration of wealth and power by pushing even more wealth and power into the hands of the same people that caused it.

Far from living in a decentralized age with competition and choice, we live in an era of monopolies and anti-competition the likes of which we’ve rarely seen before. And it poses a real danger to any semblance of democracy or control.

Take a look around. You probably have a phone made by one of two companies. You likely bank at one of four giant banks, and fly on one of four big airlines. You connect with friends with either Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram, all of which are owned by one company. You get your internet through Comcast or AT&T. Data about your thoughts goes into a database owned by Google, what you buy into Amazon or Walmart, and what you owe into Experian or Equifax. You live in a world structured by concentrated corporate power.

Wright Patman was an optimist, but the rise of soft authoritarianism globally would not have surprised him. Dictatorship in politics is consistent with how the commercial sphere has developed since the 1970s. Americans are at the mercy of distant forces, our livelihoods dependent on the arbitrary whims of power. Patman once attacked chain stores as un-American, saying, “We, the American people, want no part of monopolistic dictatorship in… American business.” Having yielded to monopolies in business, we must now face the threat to democracy Patman warned they would sow.

*Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of ExterminationSaul Friedländer

Nobody would dispute such an obvious point; its significance derives from an essential fact. Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews (some of the Christian churches declared that converted Jews were part of the flock, up to a point); to the contrary, many social constituencies, many power groups were directly involved in the expropriation of the Jews and eager, be it out of greed, for their wholesale disappearance. Thus Nazi and related anti-Jewish policies could unfold to their most extreme levels without the interference of any major countervailing interests.

An essential but difficult-to-read account of the persecution and killing of Europe’s Jews before and during World War II. It delves into the complex set of circumstances that set the stage for the mass-scale extermination that eventually ensued, including policy decisions, the willingness to obey orders, the blind belief in the rule of law (not considering that the law could be changed to suit the moment), the herd mentality, economic factors and scapegoating, and much more. It’s painstaking… and painful but more important the further away from this period of history we get.

*Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food KingdomAdam Chandler

“The chicken was a revelation; the result was poultry in motion.

I read this on a lark, without having high hopes that it would be a great book. This is a lightweight and easy-to-read account of America’s fast-food history. It’s a straightforward and engaging story that eschews the “dark side” of fast food we’ve come to expect from exposé-style journalism and filmmaker (here I mean things like the Supersize Me documentary and other materials in the same vein).

Nothing here was very surprising, but it was put together in a way that made the ‘journey’ worth taking. For example, I read this quite soon after I’d read some other account of the life of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, so while Chandler reveals nothing new, he still brings the story to life. Even his treatment of the rise of the almighty cupholder came to life:

By 2007, PricewaterhouseCoopers surveys had found that the number of cupholders had come to outstrip fuel efficiency as a priority for the American car buyer, though unprecedented hikes in gas prices in the late aughts would shuffle those priorities and hurt the sales of big cars. But by 2015, the mighty SUVs were booming again, along with a runaway number of cupholders. In late 2017, viral word of the features offered by a new-model Subaru SUV inspired euphoria and disbelief. The 2019 Ascent, pumped as “the biggest Subaru yet,” comes equipped with three passenger rows, 260 horsepower, and a staggering nineteen cupholders.

Oddly, he makes a reference to “Buddy Garrity”, “Nearly fifty years later, Piazza is an impressive dead ringer for Buddy Garrity and is the owner of ten McDonald’s franchises”, and I had to wonder how many people reading it would be familiar enough with Buddy Garrity to get the reference.

*Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening WorldDavid Owen

I suspect that hearing is something we take very much for granted until we start to lose it. Right away I felt like I was reading retellings of stories I’ve heard from people so many times about how, having lived together for 30 years (or thereabouts), they realize that their partner is mumbling and angrily demanding, “Answer me!” even though the person has answered already. Hearing just begins to disappear, often in slow increments, and people don’t realize, stubbornly refusing to move to mitigate the damage.

Hearing problems are often aggravated by the human tendency to do nothing and hope for the best, usually while pretending that everything is fine. This is the way we treat many health problems, although it’s not the way we typically treat threats to our other senses. People who need glasses almost always get them, and, as Lauren Dragan wrote on the website Wirecutter in 2018, “If someone told you that wearing certain jeans too often might trigger permanent leg numbness, or overuse of a hot sauce would cause you to lose your ability to taste sweets, you’d pay attention.” Yet people who notice trouble with their ears wait more than ten years, on average, before doing anything other than saying “Huh?,” turning up the TV, and asking other people to speak up. I heard a joke about a man who was worried his wife was going deaf. He told his doctor, who suggested a simple test. When the man got home, he stood at the door of the kitchen, where his wife was at the stove, and asked, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She didn’t respond, so he moved closer and asked again. She still didn’t respond, so he stood directly behind her and asked one more time. She turned around and snapped, “For the third time, chicken!”

Coincidences

*The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the DebateGeorge Lakoff

When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas. Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily.

Earlier in this post I wrote about Katie Watson’s Scarlet A and Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, both of which describe the importance of language and how we must deliberately choose how we frame issues. Clearly the “coincidence” this month was that I managed to read books that cover a broad range of topics, but many of them come back to this very basic truth about language and how influential it is, and how it is fundamentally underpinned by metaphors and semantics and are backed by ideas that resonate deeply with the long-term concepts embedded deep within our cognitive function.

Lakoff has been writing from the linguist’s and progressive’s point of view, explaining how the conservative movement, particularly in the United States, have been so successful because of their command of framing their issues.

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.”

Gessen writes about how the language we choose and use is instrumental in our understanding of the world, and in the case of Trump, the process of normalizing the exceedingly abnormal. Language and words carry real power. Progressives, democrats and those on “that side” of the line haven’t been as active or effective at deploying language and framing, which is something Lakoff tackles.

The conservatives had set a trap: The words draw you into their worldview. That is what framing is about. Framing is about getting language that fits your worldview. It is not just language. The ideas are primary—and the language carries those ideas, evokes those ideas.

“People think in frames. The strict father and nurturant parent frames each force a certain logic. To be accepted, the truth must fit people’s frames. If the facts do not fit a frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. Why? Neuroscience tells us that each of the concepts we have—the long-term concepts that structure how we think—is instantiated in the synapses of our brains. Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid. That’s what happens when progressives just “confront conservatives with the facts.” It has little or no effect, unless the conservatives have a frame that makes sense of the facts.”

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

Nothing terribly disappointing to report, although there were plenty of things that were neither good nor bad.

 

Said and read – February 2020

Standard

Image courtesy of S Donaghy, 2020

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

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

As far as book reports go, here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for February:

Highly recommended

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

*The TestamentsMargaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*The Nickel BoysColson Whitehead

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

*The White Album Joan Didion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good – or better than expected

*Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene

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

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

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

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

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

*CleannessGarth Greenwell

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

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

*The Memory PoliceYoko Ogawa

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

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

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

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

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coincidences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Dead AstronautsJeff VanderMeer

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

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

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

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

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

Lunchtable TV talk: Prisons of your own making – The Shield and You

Standard

In the closing shots of the now-old (though, for some, not forgotten) “bad-cop” serial The Shield, the show’s anti-hero, Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), has – against all odds – gotten away with it. “It” being all the Machiavellian and self-serving things he did to profit and stay one step ahead of everyone else. That is, he and his crew, The Strike Team, perpetrated some of the most heinous acts in the name of “justice” during the course of the show’s seven-year run. They came under considerable suspicion but always managed to slip the noose. Not without casualties of course. The Strike Team anti-gang police unit – Mackey’s crew of rogue, line-crossing, law-breaking guys  – had once been friends, had once trusted each other implicitly. This trust erodes as the team had to do increasingly dangerous and illegal things to cover their escalating malfeasance. In ‘getting away with it’ – most of the characters here lose everything, up to and including their lives. At the very end (spoiler alert), Mackey finally gets out of trouble, dodges all the bullets that have been chasing him for years… only to end up getting assigned to a desk job with ICE – friendless, trustless, with his family in witness protection, and with his hands well and truly tied. He was the classic adrenaline junkie, corrupt and not above betraying everyone and everything that stood in his way, thriving on chaos and being at the center of colossal messes of his own making. In getting – kind of – what he thought he wanted,  he built a prison that probably ended up being worse than if he’d been caught early on or killed, or even if he’d gone to actual prison.

I thought a lot about this ending at the time, and how well Chiklis conveyed Mackey’s inner torment at suddenly being rendered useless, off the streets, chained to a desk… the worst punishment he could have imagined. But it was not until I half-watched the end of season 2 of the stalker-centric series, You, that The Shield returned to my conscious thought. It’s not my normal fare (but what is, really?), and the subtle parallels between it and The Shield did not reveal themselves until I saw the conclusion of series 2. Or rather, all the parallels became clear in the closing scenes of series 2. In both shows, events that the main characters undertake escalate, get out of control, and the rest of the time is spent trying to cover those tracks, which always results in new missteps that require more cover. You get the point. Finally (spoiler alert), You‘s main character, Joe (Penn Badgley), finds someone who is painfully just like him only even more calculating, more cunning, more deluded, and while this won’t lead to an epiphany or self-awareness, he has reflective moments in which he can see, once he is a victim, how his victims felt once his obsessive behavior was revealed.

One would think – even Joe himself – that finding someone just like him, who truly understands and sees him for exactly what he is, would be liberating. In fact, it’s the opposite. We, as humans, project and see what we want to see. Throughout the second series of You, the signs were there if Joe had really seen the person he was chasing. But he was consumed by the chase, not by what was right in front of his eyes. If we discover another person who is so eerily similar to us, do we feel comforted by the similarity and potential for understanding? Or do we feel more vulnerable than ever and feel trapped by what we sought and invited? I’d argue that Joe’s dual problem is 1. he had never been truly seen, and now it’s too ugly to have it mirrored back to him, 2. he got what he thought he wanted, but it’s the thrill of stalking, discovering, creating delusional narratives and justifications, that drives him.

While these two shows are almost nothing alike, it’s that imprisonment – ending up through a mad, wild series of dramatic events of the characters’ own making – that lands them in the same place.

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.

Said and read – October 2018

Standard

Textbooks. That’s about all I can say or reflect on with regard to books read in October. My neck and shoulders are crying out similarly (as I’ve dutifully lugged these texts with me all over the place). It’s been interesting, and has informed many of my non-studious discussions, but nothing worth writing extensively about.

I have been pleased, though, that I’ve somehow managed to keep my head above water over the course of October, which will (along with the first half of November) be the most challenging time of 2018. I enjoyed a brief re-connection with a university-era acquaintance who was apparently inspired by this blog to think differently about what he reads, which in turn gave me things to contemplate with regard to how I consume my literature – and why.

Feel free to dig further into what I was reading over the course of the year, which was undoubtedly more interesting than now: September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious. Or follow me on Goodreads to see a list of pretty much *everything* I read.

Thoughts on reading for October:

Highly recommended

*The Conformist: A NovelAlberto Moravia

I read this novel in the course of a couple of short flights, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I had had no idea what to expect. The style was infused by such intensity that I couldn’t stop reading.

“But Marcello, we were all innocent. Don’t you think I was innocent, too? And we all lose our innocence, one way or another. That’s normality.”

Still, Italy isn’t fooling me.

He observed all these people from under his lashes with urgent repugnance. It always happened like this: he thought he was normal, like everyone else, when he imagined the crowd in abstract, a great, positive army united by the same feelings, the same ideas, the same aims; and it was comforting to be part of this. But as soon as individuals emerged out of that crowd, his illusion of normality shattered against the fact of diversity. He did not recognize himself at all in them and felt both disgust and detachment.

Good – really good

*Development as FreedomAmartya Sen

Perhaps my interests are skewed toward social and economic justice, equality and equality of opportunity, and Sen’s ideas on development and development as freedom are thus especially appealing to my kind of thinking… nevertheless, he makes compelling arguments for these ideals with evidence from within the framework of fairly mainstream and widely quoted/perceived-as-capitalist thinking in the extreme (e.g. Adam Smith: We have to begin by noting that Smith was deeply skeptical of the morals of the rich—there is no author (not even Karl Marx) who made such strong criticism of the motives of the economically well placed vis-à-vis the interests of the poor.).

Development can be seen, it is argued here, as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization.

And we can see more clearly than ever the way these fundamental freedoms are withheld from the majority, leading the situation in what are often cited as the most prosperous societies:

Development requires the removal of major sources of unfreedom: poverty as well as tyranny, poor economic opportunities as well as systematic social deprivation, neglect of public facilities as well as intolerance or overactivity of repressive states. Despite unprecedented increases in overall opulence, the contemporary world denies elementary freedoms to vast numbers—perhaps even the majority—of people. Sometimes the lack of substantive freedoms relates directly to economic poverty, which robs people of the freedom to satisfy hunger, or to achieve sufficient nutrition, or to obtain remedies for treatable illnesses, or the opportunity to be adequately clothed or sheltered, or to enjoy clean water or sanitary facilities. In other cases, the unfreedom links closely to the lack of public facilities and social care, such as the absence of epidemiological programs, or of organized arrangements for health care or educational facilities, or of effective institutions for the maintenance of local peace and order.

I read several books about poverty, gentrification and the homelessness/housing crises as side effects of unequal economic development and infrastructural collapse in the United States, but didn’t find any of them to be as urgent or in-depth as they should be given the extent of the problem. I suppose Sen’s theories and analysis feels more important, even if it is grounded in theory rather than in the daily-life inability of individuals to pay their rent.

*Bosnian ChronicleIvo Andrić

“Daville thought: “The terrible thing is not that we grow old and weak and die, but that a new, younger, different breed comes pushing behind us. This is the essence of death. No one drags us toward the grave, we’re pushed in from behind.””

Andrić just has a way with describing people and scenes that I can’t quite compare to anything else.

One approaches every parting with a twofold illusion. The person we are parting from—especially when, as in this case, it is likely to be forever—appears to us far more valuable and deserving of our attention than heretofore, and we ourselves feel much more capable of generous and selfless friendship than in fact we are.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Selected Poems by Laurie LeeLaurie Lee

*Woods and ChalicesTomaž Šalamun

As always, it’s poetry that grounds me when I need to reconnect to myself and escape from work or study.

Coincidences

Nothing terribly coincidental although I find trivial tidbits interesting, such as reading about one of the pioneers of psychology/leaders of behaviorism, John B. Watson (who is woven throughout almost all of my current textbooks) is the grandfather of the actress and mental health activist/advocate, Mariette Hartley.

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

I don’t think I can characterize anything I read as a disappointment or a source of strong feelings whatsoever. The workload of textbook reading is not exactly pleasure reading, and I am finding some things more interesting than others, but nothing qualifies as something I’ve actively disliked. The whole textbook ‘style’ lacks anything that endears the reader to it, but it serves its purpose.

 

Said and read – September 2018

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September has not been as challenging as I feared. I think October and November are likelier to offer challenges to the schedule. Still, my face is buried in journal articles and textbooks, and I’ve failed to complete reading more than ten books this month.

Perhaps what gets me down (to continue the lament from last month) is that I won’t achieve my initial 2018 reading goal. That is, the intent to read 26 books in non-English languages. I started off strong and managed a few rather lengthy books in Norwegian, Icelandic, French, Russian and Swedish. But not quite 26. As each month ticks by, and I stuff my brain with English-language book after English-language book, however technical and specialized they may be, I come to terms with the realization that I am not going to get to 26, even if I reach the almost out-of-reach 365 books overall for the year.

How is it October, with its oppressive greeting of wind and darkness, already?

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

Thoughts on reading for September:

I only managed two books for “fun”: Wallace Stegner‘s The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Driss Chraïbi‘s Le passé simple – both while milling around airports and sitting on planes, so I don’t think I got as much out of either as I would have liked. That said, I enjoyed Stegner, but not as much as I have enjoyed his other work.

I didn’t read as much or in the same way as I normally do, so I can’t really follow the same format as in previous months. I can’t say whether I recommend or like anything I read because most of it was required reading and necessary for comprehension of specific topics that won’t appeal to a broader “audience” (again, I know there’s no “audience” for this, but still…). So here, instead, is a chronicle of what I am/have been reading.

What I’m reading

*Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual EquityJennifer Weiss-Wolf

*Psychology: The Science Of Mind And Behaviour – Nigel Holt et al

*Understanding Global Development Research. Fieldwork Issues, Experiences and Reflections – Crawford, Kruckenberg, Loubere, Morgan (eds)

*Psychology – Miles Hewstone

*An Introduction to Social Psychology – Hewstone, Stroebe, Jonas

*Historical and Conceptual Issues in Psychology – Brybaert, Rastle

*Modern Psychology: A History – Schultz & Schultz

*An Introduction to Developmental Psychology – Slater, Bremner

…and an innumerable list of academic/professional journal articles in development studies, psychology, identity, feminist theory and so many other topics…

My brain, at least, is full.

Besting the depression beast

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“But despite the enthusiastic claims of pharmaceutical science, depression cannot be wiped out so long as we are creatures conscious of our own selves. It can at best be contained—and containing is all that current treatments for depression aim to do.”The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon

I admit it – I’ve written a misleading title for this post, in large part because I don’t think there is any such thing as “besting” depression in the sense that you can defeat it completely. Can you best it in that you tame it, manage it, have good days or very long spells of not having depression rule your life? Of course. And it’s in this sense that I use the term “besting”… finding, through all the trial and error that it seems to require, the right treatment for depression to deliver you (or the depressed person) the best possible outcome and way of living. And this, at best, seems to be impermanent and something about which one must be vigilant.

People who are not clinically depressed and never have been are unlikely to ever understand intrinsically true clinical depression or what it feels like. Maybe with observation and experience, we can recognize it in others (“we”, here, being laypeople without clinical depression who are the friends, loved ones and colleagues of the clinically depressed). Maybe we can get brief but “light” glimpses of the multifarious nature of depression (and other mental illnesses, which may or may not accompany depression) when we ourselves dip into our own melancholy.

Like most, I have been through circumstantial depression (when something terrible happens, and triggered by this circumstance, I react in some way akin to ‘depression’ – which can be a whole host of different things). But ultimately I retain, or at least quickly and independently regain, the ability to cope and manage without consequences or lasting physical or emotional effects. Perhaps I am, like many, predisposed to an overly thoughtful and melancholy nature… but this is not clinical depression or mental illness. I have seen the difference up close more times than I care to recount.

I think frequently and often about depression, anxiety and other illnesses, as usual in trying to understand the people around me and, more closely, the people in my life. Those who do suffer from at least depression, if not a smörgåsbord of other issues. This need to understand largely began with my father’s late-1980s breakdown and ongoing battle with crippling depression (which has manifested itself repeatedly ever since but in different guises and ways, something to which he will never admit; he discarded his Prozac after a few years and declared that he was “cured”, but he isn’t). What I continue to learn along the way informs all my interactions with people who share with me that they are depressed or otherwise mentally ill (I have many friends, family members and colleagues who have experienced these conditions at varying extremes). More recently, experiences with depressed (often undiagnosed) addicts/alcoholics have pushed me further into the investigative field, wanting not just to understand limited textbook portrayals of depression but the much more integrative and complex web of interwoven factors that make up depression as a whole.

Looking for a fresh perspective, I turned to Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. (And strangely, I was only about a fifth of the way through reading the book when Sinéad O’Connor’s recent self-published video, crying out from the depths of her own depression appeared on Facebook. A real-life reminder that depression and mental illness is everywhere, does not discriminate, and that even if stigma attached to mental illness has decreased considerably in the last 30 years, it still takes quite a lot of courage, particularly as a public figure, to put yourself out on display in such a raw, emotive, helpless state and ask for help.)

Immediately gripping in its in-depth approach, starting with the intensely personal and detailed, and weaving itself out into a mixture of the personal (both the author’s own and the experiences/anecdotes of others who have lived with depression) and journalistic/scholarly pursuit of the history of depression and its various treatments alongside the complex web of mitigating factors that change one’s relationship to depression, e.g. poverty, demographics, politics and social perception (stigma), the book has been well-worth the difficulty and time invested.

By “difficulty” here, I don’t mean that it is a challenging or excessively convoluted or academic book – in fact, it reads much more like a riveting, long-form piece in a periodical. It’s technically quite easy to read, fixate on and think about, long after you’ve put the book down. It takes some digestion; it’s almost comprehensive and encyclopedic at tackling all angles of depression. It’s for this reason that my own writing about the book is surface-level at best – a mere recommendation for those who want to understand depression, who suffer from depression and want to see hope through information.

Moreover, despite Solomon’s relatively dispassionate account of his own journey (and those of others), the book is difficult because these accounts are so human and painful to read about, to see, even through the filter of distance, what he and others have gone through, both in the throes of deepest, wildest depression and in seeking treatment. But that is where the power of this book rests – and why this work not only satisfied my desire to know and understand, as closely as I could get to being under the skin of a depressed person, but also is important as a topic of study and discussion, as a compendium of depression and how it is seen, treated, perceived on many levels. As a springboard for continued analysis and study.