Said and read – March 2020

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Image used courtesy of S. Donaghy

Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.The OverstoryRichard Powers

Were we ready when March began for the way the world has changed? How casually and spontaneously we jumped on airplanes and flew from place to place without even thinking about it. How every activity was about time and convenience, nothing to do with whether or not it would be life threatening to leave one’s house. Sure, when March began, we knew the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading – we saw the tragic consequences unfold in more distant parts of the world (depending on where in the world you are, of course). But even now self-isolation orders (and adherence) is piecemeal, fragmented and inconsistently applied and enforced. Until we feel the pain or fear of personal loss, we don’t seem to care very much. We see the death toll rise, but unless it’s touched you, we express a collective, “Oh that’s too bad” kind of semi-indifference. When does that change? It may be an ideal time to reassess who we are in the world and who we want to be.

I want this not only for artists and writers, but for any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized. A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” –How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

We haven’t seen the extent of the way the world will change. We just don’t know if it gets better or worse from here. And while I go on in my own long-term self-isolation (this is my normal lifestyle), I continue reading. I wish I had the language to discuss reading and books more interactively, but I don’t. I find that many people tell me they “love” reading, only to discover that they are talking about audiobooks (ugh) or scifi/fantasy novels, and then I just don’t have common ground any more. I want people to read; I want to read. I want to share this passion, but then I find I reach a certain point where it becomes private and insular, and no one can reach me on the ground I tread.

Past editions: 2020 – 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:

Highly recommended

It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.” –On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

*On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

It’s a narrative work from poet, Ocean Vuong, and you can tell it’s written by a poet. The language is evocative, emotionally resonant and beautiful.

You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.

*How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.

I am not sure that there could have been a better book for this moment in time of “manifest dismantling” than Odell’s How to Do Nothing. While many of us are forced to abandon what we think of as valuable productivity, and face who we are day to day without the trappings of what we think of as “normal life”, we are reflected back at ourselves. Since the various lockdown levels have rolled out globally, friends and colleagues have begun to exhibit signs of minor meltdown, insisting after two days at home, “I’m bored.”

Even with the technologies we insist we rely on at their disposal, which have been so immersive and all-consuming to the detriment of human connection, isolation is unbearable. When these people did have the opportunity to commune face to face with other humans in public spaces, they didn’t – they communed with phones and devices, which now – only now – aren’t enough for them. Who would have thought? And now they demand entertainment. Probably this is more a function of being human – needing connection and validation – than of just being unimaginative and boring (as grandma said, only boring people get bored), yet it’s still perplexing – and mesmerizing. What should you be doing? And if not now, when should you think more deeply on this subject?

“The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

I will never run out of things to do. Why are these people so bored? Is the need to socialize and be productive in a collective way so compelling – compulsive?

If you become interested in the health of the place where you are, whether that’s cultural or biological or both, I have a warning: you will see more destruction than progress.

What has marked all of my memorable reading this month is how accidentally it has fallen into thematic alignment with the pitting of the momentary against the longevity of the durable and persistent … and what these things mean, and whether those definitions can and do change. That is, in Odell, Powers, and Sinclair we see long-term ecology and culture stretch out over unseen time, beyond this frenzied economic cycle, beyond our envisioned or predicted lifespan, beyond the life of a single tree from one geologic epoch to another…

“Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new in the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation. But this seeming contradiction actually points to a deeper contradiction: of destruction (e.g., of ecosystems) framed as construction (e.g., of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress, production, and innovation relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like so many weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if we sincerely recognize all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.”

Good – or better than expected

*UnaccompaniedJavier Zamora

Powerful poetry from Salvadoran poet, Javier Zamora.

*The OverstoryRichard Powers

I have no way to describe why I liked this. It just had some beautiful, evocative passages about trees, nature… and chestnuts. Just after I’d discussed chestnuts with someone, stating that I was not sure I’d ever tasted them, I started reading and immediately was struck by the mildly erotic (?) description of the flavor of a chestnut.

“The charred nuts are comforting beyond words: sweet and savory, rich as a honeyed potato, earthy and mysterious all at once. The burred husks prickle, but their No is more of a tease than any real barrier. The nuts want to slip free of their spiny protection. Each one volunteers to be eaten, so others might be spread far afield.”

The “overstory” essentially is like the often lengthy life of a tree. Life’s decisions are not one-dimensional, one-generational, their consequences not immediately felt. They appear later, throughout time, like the rings of a tree.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Lifespan: Why We Age – And Why We Don’t Have ToDavid A. Sinclair

There’s also a difference between extending life and prolonging vitality. We’re capable of both, but simply keeping people alive—decades after their lives have become defined by pain, disease, frailty, and immobility—is no virtue.

When confronted by propositions about living forever, aging and the disease of aging, scores of questions follow. How do we value life, relationships, commitments if we remove mortality from the equation? Would we reevaluate “old age” if being elderly didn’t inevitably mean infirmity? Would we really want to live forever – or even for hundreds of years? What do things mean when they are no longer finite?

If the epigenome had evolved to be digital rather than analog, the valley walls would be the equivalent of 100 miles high and vertical, and gravity would be superstrong, so the marbles could never jump over into a new valley. Cells would never lose their identity. If we were built this way, we could be healthy for thousands of years, perhaps longer. But we are not built this way. Evolution shapes both genomes and epigenomes only enough to ensure sufficient survival to ensure replacement—and perhaps, if we are lucky, just a little bit more—but not immortality.

I read this book in large part because my brother talks obsessively about aging (and why we don’t have to age the way we think of aging now). For now, Sinclair’s impressive book, ostensibly about aging and how we can prevent it, is full of different strategies and avenues medicine, science and research are taking to tackle the problem of aging. It aims to challenge the shared narrative of aging as we know it as a natural phenomenon, and instead of redefine it (i.e., infirm aging) as a disease.

Yet, this book has struck me more for its focus on the ubiquity, totality, danger and promise of data… Sinclair argues that we give away copious amounts of personal data as a form of currency every single day, but we are reticent to do so when it is medical in nature, even if this data might be the most vital we could offer in ‘rejuvenating’ humanity.

Perhaps there are people out there who’d be happy to drive without any dashboard at all, relying solely on their intuition and experience to tell them how fast they are going, when their car needs fuel or recharging, and what to fix when something goes wrong. The vast majority of us, however, would never drive a car that wasn’t giving us at least some quantitative feedback, and, through our purchasing decisions, we have made it clear to car companies that we want more and more intelligent cars.

Surprisingly, we’ve never demanded the same for our own bodies. Indeed, we know more about the health of our cars than we know about our own health. That’s farcical. And it’s about to change.

Thanks to wearables, we already have the technology in place to monitor the body temperature, pulse, and other biometric reactions of more than a hundred million people in real time. The only things separating us from doing so are a recognized need and a cultural response.

Most of us aren’t “the world’s most connected man” (side note: I had read about this dude, Chris Dancy, online a few times and then a few years later was seated next to him on a plane), but we’re connected enough that any illusion of privacy we cling to is… a fantasy. Why do we not embrace it?

Indeed, most relevant at the moment is Sinclair’s writing (from 2019) on a future pandemic that is poised to wipe out huge swathes of the global population and how data might help. It’s timely right now, but clearly, the pandemic is already here.

Coincidences

Apart from more than three different books I recently read citing the film Gattaca, I didn’t stumble on any great coincidences in March.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Girl, Woman, OtherBernardine Evaristo

This was by no means a bad book; I simply had my expectations built up, so anything would have been disappointing. What I can say about it is… it is dynamic, told from multiple points of view – and that’s a hit or miss proposition for me.

The single woman: Alone with strangers

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“I started to think about how people say that the trouble with two strangers getting married isn’t necessarily that the woman has to marry someone she doesn’t know but that she has to learn to love someone she doesn’t know…But I think it must be easier for a girl to marry someone she doesn’t know, because the more you get to know men, the harder it is to love them.” –Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk

“But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.)” –A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Changing space and place

In writing an earlier post, The silent woman, about being middle-aged, or just being a woman who is trying to make her voice heard in the world we live in (it’s easy for me to forget that this is difficult, but then the news turns up some corporate jackass says women talk too much or one of the only hard-charging questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, was repeatedly interrupted by men at Jeff Sessions’s session in the hot seat at recent US Senate Intelligence Committee hearings), it started off with my thinking about the choices we, as women, have. The choices I, as an individual have – as a woman, as a middle-aged woman, in the position, station and circumstances in which I find myself now. I am fortunate; I cannot complain. I may always have been somewhere near invisible, but I’ve oddly been able to do most things my own way. I have never been railing against a system that is stacked against me. I run afoul of many of society’s expectations and have never cared what other people thought.

So when considering a woman’s place, a woman’s ‘requirement’ to marry or to bend to the conventions of society, I have never felt bound to these ‘norms’. Many of Erica Jong’s assertions in Fear of Flying, which may well have been the norm in 1973 (and in many cases remain so today), were thus memos I shredded in favor of doing whatever I wanted.

She wrote:

“Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man—especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets” during a brief interval between marriages.”

Bullshit. Solitude may well be un-American, maybe even inhuman. But I prefer solitude and embraced it.

She also wrote:

“…be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone.”

Perhaps as a function or fact of the time, this was true. But I failed to embrace this.

She further wrote:

“Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness—her selfishness, in short—is a reproach to the American way of life.”

This is also not something that remains intact as fact today. Yes, a few people regard me as selfish for my lack of marriage and lack of children, and I occasionally confront the pity people direct toward me for these things I lack. But I understand in equal measure the envy that people also feel that I am free, and always have been. It’s a mixed reaction going both ways.

But then it’s not all about me. I am fully aware that I can only speak for myself and my own rather non-linear and unique experience. What Jong experienced and wrote about 40+ years ago is something different from what we have today, even if we can all cite 1,000 moments each day that we individually experience or witness more of the bitter sameness of obliquely discriminatory behavior. It is easy to dismiss what Jong, mid-20th century feminists or even my older female colleagues when I first joined the corporate workforce write or say as passé because many of us no longer experience the overt discrimination they exposed and fought against. But we see evidence every day, often not overt, but nevertheless pervasive, that there is still plenty of need for feminism and awareness-building. For society and for individuals and their choices.

Feminism, though it can be individual, is largely not about an individual perspective or experience. Each individual may need to define what feminism is for her, but on a more universal level, we are all responsible for making the world safe for women to make those self-determinations. Even if that choice is to follow a prescribed societal view of her own place and space. That means that sometimes we are not going to be on the same page just because we are women, e.g. some of the most vocal anti-choice activists are women; Donald Trump would not have become US president if it weren’t for white women in the United States. Do I agree with those women’s views? No. But do I feel that their right to believe what they believe is valid? Yes, insofar as it does not infringe on others’ rights (which, unfortunately, it often does).

Keeping pace: The marriage question – But who am I, and who are you? Who knows?

Many of Jong’s suppositions are tied to the search for love and the ultimate ‘subjugation’ of marriage. But most of us are not required to marry or pair off for material reasons or other obligations. Yet we do. By choice.

How, then, with all these communication-based minefields in our paths do we reach a point that it makes sense to us to marry? Who and where are we as individuals that we think, Yes, this makes perfect sense? I get it – feelings and lust and all these other heady things cloud our logical judgment. It’s not that marriage and companionship are wrong or troublesome. They can be pleasurable, supportive and all kinds of other good stuff. But what is the need, at a certain point? Maybe it is not a question of need any more, unlike for example, the scenes described in Fear of Flying:

“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. Almost anything had to be an improvement on hustling for your own keep at some low-paid job and fighting off unattractive men in your spare time while desperately trying to ferret out the attractive ones.”

No, instead of ‘need’, I see a few clear paths people take. Among them (and these are only examples):

Those who don’t find a voice or identity, so seek a voice in another. One is essentially alone with a stranger – but that stranger isn’t the person she has coupled up with, but herself. And in some cases (leaving aside the equality of Scandinavian countries, which is atypical of the rest of the world), it is the preference. She may want to subsume her half-baked identity in the identity of another. (“But I have lost my being in so many beings” -Sophia de Mello Breyner.) Maybe she still, in this day and age (and again, outside Sweden this stuff may still be true), buys into the myths:

“What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career—you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.” –Fear of Flying

Then there are those who find someone who loves and cherishes the voice and identity she has cultivated for herself. Something akin to two complete and fulfilled people trying to enhance their lives with the presence of someone else who, by all accounts, understands and appreciates them in a way that no one else does. Illusion? Maybe. After all, understanding may be an illusion:

“What elaborate misconceptions form other people’s understanding of us! The joy of being understood by others cannot be had by those who want to be understood, for they are too complex to be understood; and simple people, who can be understood by others, never have the desire to be understood. Nobody achieves anything … Nothing is worth doing.” –The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

The single misunderstanding

Perhaps these pursuits are doomed to be fruitless, but we can delude ourselves. Quite happily, maybe for a lifetime. We may never understand another and maybe we do not need to, completely, to find a kind of fulfillment in another.

“…is always myself that I seek in other people—my enrichment, my fulfilment. Once everyone grasps this, the logic of ‘every man for himself’, carried to its logical conclusion, will be transformed into the logic of ‘all for each’.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

And further, we may not discover or know ourselves, but fool ourselves that we have; we may not truly connect with another – because we are not really listening, not really seeing, but marry anyway, probably blind, often miserable, perhaps someday concluding that we are marrying strangers, or living with the stranger that is ourself, or something similar to what Pessoa cautions:

“Have you ever considered, beloved Other, how invisible we all are to each other? Have you ever thought about how little we know each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside ourself. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe in our meanings of other people’s words. We hear death in words they speak to express sensual bliss. We read sensuality and life in words they drop from their lips without the slightest intention of being profound.” -Fernando Pessoa

Undisturbed

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The New Age book, finally completed (self-read audiobook on MP3, split up into chapter chunks), offered a few compelling thoughts and jumping-off points. I am struggling with one bit – that is, trying to respect what it commands – it’s such a pure and true passage, complemented by the poetry of David Whyte (whose work appears throughout the volume). I’d never heard of him (Irish mother/Yorkshire father; grew up in west Yorkshire before eventually moving to the Pacific Northwest of the US).

“Although true solitude — alert aloneness without diversions — can be challenging, it is often the necessary gateway to our deepest passions, and the discovery of what we must do to live them. As David Whyte writes,

…Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.”

On your marks, get set…

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Go!

“Nothing tortures you like what could have been…
But I don’t know anything about you anymore.”

-Robyn Hitchcock, “Harry’s Song”

Sometimes things that start as fun end up being agony. They may even start out with a bit of agony, but if you have a bent toward self-torture, as I sometimes do, you stick with these things through the agony just because you feel you have to see it through to ask, “Can this get any worse?” In the midst of the moments of unhappiness punctuating everything, the agony is unfelt. Later, the agony of the moment is suddenly remembered and felt acutely.

I feel a great need for silence and solitude, but some part of me is not content with that. Disturbing this silence willingly, I spontaneously jumped up and traveled away from my quiet refuge to do the very opposite of what my nature dictates. So far, so good. I want to ring in the new year going against the grain.

While I often do feel uncomfortable in large crowds, in noisy surroundings, I imagine that there are times when I take the shortcut – that is, shutting everyone and everything out – and in turn shortchange myself. I imagine I have always been this way – my mother tells me that even as a baby, I liked to be surrounded by people and activity but I did not want to be a part of it. I wanted to observe it, doing my own thing. This has not changed. I look back and also realize that my multitasking, impatient nature has also shortchanged me. I recall activities I did in second grade (when I was 7) that I hurried through as fast as possible because I wanted the sensation of being finished. It was for this reason that a puzzle-building activity I completed was sloppy and my handwriting was the most dismal thing in the world. This continued all through my education, from reading the entire seventh grade social studies text within the first week of school and completing all the assignments that same week, to rushing through my BA degree in 2.5 years instead of 4. From the earliest moments, I felt this need to rush through things, devour more things – and I now think I was, as I still am, running away from something. But what was I running toward?

It is not as though the road I took was “the easy way” – in fact, in many cases, it was much harder than if I had plodded along slowly, at a normal pace.

All these years, I made many decisions and have landed somewhere where I am basically content. At least I was before 2013. I think 2013 has been the worst year I can remember having. After the useless and painful parts of 2013, I can only hope that 2014 will be a better year – for me, and for everyone.

Happy new year!