who’s keeping score?

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As the year ends, I feel compelled to tally up what I’ve done versus what I aimed to do when the year began. Of course life isn’t quite the linear thing that smoothly hands over what we ask for or think we will do, see or accomplish. Even what we want (or think we want) can change so fast, can be led along by circumstance, or a sudden need for dramatic change, that it’s almost silly to do things like set ‘resolutions’. Sillier even than watching 40-year-old, late-night reruns of The Love Boat or Only Fools and Horses, which has been my rough introduction to peri-Brexit Britain. (I certainly didn’t choose the wisest time to put down stakes in that neck of the woods.)

I had no idea when 2018 began that I’d spend half the year in Glasgow, immersed in intensive psychology studies. I also had no idea that I would try to balance that with work/job and the simultaneous completion of a thesis from a previous, almost-finished MA from another university. I had no idea that I would (mostly) have the discipline to follow through on almost all the goals I set for the year, somehow managing not to disrupt them despite the otherwise disruptive nature of the chaos I sprung upon myself by moving from place to place in a more itinerant than normal (for me) fashion.

“That life is not for me. Clearly I did not inherit whatever gene it is that makes it so that when you linger in a place you start to put down roots. I’ve tried, a number of times, but my roots have always been shallow; the littlest breeze could always blow me right over. I don’t know how to germinate, I’m simply not in possession of that vegetable capacity. I can’t extract nutrition from the ground, I am the anti-Antaeus. My energy derives from movement—from the shuddering of buses, the rumble of planes, trains’ and ferries’ rocking.” –Flights, Olga Tokarczuk

Hands-off, ears-off

Sadly, there is no new soundtrack for this month. But you can revisit the musical archives that date all the way back to 2004.

Emotional turmoil

On a less physical, hands-on level, though…

I had no idea, at least not consciously, that I would continue to dig deep into reserves of patience I had no clue I had, trying to patch up holes that are completely bottomless. They cannot be fixed.

I had no idea that I would finally try to come to terms with myself as a too secretive person, completely lacking in transparency when it comes to myself. I pretend to be open, but I’m open to you and your problems; I’m listening to you; I am reflecting you; I am flexible to and for you; I am absorbing your misery and anxiety.

But I am not being me with you, and I never have been.

(This “you” is everything and everyone.)

And this, rather than getting better, is getting worse. Much of what I did this year was to try to go against the grain, to stop doing this insofar as I recognized it. I did not succeed; instead I… recede.

Or could I have known that I would continue to love, to love more deeply than I could imagine possible, that being lovestruck, despite its implication of being immediate and fleeting, can continue and deepen? And despite the distance I put between myself – my self – and another? I could not come to trust it all because I have found the physical world is not to be trusted.

Yet others – all others – continue to tell me all the things contained in the vulnerable underbelly of their lives, their pasts, their hidden desires… their urge to share, to confess, to scrape out all the gelatinous globs of all the things they could never, ever tell anyone else too strong to resist, even if in the immediate aftermath they realized, Ah, now things will never be the same. 

Knowledge: Reading and thinking

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” ― John Locke

In terms of reading, I read a whole lot more than I set out to read – and a whole lot more than I expected. And in many cases it’s been an elusive and esoteric pursuit. As I’ve written through the year, a great majority of this reading in the second half of 2018 was academic/scholarly/empirical, but there were quite a few other things as well – mostly dominated by poetry whenever possible. (And many of my “lists” of what I’ve read don’t reflect a lot of the academic stuff.)

When 2018 started, I’d set a goal – read 26 books, all of which had to be in non-English languages. I started off strong but first found myself lured into a whole lot of English-language books (novels, poetry, contemporary non-fiction), and then into the required readings from academia (a lot of BS/masturbatory theory, i.e. an academic citing a previous academic, citing a previous academic/philosopher/theoretician, not actual theory on masturbation). In the end I only managed… well, 20 as of 12 November 2018. Still better than I thought, thinking back to spring when I found that reading in Russian again was so slow-going that I’d never make the kind of progress I can make in English. Reading Russian has also become bittersweet – so intense the memories of the time when it was the most important thing in the world to me, and so fresh the knowledge that one of the closest friends I had at the time died two years ago. She had not been in my life at all since 1995, but it still hit me to learn that she is really gone. I read Marina Tsvetaeva, for example, which is something she and I talked endlessly about, in a wholly different way.

In any case, this whole exercise required a re-evaluation of what progress is in this context. What am I doing this for if not for the qualitative experience of living, loving and grappling with languages, words, concepts, constructions, time periods, perspectives that are not even close to my own? In the digestion, interpretation (literal and figurative) and comprehension of these particular reading challenges, reading feels like a new endeavour, different from the much-loved near-obsession I experience with own-language books. Novel and difficult, and truly as worthwhile as I had hoped. Still I set such a goal when I had a fraction of today’s deadlines to meet and ‘achievements’ to unlock.

I’d be remiss not to reflect on these things even though I feel empty of the ability to truly reflect. Outside of my own little world, everything has been so ugly and contentious I can’t bring myself to think about it.

 

Tex & Hen on the Ranch – Random gum of November 2018 soundtrack

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Only 35 songs rather than what has come to be the standard 50. Time limitations kept me from listening to as much music as I normally do, so here’s what we’re left with.

Tex & Hen on the Ranch
Good Goo of Random Gum – November 2018

Follow along on Spotify.

01 Hall & Oates – I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)
It’s like being a kid again, although strangely Hall & Oates keep turning up on “classic” 80s radio everywhere I go these days (multiple countries). S has been doing a provocative dance incorporating this song and Isaac Washington Love Boat moves while singing this and throwing in a few Elliot Stabler quotes from Special Victims Unit: “Don’t go there! I’m not goin’ there! Don’t go there!”
02 Alberteen – Tamagotchi Landfill
Thanks to Ade… and memories of the Tamagotchi craze
03 Julia Jacklin – Body
New Julia
04 The Courage – Parasols
05 Boy Azooga – Face Behind Her Cigarette
A loud, repetitive one for late-night drives
06 Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up (extended)
Irresistible
07 Bajofondo – Lluvia
08 Weyes Blood – Be Free
09 MUNYA – Hotel Delmano
10 Mr Husband – Holy Kaleidoscope
11 Neko Case – Curse of the I-5 Corridor …I was so stupid then…
“I fear I smell extinction/In the folds of this novocaine age coming on”
12 Link Wray – Fallin’ Rain
13 Isabelle – Une odeur de neige
14 The Pointer Sisters – He’s So Shy
Godawful Love Boat reruns in Glasgow
15 Phoebe Bridgers – Motion Sickness
16 Loretta Lynn – Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’
17 Faces – Flags and Banners
18 ESG – Dance
19 The Cleaners from Venus – The Mercury Girl
20 Rod Stewart – Maggie May
Clear glimpses back into childhood and its pervasive sounds
21 The Velvet Underground – Oh! Sweet Nuthin’
Kept playing this and am sure I included it on another soundtrack, but who is keeping track?
22 Salad – Cut and Cover
Something new from Salad… finally
23 Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights
24 ABBA – Knowing Me, Knowing You
Home from wandering
25 Gigliola Cinquetti – Ho scritto fine
Italy is not fooling me
26 The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath …late October sunlight in the wood…
27 King Creosote – Melin Wynt
28 Eliza Shaddad – This is My Cue
29 Ibeyi – Rise Up Wise Up Eyes Up
For Annette – donkey wine mine fine
30 Hako Yamazaki – ヘルプミー
31 Curtis Harding – Dream Girl
32 John Cale – You Know Me More Than I Know
33 Alice Boman – Waiting
34 Arthur & Yu – Afterglow
“and a wolf got caught up in the barbed wire/and there’s a bullet in the wood/we use for fire/and we’re caught in the afterglow”
35 Widowspeak – Harvest Moon …Because I’m still in love with you…

Said and read – February 2018

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Last month I wrote a little something about the books that had been essential, life-affirming, thought-provoking or somehow became lodged in my head or forced tears from my eyes. Affecting in one way or another. Because my reading hysteria has continued, despite my intention to calm down, I’ve completed a number of, once again, affecting books. (You can keep track of all my reading right along with me.)

What I am finding, overall, is that most books live somewhere in the middle of a scale, whether that scale is 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 (and I hate these kinds of arbitrary ratings). There are concepts or ideas that excite the brain, but the book is otherwise undercooked. There are passages that inflame the passions, making the heart beat faster and breathing shallow – or making tears literally explode from the eyes, or that animate the brain, starting processes of analysis or self-reflection. But even then, these are only passages in books that don’t stand up as a whole against the scrutiny required to call something great.

That said, I know that ‘great’ is entirely subjective. I can’t outright define what makes a “great book”. It is even subjective for one person on two different days. I found (as I often do) that I am a much harsher, less patient critic when I am tired and cranky, so for example, I was not at all interested in how Jonas Karlsson‘s book The Room turned out when I hit the halfway point just before going to sleep one February evening. Sleeping on it, though, I came back, finished the book and found some interesting concepts and connections. It was both annoying and intriguing at the same time. Mostly felt tedious except when the question is raised as to whether there can be a different reality for every person. Can one person see something that no one else sees, and be left undisturbed to experience it that way, even if it is a sign of mental illness?  The questions underscore bigger mysteries about the nature of reality and the ways we work best as individuals, illustrating what it’s like for the many who stumble through a world that looks different to them than to the majority. How do we make allowances for that in a world that operates like an assembly line, dependent on sameness, not questioning and uniformity in thinking and action? Nevertheless, as realistic as the depiction of the deluded, mentally ill, belligerent main character/narrator can be, the arrogant clinging to unfounded and unreasonable theories, self-confidence and sense of superiority reminds me so much of someone I used to know that it became hard to read. Which in a way is the mark of a good book (or at least a vital character)… but not a great one.

I also enjoy small coincidences – where one book randomly happens to mention something I did not expect, and that topic or place is mentioned – completely randomly – in the next book or in a film I watch the same day. For example, I read Leila Aboulela‘s book, The Translator, which was about a Sudanese woman. I didn’t know it was set in dear, beloved Scotland until I started reading. And to my delight (because it doesn’t take much), the very next book I read, Ryszard Kapuściński‘s The Shadow of the Sun, also had a whole passage that involved some young Glaswegians traveling around in West Africa. I expected the book to be about Kapuściński’s travels all over the African continent; I didn’t necessarily expect to be greeted by some young, naive Scots as well. Both engaging books – neither ‘great’.

Derek B. Miller‘s Norwegian by Night was a surprise – but still not ‘great’. I appreciated the details – the Oslo I know, up close, and references to little things like RV 23 and E18 make me think of my interminable slogs between Oslo and home in the Swedish woods. It feels close to home, and that can be comforting.

But the book itself feels too cramped, trying to stuff too much into one single novel: I mean, Holocaust, Judaism, American Jews and their identity and discrimination, Norwegians’ ignorance about Jews and Judaism, Korean War, Vietnam conflict, possible dementia, death, Kosovo, Serbia and the KLA, immigration issues in Norway, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Norwegian-Swedish cross-border issues, and a bunch of other stuff I am not even fitting into my few-sentence appraisal. I appreciated the effort, but it tried too hard. Don’t get me wrong – all of these topics are right up my alley, and in that way I loved reading this book. It was immensely enjoyable for all its flaws. Just much too ambitious in throwing too many ingredients into one dish.

Another interesting but much too overly ambitious book was Dexter Palmer‘s just slightly too-long Version Control. It offers unique perspectives on alternate realities/versions, online dating, big data and the way change and lack of communication, especially in relationships, can defy all our best intentions and promises. (No one, after all, goes into a relationship, full of hope and love, thinking they will fade into lesser and less vocal self-advocates or that they will stop interacting or showing those everyday moments of care that made them fall in love in the first place.) Sadly, for all its deft handling of some of these key emotional undercurrents – of the versions and version control of our emotional selves through the course of a relationship and through life – the book undermines itself with too wide a scope and too much … superfluity. With a tighter structure, this could be at least 100 pages shorter and, in my humble opinion, a much better book.

What I did find great, though, were the following:

  • The End of DaysJenny Erpenbeck (I wish I knew how to explain why I love Erpenbeck’s style so much. This was quite different, but no less engrossing, than her novel, Go, Went, Gone, which was one of my favorites last year.)
  • We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our FamiliesPhilip Gourevitch (Haunting, disturbing… how do things like the devastating Rwandan genocide happen? And how does a country move forward afterwards?)
  • An Unnecessary WomanRabih Alameddine (“Memory chooses to preserve what desire cannot hope to sustain.” Perhaps I loved this so much because I could relate to it in such a visceral way. I feel like I express myself, or at least think, like the antisocial loner old lady who is the center and narrator of this book. Her observations, her sentiments on books, obsession with Pessoa, her observations on translation and the imperfection of the art of translation. Perhaps it is also this connection to Lebanon, which I have been trying to dig into since I was in my early 20s, as much as possible. Everything one reads and hears about Lebanon has been so long tinged by the theme of its long civil war and general unrest that it is hard to find something more general, something that features the war only as a backdrop to life. Regular life continues as the war drags on for an entire generation. I felt something similar in watching the recent TV show Derry Girls, which shows life going on for a regular family with the Troubles in Northern Ireland only as a backdrop. A constant backdrop, but not the main story being told. This might not be for everyone, but I loved it.)
  • So You Want to Talk About RaceIjeoma Oluo (I actually read this in January, but had written about my January reading – stupidly – before January actually ended – and this was a phenomenal book and absolutely must be included.)

Honorable mentions (almost great or noteworthy for particular reasons):

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great MigrationIsabel Wilkerson
  • My Brilliant FriendElena Ferrante (I resisted reading this for a long time, more stubbornly the more I heard about its supposed merits. While I can’t rave at the level that would make me call this a ‘great’ book, I nevertheless found the precision with which the elusive Ferrante has depicted the fickle, painful, precarious back-and-forth-teeter-totter nature of female friendships.)
  • LoveStarAndri Snær Magnason (I appreciated the satirical take on our tech-saturated present and future – and the implication that everything can and probably will go haywire – very Black Mirror-esque. Who are we once we are completely defined by technology and incompetent without it? How do we define life and identity when you can erase your child’s existence and replace him/her with the spare copies you’ve made? Does life and experience matter when you have the opportunity to rewind and start again? What are the ethical considerations and consequences? And even more tellingly for today, when we are actively encouraged to quantify everything about ourselves and our existence – what does capturing every single thing do/mean? What happens when capturing absolutely everything becomes more of a prison than a choice – erasing the chance to make mistakes and learn from them? Andri Snær poses all these questions in an eminently readable and fascinating book, conceptually. It does not always flow as a work of fiction, as it seems to be distracted by throwing as many of these ethical and existential questions up for consideration. Always on the razor-edge of absurdity until you realize it’s so close to reality that it’s truly frightening.)
  • A Replacement LifeBoris Fishman (I could say much more about this novel, but what sticks with me in these times, fraught with fake news and denial of hard facts, is the theme of fact checking: ““Oh, I just hear you every day,” he said. “‘Mr. Maloney, is your bar made of pine or aspen? Can you call the manufacturer?’” “Yeah, I guess it sounds strange from the side.” “Mr. Maloney’s gone his whole life without knowing is it pine or aspen. When has anyone asked him what that bar’s made of?” “What’s your point?” “Does it really matter?” he said. “I guess,” she said, putting down her phone. “But think about it. Maloney’s is in New Jersey. Let’s say they don’t have aspens in New Jersey. I mean, they do—I checked. But let’s say. Somebody happens to know that, they see that wrong, they say, What else is wrong? They lose trust. You can’t give a reader a reason to lose trust.”” Well before now I had thought often of how a hapless error in an otherwise well-researched work can erode the reader’s confidence. Thinking back to my master’s studies, I remember being assigned a rather lengthy book, The System, which chronicled the early Clinton-era attempts to push through universal healthcare in America – and the massive failure that ended up being. Ultimately it seemed quite detailed, but somewhere deep within the book, the writers referred to Congressman Fred Grandy as having been a star in the TV show Gilligan’s Island, which he wasn’t. He was a star in the show The Love Boat. Getting this, such a basic and easily checked pop culture reference, wrong, made me doubt everything I had already read.)
  • The Plot Against America, A NovelPhilip Roth (Definitely one for these confusing, absurd, frightening times in Trump’s moving-toward-fascism America)

Biggest disappointment:

  • Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders (I have no doubt that this was a labor of love, of toil, and as evidence of what can only be termed an original, ambitious and laborious creation, this qualifies. But as a pleasurable read? Not really.)

Worst book:

  • The Lesser BohemiansEimear McBride (I am someone who fights the urge to give up on books because I feel committed once I start, but it was all I could do not to stop reading this shit. I hated it. As you can see above, I usually find something – some angle – in every work that I can relate to, can cite, can appreciate. But this? Fuck no.)

Almost Lover – Soon Will Be Making Another Run?

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I do tend to give people the benefit of the doubt when I shouldn’t – and I keep trying to learn that lesson. But I am human and never do. It is just that I try to see the good in people, be compassionate – and then that gets pushed too far, I guess. But at least usually when I close the door, it’s closed – and I don’t regret it. Or the time or the things I have done with/for those people. But just as I cannot control it, I also know when I cannot continue it.

Fuck You It’s Over” – Glasvegas

I have realized that almost all people are completely out of control and indecisive – and I have to be the decisive one – or as America’s best-ever president (hahaha) Geo W Bush said, “I am the decider“. Haha. And I need to be the adult, the caretaker – not all people are always going to like that, but regardless of their role, at least the issue is fucking decided and it’s back to the drawing board. No wishy washy BS for weeks, months, years that prevent all parties involved from moving forward and taking responsibility for the things in their lives. That is what making decisions – even incremental ones – enables.

Almost Lover” – A Fine Frenzy

Goodbye my almost lover/goodbye my hopeless dream/I’m trying not to think about you/can’t you just let me be?/So long my luckless romance/my back is turned on you/shoulda known you’d bring me heartache/almost lovers always do…

The same actually applies in business. Not that I want to equate the misery of indecision in romantic entanglements with unclear business strategy – but when am I not talking shop? I recently decided to follow an online “basics of marketing” course as kind of a refresher since I work in marketing but was never a marketing student. One of the fundamental points made in creating a strategy is: you can’t do everything, you can’t cater to everyone. Right – this is why we segment and target. But the same principle applies in creating a general business strategy. You can’t really set seven major goals and expect all of them to be met. Choices need to be made and a focus decided. I see this lacking – a lot of talk about strategy and endless meetings about and revisions of strategy but nothing real and tangible that one can bite down on, take a chunk and work toward meaningfully.

At least in a relationship, you can bite down, take a chunk and work toward something if you really want to. But that is a matter of making the choice and focusing too. That’s my conclusion in my old age, sage wisdom and experience – not unlike the great wise, leadership of Captain Stubing on The Love Boat. Hahaha.

Past All Accident – Older Love and Weirdos

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“Antony and Cleopatra
were right;
they have shown
the way. I love you
or I do not live
at all.”*

One of my early conversations with my love, my firewall – an all-night affair that turned to the obscurity of poetry’s meaning in the early hours of a winter morning – focused on William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”. Me being the amateur poetry connoisseur, I talked with him about how difficult it was for high school kids to be forced to read and analyze poetry. I shared the tales of how the most literal guy I knew (a guy named Frank) was forced to perform analysis on this Williams classic. Granted, I love poetry, but I failed to see the genius of that particular Williams piece. I can spend time now discussing it, even if it is only to argue for or against the (artistic) value of this poem, but at 16 or 17, the William Carlos Williams oeuvre was fairly meaningless and easy to dismiss.

That’s the beauty of poetry, in any case. Something that has no meaning or feels totally pretentious at one point upon initial reading may take on a whole new meaning later when seen through the filter of life experience. Sometimes poetry sinks in. I find that certain lines stick with me and then fit so perfectly as descriptive postscripts to life’s experiences. Poets are poets for a reason – they can almost magically capture something succinctly – ineffable feelings and thoughts. Thus, although I might want to express whatever it is I think or feel, a poet (or songwriter) has undoubtedly done it before me and better.

That said, I still don’t love the wheelbarrow poem, but I have long been in love with Williams’s poem “The Ivy Crown” – its meaning (or my interpretation of it) becomes more impressive to me all the time (impressive in the sense that it leaves impressions). It too has taken on variable and deeper meanings for me as I get older. It captures for me the cynicism I have always felt about the idea of love and romance while not negating it or throwing it out entirely; indeed, at this middle-age mark only finding the somewhat transformative “business of love” actively at this point, the whole theme is rather topical for me.

“Romance has no part in it.
The business of love is
cruelty which,
by our wills,
we transform
to live together.
It has its seasons,
for and against,
whatever the heart
fumbles in the dark
to assert
toward the end of May.
Just as the nature of briars
is to tear flesh,
I have proceeded
through them.
Keep
the briars out,
they say.
You cannot live
and keep free of
briars.”
“At our age the imagination
across the sorry facts
lifts us
to make roses
stand before thorns.
Sure
love is cruel
and selfish
and totally obtuse—
at least, blinded by the light,
young love is.*

“Older love” must be a kind of weird thing. You bring half a lifetime of past experience (some would argue baggage) into each new relationship. I feel like I have very little of the traditional baggage since I was never married, never had kids, no complicated stuff from the past. I have glided through my own personal life as I have glided casually into and out of other people’s lives. I never wanted to be much more than a “guest star” (as on The Love Boat – but I am not Charo) in most people’s lives, so hooking up with married idiots or people who were otherwise unavailable to me in the long term or in some greater capacity than a casual weekend has been my modus operandi.

I discussed with my brother how the weirdness of this creeps into your self-awareness and creates a strange kind of doubt. You may have chosen this lifestyle (as I did) but at some point, you start to feel a distance from humanity, want to be alone more than is really healthy and start to feel out of step with basic norms, and it becomes the status quo. Your own perception of normal. It feels like it will not change, and you don’t expect it to. You become more withdrawn, and as such, you are more invisible – so it is a self-perpetuating cycle. It’s not like there is no chance that you’d meet someone who could love you or even like you a lot – it is just that you can’t if you’re not open to it. The weirder you feel, the more closed you become.

But “older” does not mean there are no surprises, as I have found at various turns. Time and age actually don’t make any difference. It’s a matter of attitude and willingness.

“But we are older,
I to love
and you to be loved,
we have,
no matter how,
by our wills survived
to keep
the jeweled prize
always
at our finger tips.
We will it so
and so it is
past all accident.”*

*Excerpts of “The Ivy Crown” by William Carlos Williams