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.”

sonnet on fidelity

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Sonnet on Fidelity

Vinícius de Moraes

Above all, to my love I’ll be attentive
First and always, with care and so much
That even when facing the greatest enchantment
By love be more enchanted my thoughts.I want to live it through in each vain moment
And in its honor I’ll spread my song
And laugh my laughter and cry my tears
When you are sad or when you are content.And thus, when later comes looking for me
Who knows, the death, anxiety of the living,
Who knows, the loneliness, end of all lovers

I’ll be able to say to myself of the love (I had):
Be not immortal, since it is flame
But be infinite while it lasts.

Translation

Sonêto de fidelidade

De tudo, ao meu amor serei atento
Antes, e com tal zelo, e sempre, e tanto
Que mesmo em face do maior encanto
Dele se encante mais meu pensamento.

Quero vivê-lo em cada vão momento
E em louvor hei de espalhar meu canto
E rir meu riso e derramar meu pranto
Ao seu pesar ou seu contentamento.

E assim, quando mais tarde me procure
Quem sabe a morte, angústia de quem vive
Quem sabe a solidão, fim de quem ama

Eu possa me dizer do amor (que tive):
Que não seja imortal, posto que é chama
Mas que seja infinito enquanto dure.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

story of my death

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Story of My Death

Leopoldo Lugones

I dreamed of death and it was quite simple:
a silk thread enwrapped me,
and each kiss of yours
with a turn unraveled me.
And each of your kisses
was a day;
and the time between two kisses,
a night. Death is quite simple.
And little by little the fatal thread
unwrapped itself. I no longer controlled it
but for a single bit between my fingers . . .
Then, suddenly, you became cold,
and no longer kissed me . . .
I let the thread go, and my life vanished.

Translation

Historia de mi muerte

Soñé la muerte y era muy sencillo;
una hebra de seda me envolvía,
y a cada beso tuyo,
con una vuelta menos me ceñía
y cada beso tuyo
era un día;
y el tiempo que mediaba entre dos besos
una noche. La muerte era muy sencilla.

Y poco a poco fue desenvolviéndose
la hebra fatal. Ya no la retenía
sino por solo un cabo entre los dedos…
Cuando de pronto te pusiste fría
y ya no me besaste…
y solté el cabo, y se me fue la vida.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

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.

 

we live – sometimes

Standard

We Live – Sometimes
Natalya Gorbanyevskaya

Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

residue

Standard

Residue
Carlos Drummond de Andrade

Translation

Resíduo

Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

curriculum vitae

Standard

Curriculum Vitae

Blanca Varela

let’s say you won the race
and the prize
was another race
you didn’t savor the wine of victory
but your own salt
you never listened to hurrahs
but dog barks
and your shadow
your own shadow
was your only
and disloyal competitor

Translation

Curriculum vitae

digamos que ganaste la carrera
y que el premio
era otra carrera
que no bebiste el vino de la victoria
sino tu propia sal
que jamás escuchaste vítores
sino ladridos de perros
y que tu sombra
tu propia sombra
fue tu única
y desleal competidora.

 

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash