“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 Yiddish – Ilan 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 War – Mary 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 – November, October, September, August, 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 Prosperous – Joseph 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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?
“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.”
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.
“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.)”
“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.”