The Tyranny of Choice

I’m not even sure what I just read—it was muddled and didn’t make a clear argument. Renata Salecl writes about late capitalism’s insidious pushing of the choice agenda as a way to make us all feel better, but it’s really just making us anxious. We’re drowning in self-help guides but not getting any better. We put on a happy positive face that ends up just masking the need to “rethink the nature of social inequalities” and find other ways to let capitalism develop. We’re pressured to be “unique” but also to conform; therein lies the power of celebrity. An arbitrary popular figure can give you clues on how to dress/talk/walk/sing/do business and you’re accepted. “This reflects a major change in the way that the individual identifies with social ideas under late capitalism, a shift that has also occurred in the way people today identify with authorities chosen and self-imposed and how they perceive themselves in society as a whole.” We’re essentially told to create an identity by copying one from someone else.

The one unexpected delight I got from the book was finally an explanation as to why people insist on videotaping every moment of their vacation or big event: interpassivity, coined by Robert Phaller, is what occurs between an individual and their proxy who is tasked with experiencing something for the other, like the Serbian women hired to cry at funerals. “… by the same token, people record films they will never watch because the recording equipment is in a way watching the film for them.”

Unfortunately, not a good choice of a book.

 

Angel

What an odd book from British author, Elizabeth Taylor. The early parts were well done, depicting a bullheaded young girl who proudly writes her first novel and insists that no changes be made to the over-the-top language that ends up being commercially appealing to the uneducated. She’s a goldmine, but rigidly humorless. These early sections are also a goldmine.

Then a man comes onto the scene, and of course he’s penniless but a gambler. Enter marriage, and Angel buying an old dilapidated mansion that she pours her money into (reminding me of the film, Mildred Pierce), and he heads off to war but spends his leaves with another lady, coming home with a huge gambling debt that Angel writes another novel furiously to cover the expenses of. He ends up drowning in  a pond, and the story limps along through another war and to the bitter desperate end of Angel’s life. Blah.

I Know What I’m Doing — and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction

Another hit from the hilarious Jen Kirkman, her latest exposition of life as a divorcee who never ever ever wants kids thankyouverymuch. She’s frank, open, crass, but completely honest about life after her marriage dissolves 18 months in, life on the road as a traveling comic, someone who’s fiercely protective of her privacy and resents her new neighbor knocking on her door at all hours. Great comedic relief from the tedium of a workweek.

Found in the Street

Ugh, I finally found a Pat Highsmith book that was disappointing. Actually, there are a few that I couldn’t even continue reading (post to come later), but this one held out a tinge of promise so I plowed through. The one-star review on AMZN echoes my feeling: “I nearly always love the work of Patricia Highsmith so this was a real disappointment.”

I wasn’t quite sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, or even who the anti-hero was. You’ve got the freelance journalist who’s also an artist who loses his wallet, found by weirdo stalker guy who insists that the young woman working at the coffee shop is also a prostitute (she’s not). Ultimately, she’s killed by the jealous ex-lover of her own ex-girlfriend. It’s meandering and wheezy and avoidable.

I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids

I saw the brilliant Jen Kirkman when she rolled through town earlier this month but did not realize until today that she had written books. This is a hilarious volume of takedowns aimed at people who aggressively insist on questioning her conviction that she does not want children. I can relate, and am happy to find another member of the club, especially one with such great comebacks. “I’m a nice person because I’m usually in a good mood and I’m usually in a good mood because I’m not responsible for raising a child I don’t want.”

She gets into the autobiographical details of her life, raised Catholic outside Boston, her mother making her say the same creepy prayer that I once did: “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Best is her retort: “That prayer is comforting—if you’re ninety and on a respirator.”

Railing against the obsession of trashy magazines with tracking “baby bumps,” she wonders if there’ll be an Adoption Papers Bump Watch analyzing celebrities carrying overstuffed briefcases with what seem to be reams of legal docs: “Is She Adopting or Is She Working Part-Time as a Paralegal?”

Best are her impressions of her mother, like the response to her teenaged outfit of thrift-store black dress, ripped tights, combat books, and dyed hair: “Jennifah, why can’t you wear some color? You look like a witch with shoe polish on her head.”

Walks with Walser

Robert Walser had a nervous breakdown in 1929 and spent his final 3 decades in Swiss mental asylums. From 1936 – 1956, Carl Seelig (friend & literary executor) took him on long walks and recorded their conversations, which makes up this delightful volume. An inveterate hiker, Walser died alone on his last walk on a snowy Christmas day, 1956. Seelig had postponed their usual Christmas walk until New Years to care for his ailing dog. This volume is translated to perfection by Anne Posten.

It’s funny to contrast the two books I just finished: this slim volume of 138 pages has several marked passages I want to remember that are either perfect phrases or books I need to look into, but the 700 page beast of a fictionalized biography of Rimbaud was unmarked throughout (although it has plenty of lyrical writing, just nothing I needed to capture forever).

Seelig and Walser tramp about the countryside, stopping along the way to enjoy a hearty breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner, frequently imbibing beer or wine, cigarettes, but always always talking. Some of my favorite anecdotes and Walser-isms are captured below.

Upon seeing a cloister-like, baroque building, Seelig suggests looking inside. Walser: “Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-covered walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is covered and claimed nowadays.” (1941)

“In the asylum I have the quiet I need. It is time for young people to make the noise. It suits me now to disappear, as inconspicuously as possible.” (1943)

“In life there must also be troubles, so that beauty stands out more vividly from the unpleasantness. Worry is the best teacher.” (1943)

“Polite people usually have something up their sleeves.” (1943)

“Abundance can be so oppressive. True beauty, the beauty of the everyday, reveals itself most delicately in poverty and simplicity.” (1943)

“War has this in its favor—it forces people back to simplicity. Would we be able to chat undisturbed on the road, free from the stink of gasoline and the cursing of motorists, if gasoline wasn’t rationed? There is far too much traveling nowadays in the first place. Hordes of people barge shamelessly into foreign landscapes as if they were the legitimate occupants.” (1944)

“Yes, only the journey to oneself is important.” (in response to some of his lines quoted back to him: “Does nature go abroad? I’m always looking at the trees and telling myself: They aren’t leaving either, so why shouldn’t I be permitted to remain?” (1944)

“Curious how beer and twilight can wash away all burdens.” (1945)

Talking shit about Thomas Mann’s lack of grey hair: “It’s the health of success. How many are driven to an early grave by failure! Since childhood Mann had it all: bourgeois calm, security, a happy family, recognition… the Joseph novels are not nearly as good as his astonishing early works. In the later works one senses the stale indoor air, and that’s the way their maker looks too, like someone who has always sat diligently behind his desk with the account books.” (1947)

Seelig brings up the Korean war, causing Walser to rant about Americans for half an hour: “Have you seen their faces? They’re the faces of gangsters, executioners: foolishly proud, arrogant, and predatory. What business do the Americans have with a civilized society’s fight for freedom? Of course they will destroy everything with their ultramodern war machines, and they’ll win. But afterward how will the capitalist beast be driven back into its cage? That is another, more protracted question. In any case, Washington isn’t exactly full of the best and brightest.” (1950)

After being offered a lift by a passing motorist in the rain: “That has never happened to me before! But walking does one more good than driving. If laziness advances at its current pace, it won’t be long before people don’t need their legs at all.” (1952)

Authors to investigate: Gottfried Keller, whose praises Walser sings over and over, “he never wrote a superfluous line”; Marlitt, “the first German feminist, who fought resolutely against class pride and self-satisfied piety;” Tobias Smollett has a “gift for trenchant storytelling, which often slips into brilliant caricature, [and] makes for very entertaining reading;” Jan Neruda, whose tales he “found as cosy as Dickens’s stories.” Apparently Kafka was a huge Walser fan, recommending The Tanners to his boss; unfortunately, Walser was unfamiliar with Kafka’s work.

The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud

Beautiful (& completely forgotten) book by James Ullman wherein he writes the life of Rimbaud and fills in the gaps with his own fantasy. I discovered this via breadcrumbs left for me in an Annie Dillard book. Claude Morel is the reimagined Rimbaud, a brilliant poet who churns out his best, disturbing work between the ages of 16-19 before disappearing into Africa and Europe. We meet him at age 15, winning most of the prizes in school, and simply hopping a train to Paris to get away from his mother, the Black Queen as he dubs her. His first knee injury is incurred when jumping from the moving train to avoid the ticket taker at the other end; later he’s shot in the knee when soldiering for the Dutch; at the end he must get the leg shorn from the thigh down, leading to his delirium and ultimate death. On that first trip to Paris he is molested by a bum who calls him girl/boy; on another trip to Paris where he wants to join the Communards, he’s again sexually assaulted, leaving him confused and ending up in a drunken/drugged relationship with Durard (in real life: Verlaine).

Claude perpetually circles back to his mother, the Widow Morel, despite their grievances. In Africa, having given up his poet identity, he buckles down and works hard for a merchant, rising quickly and sending half his salary back to his mother. Throughout, he runs away but always returns to her.

My only real beef with the book is the usual wooden portrayal of women as either Madonna/Whore. Germaine comes closest to being a real woman, meeting Claude when they were both 16, in Paris, and “getting” his poems, no matter how disgusting they were. Claude’s African wife, Nagunda, is a savage tamed and given trinkets like candy and the rosary. They don’t speak, and she’s conveniently murdered by the conquering army before she gives birth to their “son” (Claude is convinced it must be a son).

The best recommendation I can give of this fictional biography is that I’m now interested in attempting to read Rimbaud’s poetry again.

***

Great quote from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:

Right now, I’m damned. My country appalls me. The best course of action: drink myself comatose and sleep it off on the beach.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice

I probably should have more appreciation for this collection of teachings from Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the Zen Center down the street that I’m learning meditation from. But I’m not attached to them, preferring to focus on his statement that our understanding of Buddhism “should not be just gathering many pieces of information, seeking to gain knowledge. Instead, you should clear your mind.” I am sweeping away his teaching from my mind as I tidy it. Just sit. Just breathe. That is all there is.

This collection is a bit tedious, and I like Suzuki’s own reaction in 1970 to seeing the book for the first time: “Looks like a good book. But I didn’t write it.” It’s the summary and cleanup work of some of his disciples, putting pen to paper and smoothing out his English. Instead of reading it, I recommend meditating instead.

What Happened

On Election Day 2016, I got gussied up to walk a block down the street and cast my mail-in ballot a local elementary school. I put on high heels and my sassiest blue and white dress, belted with a red velvet sash. Before I left, I took a retro selfie with a Polaroid, posing with my ballot proudly marked to cast my vote for the first woman President of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Looking at the picture now reminds me exactly how I felt. I walked down the block and the crossing guard at the school told me how fabulous I looked. I told her, “I’m going to vote!” The long national nightmare was almost over; soon I would no longer have nightmares about the toxic turd posing as the Republican candidate.

Voting wasn’t anything special. I hefted my many paged ballot (California elections are ridiculous) into the open slot, took an “I Voted” sticker, looked around the school auditorium at all the other morning voters. It seemed calm. I stifled a whoop of joy. My friend Jane later told me that she wanted to yell “I voted FOR A WOMAN!” as she left her precinct. When I got back home I watched a livestream from Susan B. Anthony’s grave where people were flocking to place voting stickers or other mementos. I cried a lot of joyful tears. Many texts were sent to friends across the country of the “!!!!” happy excitement variety.

And then the nightmare got worse. Watching that NYTimes % chance calculator drop from 99% certainty of Clinton victory all the way down. I went to bed, unable to listen to the pundits. For months after, I’ve struggled with depression brought on by the trauma. When I heard that HRC was writing a book about the experience, I said HELL YES.

I’ve read the book and weathered the media shitstorm telling her once again to shut up and go away. I don’t want this woman to go away, and it looks like she refuses to. She is a feminist hero, and this book is a goddamn manifesto. I laughed out loud, a lot. I cried. I had to take frequent breaks. It should be required reading for every American.

I don’t read books by politicians. Never have, and never plan to. This is not a book by a politician (although some of her chapters do get a bit into the weeds of policy). This is a first-person account of someone on the receiving end of the body slam that was Russian interference (hello you dumb Americans who believe things you read on FB & Twitter or hear on Fox News), Jim Comey’s last minute grand reveal of her emails into the spotlight again (for naught, because there is nothing in them), blowback from 8 years of “post-racial” America (remember that dream?!), and deep horrifying real misogyny.

I’ve said a lot already and haven’t even gotten into the book itself. She shares self-care tips like alternate nostril breathing techniques, sly digs at Putin, an exhaustive list of words to describe Trump (fraud, con man, “no ideological core apart from his towering self-regard”). She’s also quite funny. And her quotes range from Emerson, JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, T.S. Eliot, to Nancy Drew. She reveals grand secrets like how her staff warmed up Quest bars by sitting on them before they ate them and how their favorite hot sauce was Marie Sharp’s (I can relate). She shares her thoughts on selfies: not a fan but likes that they absolve her from the wrist pain of “autographs, now obsolete.”

The best parts are where she’s breaking down the role of sexism in the campaign, how women aren’t supposed to speak up. “Think about it: we know of only a handful of speeches by women before the latter half of the 20th century, and those tend to be by women in extreme and desperate situations. Joan of Arc said a lot of interesting things before they burned her at the stake.”

On debate prep, her team realized that it would be a lot different against Trump. “He was rarely linear in his thinking or speaking. He digressed into nonsense and then digressed even more.” P.S. she won all 3 debates handily despite his following her around the stage while she mulled over whether to say “Back up creep” or just suck it up like all us women usually do. Oh, and do you remember how she got criticized for being too prepared? You cannot make this stuff up.

More humor– she attributes a “Lock her up!” quote to Michael Flynn at the RNC in July. “This quote could have been pulled from nearly any Trump rally of the entire campaign, but there’s a certain poetic justice now in remembering how enthusiastic Michael Flynn was about sending me to jail.”

To my never-ending delight, she unmasks Bernie Sanders for the fraud he is. “After the election, Bernie suggested that Democrats should be open to nominating and supporting candidates who are anti-choice. Other topics, such as economic justice, are sacrosanct, but apparently women’s health is not.” And Bernie, who loves to talk about true progressives never bowing to political interests, “has long bowed to the political reality of his rural state of Vermont and supported the NRA’s key priorities.” She says she’s proud to be a Democrat “and I wish Bernie were, too.” And this is just brilliant, a Facebook post included in her book:

She writes about her marriage to Bill in a way that made my heart nearly burst. All their negative moments have been shared with the press, and she shares some of the daily positives. This section is led by a great quote: “I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.” (– Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows) Hillary brings up that people contend she and Bill must have some sort of secret “arrangement” where she stuck with him and he must stick with her until she’s President. We do have an arrangement, she says, “it’s called a marriage.”

She talks about how we’ve lost half a million retail jobs since 2001, something no other politician is discussing, and brings up our skewed reality of “coal miners.” She mentions how automation is also killing jobs, and how frightened she is of the power wielded by the Silicon Valley firms.

She accuses Putin of manspreading! “When I sat with Putin in meetings, he looked more like one of those guys on the subway who imperiously spread their legs wide, encroaching on everyone else’s space.” As for Toxic T, she nails it, “Why did Donald Trump keep blowing kisses to Vladimir Putin?”

It has to be painful for her to watch this buffoon singlehandedly bring down America’s reputation abroad. “America’s lost prestige and new-found isolation were embodied in the sad image of the other leaders of Western democracies strolling together down a lovely Italian street while Trump followed in a golf cart, all by himself.” He also has an “utter lack of interest in or knowledge of most foreign policy issues” and dreams of “Moscow on the Potomac.” His reaction to her during a debate still echoes in her head. “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.”

 

It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness

Sylvia Boorstein serves up a very snackable book about mindfulness and living a good life, along with her pal Atla’s recipe for marinated mushrooms (2/3 cup oil seems extreme for 1 lb of mushrooms, to be honest). Very conversational tone to the book, very readable. Her approach is to let you know that you don’t have to be a weirdo when you become a meditator and establish “equanimity.” Normal folks incorporate these basic rules into their lives and go on living, but are just happier and nicer people. You, too, can achieve this once you realize that the mind sets up various traps to enrage you or cause desire.

Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life

I actually really appreciate Sylvia Boorstein’s chatty and informal style of discussing meditation and Buddhist thought/philosophy/religion. This means wading through several pages of stories about airport/airplane encounters since she seems to always be traveling from San Francisco to the east coast or to France (where she lives for several months each year). She’s one of the founding teachers of Spirit Rock in Marin County.

Some helpful tips from the book- if something bad happens, tell yourself “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” Bad feelings aren’t good for you. Buddha taught oh so many millennia ago that anger is “a toxin in the veins.” Let it go.

Her prayer for metta/lovingkindness is: May I feel contented and safe. May I feel protected and pleased. May my physical body support me with strength. May my life unfold smoothly with ease.

Another of her favorite prayers: May I meet this moment fully. May I meet it as a friend.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

The beautiful Roxane Gay opens herself up about her past and how the horrible thing that happened to her at age 12 led to her fortifying her body with food, eating and eating to form armor that would protect her from the male gaze. The book is heartbreakingly honest, astonishingly well-written, smart, open, searching, and wise.

I don’t know how she has handled her escalating visibility in a world that loathes obese people. She’s also an unapologetic feminist, raising her loud intelligent voice to speak truth to power or the crumbling forms of it that coalesce around conservatives. She talks about her weight, brought on almost intentionally by eating her way out of trauma, her parents frantic and not knowing what was going on with her. She discusses her lost year in Arizona where she fled mid-semester at Yale. She details her shyness, hatred of being touched and looked at and talked about, and enumerates several harrowing experiences where invited to talk in front of an audience and afraid the chair was going to break. This book is amazing. Roxane is one of the top writers flexing their pens today and it is a privilege to read her.

The Beginner’s Guide to Insight Meditation

“Another book about meditation?” you groan. Yes, grasshopper. Only this one wasn’t nearly as good as Mindfulness in Plain English—clunkier, interspersed with tedious personal reflections by each of the authors, and much more concerned that I learn the 5 Hindrances, the 4 Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path. Too structured!

The one tip I picked up was around turning your regular walking into a meditative practice by counting the steps. When you take the first step, that’s 1. On the next 2 steps, 1, 2. Next 3 steps are 1, 2, 3. Etc up to 10. Upon reaching 10, it’s 10 for the first step, 10, 9 for steps 1 & 2, etc.

Otherwise, there’s an extensive list of books for further reading that I’ll probably hit up. But this one is a waste of time and energy. It’s ok, I’m observing that negative thought from outside myself and watching my reaction. Om.

Mindfulness in Plain English

Living a few blocks from the Zen Center is decidedly a perk of life in San Francisco. I have zero excuses to prevent me from skipping down the street to join others in meditation training, which is where I discovered this book.

Tremendously useful as you are developing your own meditation practice, or refining an existing one. Gunaratana breaks down the monkey mind into its various parts; we categorize experiences as good/bad/neutral and either obsessively grasp for the good, obsessively reject the bad, or ignore the neutral. Most of life exists in that neutral zone, so start paying attention and enjoy it.

The book teaches insight meditation, cultivating mindfulness by using the tool of concentration. Real peace comes when you stop chasing it. Vipassana meditation shows you how to be detached as you watch your thoughts rise up, see yourself reacting without getting caught up in your reaction, escape the obsessive nature of thought, examine the process of perception.

As you sit and watch your breath, the book offers great tips on counting: when breathing in, “one, one, one, one…” and breathing out “two, two, two, two…” up to 10, repeat; count rapidly up to 10 with each inhale and exhale (this worked wonders for me, keeping my mind busy with numbers); joining inhale and exhale as one count, up to five then back to one. Pro-tip: if you’re sleepy, taking a deep breath and holding it will help warm your body up and banish sleepiness.

Something I’m in desperate need of: cultivating a feeling of “universal loving friendliness.” Start by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and condemnation, then work outward to direct a flow of good intention to your family, friends, enemies, and strangers. He recommends setting this intention before each meditation session (and continuing throughout the day, especially right before bed because it helps you “sleep well and to prevent nightmares. It also makes it easier to get up in the morning. And it makes you more friendly and open toward everybody, friend or foe, human or otherwise.”)

So whaddya do about all those distractions? Anyone who’s attempted to meditate knows how easily thoughts slip in and hijack you. He recommends asking about the distraction: what is it, how strong is it, how long does it last. This enables you to divorce yourself from the distraction, step back, view it objectively. You’ll note the distraction, note its qualities, then return to your breath.

Besides sitting mediation, there’s also walking meditation, and during longer retreats you switch between the two. Walking meditation is slow, hands either in front or in back or at sides (whatever’s most comfortable), breathe in lift heel of one foot, breathe out rest foot on toes, breath in lift foot, carry forward, breathe out foot down to floor, repeat.

To practice loving friendliness:

May my mind be filled with the thoughts of loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. May I be generous. May I be gentle. May I be relaxed. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy. May my heart become soft. May my words be pleasing to others. May my actions be kind.

May all that I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think help me to cultivate loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. May all these experiences help me to cultivate thoughts of generosity and gentleness. May they all help me to relax. May they inspire friendly behavior. May these experiences be a source of peace and happiness. May they help me be free from fear, tension, anxiety, worry, and restlessness.

No matter where I go in the world, in any direction, may I greet people with happiness, peace, and friendliness. May I be protected in all directions from greed, anger, aversion, hatred, jealousy, and fear.

The View from the Ground

Martha Gellhorn’s collection of articles that she churned out in six decades of freelance journalism is sparkling, but my favorite book of hers remains Travels with Myself and Another. In this collection, she groups the essays by decade and offers up a quirky summation for each period— sometimes this was my favorite part. She manically travels the world, from Spain to Poland to St. Louis to Texas to Vietnam to Israel to London ad infinitum.

Her comparison of the wretched House UnAmerican Activities Committee (targeting Eleanor Roosevelt’s rep, ultimately) with the jovial and prudent House of Commons was wonderful. Two Irish members were unable to take their places in the House of Commons due to being in jail for helping to hold up a British arms depot; a second election was held and they were re-elected. “This raised a fascinating dilemma: whereas you may not vote, in jail, you may, evidently, stand for Parliament.”

Later parts tend toward dullness, and she has an ill-advised trip to Haiti where she claims to realize what blacks feel like in bad places since she was slightly tormented by being the only white person around. The only bright spot in the 2nd half of the book was her 1980s essay that hearkens back to the 1930s where she glories in the beauty of not needing advance travel reservations and brags about how wonderful train trips were. “Trains were leisurely… You had time to watch [the land] change, to feel the differences and the great distance. You knew you were traveling… The population explosion, the airplane, and tourism as a major international industry have changed travel, for an old traveler like me, from thrilling impetuous private discovery into a hassle of the deepest dye.”

New phrase I picked up: “like billy-o” meaning extremely. “I laughed like billy-o” says Gellhorn about her romp with poverty-stricken Poland. “When they say they are interested in making money, they mean they are interested in staying alive.”