A Life of One’s Own

I came across Marion Milner’s book (originally published 1934) via How To Be Bored, which is surprising. The concepts she covers were much more in line with all of the books about meditation and Buddhism that I’ve been reading lately, so I figured that was where I’d stumbled on Milner.

I felt a little bad for Milner as I read her journey to discover how to side-eye/watch her own thoughts. The mindfulness books I was also reading gave really clear direction on how to take the steps necessary for this internal attention/silence/noticing, but here she was in the 1930s, toughing it out and struggling to figure out the puzzle with no guidance.

To begin with, she tracked what made her happy in a journal. “I want to live amongst things that grow, not amongst machines. To live in a regular rhythm with sun and rain and wind and fresh air and the coming and going of the seasons. I want a few friends that I may learn to know and understand and talk to without embarrassment or doubt.”

She performed “experiments” on herself and realized that she had an automatic response and a more hidden response. “It seemed to me that perhaps my previous ignorance of the ways of this self might be sufficient reason why I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives.”

As she explores further, “I saw now that my usual attitude to the world was a contracted one, like the sea anemone when disturbed by a rough touch, like an amoeba shut within protective walls of its own making… I had thought I wanted a great many friend,s but had often refused invitations because I hated to feel the beautiful free space of an empty day, free for me to do what I like in, broken into by social obligations. I had thought I wanted to be a unique individual, but had been filled with shame when anyone disagreed with me, hastening to take back what I had said.”

If I had a time machine, I’d head back to whisper in her ear that the Buddhists have been working on this problem for thousands of years and that might be a good place to start. But then again, we’d miss her own personal exploration if that were the case.

The Customer is Always Wrong

Mimi Pond’s graphic novel about 1980s Oakland, working as a waitress in a diner and trying to hustle up a career drawing comics, fending off (or partaking in) the river of drugs that flows through the restaurant, her tender relationship with Lazlo the manager (who develops cancer, enlists Madge’s help to wrest his 14-year-old daughter from the drips of a maniac boyfriend, the poet who drinks/drugs and all the restaurant staff adore him). Eventually Madge saves up enough money and heads to New York, sight unseen with her cat in a carrier and having given away most of her belongings.

You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages

Half of these essays were fantastic, then they tapered off with a thud. On the plus side, she did get me to watch Private Benjamin (excellent!) and I’m left with a stack of other must-see movies to catch up on, including a re-watch of the Stepford Wives. And her writing was solid, filled with delicious vocabulary like fulminate, impune, ineffable, elide, intemerate.

Chocano takes her pop-culture critic pen and dissects movies from Flashdance (“the first time I’ve seen a girl whose artistic genius does not get her frog-marched directly to a course of electroshock treatments and long-term institutionalization”) to Thelma & Louise/Pretty Woman/Ghostbusters (the all-female reboot). Growing up, she initially thought her/our generation was the first post-feminist generation but “didn’t know that this moment was the tail end of a brief period in American cinema, between 1978 and 1985, when heroine’s stories didn’t end in marriage but started with adventure…” Chocano also dives into film history, name-dropping Dorothy Azner along with Alice Guy, who directed the 1912 film (now lost) In the Year 2000, “a film about a time when women rule the world.” Downside: she’s in love with the phrase “the cognitive dissonance was palpable,” using it a handful of times.

On Flashdance:

We don’t care how this young girl in a depressed steel town got a union job. We don’t care how she managed not to get slighted, diminished, harassed, or bullied at work. We don’t care how she affords her enormous warehouse space, and heats it, while saving money to attend a prestigious dance academy. We don’t care that she is too old to be a ballerina and too young to be a steelworker because by then the steel mills had stopped hiring, and wouldn’t have hired her in the first place. We don’t notice how creepy the love story is, that her boyfriend is twenty years older than she is, that she works for him, that he owns the means of production, for Karl Marx’s sake.

The essays stacked early in the collection were super-charged. Dealing with post-WWII economic boom, the concept of a middle class was new, but “it wasn’t women working that was new. What was (relatively) new was global corporate capitalism as the organizing principle, and what was still unclear was how women would fit in.”

On the Road

When I was a kid, I read War and Peace but got bored by all the war chapters so skipped them and just read the peace ones. After 100 pages of Kerouac nonsense, I returned to this same strategy, only reading the San Francisco and New York sections. Still, it was a waste of time.

I read this book as a kid, too, and was curious about how the experience of reading it would differ after decades of living in SF and maturing my brain. My teenaged mind was boggled by the adventure and free association prose poem, but my wiser, older self views this as a putrid piece of garbage that does nothing to deserve the label “Classic.” It was a gut-punching reminder that the patriarchy’s toxic waste filters down to both genders in vehicles like this. Books where women are depicted as mindless chicks who nag and whine and are only good for one thing—screwing. And his ignorance of white privilege is astonishing in this passage where he says he’s a dreary white man, wishing he were the colored man he sees in front of him, “wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America.”

Most useful was the introduction where the myth of Kerouac’s writing this all out rat-a-tat in 3 weeks was dispelled. He’d written several versions of it over the preceding years and would go on to write another version after the 3-weeks-typed-onto-long-roll version.

Enter Talking

Joan Rivers has a helluva memoir. Hundreds of pages detailing the brutal struggle she went through to finally make it to her Johnny Carson appearance which unlocked the doors to success. I didn’t realize that she was a chum of Treva Silverman, the hilarious writer for most of the Mary Tyler Moore shows that I actually enjoyed. No one believed in Joan’s talent but herself for many gripping, penny-pinching years, but as soon as she made it, everyone agreed that they had seen it in her and had supported her. Also amusing was the back & forth comment war in the margins from previous library patrons, wherein one tried to name drop how he knew various celebrities and another pencil commenter furiously scribbled a diatribe against the original comment. Gold.

Henry David Thoreau: A Life

I’m a little embarrassed that I’m only now embarking on reading biographies of my favorite 19th century authors (Melville, now Thoreau). Walls’s book is a terrific compendium of Henry’s life, compiled from various letters and journals to trace the footsteps of America’s first ecologist and one of the finest writers of the ages.

We all know he lived simply (a friend said “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough”), but I was in the dark about much of his process and life. Contrary to some deeply held belief I had, he traveled widely—to Montreal, Niagara Falls, Minneapolis, as well as extensively through Maine, Massachusetts, Cape Code, New Hampshire, and every inch of Concord. Walden was lived (the biographer claims it as performance art) then mulled over for many seasons, trotted out on the lecture circuit, then published.

His connection to Emerson is well-known, helping to raise Waldo’s family while R.E. is in Europe lecturing, tutoring Waldo’s brother’s family on Staten Island for his first exposure to NYC, and most egregiously being called a watered-down version of Emerson himself. Also well documented are his friendships with Ellery Channing, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne. He met Walt Whitman once and decided to like him. Kansas abolitionist John Brown spent hours discussing the day’s events in the Thoreau parlor in Concord and Henry championed him in fiery lectures. He heard Caroline Dall speak in Concord and Lucretia Mott lecture in Boston, and counted Margaret Fuller among his friends. Horace Greeley tirelessly promoted him in publishing circles, Thoreau read Melville’s Typee (sadly, despite their mutual bosom friend of Hawthorne, it appears that the two men never met), and he crossed paths at Harvard with Richard Dana fresh from his years behind the mast.

The biographer makes a strident case that Thoreau witnessed the beginning of the Anthropocene, seeing the collapse of a two-hundred year old system of English farming that had been in place in Concord and watching the railroad cut a swath across the field near Walden Pond.

Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

Stunning book that definitely deserves its Pulitzer Prize. Meticulously researched by Heather Ann Thompson over many years to investigate and wrest the hidden documents from the guilty hands of the State of New York. Exquisitely structured in manageable 10 sections laying out the inhumane conditions leading up to the riot, the political landscape, the brutal event in detail from its inception on Sept 9, 1971 to Sept 13, 1971 when the [white] State Troopers who had been chomping at the bit to come in and terrorize the [mostly brown] prisoners who had deigned to revolt were unleashed with guns and teargas into the yard. Then the book covers the horrific followup, the coverup by the State to not bring any Troopers to trial, the legal actions against a few dozen of the prisoners, and finally to retribution for the tortured prisoners and a settlement for hostages and their families. Thompson wraps everything up with a peek at the state of our extreme incarceration and terrible prison conditions in 2016.

This from the epilogue is particularly poignant in today’s police-state:

… the 1960s and 1970s were all about the politics of the ironic. At the Democratic National Convention protests of 1968, Kent State in 1970, and Wounded Knee in 1973, unfettered police power each time turned protests violent, and yet, after each of these events, the nation was sent the message that the people, not the police, were dangerous. Somehow voters came to believe that democracy was worth curtailing and civil rights and liberties were worth suspending for the sake of “order” and of maintaining the status quo.

As I read this book, I was amazed over and over by things Thompson brought to light. I’ll admit that I had to put it down several times, reading it the day after the most recent Biggest Ever mass shooting in Las Vegas and finding it hard to read the descriptions of what bullets do to a body. Some thoughts:

Why did Rockefeller send in the NYSP instead of letting the National Guard go in? Both groups were on the scene. “Whereas the National Guard had a clear plan already in place for bringing civil disturbances in confined areas under control, known as Operation Plan Skyhawk, the New York State Police had virtually no formal training for this sort of action.”

The troopers removed their identification badges “just before they went in” so that they wouldn’t be able to be tagged to their crimes. A trooper later said “we weren’t stopping traffic where a citizen would have the perfect right to know who they’re being stopped by… it was a different thing.” Basically premeditated murder that they could (and would) get away with scot-free.

The racism was unbelievable and yet, in view of lingering terribleness on this front, completely believable. It goes all the way up the chain to Nixon, caught on tape excusing Rockefeller’s excessive and indefensible use of force because “you see it’s the black business… he had to do it.”

The Attica chant of Al Pacino from Dog Day Afternoon echoed in my head throughout. This is an unmissable book that shines light on the terrible and incredible events from 1971 onward.

The Black House

Pat had a ho-hum period in the 80s that explains why this 1981 collection of stories is sleep inducing. No story stands out as worthy of remembering, but I’m still committed to working my way through her entire oeuvre. She’s best when she drips the details of everyday life in with an increasing sense of suspense, and that is sorely lacking from this collection. The closest you get is in the first story where a cat finds a severed hand and the finder calls his neighbor to let him know, only to have the neighbor come over to admit to killing his gardener for flirting with his wife. I guess the other story that was amusing was the couple who “adopt” an older couple from the nursing home to let them live their glory days in style. The old folks take over, TV blaring, demanding trays of food to be sent up, wetting their bed deliberately.

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother

Beautiful book by James McBride about the long search to discover his white mother’s Jewish roots and untangle the story of her abusive childhood. He was the eighth child of Ruth and Andrew McBride’s, but his father died before James was born. Widow Ruth’s Jewish family had already written her off as dead for marrying a black man, so she struggled to continue to support her brood and the church she’d founded with McBride. Along came the step-father that James always called Daddy, and they added four more children to the mix.

Wonderfully researched and written, with the italicized chapters coming straight from Ruth’s perspective, growing up as a Jew in the South, working nonstop at her father’s store when not at school, being sexually molested by her father, eventually running away to NYC where her mother’s family had taken root. Top notch memoir, coming highly recommended by Annie Dillard.

Jakob von Gunten

My interest in Robert Walser got a jolt from reading Walks with Walser , so I checked out one of his novels that I had not yet read. It’s the tale of a runaway boy who decides to enroll in butler-school. Apparently there were still enough mid-level aristocrats in early 1900s Berlin to merit a school devoted to their servants. This was based on Walser’s own experience, enrolling in such a school in 1905 then going a’butlering the next year. It’s a school that teaches nothing, the teachers are asleep. The students learn obedience, patience.

When Jakob first arrives, he’s put into a room to board with 3 other boys. He revolts, gets his own room. “One is always half mad when one is shy of people.” He’s a bit full of himself, coming from an upper-class family, but wanting to completely debase himself.

“That I am the cleverest of them all is perhaps not altogether so delightful. What is the use of thoughts and ideas if one feels, as I do, that one doesn’t know what to do with them?”

Walser (and his English translator) have a way with words. “The mumbling of a grumbler is lovelier to me than the murmuring of a woodland stream, with the loveliest of Sunday morning sunshine sparkling on it.” Also, one of my favorites: “He speaks like a flopped somersault and behaves like a big improbability pummeled into human shape.” His street scenes are dizzyingly gorgeous. Oh, and “When inside I’m bursting with laughter, when I hardly know what to do with all this hissing gunpowder, then I know what laughing is, then I have laughed most laughishly then I have a complete idea of what was shaking me.”

Jakob finds extreme pleasure in all the rules. “If you aren’t allowed to do something, you do it twice as much somewhere else.”