Family of Origin

I fell in love with CJ Hauser’s writing when I read her Crane Wife piece in the Paris Review this summer. This novel is another example of excellent writing, although I increasingly became whiplashed by her pulling us back and forward through time to tell the story. Two pseudo-siblings who aren’t actually related (Ian is Nolan’s father but not Elsa’s), reunite on the occasion of Ian’s mysterious drowning death on an island where he was investigating buffleheads that are devolving, going backwards, losing their waterproofing. Years back, when 20-year-old Elsa first discovered that Ian wasn’t technically her father, she slept with 14-year-old Nolan, throwing his mind into a tailspin it never seemed to recover from.

Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

Interviews from the 1950s-1980s with Isak Dinesen, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Rebecca West, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Nadine Gordimer, Anne Sexton, Cynthia Ozick, Joan Didion, Edna O’Brien, and Joyce Carol Oates. An introduction by Margaret Atwood does a tepid job of explaining why they collected these Paris Review essays by gender (“Why not?”). Much advice. Katherine Anne Porter always started with the ending, until the end is known there is no story. “That is where the artist begins to work: With the consequences of acts, not the acts themselves. Or the events. The event is important only as it affects your life and the lives of those around you. The reverberations, you might say, the overtones: that is where the artist works. It has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me. Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences. If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it.”

I loved Dorothy Parker’s summation about what Hollywood meant to her. “‘Out there,’ I called it. You want to know what ‘out there’ means to me? Once I was coming down a street in Beverly Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of the arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it.”

The intro paragraph for Nadine Gordimer’s interview was shockingly rude, describing how Gordimer started the interview the moment she walked in the door and ended it exactly an hour later. So what?! Some moments in the interview I liked, when Gordimer pointed out that living at home as an adult was something no kid does nowadays (1980 interview, how times have changed!) and how also people don’t use the library anymore.

Anne Sexton’s brief but burning life as a poet began after she cracked up at 28 from having a baby and just being a wife; her doctor recommended that she watch Boston’s educational tv programming, which is where she learned about sonnets, and tried her hand. Then she took a poetry class, ended up apprenticing with Robert Lowell, palling around with Sylvia Plath where they’d take Sexton’s car after Lowell’s class and park in a Loading Zone only spot at the Ritz which was ok because “we’re only going to get loaded.” When she felt a poem coming on, she’d put Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras on as her “magic tune.”

Screen Tests

RIP, my crush on Zambreno, now at a complete end after her pushing two mediocre books into the market this year, bemoaning her lack of motivation/energy/whatever since she birthed a baby. Did motherhood rot her brain somehow, or have I outgrown her? I no longer need her roadmap to discover other writers, movies, poets, historical figures. Instead, she comes off as a nervous name dropper, trying to gin up an intellectual reputation for herself by dropping enough Kathy Ackers into the stream, or going on and on about how someone else may have plagiarized her idea for writing about Barbara Loden (the other author did a much better job than Zambreno could have). At one point she determines to name all the new narrative poets like Killian and Bellamy. There’s plenty of Valerie Solanas and Shulamith Firestone and Warhol and Susan Sontag here for anyone in need of a basic guidebook for intellectualism 101. Perhaps most pitiable were the “stories” she frontloads the book with, snippets of misfired brain synapses and musings only a mother could love. Dullsville.

A Small Place

This book—dewey-decimaled in the 917.297s—was nestled against a wall of brand-name travel guides like Fodor’s and whatnot. Strange, I thought as I plucked it from its odd bedfellows. Inside, Jamaica Kincaid blasts forth a travel guide for Antigua like no other, excoriating the tourists who arrive, bellowing rightfully about the abuses of the English colonists and slaveholders and the stink they left behind that local politicians whipped into corruption unimaginable, fuming at the racists who still hoard money and refuse to build the library, hospital, and other infrastructure to help the island’s progress.

Her opening paragraphs are like nothing I’ve read before. She takes dead aim at you, the tourist. She discusses how easily you float through customs and how you’ll be cheated by the cab driver and how you stare out the window (to get your money’s worth) but don’t notice the bad roads or terrible schools…

You see yourself lying on the beach… you see yourself taking a walk on that beach, you see yourself meeting new people (only they are new in a very limited way, for they are people just like you). You see yourself eating some delicious, locally grown food. You see yourself, you see yourself… You must not wonder what exactly happened to the contents of your lavatory when you flushed it. You must not wonder where your bathwater went when you pulled out the stopper… Oh, it might all end up in the water you are thinking of taking a swim in; the contents of your lavatory might, just might, graze gently against your ankle as you wade carefree in the water, for you see, in Antigua, there is no proper sewage-disposal system.

Better, brutally, this, which goes on for a beautifully long paragraph spanning multiple pages but I’ve chopped to the bits I like best (emphasis mine):

The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being… And so, ordinarily, you are a nice person… But one day, when you are sitting somewhere, alone in that crowd, and that awful feeling of displacedness comes over you, and really, as an ordinary person you are not well equipped to look too far inward and set yourself aright, because being ordinary is already so taxing, and being ordinary takes all you have out of you, and though the words ‘I must get away’ do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it; to being a person lying on some faraway beach, your stilled body stinking and glistening in the sand, looking like something first forgotten, then remembered, then not important enough to go back for; to being a person marvelling at the harmony (ordinarily, what you would say is backwardness) and the union these other people (and they are other people) have with nature… since you are being an ugly person this ugly  but joyful thought will swell inside you: their ancestors were not clever in the way yours were and not ruthless in the way yours were, for then would it not be you who would be in harmony with nature and backwards in that charming way? An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you… They do not like you. They do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you. Still, you feel a little uneasy. Still, you feel a little foolish. Still, you feel a little out of place.


The Book of Delights: Essays

Simply a delight. Ross Gay tries his hand at a daily essay-ette about something delightful, written by hand, drafted quickly. Themes crop up quickly: he travels a lot reading his poems to classes, groups; he writes in cafes; his mother is on his mind; so is racism, and kindness, and books, and politics, and food, and his garden. It is impossible to get through a few pages without smiling and wanting to do a similar project. Turning a daily gratitude into a writing exercise. As with all great books, there are endless breadcrumbs of other books and movies and poets I need to investigate that he mentions. He even dedicates one meditation of delight to discussing Toto, the band, and how amazing it was that they were just average looking dudes, how much the world has shifted to being much more image conscious than just focused on music.

There are too many good entries here, about the joys of carports (amen!), eating berries, bombing downhill on a bike to a vegan bakery, etc etc, but I particularly loved 87. Loitering:

The Webster’s definition of loiter reads thus: “to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,” and “to travel indolently with frequent pauses.” Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey. Any one of these words, in the wrong frame of mind, might be considered a critique or, when nouned, an epithet (“Lollygagger!” or “Loafer!”). Indeed, lollygag was one of the words my mom would use to cajole us while jingling her keys when she was waiting on us, which, judging from the visceral response I had while writing that memory, must’ve been not quite infrequent. All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America, and more explicitly criminal depending upon any number of quickly apprehended visual cues.

The more stuff you love, the happier you will be.

2 books about self-discipline and willpower

After my daily Tarot card continued to present me the same card day after day indicating lack of discipline, projects taken up then abandoned, and inability to channel energy into useful purposes, I took note. My immediate response was predictable—I headed to the library for help.

No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline

Brian Tracy’s No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline was on the shelf so it came home with me that day. I have a client who is obsessed with Brian Tracy, constantly referencing his wisdom in her talks, so I felt in good hands. The book is excellent—filled with practical information and each chapter ends with a list of difficult exercises you’re supposed to tackle. He makes you articulate your goals, write them down, and really think about them. If you’re not really into this, you’ll probably find the questions a bit hokey, but I was stumped by my own inability to answer some of them. Naming three people I admire and what quality about them I respect was particularly hard.

Always accept responsibility for how you react to something. You choose whether to let something bother you or not. He cautions you to accept complete responsibility for everything you are now and everything you become.

Achieving your goals is broken into steps which sound easier than they are: decide exactly what you want, write it down, set a deadline, make a list of everything you can do to achieve it, organize your list by both sequence and priority, take action immediately, do something every day that moves you forward. The exercises in this chapter were tough, but some of my brainstorming came up with the idea that I might like to do some 1:1 tutoring with kids?!

Other tips he had were to rewrite your goals every day, plan your day in advance, discipline yourself to concentrate single-mindedly on one thing. Define your biggest problem, ask why it is a problem. For personal interactions, liking, respecting, and being impressed by people is his recommendation. He ends on a very Zen note of practicing letting go, forgiveness.

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

This one is by Kelly McGonigal, the instructor of Stanford’s popular course, The Science of Willpower. She suggests to read a chapter a week, which mirrors the 10-week class schedule, but I’m too impatient. There are 3 types of willpower: the “I will” (getting yourself to do something you’ve been putting off, or more of), “I won’t” (trying to give up something), and “I want” (long term goal). Your prefrontal cortex is what helps you do the “harder thing,” helping you keep doing boring or difficult tasks or preventing you from following every impulse.

Week 1: track your choices. Watch how the process of giving into your impulses happens. Notice, catch yourself. For training purposes, start with 5 minute meditation on the breath. What is the harder thing to do? What makes it hard? Describe your competing selves: what does the impulsive version want vs the wiser version of yourself?

Week 2: willpower is a biological instinct like stress evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves (pause & plan vs. fight or flight). What is the threat, the inner impulse? See what happens when stress strikes throughout the week, what happens to willpower. Slow breathing down to 4-6 breaths per minute to shift into self-control. Fill-up on willpower by getting exercise, even a 5 minute walk. Get enough sleep, use relaxation to help gain self-control.

Week 3: self control is a muscle that gets tired from use but regular exercise makes it stronger. Find out when you have the most willpower in the day and arrange your schedule to accommodate that. Eat healthy foods so you don’t need a spike in energy (nuts, beans, grains, fruit, veg). Do small willpower workout: commit to using nondominant hand for task like brushing teeth/eating/opening doors; commit to doing something every day just for practice in building habit, like meditating, cleaning up, doing 10 pushups/situps; formally track something you don’t usually pay close attention to. When looking to make a big change, look for a small way to practice self-control to strengthen willpower without overwhelming it completely. Challenge yourself to go beyond the first feeling of fatigue. Motivations: how will you benefit from succeeding (what’s personal payoff?), who else will benefit from you succeeding, imagine the challenge will get easier over time if you’re willing to do what’s difficult now (not smoking will be a lot easier a year from now so you’re more willing to endure temporary misery).

Week 4: Being good somehow makes your brain get permission to be bad. For better self-control forget “virtue” and focus on goals. Instead of asking how much progress you’re making, ask how committed you feel to your goal. Remember the “why” of your goal, don’t pat yourself on the back for any progress. Reduce the variability of your behavior: don’t pretend that tomorrow will be any different from today; (study that asked smokers to smoke the same # of cigarettes every day actually decrease their amount because they see an unending horizon of cigarette butts ahead of them).

Week 5: your brain lies to you. Dopamine is for action, not happiness. Reward system in brain lights up with anticipation, not pleasure. Evolution doesn’t give a damn about happiness itself but uses the promise of happiness to keep us struggling to stay alive. Desire triggers stress & anxiety. Use this to your advantage and “dopaminize” your projects that you need extra oomph starting/finishing (bring paperwork to a cafe to finish over hot chocolate; scratch-off lottery tickets placed beside procrastinated projects around the house; visualize your reward). Mindfully do something your brain says will make you happy and see if reality matches the brain’s promise.

Week 6: feeling bad leads to giving in. Stress leads to your brain trying to rescue you with something it thinks will make you feel good (quick fixes that usually don’t). Instead: exercise, read, listen to music, walk, yoga, be creative. Real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing chemicals like serotonin, BAGA, oxytocin and shut down brain’s stress response. If/when you fail, don’t self-criticize but forgive; be mindful & think about what you feel, realize everyone is human, say to yourself what you would say to a friend to encourage. Try on the voice of a mentor who believes in you. Imagine yourself failing a willpower challenge, see what that feels like and what you might think, then consider what actions you can take to stick; visualize what you’re doing, see yourself succeed. Planning for failure is self-compassion so you’re ready to put your plan into action.

Week 7: we can’t see the future clearly, so we give into temptation and procrastination. Make yourself wait 10 minutes before giving in and during that time bring to mind your overall goal. Or work on something for 10 minutes then you can quit. When tempted to work against your best interest, frame the choice as giving up your best long term reward to take the short term gratification ($100 you were going to get vs the $50 you can take now, you’ll value the original reward more). Precommit to your future self; create a new default, make choices in advance, make it easier to act on rational preference.

Week 8: self-control influenced by social proof, so willpower and temptation are contagious. To avoid catching someone’s willpower sickness, boost your immune system by thinking about your goals at the beginning of each day. Who are you most likely to “catch” something from—is that a good thing? You may need to find a new tribe to reinforce your new habits.

Week 9: trying to suppress thoughts actually makes them come back stronger because you’re giving your reptilian brain monitor something to obsess over (“Don’t do x” makes the monitor constantly ask if you’re doing x or not). Surf the urge as it hits you, watch how you feel, notice. Imagine the craving dissolving. Note: can you turn the ironic boomerang to your favor? So say something like “Don’t exercise and eat healthy” so your monitor is constantly thinking about exercise?

The Acoustic World of Early Modern England

“How is it possible,” my sister asked, “that an entire book was written about that?” And here I am clamoring for more than the nearly 400 pages that the book contained, a second volume! It’s the kind of book that makes me giddy and giggly, completely over my head at times with thick academic prose and formulas and illustrations, but otherwise perfectly in tune with something I’ve been curious about—the historic sounds of places.

Smith forgoes an introduction and dives right into a confusing chapter that requests readers to make sounds and observe how they feel in the throat and sound via vibrations in your skull. He discusses how literacy has begun to creep into society, overtaking the oral tradition of storytelling, noting that those who recorded what was going on were of middle class, neither of the court royals or the peasantry.

“About hearing you have no choice: you can shut off vision by closing your eyes, but from birth to death, in waking and in sleep, the coils of flesh, the tiny bones, the hair cells, the nerve fibers are always at the ready.”

“Hearing is a physiological constant; listening is a psychological variable… all of what you hear of yourself comes not from the air around you but through vibrations in the bones and tissues of your skull.”

Quoting from William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1584), the sounds heard from a London street corner is Dr. Seussian: “barking of dogs, grunting of hogs, wauling of cats, rambling of rats, gaggling of geese, humming of bees, rousing of bucks, gaggling of ducks, singing of swans, ringing of pans, crowing of cocks, sowing of socks, cackling of hens, scrabling of pens, peeping of mice, trulling of dice, corling of frogs, and toads in the bogs, chirping of crickets, shutting of wickets, skriking of owls, flittring of fowls…”

Erasmus’s 1522 De Conscribendis Epistolis: “the wording of a letter should resemble a conversation between friends… a letter is a mutual conversation between absent friends, which should be neither unpolished, rough, or artificial, nor confined to a single topic, nor tediously long. Thus the epistolary form favours simplicity, frankness, humour, and wit.”

“In early modern England bells signaled mandatory church attendance on Sunday, trumpet blasts heralded a proclamation, guns were fired at regular intervals from castles.”

With electricity came machines, and the death of natural sound. In early England, “few high intensity or continuous sounds exist in the preindustrialized world. More ‘smaller’ sounds can be heard, more detail can be discerned in those that are heard.”

Sounds that could be heard in the city: singing, whistling, drumming, horn calling/blasting, talking, crying, screaming, moaning, wailing, ululating, tide rising and falling, church bells ringing, hammering, ringing of blacksmith, birds, wind, bells on horses, hawking wares, conversation, horse clopping, cart wheels turning, feet shuffling, clinks and thuds of printing press, constant sound of running water from the Thames, burps and belches of fellow diners, roaring of animals in the zoo, tumult from the playhouses, loud chomps from munching fruit in the streets, clacking of beggar dishes, pleas of inmates in jail, music and shooting of cannons for ceremonies, barking dogs, speeches, cries of approval from crowd.

In the country: wind in trees, birds, water, domestic animals, frogs, crows, barking dogs, church bells, creaks and rattle of the mill, distinctive sounds of human activity in forest/meadow/fields, lowing cows, bleating ewes, neighing horses. At harvest, working together people laugh, sing, shout, talk, clap. Celebrating, they dance to music. In an acoustic environment that lacked any sounds above 60 decibels (apart from barking dogs, occasional gunshot, lightning bolt, church bells), “all sounds would be present with an intensity quite beyond anything imaginable on the same site today.”

At the royal court: loud talk (proclamation) and soft talk (rumor), elaborate clocks striking the hour, organs, music boxes, splashing fountain, birds, trumpets and drums, the crash of glass from an overburdened table.

Incomplete list of musical instruments: bells, pipe, fiddle, drum, trumpets, cornets, recorders, flute, trombone, harp

Bizarre digressions into the acoustics of the Globe and Blackfriar Theaters, morris dancing, the difference between oratory/conversation/liturgy/theater, his notation of human sound as [o:], this was a weird and delightful book.

Large Animals: Stories

Jess Arndt’s collection of stories is reminiscent of a gender-bending Kerouac. She lures you in with lush and bizarre details, hanging you out to dry because the story ends and it’s on to the next one. I think my favorite was the first one, wherein three ladies come to the end of their month stay in Atlantic City and the money the narrator wins at the casino (Taj Mahal!) is supposed to go for her breast removal but instead she squanders the $1000 payout. A hurricane approaches. There are awkward scenes with not being comfortable having sex with the other ladies. It’s all great writing and bouncing around from NYC to Quebec to SF to Connecticut, real stories told from a perspective you don’t usually get to hear.

Vanishing Twins: A Marriage

Incredible memoir about an unconventional marriage. The narrator was a serious dancer in her childhood, a ballerina in training, who meets her husband, finishes college with a journalism degree, then ends up in LA working as a creative at an ad agency, supporting her husband through architecture school and then as he becomes an artist. She’s always been bisexual, and insists on an open marriage, finding flings with other women. He eventually has his own flings as he goes off to artist residencies and spends a year in NYC. The two are twins, but float apart, and back together. Beautifully written by Leah Dieterich.

The Uses of the Body

Deborah Landau’s book of poems from 2015 sparkles, flashes of light from the language that catch the tips of my eyes before twisting me around, dizzy. Her description of the chaos of a summer, beginning with a wedding, a death mourned in Paris, a birth, a relocation from LA to New York. An entire lifetime captured in a slim, bursting volume of poetry.

Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need

I think I heard about this book in an interview with Vicki Robin, of Your Money or Your Life fame (which it looks like I read twice, in 2007 and in 2013). Grant’s main point seems to be that all the previous advice we get is wrong about putting away a small percent each year toward retirement then hoping it’s enough when we reach 65. Instead, he advises you to supercharge it so you can take advantage of the magic of compounding. And other sources talk about maximizing one of the levers of saving, earning, and expenses—Grant tells you to focus on all 3 at once. Side hustles is the name of the game (unless you’re like me, running your own biz). Most interesting was the section on Roth IRA conversion ladder – I didn’t realize once you convert, you can withdraw without penalty 5 years later.

Slipstream: A Memoir

The only great thing about this book was seeing how much she pillaged from her own life in order to write the Cazalet Chronicles. I didn’t realize that she spent 18 years with Kingsley Amis, ending in a rather nasty divorce. But just like the Chronicles, she ditches her young baby and first husband, leaving a non-existent bond with her daughter Nicola. When Nicola gets married later, she relies more on her stepmother, and Howard attends the ceremony alone. “I remember little about it, as it was one of those occasions occluded by sadness for me.” She struggled to make ends meet and found time to write when possible. “I was lazy, and where writing was concerned this was inexcusable. “