The Thousand-Mile Summer: In Desert and High Sierra

One final Colin Fletcher book, I couldn’t help myself. The walking Brit who tackled some of America’s greatest hits in the 1960s, including this walk the entire length of California, from the Mexican border to the Oregon state line. Along the way he meets several characters: desert rats, wizened dried up old men, generous ladies throwing birthday parties for their 80-year-old dad, cautious rangers, tall-tale-tellers. Of course he walks naked whenever possible, per usual. Seems dreamy, he just up and took off for 6 months, leaving his San Francisco job as a hospital janitor behind and setting off into the wilderness.

The way out of Berkeley Square

Arabella is a 30-year-old woman saddled with the care of her father for the last 10 years after her mother’s death, with no hope of escaping the home as he rages on with guilt trips and other psychological warfare. Brother Michael is a poet who’s escaped to Pakistan but ultimately contracts polio and must return. She has a torrid yet non-sexual affair with a married man, Wolf, replete with more psychological tricks to get her to like him more.

Her writing is playful, witty, descriptive. Detailing her father’s car: “His new Bentley is fully automatic, has doors as heavy as safe doors from the Bank of England, and a steel body as wide as a ping-pong table. Inside you serve from one corner of it, while burning hot air and noisy stereophonic music try to draw off your attention, subdue, drown and kill you.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Finally, a great book about introverts vs extroverts! Susan Cain produced a well-researched and well-written tome that you can use to knock sense into people in your overly stimulated life. Her book contains advice for people who are overly reliant on extroverts in their organization and pummels us with scientific study after study that show the benefits of having introverted leaders.

She braves a four-day Tony Robbins seminar (where the attendees actually walk across a 10 ft bed of hot coals), attends church at the overwhelming Saddleback evangelical megachurch in California, goes trolling around the Harvard Business School looking for quiet people, and layers in famous introverts who got things done like Rosa Parks, Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt. Nothing gets my blood pumping like a good Proust quote, too, where he called the moments of unity between reader and writer “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude”(from Marcel Proust on Reading Ruskin).

Group brainstorming doesn’t work: One of the earliest studies to debunk the brainstorming myth was Marvin Dunnette’s 1963 “The Effect of Group Participation on Brainstorming Effectiveness for Two Industrial Samples” in the Journal of Applied Psychology. He asked 48 scientists and 48 advertising executives at 3M to participate in both group and solo brainstorming processes, expecting that the executives would benefit from the group process but the scientists would not. Nope. 23 out of 24 of the groups produced fewer ideas than when they worked on their own, and the solo results were of higher quality. “Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusion. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases.” Organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham writes the “evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”

Groups are like mind-altering substances. This was the most eye-popping thing I learned. A 2005 Emory University study by Gregory Berns took snapshots of volunteers’ brains as they either conformed or broke with group opinion. Playing alone, they got a spacial recognition question wrong only 14% of the time. Playing with a group where members gave unanimously wrong answers, they agreed with the group 41% of the time. Berns study showed heightened activity in the area of the brain associated with visual and spacial perception, meaning that the groupthink actually changed the individual’s perception. You’re not just going along with the group, but you actually see things the way that the group wrongly described. The implications for jury trials are enormous. More details in the NYT writeup or in Berns’ book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently.

On the need for quiet, private workspaces: Cain cites the example from the Coding War Games where the top performing coders worked for companies that gave their employees the most privacy, personal space, control over physical environment and freedom from interruption. Also lists a “mountain of other recent data on open-plan offices”:

What about public speaking? While there is hope for us quiet types if we are tapped to speak about a subject we’re deeply interested in, Cain notes how this is usually an impossibility at work and it’s harder for introverts ” who have trouble projecting artificial enthusiasm.”

Other random item: IBM’s sales force in the 1950s started each work day by singing “Selling IBM” to the tune of Singin’ in the Rain:

Selling I. B. M., we're selling I. B. M.,
What a glorious feeling, the world is our friend,
We're Watson's great crew, we're loyal and true;
We're proud of our job and we never feel blue.
We sell our whole line, we're there every time,
To chase away gloom with our products so fine,
We're always in trim, we work with a vim,
We're selling, just selling, I. B. M.


Black Life

Poems to whirl around in your mouth, twirl into shredded bits, bite off tiny morsels and suck them of sustenance.

I came to this book of poems by way of my daily poem email which launched a piece of Ars Poetica into my heart.

I say I want to save the world but really
I want to write poems all day
I want to rise, write poems, go to sleep,
Write poems in my sleep

In Memoriam

More accurately, this is In Memoriam A.H.H., a tribute to Tennyson’s beloved friend Arthur Hallam, met as fellow poets in the Apostles group at Cambridge. It’s a grief-soaked 100-ish pages spanning three years after Hallam’s untimely death of a cerebral aneurysm in his hotel room in Vienna in 1833, the fall after he graduated.

The ABBA rhyme was used occasionally in earlier poetry, but this is the longest and best-known to use it (so much so that the ABBA stanza is known as the In Memoriam stanza). The editor of this edition, Matthew Rowlinson, notes that it’s an unusual choice for a long poem, “the symmetrical eight-syllable line is far more apt to become monotonous than the longer ten-syllable one of iambic pentameter that from the 16th to the 20th centuries was the norm for long English poems on elevated topics.” It lends itself to seem repetitious, which to me seems to perfectly fit with grief. Henry James called the poem’s style “poised and stationary” where the phrase seems to “pause and slowly pivot upon itself, or at most to move backwards.”

Compared with other poetic elegies, it’s extremely long and doesn’t offer any divine solace like Shelley’s “Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep—/He hath awakened from the dream of life.”

The most recognizable part is in XXVII, “I hold it true, whate’er befall;/ I feel it, when I sorrow most;/ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.”

So why am I reading this? Virginia Woolf’s letter to Violet Dickinson (Vol 1, p 217) mention that she’s reading it: “I went to a dance last night, and found a dim corner where I sat and read In Memoriam. While Nessa danced every dance till 2.30. I had one argument about the Roman Empire—you see I am not successful.” It also influenced her first book, The Voyage Out, according to Jane Wheare’s introduction.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America

There is nothing beautiful about fracking. Strange to read this book in tandem with William Bartram’s travels around 18th century Florida and Georgia, the unspoiled wildernesses in all their prelapsarian glory. In Eliza Griswold’s multi-year reporting of the western corner of Pennsylvania, we see fracking’s sins laid bare—poisoned water sources, airborne toxins, sick children, ugly waste pits, fraud and coverup by state environmental group in cahoots with industry, neighbor pitted against neighbor. The book is uneven in quality, but for the most part a riveting story following one family’s arc of inviting the drilling onto their land and then losing everything (house, farm animals, health).

Travels of William Bartram

Reading this book alongside a book about fracking provides a jarring juxtaposition—compare the gloriously clear waters and abundant nature of 1770’s Florida with the contaminated wells and airborne chemicals of 2010’s Pennsylvania. We have lost so much in so short a time.

William Bartram traveled around Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida between 1773 and 1778, resulting in this delightful book of his reminisces in 1791. The book influenced Coleridge and it’s said to have given him many of the gorgeous images that were later woven into Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was a source for Wordsworth as well, “likewise an enthusiastic reader of travel literature; ‘She was a phantom of delight’ and ‘Ruth’ both distinctly show its influence…” Bartram was a trained naturalist and goes into ecstatic shock over the varieties of flora and fauna around him, listing the trees and shrubs and flowers and insects in long breathless paragraphs.

He hitches onto a surveying party of whites who have wrested land from the native Creek and Cherokee after tense negotiations in Augusta (GA): “the merchants of Georgia demanding at least two million of acres of land from the Indians, as a discharge of their debts, due, and of long standing…” Naturally the natives wanted to do no such thing, but eventually the chiefs gave in after lavish presents were given. Of the whites, everyone is described as exceedingly “polite”—I must have counted 10 uses of the word in a few paragraphs. Manners appear to be of utmost importance, as well as letters of introduction from important people.

The text is littered with occasional gems, like “I accidentally discovered a new species of caryophyllata (geum odoratissimum); on reaching to a shrub my foot slipped, and, in recovering myself, I tore up some of the plants, whose roots filled the air with animated scents of cloves and spicy perfumes.” I’m extremely jealous of the unspoiled vista he was taking in, describing huge trees, woods thick with birds, untouched swamplands.

Amazing descriptions of alligators swarming him, the river choked with fish and alligators “in such incredible numbers, and so close together from shore to shore, that it would have been easy to have walked across on their heads.” The prose is intense:

During this attempt, thousands, I may say hundreds of thousands, of [fish] were caught and swallowed by the devouring alligators. I have seen an alligator take up out of the water several great fish at a time, and just squeeze them betwixt his jaws, while the tails of the great trout flapped about his eyes and lips, ere he had swallowed them. The horrid noise of their closing jaws, their plunging amidst the broken banks of fish, and rising with their prey some feet upright above the water, the floods of water and blood rushing out of their mouths, and the clouds of vapor issuing from their wide nostrils, were truly frightful. This scene continued at intervals during the night, as the fish came to the pass.

He’s attacked several times by the gators:

As I passed by Battle lagoon, I began to tremble and keep a good lookout; when suddenly a huge alligator rushed out of the reeds, and with a tremendous roar came up, and darted as swift as an arrow under my boat, emerging upright on my lee quarter, with open jaws, and belching water and smoke that fell upon me like rain in a hurricane. I laid soundly about his head with my club and beat him off; and after plunging and darting about my boat, he went off on a straight line through the water, seemingly with the rapidity of lightning, and entered the cape of the lagoon.

Snakes, mosquitoes, gators, orange groves, pine forests, old Indian roads, frogs, lizards, turtles, turkeys, manatees, fish, squirrels, stinging flies, hurricanes and more. Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole Indians sneak in and out of his pages. Bartram mentions the “temporary husbands” of the Indian women sleeping with white men, along with the women’s trick of obtaining rum:

They had the fortitude and subtilty by dissimulation and artifice to save their share of the liquor during the frolick, and that by a very singular strategem; for, at these riots, every fellow who joins in the club has his own quart bottle of rum in his hand, holding it by the neck so sure, that he never looses hold of it day or night, drunk or sober, as long as the frolick continues; and with this, his beloved friend, he roves about continually, singing, roaring, and reeling to and fro, either alone or arm in arm with a brother toper, presenting his bottle to every one, offering a drink; and is sure to meet his beloved female if he can, whom he complaisantly begs to drink with him. But the modest fair, veiling her face in a mantle, refuses, at the beginning of the frolick; but he presses and at last insists. She being furnished with an empty bottle, concealed in her mantle, at last consents, and taking a good long draught, blushes, drops her pretty face on her bosom, and artfully discharges the rum into her bottle, and by repeating this artifice soon fills it: this she privately conveys to her secret store, and then returns to the jovial game, and so on during the festival; and when the comic farce is over, the wench retails this precious cordial to them at her own price.

I do like their supposed custom of marriage, marrying only for a year’s time and then renewing the marriage after a year if desired.

He notes that “the Cherokees are extremely jealous of white people travelling about their mountains, especially if they should be seen peeping in amongst the rocks, or digging up their earth.”

Lovely description of the Cherokee language: “very loud, somewhat rough and very sonorous, sounding the letter R frequently, yet very agreeable and pleasant to the ear.”

Includes lists upon lists of birds seen, towns and villages of the Cherokee nation, towns and their corresponding Indian language spoken, and of course all the flowers/shrubs/trees/insects/wildlife seen.

Mentioned in Lauren Groff’s Florida

Loving and Leaving the Good Life

Helen’s book to remember Scott after his death at age 100, celebrating his life and explaining how they met, what their lives were like before they met. After reading this, I have a deeper appreciation for Scott’s writing, because he must have done most of the heavy lifting on Living the Good Life which I enjoyed and keep thinking about; Helen’s writing bordered on unreadable, making me reconsider the idea that everyone can write their own story. The least interesting bit she expounded upon at great lengths was her relationship with some Indian guru, Krishnamurti, who convinced her to abandon her violin studies in Holland and to join him in his quest (she later quotes some Bhagwan Rajneesh to Scott about death as he approaches it).

The best parts are the words of wisdom about death itself, almost a quote collection that Helen pasted together into her scrapbook, like Samuel Johnson’s 1780 letter of sympathy, “The continuity of being is lacerated, the settled course of sentiments is stopped; life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful,” or the supposed ancient Chinese saying “We cannot help the birds of sadness flying over our heads, but we need not let them build nests in our hair.”

Fascinatingly, she gives us the details on how Scott planned his death by fasting once he reached 100. He wanted to live as long as he was useful and could bring firewood into the house, and beyond that just wanted to peace out gracefully. They already usually incorporated a fast day (usually Sunday) into their week, taking it easy and ending the evening with a supper of popcorn, carrot juice or cider, and listening to records. And once a year they fasted for ten days, just drinking water and working a bit less: “We looked forward to periods of abstinence and believed we benefited in body and mind, and gained extra time for reading and writing.”

Scott had long talked about not wanting a lengthy decay in a nursing home, wanting to depart with dignity and at home. He wanted to go of his own free will, consciously and intentionally. Lao Tzu: “Let life ripen and then let it fall.” A month and a half before he died, he stopped eating solid foods. “Death by fasting is not a violent form of suicide; it is a slow gentle diminution of energies, a peaceful way to leave, voluntarily.” For a month, Helen fed him apple, orange, grape juice. The final weeks were just water, completely detaching him from life. Sounds peaceful.

One of Scott’s favorite rhymes:

Dollars and dimes! Dollars and dimes!
To be without money is the worst of all crimes.
To grab what you want, and keep all you can
Is the first and the last and whole duty of man.


Hot Milk

After enjoying her memoir, I’m off to the races with the rest of Levy’s work. This is a twisting and creeping tale of Sophia and her mother, in Spain seeking answers about why her mother can’t (or can only occasionally) walk. Sophia is a thwarted anthropologist, a coffee wench back in London (hence the title), abandoned by her Greek father when she was a teenager. He’s now extremely wealthy and has married a woman slightly older than Sophia and had another daughter, and Sophia visits them in Athens during this summer. Back in Spain, she’s in love with Ingrid but also sleeping with Juan and keeping tabs on various characters in the town. Ultimately Sophia leaves her mom in the middle of the road, encouraging her to save herself and walk. She finds her at home later, where her mom reveals her cancer diagnosis. Eep.

Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

I painfully made my way through this, limping toward the end. Oh no, is she really going to tell us about another dream she had? Yes, yes she is. Once again subjecting us to a dream sequence to squeeze out some more pseudo poetics on the topic of rising sea levels. Ugh.

A few parts were worth reading, but most of the book was submerged in awkwardness. There is a delicate line to walk when inserting yourself into the telling of a story like this, which she ignored and trampled on. Parts were downright uncomfortable, like the recounting her arrival at an old man’s trailer in Pensacola. He’s black, and this makes her afraid. In her head, she apologies to him “Sorry for momentarily fearing you, the man I met when I arrived unannounced, because all I could see at first were the differences between us,” e.g. that he has a festering wound on his leg and lives in a dark room and is a poor, elderly, sick black man. As she leaves, another silent thought, “This man will not hurt me.” If you’re not already jumping out of your skin and cringing, she twists this and makes Alvin, the black man, the safe one, but the researcher she’s with, Samuel, the predator who sexually harasses her. These two intruders to Alvin’s world also force him to divulge how much his Social Security check is each month ($1300) and how much he’s paying for flood insurance ($605). Alvin seems to be under the impression that they’re trying to sell him more insurance and they don’t try to correct him before traipsing out the door towards “the promise of dinner.”

Another uncomfortable moment, in Louisiana—she approaches one of the Indians who are living on a disappearing island and immediately launches into a tale of how she just left her fiancé and how that loss is similar to his loss of land. (She later acquires another boyfriend but mention of him is used with the nails-on-chalkboard label “lover.”)

The book’s purpose is supposedly to tell the story about how rising sea level is affecting various people across the U.S. When those characters are allowed to speak without her inserting herself into the story, it works. When she inevitably shows up to unfurl her purpley prose, it flops.

One thing of note— I’m always interested in the various connections between books I’m reading. Rush mentions Bernd and Hilla Becher, the photographers who captured photos of Germany’s industrial wasteland. I’ve seen their work and was reminded of it recently by reading the book for Rineke Dijkstra’s retrospective. Susanne Lange’s book about the couple is already heading my way.

My Neck of the Woods

The writing was so familiar when I started reading this that I had to search for Louise Dickinson Rich on the site to see if I’d already read this one. Luckily I wasn’t repeating books, but I had read We Took to the Woods last November, which was her first book (1942). This one was a 1950 examination of her friends and neighbors, great character studies brimming with woodsy wisdom like eating a slice of pie backwards so you’re sure to always eat the crust.

My favorite characters, quelle surprise, are the solitary ones like Cliff, who diatribes, “I eat when I get hungry. And s’posin’ I’d get hung up some place—wound a deer, say, and have to track it all day—and didn’t get home when they expected me. They’d be a-worryin’ and a-frettin’ and a-gettin’ out a posse after me. One thing I can’t abide, it’s knowin’ someone’s home stewin’ about me. Takes all the pleasure out of life.” Rienza’s another character, an old maid who never married because she took care of her sick father until he died and then her aunt got ill and later she managed the home for her uncle. By the time he died off, she’d inherited a nice farm and some money and was in her 50s. She looked around and had a few men court her but realized they’d be old soon and she was done taking care of old men. “I’m self-supporting and self-respecting, and beholden to no one. Any time, day or night, I can do just exactly what I feel like doing. I look over all the married women I know, and pretty soon I stop feeling sorry for myself and start thanking my lucky stars that a sense of duty prevented me from getting married.”

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective

Published in 2012 for the SFMOMA retrospective that later went to the Guggenheim, this added another layer to my understanding about Dijkstra’s work. Several of the same photographs that were in The Louisiana book, but more detail and a great interview included. I especially enjoyed the interviews with some of her subjects, getting their impression of the photos of them years later. Dijkstra, born in 1959, went to art school in 1980 and became a commercial photographer in 1986, taking portraits of business people for magazines. She toughed it out for 6 years and then turned to art, also coinciding with a bicycle accident that laid her up for months where she watched Twin Peaks and thought about how people aren’t who they present themselves as.

The Man Who Walked Through Time

I enjoyed Colin Fletcher’s Complete Walker, so figured I’d give this a whirl. By now I’m used to the faint whiffs of sexist writing (also on display here) but I’m a sucker for books about wandering on foot.

The journey takes place in the spring of 1964 over a two month period with snow storms, boiling temperatures, obsessive planning about water sources, contemplating nature, dissolving into the silence and solitude. He’s obsessed with the idea of being the first person to walk the length of the canyon (completely disregarding native people and previous explorers). The idea comes to him after he reads an article by Harvey Butchart who had spent the previous 17 years on a series of 3 and 4-day trips making his way around the National Park. There was one section that Butchart had not yet accomplished and Colin pouts that Butchart tackles that remaining bit while Colin’s on the trail, beating him to the punch. Colin gets his revenge by describing him as a happy and devoted schizophrenic who teaches math. But there are several whiny passages where he bemoans being the second person to pass through a certain passageway, or boasts about being the first without evidence.

I shuddered to read about him tossing his trash into the river as he progressed, especially one passage where he devotes a page and a half to describing the arc of the bottle as it crested over the water, how it exploded on the water. And what did he do with all those empty food canisters and parachutes from food drops? Yet he gives us a grim tsk-tsk when he spots a half eaten orange bobbing near civilization.

Once again, he’s tromping along naked as a jaybird, “freed from the pressure of haste, the tyranny of film, and now the restraint of clothes…” He does seem to slip back into his togs when he dips into society at the Phantom Ranch, where he sneers at the “urbane and attractive blonde from New York” who said in a hushed voice that ‘This is really the end of the line, isn’t it?” whereas for him, he’d been living weeks without any modern comforts.

I didn’t realize there were two commercial airplanes that collided over the Canyon in 1956. The wreckage was there when he clomped through, but he was angry to see helicopters of tourists checking them out.

“If the dream you have dreamed can survive untarnished through a year of doubt and discouragement and frustration and all the drawn-out detail of research and planning and preparation, then you can safely assume that you want to go through with the project.”

Rineke Dijkstra : the Louisiana book

Rineke Dijkstra’s work was a delightful surprise on a recent SFMOMA visit: the posed children in swimsuits, the bloodied matadors. Curious for more, I checked out this survey of her portraits. Along with the Manchester youth in clubgoing clothes, several serious family portraits, plus a few that follow certain people over time, like the Bosnian refugee child sitting in a chair, visited every few years for an updated snap, and the French legion soldier, followed over the three year period of his duty. Amazing photos of new mothers clutching their hours-old babies, blood dripping down leg, C-section scars on display.

The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America

Sarah Igo drops a 600 page bomb on us, scattering seeds of our search for privacy since the beginning of the modern nation. With the 1936 introduction of the SSN, things started unraveling quickly, in ways that the government hadn’t supposedly intended (sharing of data among agencies).

I love the detail that hundreds of working women called the Social Security Board to ask if their bosses would find out about their actual ages, since they lied to be younger on their applications. They wanted also to know if they’d shaved 10 years off their age, if they could actually retire at 65 or would they have to wait until they appeared to be 65 in the SSN system.

Another great detail: people getting their SSN tattooed on themselves in order to remember it. Portland OR tattoo artists reported doubling of their business in the 1940s because of this. Also funny how people printed their SSN in the newspaper, including Mayor Hartsfield of Atlanta, once he finally got registered. (His number: 252-12-4939).

Dense, meaty work worth skimming through for the parts you’re most attracted to.