Soundscapes and Cognition in Post-Conquest Granada

Up on the hill, squirreled away in a room on Lone Mountain campus of USF, I heard Professor Jarbel Rodriguez (Associate Professor of Medieval Studies, San Francisco State University) muse about how the soundscape of Granada changed after 1492 when it transitioned from Muslim-domination to being under Christian control.

Fascinating stuff, how the Castillians used sound as a weapon as well as guns, carrying bells with artillery in the army. To the Muslim faithful, bells were a tool of the devil, plus the cacophony added to the distress of the defending troops.

The conquest for Granada had taken 10 years, from 1482 through 1492, and Prof Rodriguez wants to determine what impact the change in soundscape had on the inhabitants of the city, going from muezzin’s call for the Muslim faithful to bells and chants.

The aural landscape acts as a marker (like DNA) of a group, you can ID a group by sound. For the Granadan conquest, the queen and her daughter helped create the sonic spectacle with bugles, hornpipes, sackbuts (medieval trombone), timbals, and drums. In response was the silence of the Moors. However, they encoded the right to have their call to prayer in the actual surrender treaty, so those sounds continued.

Instead of a unified acoustic community, there were 2 overlapping communities trying to drown each other out. Bells gave shape to the day: calling people to wake up, have lunch, dinner, go to evening service, then go to sleep.

Christian know-how around bell-making actually gave them a leg up on being able to produce cannons, the same type of heavy thick metal required.

Prof Rodriguez was trying out some “experimental” thoughts on how this change in soundscape caused the Moors to lose their memories; more to come on this.

References: The Soundscape by Schafer, Rosenfeld’s On Being Heard, The soundscape of modernity : architectural acoustics and the culture of listening in America, 1900-1933 by Emily Thompson (which I’ve tried reading but abandoned), Garrioch’s Sounds of the city: the soundscape of early modern European towns; The Extended Mind by Clark & Chalmers

An audience member mentioned Peter Cole’s translations of poetry of that era as something else in the soundscape: The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

Best bookstores in San Francisco

As a local who actually reads books, I wanted to throw my own list of the best bookstores into the mix, a long overdue paean to the literary lights piercing SF’s legendary fog (which is back with a vengeance this morning).

The Green Arcade

Market @ Gough

Top prize for the best curation of books goes to Green Arcade. Dipping in there week after week, I always discover new treasures. Their interests mesh well with mine, plenty of pro-bicycling, anti-tech, pro-labor, local SF/California, nature, poetry, and art books. A bit lean on the fiction side and very rare to find a used book on the shelves, but otherwise a stellar shop staffed by friendly older dudes.

Readers Bookstore

@ Fort Mason

A hidden gem at Fort Mason, Readers is operated by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, diverting all profits to help fund our seriously amazing library system. Books that get donated to the Friends are curated to end up here (I think the ones that don’t make the cut are saved up for the Big Book Sale, also operated by Friends). Which means all sorts of oddities are in store for you. My first stop is the table by the front where the latest stock of weird books are displayed, followed by a quick scan of the back shelves. Then I check out what’s been added to the Essays section, peep into the fiction shelves, the walking/nature section, poetry, philosophy, and art books.

Bird & Beckett

Chenery @ Diamond in Glen Park

It took me forever to start exploring this section of the city but once I found Bird & Beckett I had a reason to hike over to Glen Park. Great collection of used and new books, usually with someone playing music to accompany your browsing. I beeline to the back room where I once found a fabulous book on color theory, so I head there always hoping to discover more art book treasure. Lots of poetry, essays, fiction, local guides, cookbooks.

Dog Eared Books

Valencia @ 20th

A must-stop whenever strolling through the Mission, Dog Eared is packed with great used fiction, plus excellent recommendations via the staff picks shelves right across from the register. You can also get great deals on new books that were over-ordered(?). They do a good job curating and marketing the books so you can breeze through to see if anything catches your eye. Don’t miss the small zine section or the carousel of pulp books near the front.

Dog Eared Books (Castro)

Castro @ 18th

I also really like the Castro version of Dog Eared, with a heavier focus on LGBTQ books and a different selection of magazines. A smaller store than the Valencia branch but sometimes contains nice surprises on the shelves. And I love their postcard station where you can write to various local, state, national politicians to give ’em hell or shower them with praise. They collect the postcards then mail them in large batches to the various representatives, so you can peruse other people’s rants and thoughts in addition to leaving your own.

Green Apple

Clement @ 6th

No surprise to find this perennial favorite on the list. The original location is teeming with amazing used books to discover either in the Fiction Annex or in the main store’s labyrinthine layout. Staff picks on the shelf in the main store right when you walk in always has good recs, in addition to the Must Read shelf near the stairs that lead to a warren of philosophy, history, nature, poetry. For years this has been my go-to for selling books that I weed from my shelf.

Green Apple Books on the Park

9th @ Irving

I appreciate this location for taking over the space that was once the beloved Le Video, an extensive movie rental place that went out of business. The Park location also hosts author events where I’ve seen a myriad of writers, Anne Boyer most recently. Everything is a little too fresh and new here, not as many used items, not dusty enough like a bookstore should be, but still a great shop.

Adobe Books

24th @ Folsom

I’m really glad that Adobe Books survived the move from 16th street, saved by a group of regulars who turned it into a co-op. There’s a tiny art gallery tucked away toward the back and this has proven to be hands-down the best bookshop to eavesdrop in throughout the city. Here is where I learned that a mayor of SF, Frank Jordan, hopped naked into a shower with 2 DJs on a live radio show in 1995. In the old location, I loved the art project where they arranged the books by color.

Bound Together

Haight @ Masonic

Anarchist bookstore Bound Together is run by volunteers and thus frequently closed, but when you luck out and the door is open, there are always treats inside. Large zine section, lots of books on labor and feminism and technology, plus a program that sends books to prisoners. Features lots of books from the AK Press, a collective now run out of Chico after a fire burned down their Oakland warehouse.

Browser Books

Fillmore @ Sacramento

Cozy bookstore Browser Books also worth breezing through when walking past. Good selection and I’ve previously seen someone getting their Tarot cards read in the back section. Now has a new lease on life since Green Apple purchased it.

City Lights

Columbus @ Broadway

Of course I had to put City Lights on here—there’s a reason it’s on everyone’s list. It’s a historical gem that has an incredible, huge section of poetry in the upstairs room. Push past the tourists and head to the basement for history, labor, philosophy, women’s studies, and the classics—plus the basement dates from pre-1906 fire days! I’ve gotten many a recommendation from the staff picks section—unfortunately placed in a high traffic area that you’ll clog as you scan the shelves.

Forest Books

Buchanan @ Post

Forest Books is an oasis in Japantown. Am I correctly remembering the sound of an indoor fountain, peaceful water soothing the shoppers? Also a great location for used fiction and nonfiction, plus amazing eavesdropping to be had.

Russian Hill Bookstore

Polk @ Broadway

I like the new location’s layout, much more user-friendly than the maze of the last store down the street. When you come into the shop, a ton of local-interest books is on your left while first editions are under glass to your right. Always interesting characters shopping in here, and I occasionally find a used book I’ve been looking for.

The Beat Museum

Finally made it to the Beat Museum in North Beach this weekend—a clear labor of love by the museum founders sitting a stone’s throw from City Lights Bookstore. Filled with bric-a-brac mementos of a forgotten age, Neal Cassady’s referee jersey that he wore driving the Merry Pranksters, DVD of Pull My Daisy narrated by Kerouac, copies of drafts of Ginsberg poems, bookshelves of books, but mostly photos and information cards. It’s here that I learn of Shig Murao, the co-founder of City Lights who otherwise seems to have been obliterated from its history.

The poets would send carbon copies of their work around to friends who would suggest edits. Good to see my man Brautigan represented, with a quote from Tom McGuane that he was a “gently troubled, deeply odd guy.” Lew Welch is here, too, who helped me understand how to read Gertrude Stein. And I need to find out more about “poet, bartender, magician, wanderer, playwright, refugee and performer,” ruth weiss.

Mentioned: the 1990 Ginsberg interview, When the Muse Calls, Answer, which I just watched on the Tube. “So the question is, can you be consistently aware of the fact that the main task is to record your consciousness.”

Don’t support Amazon, obviously

I rely on the library for 99% of my reading, only buying a book after I’ve read it and loved it, or if it’s one I want to reference at a moment’s notice (e.g. complete diaries, essays, letters, books of Virginia Woolf), or if it’s a behemoth that is taking me years to get through (e.g. Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project). When I do buy books, I support local bookstores or buy from “good” online stores like Powells or Better World Books. And here’s another reason to support Better World—they just partnered with Internet Archive to scan books that are missing from the archive.

Eileen Myles @ the Nourse

One of my favorite living writers was on stage at the Nourse tonight, an otherwise stunning performance marred by the subpar pairing with a Berkeley English professor who bumbled his way through the conversation, not seeming to know much about Myles or her work. She read a few of her pieces, including her memorable Acceptance Speech given in the run up to the 2016 election, celebrating Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a President” piece which was written in 1992 to mark Myles’ run for the presidency.

Best moment for me was the full body slam smackdown she put on the guy who asked her to explain what’s so great about Gertrude Stein. Oh you know, only the most important thing to happen to American writing besides New Narrative. (Myles stuck in a jab at Hemingway, too, “We used to care a lot about him but not so much anymore, but he learned how to write from Stein.”) Her favorite Stein, like mine, is Lectures in America.

Random jottings I captured in the dark:

  • Weird is the real deal. She used to claim to be on the fringe of poetry, but that assumes there is a center of normal somewhere.
  • By anticipating, you find readers. You don’t get small because people might not be listening to you; you stay as big as possible so they can find you.
  • Before the internet discovered cats and you made sure the world knew what your cat looks like, people had to be sleeping with you to know what your cat looked like.
  • None of her books are memoirs although the book people insist on calling them that because of her named character, Eileen Myles. “I would never write a memoir… so sentimental.” Later she joked, “Bound to Fail. If I ever wrote a memoir, that would be the title.”
  • “The obscenity of using your own name for a character.”
  • What’s great about form is that it leads you to spaces you can’t imagine.
  • If you don’t know where to put something, put it at the beginning.
  • Allow the reader to watch the act of invention. Put faith in the act of making art.
  • She had puppets she made as a kid, soon to be featured in a movie about driving from Marfa to Alpine in the back of the truck. (Mentioned Pull My Daisy, a movie about the Beats I hadn’t heard of, written & narrated by Kerouac)
  • What’s New Narrative? The secret, influential writing style that was a reaction to theory’s constraints, the post-poets turned to prose in late 1970s San Francisco (Bob Gluck, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, etc.).
  • Hitchhiking prepares you for a life in writing, making up stories and lies, becoming different characters.
  • Just like dinosaurs became birds, so did vaudeville turn to radio to TV to performance art.
  • A poet’s impulse to inventory sounds and sights.
  • Found freedom to write the stories as postcards to herself from another time. Follow the visuals, follow how it looks. A story happens right in front of her.
  • Every time she figured out how to do something in prose she got excited.
  • Fame was the only way to survive. “I always imagined I would be known.”
  • Where does she get inspiration? Life is interesting, literature, so much art to see. Turned on by other’s work. There’s always a hole, a yearning to get something done but not entirely. Lots of things in motion, uncomplete. Have 3 or 4 things going, a mess. Always things to do. Defiance is still inspiration. Have to make up projects that no one wants b/c then she’s being bad (instead of working on the book projects she has grants and contracts for).
  • Books are like yoga classes, you do one pose and then you want to do the opposite stretch. Use the energy, change it up, figure out how to make it energetically readable. Keep it moving forward, don’t block the flow. People should know where they are—you can go anywhere in the universe as long as there’s a clear landing.

Later: I’m just realizing the context of the “Are you Robert De Niro, actor? I’m Eileen Myles, poet” comment that Eileen made to De Niro in the 1980s—De Niro was probably introducing himself like that because his dad was Robert De Niro, artist, to that group of people. When reading Ninth Street Women, I came across De Niro (Sr) a few times and was super confused. In reading Grace Hartigan’s journals just now, a footnote explains that the elder was one of the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. YES! Love it when things fall into place in my brain.

When tech bros bloviate; or: George Orwell on the Uber investor letter

Have you laughed at the ridiculous letter an Uber investor wrote yet? It’s below in full (“liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels,” “unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity,” among other bloviated gems).

Normally I’d just smirk and move on, but I happened to read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay a day later and was amused by the coincidence. The Uber letter reeks of all the faults laid out in Orwell’s essay: dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words. Orwell says, “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

Orwell later notes that when “the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” We all know the toxic atmosphere steaming up the Uber headquarters and seeping through the corridors of Silicon Valley, so this letter is unsurprising. From his 1946 perch, Orwell cautions us to recognize “that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language” and offers us rules which Pishevar would be wise to swallow:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you frequently see
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

The bloviation of Uber investor, Shervin Pishevar, in full:

Let us take this pause in this moment, when we find ourselves swimming in the crucible of one of the grandest business and moral battles of our generation, and find strength in each stroke of our proverbial digital pens, that we wrote with the indelible, eternal and permanent ink of righteousness. We write with the souls of thousands of lives saved, the lives of millions of jobs created liberating multitudes of drivers from the shackles of servitude to iniquitous taxi cartels of corrupt cabals that choked cities with their pollution of air and morals. We write with the spirit of Bonnie Kalanick, who raised her son with deep unconditional love and unfading faith in his ability to do good for the world. Whose tragic and untimely death was used against her son at his most vulnerable, unspeakable time of pain. They chose to strike at a moment of a devoted son’s retreat and leave of absence to mourn the absence of the inviolable love of his mother. In doing so, they joined the very corruption her son had devoted such fervent passion to fight. In her memory, we devote our actions to a just cause; to defend what is right and to protect the interest of not only shareholders but most importantly the far more important stakeholders of employees, drivers and customers whose lives have been forever altered by the abiding faith and fervent hard work of Travis Kalanick and the Uber team. Their allegiance was met by this unholy alliance of perfidious greed devolving rapidly into the audacity of vituperative unparalleled predatory rapacity.

Let us strike tomorrow with the full and fulsome courage of our convictions. Let our just cause give pause to those who would ever dream of ever emulating the shameful shenanigans of these sanctimonious hypocrites who fling filings and letters de haut en bas; when it is we who have the higher moral ground and our letters and filing will hail down upon their platforms, exposing them as bitterly barren barons of moral turpitude. And as the summer sets, we let us be steward of truth who in unison proclaim: fiat justitia ruat caelum.

-Shervin Pishevar


I can’t resist raging against dumb tech ideas about reading

As I’m sipping my coffee and perusing this morning’s SF Chronicle, I nearly spit out my drink after reaching this article on page 1 of the business section.

I’m a huge Melville fan, and every fiber in my body rejected the mangling of the headline. Maybe Thadani thought she was being clever by upgrading “Call me Ishmael” to “text me, Ishmael” but synapses in my brain roared in protest. Most egregious is the incorrect upgrade of “call me” to “text me.” In the book, Ishmael is inviting readers to call him by that name, not to phone him on a non-existent 1850s-era telephone. And why add a comma into this pseudo-modernized phrase? ARGH!

They had my attention, albeit with veins pulsating out of my forehead with distaste. Continuing to read the article, I think that perhaps I’ll be pacified, that this duo really is concerned with reading:

Seeing children grow up with phones in their hands, Prerna Gupta and husband Parag Chordia were worried that Generation Z — the “Snapchat generation,” as they call it — was missing out on the novelty of a good book.

Yes, I agree! This attention-starved generation must be eroding their ability to consume an old fashioned book when their focus is eviscerated with competing screens and bloops and beeps from their phones. Ah, but what’s this?

But instead of trying to persuade the younger generation to read paperbacks, they instead decided to bring stories to them on the medium they know best: texting. In December, the couple released Hooked, an app that presents stories in the form of text messages.

What the actual hell? This is by far one of the worst ideas for engaging people in the meaningful effort of reading that I’ve ever encountered. For one thing, I’m highly suspicious that using Chat to move a story forward through dialog is feasible. Can you imagine being on the receiving end of a text from Mr. Micawber?

Mr. Micawber, one of my favorite Dickens characters, gets the text treatment

The larger issue is that the books being spoon-fed through chat are obviously not high quality. No one is taking the time to carve up the classics into tiny morsels that fit into a text screen. Instead, they’re patting themselves on the back for getting teens to read this kind of “book”:

Slap me silly and burn my library card, I guess I’ll just give up reading printed books and start reading terrible YA fiction on my phone! But seriously, don’t Twitterbots take care of this already? Here’s one you can follow to have Joyce’s Ulysses tweeted at you. This account tweeted out Alice in Wonderland and Moby Dick. (This account randomizes text from Moby Dick if you’re more into serendipity.)

Here’s an idea for an app, feel free to steal it—an app that sends electric shocks into the hands of the phone-holder if they spend more than 10 minutes a day cradling it, cooing over it, completely losing the ability to interact with the real world. Get a library card, read a book.


Bay Area Book Fest

I’m not sure how I previously missed this book festival in my backyard, now in its third year. But newly aware, I hopped on the train today and headed east to rub elbows with the literati of the Bay Area. Whenever I emerge into Berkeley, I fall in love with it all over again, and today was no exception—sun shining, book nerds coalescing, scrappy jazz band playing clarinet/upright piano/trombone/trumpet in the street while families gather in a line for free ice cream samples.

The festival itself is a combo of lots of free outdoor events plus lots of ticketed (or wristband-accessible) events to hear authors indoors. An amazing assortment of booths lined the square behind City Hall, all catering to book lovers—local bookstores, authors, and all sorts of tempting treats for people in love with the written word. I picked up a magnificent magnet with Virginia Woolf’s portrait and a fabulous “holster” for my pen to attach to a moleskin notebook. Also a free copy of the Koran and pamphlets about Muslim women—what a fantastic idea, we’re all so curious about this religion that’s causing panic on the right, and what better idea than to staff a booth with a friendly guy answering question and handing out free copies of their book?!

I bought priority tickets to see Roxane Gay in conversation with Rafia Zakaria and Masha Gessen in conversation with Orville Schell, so after enjoying the upright piano/clarinet/trumpet/trombone magic on the street of John Brothers Piano Company I headed to Freight and Salvage and was overwhelmed by the huge crowd of women waiting to get in for Roxane, who was up first.

Notes from Roxane Gay’s interview:

  • “After Sandy Hook, I stopped believing in institutions.” We can no longer rely on institutions to make things right.
  • Best way for white people to help? Stop calling yourself an ally, which puts a barrier between you & the problem. Start feeling the oppression. “Make the oppression your own. That racial oppression is mine. That transgender oppression is mine. Disabled oppression is mine.”
  • References to Who Gets to Be Angry (NYTimes, June 2016), the Nov 10 interview with Kamau Bell on Politically Re-Active that I’m listening to right now.
  • Difference between rage and anger? Anger is more focused, rage is collective.
  • How to respond to someone who says “you sound angry” — they’re being lazy. Are they reachable? If not, fuck ’em.
  • “I don’t have low self-esteem about my writing.” (Hell yeah!) When she writes a good paragraph, she feels a “rush of energy beneath my skin” (this in response to an audience question, does she feel blown away when she reads the stuff she writes).
  • Re: hope. “If we don’t have hope, what are we fighting for?”
  • Living in the flyover states, she sees plenty of rage, but it’s “rage born of entitlement… ‘I did not get the white dream, I am really angry.'” We need to educate these folks about their real oppressor, rich white men.
  • Hilarious comment about LA, where you think everyone is just thin (Roxane has a book coming out about her struggles with weight): “People in LA are so self-absorbed that they’re not worried about you.” e.g. you’re overlooked, you get a pass.
  • What she’s reading? An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and Ellen Pao’s upcoming memoir. 
  • She hasn’t tweeted in 9 days, what’s up? Roxane mentioned having given a talk at Twitter HQ yesterday, but said she’d taking a break b/c she isn’t paid for the emotional effort she puts into fighting the trolls on Twitter—it isn’t worth it, she needs time off. Fuck you Twitter, fix your system.

Notes from Masha Gessen interview on Truth, Lies and Totalitarianism in Russia and the U.S.

  • Damn, I wish I was as smart and well-spoken as Masha Gessen. Her eloquence and intelligence will haunt me to the end of my days.
  • Of course the conversation turns to what she thinks about the current political climate in the U.S. She’s “not surprised, but always shocked.”
  • She moved to the U.S. at age 14 in 1981 before Gorbachev had unleashed perestroika & glasnost onto the world—her emigrant family wanted to believe the worst to justify their fleeing the Soviet Union.
  • Totalitarianism is all about the destruction of the fabric of society, of shared experiences. The huge absence of these things makes it impossible to recover from the big boot stamp of totalitarianism.
  • Rise happening now? The West lost the cautionary tale that existed in the Soviet Union. (THIS IS HUGE) Western democracies have steadily become less democratic since.
  • She doesn’t believe history has a direction, but rather believes in the “mess and idiocy narrative.”
  • Tim Snyder of NYRB said it best, that Putin is the person that Trump plays on TV. Trump sees Putin’s power and popularity and wants it.
  • Estonia is “one of the best places in the world.” !!!
  • The story around her article, Autocracy: Rules for survival, was fantastic. Apparently, she’d been tapped to write the reaction essay for Russia’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s win for the NYT. “They did not have a plan B.” The A-team had gone home and Gessen emailed the on-call editor suggesting that she write rules for survival instead of a reaction piece. The junior editor nixed the idea, and Gessen offered it to NYRB. It was so successful it broke her smartwatch because it overheated after getting so many notifications about the piece.
  • We have a real problem of imagination. We couldn’t imagine Trump would get the R nom. We couldn’t imagine he’d be president. “The present defies imagination.” Thus we use crutches like, “Russia interfered!” instead of digging into the icky reason why millions voted for the Cheeto in Chief. We also immediately grabbed at straws thinking that he’d be “presidential” or maybe the electors would step in to not cast their votes for him.
  • Probably the most shocking comment was when she was asked her opinion of Russia, her home country. “Hopeless. Layers and layers of tragedy and awfulness.” After laying out this bleakness, she revealed that some of her friends have moved from big picture projects to small projects—small charities like an orphanage to handle disabled kids instead of tackling the whole system of orphanages. Moving to changing the world via one life at a time, which we know is somewhat futile.
  • The view of the world as “basically rotten” is the fascist view, and one that is being peddled mightily by the right. As a society, we need to return to talking about ideals.
  • Will America be able to resist totalitarianism? There is no such thing as American exceptionalism. The force that oversimplifies and says it can put all fears to rest is hard to resist. We will succumb.
  • Question about what the person-on-the-street likes best about Putin, what changes he’s made to their day-to-day life. Putin has not done anything to improve their particular life, but he projects a strong image that people like. He made Russia great again. This public vs. private self– public self identifies with strong country, likes that. Private self feels like it is always getting screwed by government, always being defrauded. Bifurcation of identity.
  • The U.S.’s Reichstag moment was 9/11. !!!
  • Wikileaks involvement in election: Julian Assange is “his own agent of destruction.” (Masha recommends watching Laura Poitras’s Risk, but I couldn’t take the inflated ego of Assange on display, which is her point.)  Ultimately, the NYT and WaPo share some blame for forging ahead with the material gained from the poisoned tree. Perhaps this will start a conversation about how the media does function as political actors. You can’t just shrug and say, it was out there, and publish it.

Brooklyn Library Closure Chaos

I have failed twice so far in my attempt to return a library book. On the first attempt I packed the hefty 600pg book in my bag and headed out for the day. I notice there is a branch near my first event, so hop on the subway and go to the library a block away. Locked gates, no book depository, no explanatory signs. I call the branch to find out they (and the rest of the branches) are closed for a weekend-long systems upgrade. I laugh and continue my day, lugging around this extra weight for hours.
Today, I’ve done my research. There are certain branches of the Brooklyn library that allow after-hours book drop. I venture into below-freezing temperatures intent on getting rid of this albatross. Nearing the library, I see a man with bags scattered around him in front of the deposit. I stride purposefully toward the slot, book in hand. “You’re not going to be able to fit it in there,” he says, gesturing at the overflowing depository. No kidding. Trust and chaos at the Brooklyn Heights library, where people have smashed their books into the bin, and spilling out for anyone to grab.
“Do you know what’s been going on? They’ve been closed for days,” the man asks. I mention the system upgrade, which hopefully will bring printers online to place helpful signs in the doors of closed libraries during future upgrades.

Writing about writing

Is there anything more meta than writing about writing? Unfortunately, I must indulge in this conceit, having just sweated and worried and self-loathed myself out of 300-ish words for a blog post about sidewalk etiquette. Last week, I begged and wheedled my way into a guest column of sorts, and once the green light was flashed, it began.
First, the ideas come swarming, and oh they are all such delightful fireflies. I was consumed by the thought of what I was going to write about. Spent hours thinking, thinking. Took a pass at writing some of those thoughts down, mostly an incoherent list. Let the document sit on my screen, flashing incompetence at me, but at least it was a start. Walked away. I had days to complete it, I would be fine. And then the dreaded deadline approached. I frantically dusted off the woefully incomplete bits of ideas, and got to work. Wrote, rewrote, deleted, read, reread, rewrote. Got to a point where I was satisfied with it, and then shared with a few people.
Constructive criticism is truly amazing. Fresh eyes on the words pointed out the thinness of certain elements, made suggestions. I took some of the suggestions but ignored others because they didn’t feel like me. It was starting to hang together. So I read and reread and rewrote and deleted. And then, nervously, I hit send. I thought the anxiety of writing was wrecking, but I hadn’t counted on the wait between send and editor feedback. Oh the agony of a few hours.
This has to get easier with practice, right?

25 Words That Don’t Exist in English

Age-otori (Japanese): To look worse after a haircut
Arigata-meiwaku (Japanese): An act someone does for you that you didn’t want to have them do and tried to avoid having them do, but they went ahead anyway, determined to do you a favor, and then things went wrong and caused you a lot of trouble, yet in the end social conventions required you to express gratitude
Backpfeifengesicht (German): A face badly in need of a fist
Bakku-shan (Japanese): A beautiful girl… as long as she’s being viewed from behind
Desenrascanco (Portuguese): “to disentangle” yourself out of a bad situation (To MacGyver it)
Duende (Spanish): a climactic show of spirit in a performance or work of art, which might be fulfilled in flamenco dancing, or bull-fighting, etc.
Forelsket (Norwegian): The euphoria you experience when you are first falling in love
Gigil (pronounced Gheegle; Filipino): The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute
Guanxi (Mandarin): in traditional Chinese society, you would build up good guanxi by giving gifts to people, taking them to dinner, or doing them a favor, but you can also use up your gianxi by asking for a favor to be repaid
Ilunga (Tshiluba, Congo): A person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time
L’esprit de l’escalier (French): usually translated as “staircase wit,” is the act of thinking of a clever comeback when it is too late to deliver it
Litost (Czech): a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery
Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan): A look between two people that suggests an unspoken, shared desire
Manja (Malay): “to pamper”, it describes gooey, childlike and coquettish behavior by women designed to elicit sympathy or pampering by men. “His girlfriend is a damn manja. Hearing her speak can cause diabetes.”
Meraki (pronounced may-rah-kee; Greek): Doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing
Nunchi (Korean): the subtle art of listening and gauging another’s mood. In Western culture, nunchi could be described as the concept of emotional intelligence. Knowing what to say or do, or what not to say or do, in a given situation. A socially clumsy person can be described as ‘nunchi eoptta’, meaning “absent of nunchi”
Pena ajena (Mexican Spanish): The embarrassment you feel watching someone else’s humiliation
Pochemuchka (Russian): a person who asks a lot of questions
Schadenfreude (German): the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain
Sgriob (Gaelic): The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whisky
Taarradhin (Arabic): implies a happy solution for everyone, or “I win. You win.” It’s a way of reconciling without anyone losing face. Arabic has no word for “compromise,” in the sense of reaching an arrangement via struggle and disagreement
Tatemae and Honne (Japanese): What you pretend to believe and what you actually believe, respectively
Tingo (Pascuense language of Easter Island): to borrow objects one by one from a neighbor’s house until there is nothing left
Waldeinsamkeit (German): The feeling of being alone in the woods
Yoko meshi (Japanese): literally ‘a meal eaten sideways,’ referring to the peculiar stress induced by speaking a foreign language
From sobadsogood

Lewis Lapham at City Lights

In the Lapham of Luxury. His Eminence graced us with 90 minutes of his time in the cramped quarters of the poetry section, 2nd floor at City Lights. Surrounded by the spirts of the Beats, watching the startling sight of the sun reflecting against a nearby tower after days upon days of rain, soothed by the deep resonate tones of Lapham’s clear intellect. He read from the current Lapham’s Quarterly, a piece by “Ed Dante”, a necessary pseudonym for a person whose job it is to write admissions essays and masters theses and anything a student might desire, on demand. After an intrepid audience member suggested that she didn’t understand the connection of the psuedonym to the work, we collectively figured the name was a play on both Dante Alighieri (obvious) and Edward Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo. After waxing a bit on the state of education, he opened the field for questions, and we the audience were ready.
Topics covered:
* Education is being treated like taxidermy– just stuff a dead thing and pretend it’s alive
* Unions and the general disregard of the middle class for them
* Reagan, ushering in the 1980s as the beginning of the end, he wanted to make “everyone” rich.
* The distinction between today’s polarizing Right and Left boils down to “Money” vs. “Mind”
* Literature has always only appealed to a small segment of the population, this has not changed. Lapham in conversation with the owner of Barnes & Noble, notes that he said “literature has always been a loss-leader for us.”
* Plagiarism. Writers have always borrowed from each other. What you write is influenced by what you read.
* What Lapham evaluates a piece on: voice. If it sounds like a human, he will consider continuing the conversation.
* The Right wing believes that to be poor today means that God is punishing you.
* All of learning is self-motivated
* Secret to longevity: curiosity and learning
* Politicians and the elite have no interest in educating the masses– give them Bread & Circuses to distract them.
I was surprised (saddened?) that when I mentioned I was going to this event to a couple of people, they had no idea who Lapham was. Oh, my heathen friends, just dial up your iPhone and keep playing with the latest App. We will outlive you all!

How to Organize a Public Library

I had the best Saturday afternoon last weekend. The Max and I pulled up to 18th/Bryant on our bikes, spied a small circle of bibliophiles gathered together, and had surveys thrust into our hands by the Pied Piper of the excursion, Michael Swaine. (Survey questions below, for the curious). Michael also gave us individually printed “library cards”, and a “map” of our tour, which was book text overlayed onto a map of the Mission District.

And then off we went, peeking into the private libraries of Janet & Greg, Vanessa, MaeSoon, and Katie, wending our way through the streets of the Mission. First up was the loft of Janet & Greg, where we ogled their shelves and learned of their obsession with ravens (the bird theme that followed us throughout the day). Greg read us a selection from a compilation of true tales from the Kentucky hills, replete with ghosts and death. As we scoured the shelves, we began to trade recommendations back and forth, and my phone was soon full of notes on authors to check out.
Next up was Vanessa’s room, 10 blocks away, with a rainbow Peace flag fluttering in the window. A charming artist fresh out of art school, she led us into her room where the walls were lined by 91 corks carved into delicate figurines. We plopped down on her floor and spread out our shared feast of chocolate, figs, bananas, cherries, and water. Michael read to us from Cooley Windsor’s Visit Me in California (great selection with Medusa’s snakes perusing the bookshelves), and Vanessa passed around her favorite book (Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red). She also recommended Liar’s Club (“I like liars.”) and Bel Canto, so I’ll give Anne Pratchett another try.
Vanessa was quite nervous about letting us into her space, which was totally understandable, 10 strangers converging on one’s private-most domain. I noted her shaking hands with interest, since she wields a box cutter so steadily to create these fantastic cork figurines. Max found a copy of the Encyclopedia of Ravens at Vanessa’s and thrust it into Janet’s eager hands, filled with interesting facts about the Tower of London’s Ravenmasters.

Our bellies full, we wandered down the street to MaeSoon’s gorgeous Victorian flat where the tall ceilings gave us room to expound further on our love of books. MaeSoon had 3 stops on her tour, the bedroom, the bathroom, and the den, all with various sorts of books. I found an awesome Scooby Doo book/coloring book that had this snooty lady declaiming against some character named Hillary. “Hillary is a fool!” In the background, people were discussing Obama’s choice of Biden for VP. Hmm.

At MaeSoon’s, I pulled You Can’t Win from the shelves and emphatically recommended it. In return, I got the counter-recommendation of Kafka Was The Rage.
Our merry band of librarians made our way to the final stop, a house Katie was house-sitting for the week as part of an apartment exchange for her place in NYC. Here, after a cursory glance at the stranger’s shelves, we shared our answers to the survey question about which book you would save from the fire. Greg: the practical answer, one of his library science textbooks; Michael: the homemade book of his father’s letters from his grandfather; Max: Drawings of Leonardi Da Vinci; Katie: That’s All Folks history of the Warner Brothers; Janet: a TC Boyle book; LZ: the Penguin Classics copy of Moby Dick that I read every year, especially on beach vacations because it fits so well in your hand and Melville is so damn good; Amanda: the galleys for her first book, The Long Haul; Vanessa: Autobiography of Red; Valerie and MaeSoon’s choices have fallen victim to my faulty memory. Michael then handed us “blank” sheets which had lemon juice drawings of books being burned – put in your oven for 10 minutes and out comes the drawing.
Michael’s survey has been posted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the past month(s), and he shared the aggregated data with us. I remember bits and pieces– like people organize their books alphabetical by author, no order, or his/hers; book everyone has: Bible/Harry Potter, book embarrassed by: The Fountainhead. He promised to email us all the charts and graphs and I’ll post ’em here.
Overall, it was one of the most incredible, community-building, participatory art pieces I’ve ever experienced. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts characterizes the tour as: “Ground Scores: Guided Tours of San Francisco Past and Personal … offers cartographical and audio portraits of sites that reveal the city’s forgotten histories, as well as mapping out invisible networks within the city’s infrastructure.” I feel it was much more than this, showing us just how easy it is to create community by opening up our houses and inviting in strangers with common interests.
Recommendations to come out of the afternoon:
* Wittgenstein
* Thomas Bernhard’s Correction
* Amanda Stern’s Long Haul (she was on the tour, and urged me to relax my “1st sentence rule” for her book)
* Cooley Windsor’s Visit Me in California
* Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red
* Liar’s Club
* Bel Canto
* That’s all folks!: The art of Warner Bros. animation
* TC Boyle
* James Salter’s Lightyears (another one to relax the 1st sentence rule on)
* Kafka was the Rage
* Elegant Universe
* David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green
* David Markson
The 10 Survey questions:
1. How many feet of books are in your home (how many shelves, stacks, and how long?)
2. How do you organize your books?
3. What percentage of books are kept on shelves, in stacks or piles, at your bedside, on the back of the toilet?
4. Everyone has this book, and I do too:
5. One book in my collection embarrasses me:
6. How many minutes a day do you read?
7. How many pages do you read before getting distracted?
8. If you’re not reading, what are you doing instead? How much time is spent doing that?
9. What percentage of your books have you read?
10. Someone is burning your books! You can save one book. What book is that?