Arbitrary Stupid Goal

Amazing book by Tamara Shopsin, daughter of the legendary NYC chef/philosopher Kenny Shopsin who died a few weeks ago. I watched the 2004 documentary I Like Killing Flies to understand more about this lovable eccentric but I think Tamara’s book adds all sorts of melty layers to his essence. It’s almost a love letter to her dad and his utterly unique friend Willy. Stories about Willy seem almost too good to be true, but I believe them. Like how in the 1960s he was looking up World Wide Photo (a photo-assignment agency) in the phone book but mistakenly swapped Wide World instead of World Wide. Then he bought that mistaken name in the phone book, put his number there, and would field erroneous calls for the real agency, buying images from the real one and selling them at a higher price to the rubes who dialed him instead.

Kenny originally had a store instead of a restaurant, open between 7am and 8pm, but he gave sets of keys to his regular customers so they could help themselves 24 hours a day, just writing down what they took. “The city may have been more dangerous, but it was a less hostile place. Everyone knew each other. The rent stabilization laws were hard for landlords to beat, so people weren’t forced to move out. They lived on the block forever. And that forever built a neighborhood.”

Vivid and heartbreaking descriptions of a New York that is fast disintegrating if not already gone.

Bonus: discovering the Donnell Library’s basement with the NYPL Reserve Film and Video Collection, a curated archive of “educational, avant-garde, political, industrial, out-of-print, rare, foreign, local, and historic films.” It shut down in 2008 when the NYPL sold the building, but the film collection lives on in the Library for the Performing Arts.

Red Clocks

It’s been a long time since I’ve opened a book and devoured it one sitting, cancelling all other plans for the evening. Leni Zumas (another LZ!) knocked my wool socks off with this well written and closely woven tale of various women in a rainy Oregon coastal town. Each has a distinct voice pointing out her own perspective: the high school teacher who’s writing a biography of a female polar explorer who had to publish her (the explorer’s) work under a colleague’s name in the 1870s—this biographer is also seeking fertility drugs and making a last desperate grab at becoming a single mother since the window for non-marrieds to adopt children is closing; the witch Gin Percival, who helps various women shed their pregnancies now that abortion is also illegal; Gin’s daughter Mattie who was given up for adoption and who now comes seeking Gin’s help with her own unplanned pregnancy (the biographer Ro takes her to a place in Portland after Mattie gets turned back at the Canadian border); and Susan, the wife of a high school French teacher who wants out of her marriage and who has two kids to look after. Of her kids, “they are yipping and pipping… they are rolling and polling and slapping and papping, rompling with little fists and heels on the bald carpet.” From this book I also learned that supermarket bread is made with human hair dissolved in acid as part of a dough conditioner for industrial processing. Yum!

Terrific writing, pacing, storytelling, characters.

On Reading Ruskin (Prefaces to La Bible D’Amiens and Sesame et les Lys)

Proust was influenced by Ruskin early in his writing career, as seen in these prefaces to the two translations Proust did of Ruskin’s work, La Bible d’Amiens in 1900 and Sésame et les Lys in 1906, including the long prefaces and extended notes that are included in this. My favorite, of course, is his preface to Sesame and Lilies, On Reading. This is the essay in which he called the moments of unity between reader and writer “that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.”

Books “are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished….” Proust loosely quotes Descartes in that “the reading of all good books is like a conversation with the most cultivated men of past centuries who have been their authors.” Fetishistic respect for books is dangerous, maybe even unhealthy, and the “taste for books grows with intelligence.” He points out Schopenhauer as an example of a mind “whose vitality bears lightly the most enormous reading, each new idea being immediately reduced to its share of reality, to the living portion it contains.”

“No doubt friendship, friendship for individuals, is a frivolous thing, and reading is a friendship. But at least it is a sincere friendship, and the fact that it is directed to one who is dead, who is absent, gives it something disinterested, almost moving… In reading, friendship is suddenly brought back to its first purity. With books, no amiability. These friends, if we spend an evening with them, it is truly because we desire them. In their case, at least, we often leave only with regret.”

So why do writers most often seek the classics for mental solace? Proust thinks it’s “doubtless because contemporary thought, which original writers and artists make accessible and desirable to the public, is to a certain extent so much a part of themselves that a different type of thought entertains them more. It requires, in order form them to proceed to it, more effort, and also gives them more pleasure; we always like to escape a bit from ourselves, to travel, when reading.”

Translated and edited by Jean Autret, William Burford, Phillip J. Wolfe

A Rap on Race

On August 25, 1970, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead met for the first time and spent about an hour getting to know each other. The next night they discussed race and society, the conversation flowing over into the next morning and evening, lasting over seven hours in total. The transcript of that taped conversation is this book, and it is marvelous.

Towards the end Baldwin careens more and more off the rails, with Mead asking him to “Wait a minute” and not agreeing to take on the sins of her ancestors. They also differ significantly on the Israel question (Mead for, Baldwin against). Mead tries to bring up Women’s Lib several times but Baldwin doesn’t seem to want to stick to that line of thought, instead focusing on race and whether history is present or past. Mead brings up going to the Cosmos Club with Ralph Bunche but there were parts he couldn’t get into and parts she couldn’t, but both exclusions were based on prejudice.

Baldwin points out that no one takes responsibility in society, using Germany as an example. He’d get into fights there after saying to them “You mean to tell me that six million Jews were murdered while the entire nation was out to lunch?”

It’s no use predicting what will happen in the future, “it’s what we do this week that matters… Right now, this minute,” said Mead. But it’s eye-opening to read their sentiments on the fright of conservatives, Mead: “They are terribly easy to frighten, and their fear is frightening. Though all fear is frightening, and certainly all groups that are frightened are frightening.” Baldwin: “Because it may be that their fear will precipitate the kind of social chaos which no society can really survive. This fear can result in a kind of convulsion of apathy.” Mead counters that it’s not apathy but rather that people just don’t know what to do about anything. “There is an enormous sense of frustration, and people feel so strongly in this country that you ought to be able to fix at once anything that goes wrong…. Everybody in the country is in a state of frustration about something. I think irritation rather than apathy is much more important here now. Everybody is irritated. Their skin is sort of scratchy.”

Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler

This is a collection of bits from Oursler’s archive of magic and occult. His huge personal archive contains objects about  paranormal, ghosts, pseudoscience, and technology. Oursler (born 1957) is a NYC-based artist and he uses these objects as a visual resource and inspiration. His grandfather figures significantly in the collection; Charles Fulton Oursler was an   author and publisher in addition to being a magician and pals with Harry Houdini. Grandfather Oursler was instrumental in helping to debunk the myth of spiritualism, including interactions with Arthur Conan Doyle, who believed in the paranormal. The book features a dazzling array of objects from grandson Oursler’s collection: letters, objects, photos, rare books, etc.

Beside ghosts and UFOs, there’s info on cults and demons and Ouija boards and the moon landing and nudists. Amazing collection and a few good essays at the end by art historians who try to make sense of it all.

Solitude: A Return to the Self

Much good in this 1988 book by psychiatrist Anthony Storr, but slightly marred by some unscientific leaps. But for someone who prefers to spend time alone, this is a goldmine of quotes about solitude if nothing else— some of my favorites are at the end of this post.

Storr’s argument is that society currently places way too much emphasis on having several close personal relationships as the key to happiness, completely disregarding the joy and fulfillment people get from their own work/art. Many of the world’s greatest thinkers didn’t raise families or have close personal ties (e.g. Descartes, Newton, Locke, Pascal, Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein). Overlooking the fact that his focus was entirely on white males, I appreciated the callout that none married and most lived alone for most of their lives. Storr works in several quotes from writers who left us evidence of their happy thinking, like Gibbon’s rejoicing in escaping marriage, thankful to still be “in possession of [his] natural freedom.”

Storr explains something that I’ve been unable to understand about my own life, how happy my superficial relationships make me with various people I see each week, like doormen, librarians, etc. “In the course of daily life, we habitually encounter many people with whom we are not intimate, but who nevertheless contribute to our sense of self. Neighbours, postmen, bank clerks, shop assistants, and many others may all be familiar figures with whom we daily exchange friendly greetings, but are generally persons about whose lives we know very little.” From these people we get “mutual recognition, acknowledgement of each other’s existence, and thus some affirmation, however slight, that each reciprocally contributes something to life’s pattern.” And even more comforting: “many people can and do lead equable and satisfying lives by basing them upon a mixture of work and more superficial relationships.”

Being alone encourages your imagination, but “the price of flexibility, of being released from the tyranny of rigid, inbuilt patterns of behaviour, is that ‘happiness’, in the sense of perfect adaptation to the environment or complete fulfilment of needs, is only briefly experienced.” This achievement of joy is fleeting, and Storr has a previous book where he suggests that dissatisfaction with life, or ‘divine discontent’, is an inescapable part of the human condition.

Some people’s dispositions are more suited to finding the meaning of their life in “interests, beliefs, or patterns of thought” instead of interpersonal relationships.

A few quotes about solitude:

  • “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius; and the uniformity of a work denotes the hand of a single artist.” – Edward Gibbon; History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, volume 5.
  • “No man ever will unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude.” – De Quincey, from his collected writings
  • “When from our better selves we have too long / Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop, / Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired, / How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.” – Wordsworth, from The Prelude

What men don’t like about women (1945)

I heard about this ridiculous book when the Table of Contents was making the rounds online, listing out all the things men don’t like about women. This is basically a field guide for misogynists. I’m not sure what went wrong in Thomas D. Horton’s life to make him hate women so much, but he’s clearly got an inferiority complex. Most of the gripes come from encountering women at work, either as bosses or secretaries. “Women bosses take unusual pleasure in humiliating the men who must take orders from them. They will make them work after hours, completely redo certain jobs, pick up pieces of paper under and about their desks, run petty errands, itemize an office expenditure of twenty-eight cents, explain why they were four minutes late five days before and so on.”

He complains that women are either too serious or not serious at all, a vein he continues throughout the book. His ideal woman seems to be one that sits prettily with her mouth shut and never asks for anything.

Apparently he encountered some women bosses that demanded sex in return for doing business with her. Horton says that the salesman “has to go to bed with them, but he is not allowed to pay for sex. He is the one who is being paid in the form of orders. He resents his humiliation, but he can’t do anything about it.” Of course he finds female prostitutes to be quite charming, and can’t wrap his head around how this would look from their angle.  His love of prostitutes (of the female variety) is quite clear and there’s a whole chapter on how great they are, how fair, giving a man what he pays for, sometimes with a little extra thrown in. “A prostitute above the twenty-five cents level… will never pry into a man’s private affairs…”

He hated the bosses but said it was “a miracle that employers do not murder more secretaries” due to their incompetence and ill manners. For god’s sake, women, what are you doing keeping sanitary pads in your desks? “Have they no sense of decency? Imagine what a howl women would raise if men kept their jock-straps in the upper drawers of their desks for all to see or in the community medicine chest.”

Women are always nattering on about this and that, but god forbid they have an opinion about a book, a theater production, or an article they’ve read. “Who in recorded human history ever heard a woman say anything intelligent about a theatrical performance? If anyone has, the probabilities are that the woman in the case stole her remarks from a man or a press release.” Don’t get him started on women writers, either. “There is a profound justice in the fact that the fountainhead of all the literary unintelligibilities of the last forty years is a woman, Gertrude Stein.”

Well what about fun-loving women, then? Women drunks, perhaps? “Women drunkards are far more disgusting physically than men drunkards. Their mascara runs, their lipstick cakes or becomes too moist, their eyes glisten with pitiful timidity, their waists become splotched with liquor and food stains, their hair runs over their foreheads, and so on. They use language that even a drunken man hesitates to use. They become, in short, mere animals. And on top of it all they steal all your handkerchiefs, seldom returning them.”

First he complains about women wasting money on fancy restaurants, etc., but once they are engaged, women become too miserly. Ah, but what does she dream about? “As any man will tell you, she dreams about the following: oil burners, refrigerators, lawns, fountains in the garden, town cars, charge accounts in fifty expensive stores, a box in the diamond horseshoe of the Metropolitan Opera House, diamond tiaras, ruby and emerald bracelets, Miami in the winter, the Pocono Mountains in the summer, ocean cruises, Hollywood, eating on side-walk cafes in the summer in New York (even when the air is dusty), a dozen maids, two dozen butlers, a French telephone in every room (especially the bathroom), five dollar handkerchiefs, Kolinsky coats….” He is inexhaustible in his list of petty things women dream of.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen

A million people seem to love this book more than I did. The Guardian had it as one of the top 10 lost women’s classics for some reason. It’s tolerably well written, slightly engaging, but I suppose most of the content missed its target market with all the meaty dishes she was whipping up. Tales of making do and attempting things haphazardly and dinner parties and the soothing taste of chicken noodle soup. I did appreciate her advice on baking bread, to not let the dough dictate your schedule but for you to punch it down whenever you got back from wherever you were that afternoon, perhaps even twice. And I may try her idea for steaming then sauteing broccoli with garlic until the garlic is soft, tossing it into a blender with lemon juice & olive oil & salt & pepper, blending to use as a sauce for pasta.

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.

 

Swimming Home

Deborah Levy is my latest addiction, but I must not have been in the right head space for this one, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2012. Everyone seems to love it, but it felt too contrived. The poet and his family take a summer villa, one of the poet’s deranged and beautiful fans arrives and stays with them, the story glints from each character’s eye in lurching bits. The mother supposedly wants to walk away from her marriage, the daughter has supposedly already chosen to live with her father, when bang he suicides with their friend Mitchell’s gun, the bankrupt pal who’s along for the vacation and running up bills in the local cafe. An odd assortment of characters like the rejects from a box of chocolates.

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.

Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations

I bumped up against Adrienne Rich again by way of Deborah Levy’s memoir and was only too happy to slurp up this book of essays/talks from that deliriously long-ago pre-9/11 year. She thunders down at me that things weren’t so glorious back then, we were still witnessing “accelerated social disintegration” and the effects of “an economic system out of control and antihuman at its core.” Yet 20 years later, we haven’t pushed past this, still falling into our late capitalist pit of despair.

I think Levy pointed me this way for Rich’s 1975 essay, Some Notes on Lying, which was one of my favorites of the bunch. “There is a danger run by all powerless people: that we forget we are lying, or that lying becomes a weapon we carry over into relationships with people who do not have power over us.” Her 1983 Blood, Bread, and Poetry essay was equally strong, calling out the confusing dominant culture in the U.S. that tells us “poetry is neither economically profitable nor politically effective,” that poets are “destined to be a luxury, a decorative garnish on the buffet table of the university curriculum, the ceremonial occasion, the national celebration.” She names what excites her most: poets who mix poetry of the actual world with the poetry of sound. Politics is always on the table with Rich, from her unified stance accepting the 1974 National Book Award with a joint statement from Audrey Lorde and Alice Walker to her 1997 declining of President Clinton’s National Medal of the Arts.

Her work is peppered with gems from others, like James Baldwin; “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.”