Mindfulness in Plain English

Living a few blocks from the Zen Center is decidedly a perk of life in San Francisco. I have zero excuses to prevent me from skipping down the street to join others in meditation training, which is where I discovered this book.

Tremendously useful as you are developing your own meditation practice, or refining an existing one. Gunaratana breaks down the monkey mind into its various parts; we categorize experiences as good/bad/neutral and either obsessively grasp for the good, obsessively reject the bad, or ignore the neutral. Most of life exists in that neutral zone, so start paying attention and enjoy it.

The book teaches insight meditation, cultivating mindfulness by using the tool of concentration. Real peace comes when you stop chasing it. Vipassana meditation shows you how to be detached as you watch your thoughts rise up, see yourself reacting without getting caught up in your reaction, escape the obsessive nature of thought, examine the process of perception.

As you sit and watch your breath, the book offers great tips on counting: when breathing in, “one, one, one, one…” and breathing out “two, two, two, two…” up to 10, repeat; count rapidly up to 10 with each inhale and exhale (this worked wonders for me, keeping my mind busy with numbers); joining inhale and exhale as one count, up to five then back to one. Pro-tip: if you’re sleepy, taking a deep breath and holding it will help warm your body up and banish sleepiness.

Something I’m in desperate need of: cultivating a feeling of “universal loving friendliness.” Start by banishing thoughts of self-hatred and condemnation, then work outward to direct a flow of good intention to your family, friends, enemies, and strangers. He recommends setting this intention before each meditation session (and continuing throughout the day, especially right before bed because it helps you “sleep well and to prevent nightmares. It also makes it easier to get up in the morning. And it makes you more friendly and open toward everybody, friend or foe, human or otherwise.”)

So whaddya do about all those distractions? Anyone who’s attempted to meditate knows how easily thoughts slip in and hijack you. He recommends asking about the distraction: what is it, how strong is it, how long does it last. This enables you to divorce yourself from the distraction, step back, view it objectively. You’ll note the distraction, note its qualities, then return to your breath.

Besides sitting mediation, there’s also walking meditation, and during longer retreats you switch between the two. Walking meditation is slow, hands either in front or in back or at sides (whatever’s most comfortable), breathe in lift heel of one foot, breathe out rest foot on toes, breath in lift foot, carry forward, breathe out foot down to floor, repeat.

To practice loving friendliness:

May my mind be filled with the thoughts of loving-friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. May I be generous. May I be gentle. May I be relaxed. May I be happy and peaceful. May I be healthy. May my heart become soft. May my words be pleasing to others. May my actions be kind.

May all that I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think help me to cultivate loving friendliness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. May all these experiences help me to cultivate thoughts of generosity and gentleness. May they all help me to relax. May they inspire friendly behavior. May these experiences be a source of peace and happiness. May they help me be free from fear, tension, anxiety, worry, and restlessness.

No matter where I go in the world, in any direction, may I greet people with happiness, peace, and friendliness. May I be protected in all directions from greed, anger, aversion, hatred, jealousy, and fear.

The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It

I had high hopes for Richard Florida’s book but they flapped to the ground quickly. A smug sense of himself oozes through the pages, insisting on his own presence in the book. Because he wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, he’s been fingered as one of the culprits of gentrification, where cities are inundated with these creative types. Specific to Toronto, where he now lives, he’s been accused of promoting a larger airport for his own convenience.

He lets himself off the hook immediately. Young white people heading to the city are not causing gentrification, apparently. And the whining that’s happening about artists getting pushed out? It’s balderdash, according to Florida. “Put bluntly, some of the nosiest controversies regarding our changing cities spring from the competing factions of a new urban elite [which includes artists]. The much bigger problem is the widening gap between this relatively advantaged class and everyone else. It’s the poor and working classes who are truly being displaced and shunted aside in our thriving cities, and the way to help them is not to turn off the spigot of wealth creation but to make their flourishing economies more encompassing and inclusive.”

Ultimately, it’s all about income inequality. There’s a fantastic quote from 1981 where an expert warns about the ill effects of gentrification on San Francisco: “At this rate we would become a place only the elite can afford. Ten years from now, unless we adopt some sort of policy to insure income integration, we will crowd out all the middle-income people. I think San Francisco is going to become a very rich living area, a lot of single and retired people who have money,k executives who work down in the financial district. It’s going to be very difficult for a nonwealthy person to live here.” 1981, people!

Anyway, the main problem isn’t gentrification, says Florida. It’s that we’re not gentrifying the poor areas as well, bringing them up to code, building transportation infrastructure and parks. The suburbs are the ghetto now, so we need to expand our cities to encompass them. His whole section on what to do about the problem is a rehash of the same tired solutions: invest in infrastructure, build more low income housing, pay people a living wage.

 

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

This was a helpful book and I can see why there’s a queue of people at the library who want to read it even though it’s been out since 2014. Great stories of actual patients dealing with trauma and the techniques used by Van Der Kolk to treat them.

The book covers the full spectrum, from brain layout and chemistry to yoga and EMDR. I inadvertently learned more about the brain than in a book that was solely about that organ. The reptilian brain develops in the womb and organizes the functions you require for basic life (breathing, eating, sleeping). It’s always alert for threats, throughout your life. The “limbic” brain evolves in the next 6 years to create a map of relation between you and your surroundings. On top of that, the prefrontal cortex develops. All of these parts are vulnerable to trauma.

One of the coping mechanisms when dealing with trauma is freezing up, numbing oneself, blanking your mind. To treat this, tapping acupressure points, rhythmic interactions like tossing a ball back and forth, drumming, dancing, to change your relationship to bodily sensations.

EMDR is a fascinating technique I’d not heard of: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing; this as a way to access memories more obliquely than head-on, and somewhat related to REM cycle/dreaming. It “loosens” something in the mind that gives people access to memories/images from the past, putting the traumatic experience into context/perspective. It also is a way to deal with trauma without speaking about it, and is a way that can help even if the patient/therapist do not have a trusting relationship.

One of the chapter epitaphs was a tremendous William James quote that stings me as I try to meditate more:

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of the judgment, character, and will.

Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century

Monica Hesse called this book “one of the best narratives of true crime genre” in her American Fire but I hope she’s wrong for the sake of the genre. Hal Higdon does an okay job of describing the weird relationship and lead up to the intellectual crime of two deviant rich smart Jewish boys in Chicago in 1924. But please get this man an editor for the last 100 pages which involved meticulous details of Leopold and Loeb’s prison life (spoiler alert! Clarence Darrow gets them spared the death penalty), with Loeb’s eventual stabbing in prison and Leopold’s eventual parole in 1958.

Viva Mexico!

Charles Flandrau’s 1908 travel book to Mexico is entertaining and lightly written, and comes highly recommended by Sybille Bedford’s Don Otavio where she called it “most enchanting, extremely funny.”

The best parts are the sly rages against tourists, “the inability of people in general to think for themselves—the inevitableness with which they welcome an opinion, a phrase, a catchword, if it be sufficiently indiscriminating and easy to remember, and the fashion in which they then solemnly echo it, are never more displayed than when they are commenting upon a race not their own.” Even the first sentence, “Neither tourists nor persons of fashion seem to have discovered that the trip by water from New York to Vera Cruz is both interesting and agreeable… By tourists I mean persons who prefer to visit a country in bands of from fifteen to five hundred rather than in a manner less expeditionary…” Even 100 years ago, the urge to document was unstoppable: “At a distance of from ten to fifteen feet in front of him they deliberately focused their kodaks on the group and pressed the button.”

Oddly, there are Chinese restaurants along the sparsely populated railway line: “There are no dining cars; the train instead stops at decent intervals at stations provided with clean and adequate Chinese restaurants.”

A Drinking Life: A Memoir

Another tepid memoir recommended by Zinsser. At least this one had enough tiny morsels of interest to keep me flipping the pages. His late teenage years were the most interesting, dropping out of the elite Catholic school, working in the Navy Yard, having his own apartment and going to illustration school at night. Hamill comes from an Irish background and makes the case that it was inevitable that he start to drink, his life incorporating booze at an early age. He joins the Navy but avoids combat in the Korean War, stays long enough to qualify for the GI Bill and get college paid for. This leads him to Mexico to study art and writing, but he gets in trouble with the police for busting down a whorehouse door and later pummeling someone. A group of gringos heads for the beach for a vacation and rents hammocks for cheap each night, mooching off the friendly locals who provide them with food and beer. Back in NYC, Hamill becomes a journalist, enters an ill-advised marriage, has a few kids, gets divorced, dates Shirley Maclaine, and gives up drinking. No AA, just cold turkey. Yawn.

Martin Chuzzlewit

Probably the only reason to read this is for the crumbs that reveal Dickens’s rage against America. Those are the only savory bits I enjoyed, at least.

As the younger Martin arrives by boat, he’s astonished by the newsboys crying their wares, “Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Plunderer! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here’s the New York Rowdy Journal!… with all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the Ball at Mrs. White’s last night, where the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer’s own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here’s the Sewer!… Here’s the Sewer’s exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here’s the Sewer!” A great commentary of the state of the U.S. press that slips all too closely into what today’s media is like.

Dickens let loose with all his impressions, how we’re a country obsessed by money: “It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?”

The unending pursuit of knowledge was also pilloried as a lady is asked what course of lectures she’s attending. Wednesday is the Philosophy of the Soul, Monday is Philosophy of Crime, Friday is the Philosophy of Vegetables.

All the men Martin is introduced to are “one of the most remarkable men in the country,” so this becomes a jokey refrain. He is barraged with requests to lecture about any topic he chooses, and has to endure hoards of people coming to get a look at him. “If they spoke to him, which was not often, they invariably asked the same questions, in the same tone: with no more remorse or delicacy or consideration than if he had been a figure of stone, purchased and paid for, and set up there for their delight.”

After a failed attempt to set up a business in the wilderness and beating an illness, Martin hightails it back to England. His companion says he’d like to paint a picture of the American Eagle: “I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud and thinking nobody sees it…”

Charming, Charles!

Optimism over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change

I’m pretty sick of reading the opinions of old white men, but I’ll make an exception for Chomsky. I could use a dose of optimism and thought it would be unusual to come from such a source. The book is the result of a series of interviews with C.J. Polychroniou between 2013-2017 and all previously published in Truthout. Yes, there are brief touches on the Toxic T administration, but life in January 2017 looks much different in August 2017 when I read this.

Spoiler alert: there’s not a ton of optimism, although at the end of section 1 (and repeated at the end of section 3), he makes the best case for optimism:

If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best use of them, there might be a better world. Not much of a choice.

Chomsky consistently argues that the two most pressing issues we face are climate change and the possibility of nuclear war, saying that we don’t talk enough about the latter and are way too complacent about the former. One of the problems in raising concern about global warming is the absurdity that “40 percent of the US population doesn’t see why it is a problem, since Christ is returning in a few decades.”

The other point he hammers is that the US is unusual to the extent that we’re a “business-run society, where short-term concerns of profit and market share displace rational planning.” We also have a disproportionate part of the population that are religious fundamentalists. Basically, we’re screwed. Only don’t give up! Keep trying even though there is no hope.

Another note: I did not know about the “eloquent and poignant manifesto” left by the Austin pilot who suicided by flying his plane into an IRS office in Feb 2010. Worth a read and a helluva way to send a message about taxes.

Iron & Silk

Nowhere nearly as good as the other book about China I recently read, but at least not painful to read. Perhaps the only painful part was the author photo in the back, showcasing the young author in a sleeveless t-shirt to show off his bulging martial arts muscles while eating Chinese takeout with a plastic fork. Yikes.

This came out in 1986, a record of Salzman’s two years teaching English and studying gong fu with a seemingly endless stream of willing teachers. (And yet, he protects his own time from frequent requests to give private language lessons by saying no). He also picks up a calligraphy teacher or two, and practices his sketching along the foggy river befriending fishermen who are dazzled by seeing a white man who speaks Chinese. A true Renaissance man, Salzman fixes an old lady’s piano and brings his cello to the fisherman’s home to give a concert (they’re dazzled most by the red velvet lining the case).

Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company

I will never understand the impulse to write a biography about someone you don’t like. James Mellow has little respect for Stein’s genius and his disdain comes through in sneers throughout. Maybe his purpose was to sneak an encomium to Leo Stein into a book that people would be tricked into reading, much more interested about his stunningly talented sister instead. Snide comments about Gertrude’s girth start in the first paragraph and pepper the remainder of the text. The only reason I picked this up was because it was the source of a reference in Pat Highsmith’s bio about how much Stein and Picasso adored the Katzenjammer Kids comics. I’m taking a hard pass on the remaining hundreds of pages of this travesty of a biography.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World

German forester Peter Wohlleben puts on his writing cap (with the help of English translator Jane Billinghurst) to share the secret life of trees. This book had the potential to be amazing, but the writing bogged it down, laborious and heavy where it could have danced in the wind among the treetops.

So many crazy facts!  Trees can accurately identify the insect attacking them by their saliva and release a specific pheromone to attract a “beneficial predator” to get rid of the attacker.

Trees talk to each other by electrical pulses in interconnected root systems carried by fungal networks. WHAT?! This has been deemed the “wood wide web.” Cultivated plants, however, lose their ability to communicate above or below ground, and as isolated beings are easy prey for insects. Trees also help each other out, funneling nutrients to their sick or dying friends.

This is simply insane: “When you measure water pressure in trees, you find it is highest shortly before the leaves open up in the spring. At this time of year, water shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.”

This also mind boggling: “To protect its needles from freezing, a conifer fills them with antifreeze. To ensure it doesn’t lose water to transpiration over the winter, it covers the exterior of its needles with a thick layer of wax.”

Trees act as disinfectants, killing germs by releasing phytoncide from their needles. Walnut trees have compounds in their leaves that are insect repellent (gardeners are advised to put their benches under walnuts to avoid mosquitoes).

One group of researchers registered roots crackling at a frequency of 220 hertz. “Whenever the seedling’s roots were exposed to a crackling at 220 hertz, they oriented their tips in that direction.”

Man’s Search for Himself

Rollo May’s book from 1953 is oddly appropriate many decades later, mentioning the “semi-psychotic state, Third World War and catastrophe hovering around the corner.” The first half of the book was devoured greedily, but then I got somewhat bored by the last parts. He quotes T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men a lot, along with Kafka, Goethe, Freud (who always gets some adjective like “venerable” before his name).

May says, “The chief problem of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness.” People don’t know what they want or even what they feel.  Another common characteristic is loneliness: “when a person does not know with any inner conviction what he wants or what he feels… he senses danger and his natural reaction is to look around for other people who will give him some sense of direction or comfort that he is not alone in his fright.” He mentions the anxiety that swept over the world “like a tidal wave when the first atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima,” causing interior panic since no one knew which way the world would turn.

To combat this aloneness, we gather in useless groups. May dips into a typical cocktail hour where people meet the same people every night and have the same conversations. “What is important is not what is said, but that some talk be continually going on.”

Another scary parallel to today’s hyper-connected world of false sentiment expressed in Likes, Claps, or various other virtual reality praise:

Since the dominant values for most people in our society are being liked, accepted and approved of, much anxiety in our day comes from the threat of not being liked, being isolated, lonely or cast off.

May points out the oddity that radio programs frequently signed off with “Thanks for listening.”…

Why should the person who is doing the entertaining thank the receiver for taking it? To acknowledge applause is one thing, but thanking the recipient for deigning to listen and be amused is quite a different thing. It betokens that the action is given its value by the whim of the consumer.

Hate yourself? Probably part of the reason you hate other people:

The self-condemning substitute provides the individual with a rationalization for his self-hate, and thus reinforces the tendencies toward hating himself. And, inasmuch as one’s attitudes toward other selves generally parallel one’s attitude toward one’s self, one’s covert tendency to hate others is also rationalized and reinforced. The steps are not big from the feeling of worthlessness of one’s self to self-hatred to hatred for others.

Melville: His World and Work

Who cares if Melville was gay? I certainly don’t give a fig (one of his favorite snacks) about his or any other genius’s sexuality. Yet that’s a bugaboo that must be faced in every single biography about the man. To be fair, his circle jerking in the “A Squeeze of the Hand” chapter of MD is over-the-top madness and hilarious, but must we dissect him to this degree?

Delbanco takes on the thankless task of creating a vivid biography of someone who left mostly traces of himself only in his written work, scattered letters, a thin journal here and there. This book is expansive in its exploration of Melville’s oeuvre, panning for nuggets of his life in the gold streams of prose. The best part was a re-ignition of my desire to read MD again.

Other bits:

  • I appreciated learning about Melville’s habit of buying a book for his library only after he’d read a copy borrowed from a friend or the library. Hey-yo, fellow traveler!
  • After the thudding failure of MD, Melville actually proposed publishing his next book under a pseudonym!

Georgia: A Guide to its Towns and Countryside

As expected, this WPA guidebook written about Georgia in 1940 sucks. Anything written by Southerners about the South before the Civil Rights Movement must be approached with caution. Nothing in here worth taking away. Provides the usual details about towns, only helpfully denotes that of the 6 movie theaters, 2 are for blacks, er, Negroes.

This topic even merits its own section. Which one of these chapters is not like the others?

Gross.

 

Henry Darger

Life is sometimes too perfect. I’d requested two Darger books from various libraries that arrived just in time for the furor over Confederate statues to reach fever peak and was delighted to find several depictions of statues strangling children just as they are strangling us right now. (See images below)

The first book was Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings from 2000, which includes Bonesteel’s great essay “Henry Darger: Author, Artist, Sorry Saint, Protector of Children.” This recounts Darger’s childhood (sent to an asylum for feeble-minded children at age 12, there when one of the inmates tried to castrate himself and died 4 days later) through decades in Chicago working as a dishwasher and making art and writing and going to Mass 3 or 4 times a day. The rest of the book includes selections from Darger’s writing: Realms of the Unreal (“the reason the story runs so much with little girls as the actual heroes in this warfare is because, under most circumstances, women are braver than men”), The History of My Life, Book of Weather Reports, and his diary. In this book Bonesteel informs us that Darger pronounced his name with a hard G like Berger.

The second book was Henry Darger, edited by Klaus Biesenbach, including another essay by Bonesteel. This was almost 6 pounds of glossy reproductions of Darger’s work, including several pages of his History of My Life, which fittingly ended with “There is one really important thing I must write which I have forgotten.” Definitely a must-read for anyone who is even slightly interested in Darger.