The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty: Wilderness Guide, Pilot, and Conservationist

I’m jealous of the life that Clarence was able to lead. This was written in 2002, when Clarence was still alive at aged 97. He died seven years later, aged 104. Born into a wilderness family in the Adirondacks, his mom insisted on an education, which led to college and his being able to take the forester’s exam, which put him on the path to being a major factor in ensuring the conservation of Adirondack Park in upstate New York. As you’d imagine, he’s full of stories, like that of the somewhat famous hermit in the woods who was his friend, Noah John Rondeau, who used to squirrel away bits of food in the woods, like the time he checked on a loaf of bread he stored in a tree two years earlier that was stashed in a tree and good as new. Noah also was a bit “lazy” according to Clarence, sometimes not chopping firewood but simply taking a long pole and sticking one end into the stove and pushing it through as it burned. Seems like a smart idea to me.

Clarence got his pilot’s license and ended up training people to fly for over sixty years. He was born in the right time, getting a job with the CCC during the depression and then vaulting into being a park ranger when the war was over. Interesting to note the political divisions between the rangers (more police-like and less nature loving) versus the foresters (loved the wilderness, hiking). Clarence tells another great story about clearing trees one winter after a hurricane flattened them, working up a sweat and removing his jacket only to come back and find that the tree he’d put it on had sprung back in the air and the jacket was now 30 feet up, so he cut the tree down. “That was a good jacket. I didn’t want to lose that.”

The book is sometimes repetitious but my major beef was in the mysterious disappearance of any mention of Clarence’s wife and family. We find out when his mom dies, but no mention of Ferne Petty’s demise. She only appears occasionally in the pages, a big contrast to her husband who was taking the world by storm. In later pages she’s mentioned by someone as “hard to get along with” compared to Clarence, which just seems like a mean-spirited one-sided thing to say.

The Typewriter Repair Manual

I wasn’t going to include this in my recap but a reader insisted that the weird books I consume is one of the unexpected joys he gets when perusing the site (which apparently can get kind of “stuffy” with all the high-falutin’ literature or grim liberal non-fiction), so here you go. I got this repair manual as a way to bolster my knowledge after acquiring a gorgeous 1965 Olympia SM9 typewriter that types like a dream. It covers the basics on what parts are called and what they do, and how to go about troubleshooting. #1 tip is to keep your machine covered so dust doesn’t muck up the innards.

This section below is probably my favorite part of the manual, with frank guidance about how you can use this book to create your very own typewriter repair business. Yes, this was published in 1981.

How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography

My interest in Lenny Bruce got a jolt from watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel TV series so I grabbed this autobio that was published in installments in Playboy. Parts are interesting, like his upbringing and running away from home as a teenager to work on a farm and then to the Navy for active duty during WW2. I didn’t realize that his first arrest for obscenity was in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. He also mentions Ann’s 440 Club on Broadway as an early incubator for his talent. The autobiography is a bit rambly, much like his sets were, but peppered  with too much of the court transcripts from his various trials. He ends one of his chapters with the great saying: “There’s nothing sadder than an old hipster.”

Fante Bukowski (volumes 1 & 2)

Noah Van Sciver’s graphic novels about the struggling writer, Fante Bukowski, were a pleasant diversion this morning. He’s a big time loser who, at 23, is berating himself for not having written a great novel. His mom covers his bills until (in volume 2) he pays for a prostitute with a credit card, in addition to buying thousands of copies of his own 6-page zine which he attempts to sell for $8 a copy. The books are peppered with writerly sayings like “For a writer every day is a nervous breakdown” (John Banville) or “The beginning is always today” (Mary Shelley).  Bonus points for jabbing at Dave Eggers writing at an Eggers signing where he says “I’m right here, I can hear you.”

Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment

This is a chatty, bloated, meandering book that mashes up psychology, evolution, and Buddhism. Wright tries to make the very complex and challenging aspects of mindfulness meditation more approachable by being conversational while peppering his text with pop culture references (The Matrix, Kurt Cobain). On the plus side, he does bring up some good points about evolutionary psychology, why we are dominated by our feelings, and how meditation can help you break the connection between yourself and those feelings/addictions/impulses. He points out that we’re designed by natural selection to care a lot about what other people think of us because people who were well liked would have propagated genes better. But in today’s world we are constantly meeting people who know nothing about us, amping up the pressure of every social occasion.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story

I’m not a huge fan of Peter Bagge’s style, but I appreciate his ability to tell the complex story of Sanger’s life within a few pages. Her work as a nurse exposed her to the many methods women used to try to control their fertility and she made it her mission to bring those to women of all backgrounds and classes. While she did marry early, she eventually split from her first husband and gallivanted about with lots of other dudes, including HG Wells (of course– he was diddling everybody back then). Her greatest achievement was getting the birth control pill funded and developed, something that has had a huge impact on women ever since.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization

Here’s a cheerful book for a rainy day. The Anthropocene is the geological era defined by humans, which, according to various accounts, began either in Industrial Revolution or with the dawn of agriculture 12k years ago or with the 1945 atomic bomb drop. Scranton relies on his combat experience in Iraq to set the stage for what living in end-times really looks like, and asks how we make meaningful decisions as we teeter toward the end of civilization. His answer is that we simply let go, of ego, of capitalism, of war, and do our best to safeguard the thousands of years of hard-fought learning to survive in the future so it isn’t lost.

The elephant in the room is climate change, and he devotes quite a bit to that topic. “The problem is that the problem is us.”

Our online overlords are not helping:

Social media like Facebook crowdsource catharsis, creating self-contained wave pools of aggression and fear, pity and terror, stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.

Scranton calls out that our simply passing along articles or reactions contributes to the weakening of reflection or independent thought. “With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers.”

He quotes Peter Sloterdijk as saying the role of the philosopher is to be “continually self-immunizing against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by perpetually interrupting [our] own connection to collective life.” This interruption is reflection, a sitting with, not a smashing:

We must inculcate ruminative frequencies in the human animal by teaching slowness, attention to detail, argumentative rigor, careful reading, and meditative reflection.

On a lighter note, he included a part of Inger Christensen’s poem, alphabet, which I really liked:

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

I will read anything Coates writes, but was a bit disappointed in this. I didn’t realize it was going to be a collection of essays he’d already published in the Atlantic from 2009-2016. This makes it a bit of a rehash that I assume was published to take advantage of post-Obama nostalgia in an age of McDonald Tr*mp. He does write intro sections for each of the essays and a recap at the end, but otherwise it’s probably material you’ve already read before (including the well-worth-another-read The Case for Reparations).

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Excellent work that will break your heart. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard law graduate who heads south to help defend inmates on death row, especially in Alabama where they turned their execution program on overdrive with the highest rate per capita. Through his many years helping the innocent and the unjustly imprisoned, Stevenson collected a huge bag of stories that he drips before and after the main story of Walter McMillian, who was put on death row while he AWAITED trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Local authorities were angry that he’d dared to have an interracial relationship so were happy to pin the blame on him. Well written, gripping story. I had to put it down every so often just to breathe and try to calm down.

Obama: An Intimate Portrait

Taking a break this MLK weekend from shuddering about Mcdonald Tr*mp’s tactless idiocy/racism/greed to read this gem from Pete Souza. The photographer had extraordinary access to Obama during the 8 years of his presidency and captured real moments that occasionally brought me to tears. Say what you will about Obama, the man has charm, style, wit, intelligence, compassion, and that comes through in these photos. It is an absolute delight to remind yourself that outstanding presidents who don’t embarrass us have existed and will exist again in the future.

Nicholas Nickleby

That gaseous old windbag, Dickens, has exhausted me after many weeks of tackling this, his third novel. It brims with the same colorful cast of miscellaneous characters that add a bit of sparkle to the 700+ pages. These are the random bits that delight, like the names of companies as the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company.

The story follows the usual lines—a poor widow and her children reaches out to her rich brother-in-law for help, only to find that he’s a scoundrel. Uncle Ralph sends Nicholas out to be a teacher at a ridiculously abusive school where he ends up whipping the schoolmaster and leaving with one of the runaway boys, then ending up acting on the stage under an assumed name to make money for a while. Nicholas’ sister Kate is of course beautiful and pure and angelic, and Uncle Ralph sends her into the various clutches of terrible people in London. The widow mother, Mrs. Nickleby, is a blathering buffoon of the type that Dickens frequently makes women—airheads concerned with appearances and telling endless tales of their former glory. The only amusing part she plays is when she believes that the insane neighbor is in love with her. Caught in their chimney, the old man demands to be sent a bottle of lightning, a thunder sandwich, and a plate of boots to eat.

Miss La Creevy is one of the only female characters that comes close to being interesting in all of Dickens’ work that I’ve read so far. She’s a portrait painter who is an independent, friendly, smart spinster. “Here was one of the advantages of having lived alone for so long. The little bustling, active, cheerful creature, existed entirely within herself, talked to herself, made a confidant of herself, was as sarcastic as she could be, on people who offended her, by herself; pleased herself, and did no harm. If she indulged in scandal, nobody’s reputation suffered; and if she enjoyed a little bit of revenge, no living soul was one atom the worse. One of the many to whom, from straitened circumstances, a consequent inability to form the associations they would wish, and a disinclination to mix with the society they could obtain, London is as complete a solitude as the plains of Syria, the humble artist had pursued her lonely, but contented way for many years; and, until the peculiar misfortunes of the Nickleby family attracted her attention, had made no friends, though brimful of the friendliest feelings to all mankind. There are many warm hearts in the same solitary guise as poor little Miss La Creevy’s.”

What the Trees Said: Life on a New Age Farm

This book got me thinking that books need some sort of a rating system like movies, but to warn people of the level of male smarminess/privilege inside. Works by Mailer or Roth or Kerouac (and this) would score in the toxic red zone and thus sensitive readers could avoid them. Alas, this warning label did not exist and I took seriously Jenny Odell’s recommendation that this was her new favorite book, so read it.

If you’re lucky, you’ve never heard of Stephen Diamond, author of this 1970 remembrance of the hippie farm he and a bunch of dudes lived on in Massachusetts. Oh I guess there were a few girls there, but they get slighted in the story until they do something like bitch about how they’re doing all the cooking and cleaning of dishes. Diamond’s words are a poor man’s Kerouac, he attempts to free associate and lacks any of Jack’s sparkle or rhythm.

Against Everything: Essays

I have a theory that Greif founded n+1 because no one else would publish his writing. This collection is a group of essays he first put forth in that publication, launched in 2004. The only solid essay of the book was the first one he published, Against Exercise, in 2004. Maybe he worked hard at polishing it, and then once n+1 launched, his attention was diverted to managing the magazine instead of honing his writing. Besides tearing apart our culture of exercise, he touches on our food obsession, sexualizing children, Octomom & Bernie Madoff taking the brunt of anger during the financial crisis (woman & Jew, the usual targets instead of those who actually inflicted damage). There’s an embarrassing section wherein he muses about music, from Radiohead to Tribe Called Quest, cataloging his attempt to learn to rap as a Jew from Boston. Add in an overly boring section on reality TV, a dash of the trailer park near Walden Pond, a nip of police and Zuccotti Park, and you’ve got the book of essays.

In Against Exercise he calls out that what used to be private is now on display, gym rats obsessing about their numbers and enslaved by the routine. Another observation is that jogging is “a direct invasion of public space…. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.

A later essay, The Concept of Experience, takes aim at readers and writers: “Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books… Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies

This started out strong but whimpered out. It’s the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman who was instrumental in codebreaking during the two great 20th century wars. Elizebeth met her husband William on a private estate, both paid researchers for millionaire George Fabyan, Elizebeth paid to prove that a code embedded in Shakespeare shows his works were written by Bacon. The pair marry and end up becoming the best codebreakers in the U.S., working side by side. Of course, only William was recognized and promoted to high rank… at least until his mental breakdown. Elizebeth carried on, supporting him and the children and running her own codebreaking crew out of the Coast Guard during Prohibition, then being swept into the Navy during WW2. She caught some Nazis and all of the credit was slurped up by J.Edgar Hoover. I did appreciate that the author devoted a lot of space to showing how the codes worked and including examples. The petering-out of my interest was caused by his constant wide-eyed amazement that such an amazing woman could be swept under the rug of history until he came along to shine a light on her archives.

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream

It is refreshing and almost soothing to see that the same issues we’re grappling with now have been around for a while. This book came out 30 years ago in 1988 and the voices sound like they’ve been interviewed today—grappling with greed, capitalism, racism, neo-nazis, ultra-religious nuts, worrying about nuclear war and quality of life declining for future generations. Somehow this takes a bit of the sting out of the slap we were dealt in 2016 with the election of McDonald Tr*mp—this stuff has been simmering for a long time, we were just in our progressive bubble and refused to see it. The only real difference is that unions were a lot more prevalent back then. Now, they’re an anomaly. And more people were actively protesting nukes.

Per his usual style, Terkel interviews hundreds of folks and lets their words do the talking. Art Spiegelman kvetches about art students not knowing anything about the 1960s (“They had never heard of underground comics. Nobody in the class had ever heard of Robert Crumb. This is not the general public we’re talking about. These people are aspiring to be cartoonists…”) and he had to explain protests against the Vietnam War to his class. Another teacher discusses how censorship has morphed into people withdrawing books they don’t like from the library, “often one that is feminist in theme”, paying the fine and the book is never replaced.

I particularly liked Isabelle Kuprin’s interview: “I’m a copywriter for an ad agency. It involves being a total asshole. I do it for the money, it’s easy and horrible. I do nothing good for society. I mean, I help people sell cheese. The talent is being able to sit in meetings and listen to people talk about an adjective for four hours.”

Douglas Roth is also a hero– a pastor in a small Pennsylvania town that was ravaged by steel mills closing, he led an effort to get the bank to reinvest in the town. One of their tactics was to send people with $10 to ask for that in pennies and to drop some of them, get in line, pick them up, ask for nickels, cause chaos. Another was a fish action: taking out safety deposit boxes and filling them with frozen fish. “By Monday, they were beginning to raise their own odor. Boy it was really something! They had to drill out the boxes. They drilled into one lady’s jewels and somebody else’s heroin.”

Another hero: Jean Gump, mother of 12, jailed for a demonstration at a nuclear silo. As part of her interview, she reveals the ridiculousness of the government, telling the story about an inmate who lay in the yard and got a sunburn then an incident report was written up for “destruction of government property” because she destroyed her own skin.

Entertainment age: TV!

Echoes of current day ring out in this: “There’s this constant need to be entertained. Every kid has his little Walkman radio, playing tapes… There’s this constant need to be distracted. I think this is a rejection of thought.”

TV is blamed frequently. “Now you don’t talk to anybody ’cause you got your head stuck in that TV.” Also: “Television is fucking up the country completely, making us more violent and more druggy. The Sistine Chapel ceiling of American creativity is the thirty-second television commercial. That’s where America’s genius is concentrated. What are they telling us to do? Consume, look after number one, pamper yourself.”

“Television could be a very great thing for politics. It could create the revival of the stump. Instead, it actually destroys analysis, debate, reason, and substitutes advertising. One-liners. Two-liners take up too much time.”

Racism

Reagan’s election on race: “Reagan made it very accepted to be a white bigot. It’s the most fashionable thing. Now they say: America is white… When I was comin’ up, it was embarrassing to be considered a racist or bigot. Now I think people take pride in it.”

Football controversy

Another similarity to current times: in 1987 there was a football players’ strike. “What really disturbed me was the attitude of the fans. How easily they were manipulated into support-not of the players, whom they come to see and love to watch-but of the owners, who never played a game in their lives… It was amazing to hear million-dollar sportscasters criticize half-million dollar ballplayers: ‘They make too much money.'”

Somewhat related: “People are really not interested in politics. They’ve got too many other interests. You find people know so much about football.If they knew the same amount about the stock market, they’d be millionaires. Trivialities have overwhelmed us.”

Politics

While we’re on the subject of politics: “The scandals, open or secret, are happening so regularly, it’s as if one is constantly irritated by a blow on the shins to a point where he’s no longer sensitive. What the Reagan administration has discovered is that that which becomes commonplace is no longer a scandal. The violations have been unprecedented in their repetitiousness. People have lost their sense of outrage.”

Religion

“Unfortunately, America has got religion in a way that it hasn’t had before… Shrewd political people have recognized the potential of grabbing hold of the religions constituency… Their basic appeal is to people who feel left out. Marginalized people, who have an emotional hunger. W.H. Auden has a line about the wild prayers of longings… In a world that’s in chaos, fundamentalist religion provides you with a well ordered world, an architectonic world. It helps you get through. These programs have a lot of appeal to people without a sense of history… It’s fast food. It’s just there, it’s bland, it’s inoffensive, it fills you up for a while. And it helps. Sadly. You’re given answers. You’re not presented with problems. The idea is not to reflect, because that’s disturbing.” — Roy Larson, Methodist minister, Chicago

On the opposite end, Dennis McGrath, fundamentalist Christian in Brooklyn: “Most problems in public schools come from our throwing out prayer. Where’s the authority? It comes from God. Armageddon will come, of course. It’s part of God’s plan. Why stop it? I see no reason to stop it.”

Sexism in Technology Sector

Nancy Miles is a 23-year-old engineer who graduated from Cornell in 1985. “The attrition rate is enormous, people leaving engineering, especially women. There’s a lot against us…. During the interviews, the company would ask if you could get a security clearance. Wow, I’m gonna be working at a place where the government has to know about me, know what I do, know my politics. How much of myself am I willing to give up to work in Silicon Valley?”

Black women will save us

A flight attendant whose pilot-husband regularly crosses her strike line complains about the lack of support the women have gotten in general. Except: “You know who have been doing the most fighting and sticking together in our union? Black women. Here in Chicago, black flight attendants have been our strongest core. They have been able to handle the negatives of being out on strike for six months a lot better than their white counterparts.”

Robots are here + age discrimination

“An ironic touch has been added during these past 10 years. Our life-cycle has lengthened in every decade, yet we are seeing early retirement more and more frequently… That’s the au courant phrase these days: early retirement. In some cases, it’s a euphemism for being fired. It may be a case of wanting a younger person. Or they may just do away with the job. The job is robotized or faded out. The job is eliminated. Of course, for people this age it is difficult to find work again.” – Maggie Kuhn, of the Gray Panthers, a national org militantly concerned with the rights of the elderly.

Inequality

Anthony Bouza is the police chief of Minneapolis: “As for the country, I honestly believe we are observing a decline of the republic. There’s a major shift in American values, between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor. We are screwing the poor people.” This is also a guy whose wife has been arrested 5 times for protesting nuclear bomb-making plants in town.

Dumb rich people

Terkel interviews a socialite, Sugar Rautbord, who has incredibly idiotic things to say, including about her visit to the White House where she’s briefed on Grenada and thinks there is still a war there. Terkel corrects her, saying that the U.S. won the war there already. “Well, whatever. We live in a democracy, so everyone has a right to an opinion.” At the end of the interview, she says it’s important for her and her ladies to run around with their Tiffany cups out looking for donations to their pet causes. Terkel: “Tiffany what?” Sugar: “Cups out. Panhandling, you know.”