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 View from the Ground

Martha Gellhorn’s collection of articles that she churned out in six decades of freelance journalism is sparkling, but my favorite book of hers remains Travels with Myself and Another. In this collection, she groups the essays by decade and offers up a quirky summation for each period— sometimes this was my favorite part. She manically travels the world, from Spain to Poland to St. Louis to Texas to Vietnam to Israel to London ad infinitum.

Her comparison of the wretched House UnAmerican Activities Committee (targeting Eleanor Roosevelt’s rep, ultimately) with the jovial and prudent House of Commons was wonderful. Two Irish members were unable to take their places in the House of Commons due to being in jail for helping to hold up a British arms depot; a second election was held and they were re-elected. “This raised a fascinating dilemma: whereas you may not vote, in jail, you may, evidently, stand for Parliament.”

Later parts tend toward dullness, and she has an ill-advised trip to Haiti where she claims to realize what blacks feel like in bad places since she was slightly tormented by being the only white person around. The only bright spot in the 2nd half of the book was her 1980s essay that hearkens back to the 1930s where she glories in the beauty of not needing advance travel reservations and brags about how wonderful train trips were. “Trains were leisurely… You had time to watch [the land] change, to feel the differences and the great distance. You knew you were traveling… The population explosion, the airplane, and tourism as a major international industry have changed travel, for an old traveler like me, from thrilling impetuous private discovery into a hassle of the deepest dye.”

New phrase I picked up: “like billy-o” meaning extremely. “I laughed like billy-o” says Gellhorn about her romp with poverty-stricken Poland. “When they say they are interested in making money, they mean they are interested in staying alive.”

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

The only non-fiction I’ve gobbled up by Pat so far is this useful book on writing with tips that stretch beyond the “suspense” label. She relies on her decades of successfully publishing books and stories and reveals her process, unbuttoning the kimono.

“I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don’t dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine.” She also admits to enjoying conversations with people that others find dull: “there are some people, often most unlikely people—dull-witted, lazy, mediocre in every way—who are for some inexplicable reason stimulating to the imagination. I have known many such people. I like to see and talk to them now and then, if I can.”

In her twenties, she worked during the day and would come home, nap at 6pm, then bathe and change clothes, getting up for her second job which was to write her own work. “This gave me an illusion of two days in one and made me as fresh for the evening as I could be.”

To combat fatigue, she advocates for taking a trip, even a short, cheap trip to change the scene. “If you can’t take a trip, take a walk.” Lack of ideas might also be due to the people you’re around.

Technical specifics get into outlining chapters, always with the question in mind about how this chapter advances the story. List the specific points you want to cover in each chapter and have that beside you as you write it.

She sneers at people who imitate current trends that are selling: “A writer can be assured of a good living by imitating current trends and by being logical and pedestrian, because such imitations sell and do not take too much out of a writer in an emotional sense.”

Pat cries foul of those writers who love to let their characters take on a life of their own: “I do not subscribe to the belief that having a vigorous character who acts for himself is always good. After all, you are the boss, and you don’t want your characters running around all over the place or possibly standing still, no matter how strong they may be.”

Dialogue can be summed up where not important to increase the dramatic effect. Instead of tediously listing out the characters’ lines, “Howard refused to budge, though she argued with him for a full half hour.”

As usual, the best writing advice is simply to do it, and to do it often. She is speaking directly to me here:

One need not be a monster, or feel like one, to demand two or three hours absolute privacy here and there. This schedule should become a habit, and the habit, like writing itself, a way of life. It should become a necessity; then one can and will always work. It is possible to think like a writer all one’s life, to want to be a writer, yet to write seldom, out of laziness or lack of habit. Such a person may write passably well when he writes—such people are known as great letter writers—and may even sell a few things, but that is doubtful. Writing is a craft and needs constant practice.

Throughout, she dissects her successful books and her failures. This book is a must-read for any Highsmith fan to get her take on her own work. When discussing Strangers on a Train, she says “It is a wonder this simple idea [strangers exchanging murders] is not used more often in real life, and perhaps it is, since it is said that only eleven percent of the murders committed are ever solved.”

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.

 

How to be Bored

I really want to like these School of Life books, but usually end up disappointed. Eva Hoffman’s contribution was no different, tiny essays that stapled themselves together into a slender “book” claiming that we must allow ourselves to reach a state of boredom in order to delve more deeply inside. For those pressed for time, perhaps just reading the conclusion will do: “There are many ways to live; but to live meaninglessly is to miss your life. If we rush through our days and months in ceaseless activity, and without taking stock of what we’re doing, we can soon lose track of what we are doing it for, or why it matters to us… we need to orient ourselves in our lives – and within ourselves: to muse, relish, reflect and occasionally even to be bored.”

Ultimately I leave with a collection of other book recommendations, which isn’t bad in itself if the books turn out to be insightful. Also a reminder to pick up my Montaigne essays again. Otherwise, the best part was really her section on why to read books:

… books (good books, that is; books that matter) are the best aid to extended thought and imaginative reflection we have invented… this is particularly important, as an antidote to the segmentation of thought encouraged by digital technologies… the disparate fragments we look at on our various screens rarely cohere into continuous thought, or a deepening of knowledge…. They literally broaden our mental horizons and our perspective… imaginative literature is the art form most capable of encompassing all dimensions of human experience: the outer and the inner world, specific facts and the elusive textures of consciousness, the stories of individual selves and of the self within culture and society.

She winds up with a lethal dart at online reading:

Our contemporary forms of reading threaten to reduce that amplification. Aside from the fact that overusing digital technologies eventually makes us less mentally agile and more forgetful (as research increasingly shows), the kind of segmented, bite-sized reading we do on the internet fragments and constricts the ‘space to think’, instead of expanding it; in a sense, it reduces or even rubbishes our mental experience.

 

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.”

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays

Samantha Irby is unapologetically hilarious, trashy, vulgar, and disgusting. This collection of her essays is the purest declaration of a personality that I’ve seen in recent years. Usually I groan about books that include cultural touch points like social media, but Irby gets away with it. Someone might read this in 30 years and not understand all the references but it’s as close to an intelligent and realistic description of what modern life is really like. Plus she’s a misanthrope, so we share some of the same preferences, like wanting to meet OUT somewhere instead of at someone’s house, which is infinitely harder to slip away from. “I just want to go down to the bar, listen to three beers’ worth of your problems, then claim that my stomach hurts so I can leave and get in bed before nine.”

On the other hand, she’s a huge TV junkie, so we could not bond over reality television and I’m pretty sure she’s talking about someone like me here: “Picture it: you’re chilling in the corner at a party full of people you’ve never met before and hated on sight, humming the lyrics to a Coldplay song to yourself to drown out the Swedish death metal the hostess put on to prop up her apparition of coolness, then here comes some asshole who makes her own yogurt and just discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates condescending at you about how damaging reality shows are to impressionable youth. ”

She’s also not having kids, so I enjoyed the essay about how all her friends were popping out tots. “Everyone I know is having a goddamned baby and what that means is you can’t just stop by your homegirl’s house unannounced with a bottle of Carménère and a couple of tubes of Pringles to watch hours of makeup tutorial videos on YouTube anymore. Because that baby might be sleeping or eating or doing its taxes, and you are going to mess it all up with your loud, single-person bullshit.”

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.

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

I felt a little duped by this, since it’s mostly a rehashing of essays I’ve previously read by Dillard with a foreword by the wretched Geoff Dyer whom I’ve vowed never to read again (“The chimera of Dyer’s talent I first peeped in Zona turned out to be nothing but a blotchy oil spill farting and leering at women’s breasts.” – from my review of Another Great Day at Sea). Skipping the foreword, I was still delighted by Annie Dillard’s poetic trance and relished her dance through the pages.

She starts with a piece about the 1979 total eclipse, especially timely to read a few weeks after our 2017 eclipse; wild, ragged, and beautiful sentences capturing the eeriness, the oddity of ending up at a diner with other eclipse viewers eating eggs and hearing a boy say that the ring looked like a Life Saver in the sky.

The rest of the essays are taken from Holy the Firm, An American Childhood, The Writing Life, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. I’m reminded to try again to read Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a book Dillard credits with making her want to write when she was 16, a book that I gave up on after a few pages. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, will try again.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

Another book about bored white hillbillies screwing up America, only this time the couple targeted their tiny town in Accomack County, Virginia, with a series of fires (70+). I knew the book was going to be good by the second paragraph where Monica Hesse says she spent two years trying to figure out why they did it, and that the answer involved “hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms, intrigue, and America.”

She does an excellent job laying out all the facts, from the first fire’s 911 calls all the way through the months of other fires and finally the bust, interrogation, and trials. Charlie is made out to be the impotent half-wit who went along with the first dozen fires because they made Tonya happy, and because they were somewhat of a substitute to his not being able to get it up.

Really well done; I read it straight through, abandoning all other commitments for the afternoon.

Odd tidbit: an Alford plea is based on the case of a man named Henry Alford who wanted to plead not guilty of murder but feared that a jury trial would convict and punish him with death, so he plead to get life in prison.

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.

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

The 2016 election caused a collective trauma to the U.S. Therapists are experiencing boom times, with one Florida doctor noting 80% of her clients say the election is a source of fear and sadness. Requests for online therapy through Talkspace tripled immediately after the election. In an effort to try and heal my own shocked and broken heart, I reached out to Judith Herman’s legendary book about trauma. I mean in no way to belittle the other forms of trauma by equating them with post-election trauma. I offer up a few tidbits learned along the way, but know there is a long road ahead to rebuild connections and restore my faith in humanity.

The book is broken into two parts: the historical search to diagnose this disorder (from hysterical women to shell-shocked soldiers to sexual abuse survivors) and an overview of the healing process. I found the former part to be of the most interest, the latter self-help component to be a bit saggy for my taste.

Fascinating that the study of hysteria came about as a way to divest the Catholic Church of some of its power in France. Freud was initially part of the investigation, but got freaked out when he realized the extent of what he was uncovering, the frequency of sexual assault. I didn’t realize that famous patient Anna O (Bertha Pappenheim) was Joseph Breuer’s, collaborating with Freud to publish their analysis, and that Breuer abandoned Anna after two years of intense daily “talking cure” (Bertha came up with the famous term). Falling ill for years after Breuer’s abandonment, she eventually recovered and became a passionate advocate for women’s rights.

This post-trauma disorder cropped up again in WWI as shell shock. One study estimates 40% of British battle casualties to be mental breakdowns, reports suppressed to prevent this demoralizing news from reaching the public.

The common trait of psychological trauma is a feeling of “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.” This describes the atmosphere of 2017. Trauma is also amplified when coupled with being taken by surprise. Hello November 9, 2016. Traumatic reactions happen when you can’t make a difference with your own action. “When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized.”

This sums up my feeling pretty well:

Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience. They violate the victim’s faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a state of existential crisis.

 

Janesville: An American Story

Perhaps it’s a result of overdosing on books about the failing/flailing middle class (e.g. 1, 2, or 3 which was also about Wisconsin), but I was reluctant to read this all the way to the end. Amy Goldstein takes us on an in-depth tour of Janesville, Wisconsin, home of Paul Ryan, and a town where GM shut down one of its oldest factories in 2008. Other industry in the town left as well, Parker Pen having been sold to investors and eventually to Gillette, jobs marching out of town in the thousands. She shows you what life looks like as a family slides from middle class into needing help from the local food pantry, and poor families slipping into poverty sometimes abandoning their kids into homelessness. The impact of job loss ripples outward as people who made the seats that went into the cars also get shut down (and other ancillary services like day care, etc. that are now no longer affordable).

One man opts to become a “gypsy” commuting to a GM factory in Indiana and sharing an apartment with another Janesville gypsy during the week, then driving 5 hours back each weekend. Others go back to technical school to pick up skills and hope to find work. Some are successful, like Barb who helps developmentally disabled adults. Some fail, like Barb’s best friend Kristi who kills herself after getting a job at the jail and falling in love with a prisoner. Suicide rates double in the town after the factory closes.

Mostly you see the splintering of a town, with rich optimists on one side (aka Paul Ryan supporters) who give lip service about jobs and things turning around, and those thousands who are actually impacted, who learn to do without, to eat a lot of pasta, to give up their dreams.