Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

I normally view business-y type book recommendations with a lot of skepticism but Suzann kept referring to this book (and held it up as a North Star that guided her decision to make a recent  change), so I gave in and was delightfully surprised to enjoy it immensely. Do less, better; ask yourself what really matters and do that; you can apply the very self-help-y suggestions to both work & real life. The pandemic induced change to routine is the perfect time to reshape life along these lines, and I found that I’ve been doing many of the suggestions naturally.

We’ve lost our ability to separate what is important from what isn’t, and people try to do everything. Choose how you spend your time. Most things in life are noise/not essential. There are tradeoffs, but instead of trying to to everything, ask what problem do you want. Don’t surrender your power of choosing what to do with your one precious life. Unless something is a clear and resounding YES! then it’s a no.

How to say no: “I’m flattered that you thought of me but I’m overcommitted at the moment.” After the ask: pause & count to three, give yourself time to consider. “No, but…” say what you will do. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” “What should I deprioritize?”

The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park

A bit windbaggy on the myriad of details about national park status, but some good summing up of history. Jotting some details I want to remember here:

  • President Millard Fillmore proposed the Presidio boundaries to start at Fisherman’s Wharf, encompassing much of what would end up being the Marina and the Richmond. (10,000 acres proposed, 2,500 acres actually earmarked)
  • The 12 officers’ cottages built in 1862 originally had their outhouses facing the city. In the 1870s the houses were flipped around to present a nicer face for visitors coming from SF.
  • The Presidio was always an “open” fort, not requiring guarded entrances except during WW2, fearing Japanese submarine attacks.
  • We can thank Phil Burton for his efforts, once again. The Presidio was included within the boundaries of GGNRA in 1972, guaranteeing that once the fort was decommissioned, it would be protected from development.
  • Once the Army did decide to close the Presidio, local politicians (Barbara Boxer & Nancy Pelosi) lobbied against the military closure for economic reasons.
  • There was a lot of pressure over the years to develop this beautiful piece of land. Local papers dubbed it the Idle Acres in an effort to drum up support for development at the same time that the idea of building a skyscraper or casino on Alcatraz was floated.
  • In 1994 the Army appeared to want to reneg on the agreement to some extent, demanding to keep several hundred units of housing, the commissary, swimming pool, Officers’ Club, and retaining exclusive use of the golf course. Negotiations on this point lasted a year and ended up with the Army getting control of the golf course for 5 years with phasing in of public play.
  • Truman wanted to build the UN Headquarters in the Presidio but the Soviets were against a West Coast location.

Honeybee: Poems & Short Prose

Every time I read Nye’s final poem of this book, Gate A-4, I can’t stop my eyes from tearing up. The rest of the pieces were just as precious, poetic musings that capture life freshly post 9/11 in the mid-aughties from the viewpoint of a writer born of Palestinian father and American mother, living in Texas. Poetry is vital and her book makes this case over and over. And now I get to load up on anything and everything else she has written!

No One Is Talking About This

This was awesome. I couldn’t get into her memoir (was it my mood?) but Lockwood’s first novel landed perfectly. Perhaps it’s the small chewable bits that make it ideal for covid-brain reading, but this has to be one of the best books that sums up our current state of affairs, our attention-deficit always-online swept from one meme to the next living in a state of terror from the tyrant. Into this setting she cuddles the story of her sister’s newborn, slated to live only 6 months with Proteus Syndrome (elephant man-itis). I heard an interview with Lockwood and she verified that this was taken from real life and her sister was pleased that the baby would be forever remembered in this book.

Some favorite snippets:

“Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”

“We were being radicalized, and how did that feel? Like we had just stepped into a Girl Scout uniform made of fire… We were being radicalized, yes, even though we owned personalized goblets that said Wine O’Clock, even though we still read the Old Gray Lady every morning with not nearly enough of a sneer on our faces!”

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Ugh, I wish this book had been better. It was right at the edge of annoying with placing himself at the heart of the story, gallivanting to Brazil to meet with a famous yoga dude who was hurrying to the airport to get back to his NYC yoga studio (read: Nestor wanted to write off a trip to Brazil instead of simply meeting this guy in New York) and dismissing the people he encountered in the lobby as “giggling in Portuguese”. While Nestor thankfully didn’t veer into bloviating misogyny his presence in the tale was a bit too pitch perfect, it’s like you’re watching a character have a flashback with wavy images as he perches on a doctor’s table and then takes you to a related part of his research.

Anyway, there didn’t seem to be much “new science” in his discovering this lost art. He’s simply pointing a spotlight on science that’s been around for a while, like the research that points out our mouths started shrinking from disuse after humans started eating softer foods 300 years ago (more processed, not as much chewing required). This collapse of the mouth cavity causes breathing issues and we’re all breathing wrong, all the time. Chewing gum for a few hours a day can build bones in the jaw (Falim Sugarless Mint).

Breathe through your nose. Right nostril breathing increases heat & blood pressure, left nostril breathing relaxes & shifts blood to the part of your brain that assists with creative thinking.

Wim Hof method/Tummo (inner fire): lie on back with pillow, relax chest/shoulders, legs. Deep breath thru nose into pit of stomach, let out quickly, breathe like this for 30 cycles. Inhale inflates stomach then chest, exhale out stomach then chest. After 30 breaths, exhale & leave 1/4 of air in lungs and hold for as long as possible, then big inhale and hold for another 15 seconds. Move this fresh breath around thee chest and to the shoulders, exhale & start heavy breathing again. Repeat 3 rounds and add cold exposure a few times a week. The flip-flop forces the body into stress then relaxation, making the body more adaptable.

Resonant/Coherent Breathing: sit up straight, relax stomach & shoulders, exhale; inhale 5.5 seconds, expanding belly; no pause then exhale for 5.5 seconds, bring belly in. Each breath is a circle. Repeat at least 10 times.

Sudarshan Kriya: om chants, breath restriction, paced breathing (4 sec inhale, 4 sec hold, 6 sec exhale, 2 sec hold), then 40 minutes of very heavy breathing.

4-7-8 breathing into deep relaxation: exhale through mouth, inhale thru nose for 4, hold for 7, exhale thru mouth for 8, inhale 4, hold 7, exhale 8, (4 cycles).

actual air

There was such a rush to get this book after Berman’s death that the library ended up removing it from their listings, leaving the lucky 30 or so of us who had made it onto the list as part of a secret group and slowly the book made its way to me, then of course the pandemic stopped everything and books froze in people’s apartments from March – August and one patron got to spend quarantine with this beautiful book, but it wasn’t me, I eventually got hold of it a few weeks ago and each sip from these poems made me dizzy so I was careful not to gulp and here I am at last, closing the final page and immediately looking to see where I can buy a copy.  The phrases are so perfect, “Hedges formed the long limousine a Tampa sky could die behind” (and hundreds others). This is a book of poems everyone should have access to.

(From Self Portrait at 28: ) “All this new technology will eventually give us new feelings that will never completely displace the old ones, leaving everyone feeling quite nervous and split in two.”

 

What Are You Going Through

It’s hard to declare that this may be the best book I read all year with 11 months left to go, but the gorgeousness of her writing is coursing through me right now and I feel exuberant. I love this style of writing, is it Rachel Cusk-ian? The voice of a detached narrator describing, well, what she’s going through. She visits a friend dying of cancer, stays at a local airbnb, sees that her ex is lecturing about the end of civilization due to climate change. She ends up deepening her friendship with her dying friend, agreeing to be there to help her in her final days as the cancer-riddled friend has obtained drugs which will end her life.

Such beautiful writing. And always always breadcrumbs of films and books, little signposts that point me to recommendations. (I watched Jesus, Du Weisst [Jesus, You Know], a 2003 documentary featuring six Catholics praying to Jesus out loud for the camera, based on her mention.)

The narrator is a writer and plans to keep a journal of her friend’s final days, but quickly abandons that plan. Language would falsify the experience. “Writers know this only too well, they know it better than anyone else, and that is why the good ones sweat and bleed over their sentences, the best ones break themselves into pieces over their sentences, because if there is any truth to be found they believe it will be found there. Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about—these are the only writers I want to read anymore…”

The meaning of life? That it stops (Kafka). Camus says the literal meaning of life is whatever you do that stops you from killing yourself. And then that old graffiti “God is dead — Nietzsche, Nietzsche is dead —God.”

The Mars Room: A Novel

I discovered Rachel Kushner by way of The Hard Crowd and fell in love with her prose, the way she conjured old San Francisco like a native, reminding me of Erick Lyle’s On the Lower Frequencies. In the New Yorker piece, Kushner mentioned The Mars Room as a place where she further explored the scenes and people from her childhood and teenage years in SF so I jumped on getting it from the library. The novel has pockets of exactly the kind of detail I was hoping for, but the pressure of a novel made her flesh out too many pages devoted to characters I couldn’t care less about, Doc and the lady who’s on death row, Betty LeFrance. Otherwise it was a great story, the narrator locked up for life in prison for killing a man who stalked her when he became infatuated by her at a strip club. Lots of reminiscing about sights, smells, events in SF.  The guy who teaches literature at the prison who brings her wire cutters she eventually uses to escape; you gotta love a guy who wonders “Why was Thoreau Thoreau, while Ted Kaczynski was Ted?… It was more familiar to be angry and bad. Maybe that was why.”

Daddy: Stories

Emma Cline has got the goods. Her precise, sharp writing encapsuled in these tight stories (all involving a father, natch) was exactly what my pandemic brain needed. The fathers are sometimes shadowy figures on the edge of the story and sometimes the main blundering character. Across these ten stories she manages to capture people at various points in their lives, stabbed on a pin and put onto a bulletin board to examine. I wonder if I tried and bailed on reading The Girls, her other book? Perhaps time for another look.

True Grit

Charles Portis’s 1968 novel was a treat to whip through on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Told through the perspective of a woman reflecting back on her early life when as a 14-year-old she sets out to avenge her father’s murder. She picks out a federal marshal to help her track down the killer and after haggling with an auctioneer to sell back a pack of ponies that her father had bought, pays the marshal a quarter of the agreed fee. A Texas Ranger is also on the lookout for this same killer and joins the group. Lots of shootouts and campfires and a pit with snakes, but all ends well.

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused

Starting the year off with a bang! This was an extremely interesting deep dive into Linklater’s early film career, detailing how things went into the production of Slacker as well as Dazed and Confused. Maerz did a great job wrangling hundreds of interviews with cast, crew, and fans (like the brothers Duplass) about the making of these films. One of the best books I’ve encountered in the film genre and it sent me scurrying to the library to see if anything else came close (so far, no).  Everything about this film seemed blessed, the amazing cast of actors before they were known stars, the chemistry, the script, McConaughey’s performance, the music. And yet the studio tried everything in their power to sink it, to Linklater’s dismay. Don Phillips the extraordinary casting director (who w/r/t Jared Leto’s audition said “I love Jared, but Jared’s a real piece of work.”) allegedly threatened to expose himself if a certain movie weren’t submitted to the awards circuit. The final chapter points out how hard we fell for this supposedly anti-nostalgia film because of how much life/society has changed the past few decades. This was real livin’ and we love this movie because we miss it.

Books I’m too lazy to write about that I read in 2020

I’m not investing any effort into writing about books that I don’t want to, but I do still want to keep a list of what I’ve read so I know not to dip into them again.

January

  • The hard tomorrow by Eleanor Davis;
  • Tony Greene Era by Kevin Killian;
  • sharks in the rivers by Ada Limón;
  • Rethinking positive thinking: inside the new science of motivation by Gabriele Oettingen (WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan);
  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana;
  • Calling a wolf a wolf: poems by Kaveh Akbar;
  • Leaves of Grass (1855 edition) by Whitman;
  • I lost my girlish laughter by Jane Allen (Silvia Schulman and Jane Shore)

February

  • Tin man by Sarah Winman;
  • The man who saw everything by Deborah Levy;
  • How we fight for our lives : a memoir by Saeed Jones (that last line killed me, “Our mothers are why we are here.”);
  • Topics of conversation by Miranda Popkey;
  • The true history of the first Mrs. Meredith and other lesser lives by Diane Johnson;
  • A life discarded : 148 diaries found in the trash by Alexander Masters (“A nice day in general; just enjoying myself. No particular thoughts, except perhaps I’d like to change my life.”);
  • All this could be yours by Jami Attenberg;
  • Drinking : a love story  by Caroline Knapp;
  • Astronomy : a self-teaching guide by Dinah L. Moché;
  • A first year in Canterbury Settlement by Samuel Butler

March

  • Sanditon by Jane Austen

April

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (re-read);
  • Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (re-read)

May

  • The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge;
  • The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World

June

  • Hidden San Francisco by Chris Carlsson;
  • Harry Potter Book 1;
  • Harry Potter Book 2;
  • The Sherwoood Anderson Reader (sections 1-5)

July

  • Harry Potter Book 3;
  • Harry Potter Book 4;
  • My Fault: Poems by Leora Fridman;
  • The Roar of Silence by Don Campbell

August

  • Harry Potter Book 5;
  • The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine

September

  • The office : the untold story of the greatest sitcom of the 2000s by Andy Greene;
  • Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney;
  • Harry Potter Book 6;
  • Alta California : from San Diego to San Francisco, a journey on foot to rediscover the Golden State by Nick Neely;
  • The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe

October

  • Labor of love : the invention of dating by Moira Weigel (I loved her on The Feminist Present podcast);
  • Book of numbers by Joshua Cohen (I liked his Kafka preface but not this fiction);
  • Harry Potter Book 7 (finally finished this horrendous series);
  • How we keep spinning: selected writings from SF Chronicle columns by Kevin Fisher-Paulson;
  • So far, so good by Charles Towne (pub: 1945);
  • 101 essays that will change the way you think by Brianna Wiest;
  • Americana by Luke Healy;
  • Julia, a portrait of Julia Strachey by herself & Frances Partridge;
  • This brilliant darkness : a book of strangers by Jeff Sharlet.

November

  • Shapes that pass: memories of old days by Julian Hawthorne;
  • Autobiography of a Chinese woman, Buwei Yang Chao put into English by her husband Yuenren Chao;
  • Screwball!: The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny, by Paul Tumey;
  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell;
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell;
  • One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry;
  • Journey around my room : the autobiography of Louise Bogan : a mosaic by Ruth Limmer.

December

    • A tale for the time being by Ruth Ozeki;
    • Alice James, a biography by Jean Strouse;
    • William James: in the maelstrom of American modernism, a biography by Robert D. Richardson;
    • The craving mind by Judson Brewer;
    • I knew a phoenix : sketches for an autobiography by May Sarton (includes recollection of meeting Woolf in 1937);
    • Females by Andrea Long Chu (homage to Valerie Solanas);
    • A libertarian walks into a bear : the utopian plot to liberate an American town (and some bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling (this was a terrible book);
    • Sontag : her life and work by Benjamin Moser;
    • Essays of the 1960s and 70s by Susan Sontag (the Uncollected Essays where she focused on feminist issues);
    • Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg (graphic novel about the Brontës);
    • The 99% invisible city : a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design (ugh, incredibly boring execution of what could have been great, had to force myself to skim through);
    • The movie brats : how the film generation took over Hollywood by Michael Pye and Lynda Myles;
    • Reeling by Pauline Kael (I took another romp through this book since I’ve watched several of these 1970s films since last I peeked into it; love her spicy take on the major films of the decade).

F: 35; M: 28; Fict: 25; Non: 40

Open: An Autobiography

Normally I would have thrown this on my list of books I’m too lazy to write about (post soon to come with this year’s list) but I enjoyed reading it too much and when I reached the Acknowledgements I realized why… this was shaped and edited by J.R. Moehringer, of The Tender Bar memoir fame. It has Agassi’s voice and I’m sure he’s a good writer in his own right, but everything from the title to the pacing and structure benefited from J.R.’s input, I bet. Definitely recommend, even for non-tennis fans.

Parakeet: A Novel

Insanely great novel about an unenthusiastic bride whose grandmother appears to her as a bird in the week leading up to her wedding, telling her to see her brother before she ties the knot. The bride ventures forth to discover her brother Tom has transitioned into her sister Simone, then she herself transmogrifies into her mother, then the painful wedding, flashes back to her past and the random stabbing and her work helping brain-traumatized clients reconstruct what they’ve lost, and finally the lackluster wedding but triumphant departure the next day when the wife leaves the new husband and flees with her sister. Tremendous writing talent, great storytelling, a perfect textile weaving story lines together with the right pacing, some of the best current writing out there.

Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell

Letters from Vanessa Bell, 1885 (as a six-year-old writing to her father) to 1961 (the year she died). Admittedly, my interest in Vanessa stems mainly from her relationship with her sister (Virginia Woolf) and the ability for these letters to color in the background details of their lives. But she is a wildly interesting character in her own right, the queen of Bloomsbury, a radical maternal figure who ended up living exactly the unconventional life she yearned for.

The letters are not quite as snarky and deliciously malicious as I’d been led to believe, but still were lively, entertaining, gossipy, and candid.

In 1904 she wrote to Virginia: “But there’s something horrible to me… in any third person’s reading what was meant to be only between two. I shall burn all my letters someday.”