How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (review)

If Tyler Cowen, Austin Kleon, and Ben Casnocha all recommend a book, I don’t really need another nudge. I loooooooved Mohsin Hamid‘s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

Two structural things you don’t see very often in fiction: it’s written in the second person, and the novel’s chapter titles and general format are plays on the self-help genre (“Move to the City”, “Get an Education”, “Don’t Fall in Love”). In the story, the protagonist (uh…”you”) is a third-world scrub who gradually climbs his way up the social ladder. I really appreciated the perspective on economics and daily life in a world that that’s not all that familiar.

Some favorite parts:

You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author.

Some understated humor on receiving bad news:

You take this news as well as possible, which is to say you do not die.

So much awesome imagery and color in this one. As in this classroom scene, where students look on as one of their classmates gets on the wrong side of their teacher:

They watch in horrified fascination, like seals on a rock observing a great white breaching beneath one of their own, just a short swim away.

On becoming a parent:

Fatherhood has taught you the lesson that, even in middle age, love is practicable. It is possible to adore those newly come into your world, to envision, no matter how late in the day, a happily entwined future with those who have not been part of your past.

On books:

Writers and readers seek a solution to the the problem that time passes, that those of us who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.

On taking out a business loan:

With borrowed funds, a business can invest, gain leverage, and leverage is a pair of wings. Leverage is flight. Leverage is a way for small to be big and big to be huge, a glorious abstraction, the promise of tomorrow today, yes, a liberation from time, the resounding triumph of human will over dreary, chronology-shackled physical reality.

That passage hints at what’s particularly hard to capture: the restless energy in this book. It just keeps coming and coming, so much invention, and it’s so fun to read. I wouldn’t be surprised if I reread this one soon.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (review)

One dominant, overarching, nearly definitive principle for reading: Read at Whim.

Somewhere around Christmastime I fell into a massive reading rut. What I was reading was no fun, and there was nothing better out there, and there never would be. Everything was in ruins. Then I read this book. And for the past couple months, I’ve been on one of those glorious hot streaks where just about everything I’ve read has been fun, and the stuff that wasn’t I dropped without second thought. Coincidence? I have to give some credit to leaving behind the cold, dark, depressing winter, and stepping into the golden light of springtime… but Alan JacobsThe Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction definitely deserves some credit, too.

I like the tone of this one. It’s like your at a smart friend’s house, and he’s reclining in a chair and talking at length. Some favorite parts…

In an awesome footnote, relating to the “gateway drug” theory of lowbrow reading eventually leading to “better” books, an excerpt from Alex Rose:

The only conceivable value of trashy books is the dubious but not unthinkable possibility that they might go some of the way towards engendering in young people a love of reading as an end in-itself, which in turn might whet the appetite for better books. For many, that’s the only way in. They’ll read Sweet Valley High or Twilight at thirteen, lose their taste for it by fourteen and demand something richer and more challenging at sixteen. Or so the thinking goes.

If the argument applies to one form of entertainment, though, it should apply to all. Why is it that when kids become enraptured by some idiotic program, no one says, “well, at least they’re watching TV?”

In hindsight, this is obvious, but it’s a really good, liberating reminder:

If I set a book aside today I am not thereby forbidding myself to return to it later—nor am I promising to do so. To everything there is a season, and, by corollary, everything is sometimes *out* of season.

Timing is everything. And along the same lines of releasing the pressure on yourself, we’re reminded that “Many books become more boring the faster you read them” and that “All books want our attention, but not all of them want the same kind of attention.”

I also liked this excerpt from Auden about thinking about how we evaluate the stuff we read:

“For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good, and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe with perserverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

If you find yourself in a reading rut, maybe this one will help you get out, too. Recommended.

Third Class Superhero (review)

This is a pretty fun collection. Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero has some good light scifi/speculative influences, along with a George Saunders-ian blend of dark but sympathetic takes on modern everyday life (cf. “the Capitalized Phrases, offering entry into an Exclusive Club for People Who Get It“). It’s fatalistic, but still curious.

Goofiness pops up in the title story (read an extended excerpt):

Every morning, when I open my eyes, I think the same four thoughts:

1) I am not a superhero.

2) I have to go to work.

3) If I didn’t have to work, I could be a superhero.

4) If I were a superhero, I wouldn’t have to work.

Ladies and gentlemen, Moisture Man. One of my favorite stories was “401(k)”, which has a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the treadmill of consumer society and life’s template.

The Realtor is showing us our dreams. “Private, affordable, midrange,” he says. I never thought I’d have midrange dreams.

And later in the same story, a sequence on aging:

The thirties and forties. The long run. The lifelong conversation. Somewhere in here we’ll get incredibly lost, wander around in the desert, and get spit out on the other side of fifty-nine and a half, into the land of penalty-free-IRA-withdrawal, looking around like we just popped out of a quarter-century fun-park water slide tube, thinking, Where am I, how did I get here, can I do it again?

Maybe my favorite bit in the whole book, a poke at how we think about travel:

We plan a vacation. We want to see the Other. The travel agent sends us literature, glossies, video brochures. We choose a package deal with Authentic ExperiencesTM****. According to the brochure, there are five kinds of Experience: Urban, Rural, Semirural, Ethnic, and Ethnic with Danger. Standard Endangerment is Mild or Implied, but those in the know understand they may inquire discreetly about Actual Hazard—e.g., I’ve heard there might be something more?…

This kind of writing – where skills of observation meet clever exaggeration – is just so fun:

Five-year-olds are playing soccer nearby. More specifically, they are viciously kicking one another in the shins while a soccer ball sits unharmed in the vicinity.

My other favorite story is probably “32.05864991%”, which explores “why men are such terrible emotional statisticians”, and the existing of two different Englishes – “the language of the wanted and the language of the one doing the wanting.”, and what exactly “maybe” means. I love this bit that touches on nervousness and superstition:

He has two shirts left in the current dry-cleaning cycle and a pile of shirts on the floor and a pair of brand-new slacks with the tag still on that he doesn’t want to touch for fear that any deviations from his normal routine will affect something that happens during the day and turn “maybe” into “no.” In order to avoid disturbing whatever tension lines of cause and effect may be between him and Janine, he has to minimize perturbations in the system and allow chance to take him where it will.

Good stuff.

#trainstagram

The first time I instagrammed a container car, it was because I was waiting on my commuter train to show up, and I was bored to death.

(click for superfluous historical facts!)
(click for superfluous historical facts!)

The second time, I was curious about the word “Maersk”.

(click again!) 
(click again!) 

The third time… yeah, in all honesty, I was just kinda trolling my friends.

(etc!) 
(etc!) 

But at least a handful of other folks saw the same appeal. I kept seeing the containers, and the each time I did a little more on-the-spot research, I learned how old and/or humongous these companies are.

Kinda cool that there’s a whole other part of the economy that’s just been chugging along, making the rest of it work a little more smoothly.

And there’s the novelty, like birding. I’ve seen, in passing, a bunch of other containers that I haven’t snapped or read about yet.

It’s not sexy at all, but there’s something compelling here. Some things are born interesting. Some things, given time or attention, become interesting.

The Sisters Brothers (review)

Who do you know that has faith in you?

Within the first 40 or 45 pages of The Sisters Brothers there’s a lethal spider bite, tough mercenaries marveling at the wonders of a toothbrush, a gyspy-witch, and a bear attack. The next 250 are just about as strong. It’s splendid.

The two lead characters–who aren’t really good people, by the way–are brothers, and there were plenty of family dynamics here that made me think of my own (“Our blood is the same, we just use it differently.”). And our narrator is smart and self-aware, and is constantly tossing out little observations and musings, like:

I could not sleep without proper covering and instead spent the night rewriting lost arguments from my past, altering history so that I emerged victorious.

And here, on booze:

When a man is properly drunk it is as though he is in a room by himself.

And here, on making a bozo move when he’s trying to get his flirt on:

My chest swelled like an aching bruise and I thought, I am a perfect ass.

And here, on waking up:

I thought, Why did I bring up God so soon after waking?

Funny, thoughtful, twisted, must-read. Thanks to Austin for the suggestion!

Njál’s Saga (review)

With law our land shall rise, but it will perish with lawlessness.

Poor Njál. He’s caught in the middle of a bunch of hotheads, and his own sons are among the worst of the lot. (“I’m not in on their planning, but I was seldom left out when their plans were good.”) Njál’s Saga is a tale of a multi-decade blood feud in Iceland, and it was one of the most fun, bizarrely addictive books I read this year.

Fun, because it’s full of dudes swinging axes at each other, and various neighborhood troublemakers that keep spurring them on. There was one battle that had me leaping out of my chair, where Njál’s sons get in a fight on a frozen river. Dudes are jumping and slashing and sliding across the ice like something out of a movie. It’s fantastic.

It’s not all action-hero bravado, though. (“Only speak out if you are pushed hard and intend to act.”) What made the page-turning feel so strange is that, for all the action there is, it’s balanced out by a lot of legal wrangling and arbitration. It helps that this story is so deeply rooted in real events, and real people (lots of folks can trace their heritage back to specific characters), and real places (many of which I traveled through a few years ago). It’s not quite strict history, but you can think of it as highly dramatized truth. And part of the messy truth of real life involves a lot of repetitive conversations and agreements and bargains and compromises.

You have this society, one of the earliest democracies we know about. They’re making a go at having laws, contracts, and legal procedures, and sticking to them. They’re eking by at the environmental and social fringe. It’s all so fragile. Heartbreaking.

You’re not letting another man’s woe be your warning, as the saying goes.

I have to mention another part of what made this book work for me: I read the introductory material. That extra bit of context helps it all come alive. I don’t think I’d still be chipping away at The Histories for 17 months and counting if I hadn’t read the opening essays. I used to always, always skip that stuff for… no good reason, really. Now I always, always read it. You never know what you’ll sell yourself on.

My Struggle (review)

It wasn’t a question of keeping away from something, it was a question of something not existing; nothing about him touched me. That was how it had been, but then I had sat down to write, and the tears poured forth.

It’s been a while since I finished My Struggle – mid-September, I think – but it has stuck with me. When I finished it, I wasn’t sure if I’d read Knausgård’s second volume, to say nothing of the third, fourth, fifth and sixth. I pre-ordered the second last week.

Reading this book is a strange experience. It’s rarely fun. The book opens with a reflection on death, closes with death, and in between are all manner of musings and journalings about muddling through life and fatherhood. But it’s a great exercise in being aware, a wake-up call. Despite relying on some pretty intense memory-dredging, it doesn’t quite feel sentimental (“Nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous.”). The challenge seems to be to examine the past so closely that you can let it go – the contrast with what’s actually here and now becomes too stark to ignore.

And there’s a weird addictive quality to it, despite how dark it is sometimes. The writing is mostly functional, rather than poetic or luminous or whatever. And the boldness of his oversharing helps. But it’s the occasional big, beautiful payoff that makes the slogging really worthwhile. (And some of it is indeed pure slog – the 100-page story of a New Year’s Eve beer run is… something else.) There are delights like this description, taken from a section about his college days, when he discovered Theodor Adorno’s writing:

This heavy, intricate, detailed, precise language whose aim was to elevate thought ever higher, and where every period was set like a mountaineer’s cleat.

Such a great image! Or this, trying to capture the feeling of falling in love with a painting: 

Yes, yes yes. That’s where it is. That’s where I have to go.

Been there, for sure. I suppose when you write so much without filtering or apparent embarrassment (on life as a teen: “I have never been in any doubt that this is what girls I have tried my luck with have seen in my eyes. Too much desire, too little hope.”), there’s bound to be some memorable parts. Let it all pour out, and see what works. Like this passage early on, when he, a middle-aged guy, is thinking back to what it felt like to be a kid around his father, and using his now-adult perspective to reflect on what it was like to be his father, now that time has made him his father’s peer, in a way:

While my days were jampacked with meaning, when each step opened a new opportunity, and when every opportunity filled me to the brim, in a way which now is actually incomprehensible, the meaning of his days was not concentrated in individual events but spread over such large areas that it was not possible to comprehend them in anything other than abstract terms. “Family” was one such term, “career” another.

Speaking of being a father, here he is on the birth of first child:

There has never been so much future in my life as at that time, never so much joy.

So beautiful. But as Knausgård doesn’t seem to have much of a filter, nothing remains quite that simple or tidy:

Nothing I had previously experienced warned me about the invasion into your life that having children entails. […] Your own worst sides are no longer something you can keep to yourself.

He’s not afraid to acknowledge ambivalence. (That bit, by the way, reminded me of Carolyn Hax talking about introverts having children.) Along with the mundane details – like the dozens of scenes where’s he’s hanging out with someone and making coffee, tea, etc. – there are some more philosophical asides. In a passage that mirrors the opening and the closing of the book, he talks about death and and how our language mirrors the way we don’t quite accept it:

While the person is alive the name refers to the body, to where it resides, to what it does; the name becomes detached from the body when it dies and remains with the living, who, when they use the name always mean the person he was, never the person he is now, a body which lies rotting somewhere. […] Death might be beyond the term and beyond life, but it is not beyond the world.

These little excerpts don’t quite capture it, though. It really is a book better experienced in huge chunks. Recommended.

The Antidote (review)

As the Buddha said two and a half thousand years ago, we’re all out of our fucking minds! That’s just the way we are. – Albert Ellis

What a fine book. If, like me, you have ongoing interest in stoicism, happiness, mindfulness meditation, thinking about death and failure, and tend to be a skeptical of your Rhonda Byrne/Tony Robbins types (but are at the same time, kind of amused by them), you’ll probably like Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In every chapter, there’s some kind of personal connection–an interview, an experiment, field research–but it doesn’t turn preachy or antagonistic. He’s not much for dishy takedowns or “turns out” revelations. He examines a few traditions or lines of thinking, and connects them with an experience. I think he strikes a good balance between his first-person narrative and his research and exploration.

Early on, Burkeman suggests that one weakness in happy thinking is what you might call a reductionist problem: life is messier than that. Most things aren’t binary. Life is full of uncertainty, there are constant threats to our precarious hold on whatever we’ve got going for us, and, to top it all off, there’s a shitty,  guaranteed end result:

No matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story will be one of failure. Your bodily organs will fail, and you will die.

You have to make peace with that. And blinding, sunny optimism doesn’t always afford the opportunity.

Burkeman finds a practical objection to positive thinking that I hadn’t considered: Kind of like the challenge “do not think of a pink elephant”, when you try to live the admonition to “think positive”, you end up with this constant meta-cognitive scanning. Am I thinking happy? Is this a negative thought? Am I successfully not thinking about bad things X, Y, and Z? You naturally think of negative things while policing yourself for negative thoughts. How can you change this? One alternative is a more stoic approach. Avoid or minimize the labeling in the first place, or confront it honestly and let it go. After all,

Nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all.

It’s a more global perspective. Outside events run through a filter (our beliefs) and then generate some interior reaction. If you really embrace this, you get more power over how you (choose to) feel.

And how bad can it be, really? That’s another more stoic/realist tactic: face the disaster head-on. Imagine, in detail, how bad it could be. One advantage of this worst-case scenario approach: it “turns infinite fears into finite ones”. I love that.

Another practical barrier to positive thinking I thought was interesting was about affirmations: we simply don’t internalize them very well. And when things like “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…” just don’t ring true with how we already conceive of ourselves, thinking them is only going to make us more anxious. Even positive visualization can make you relax instead of pumping you up. And I love this line about advice and motivation:

Motivational advice risks making things worse by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you can act. By encouraging an attachment to a particular emotional state, it actually inserts an additional hurdle between you and your goal.

So, the stoic approach is valuable: it’s gonna suck, you don’t feel like it, and you won’t anytime soon, it might be a disaster, but do it anyway. Whatever “it” is.

In the chapter on Buddhism, non-attachment, and meditation, he brings up Albert Ellis‘ idea of “musturbation”. We become obsessed with things we want. We become absolutist about the results we need. There’s a related idea here: “goalodicy” (coined by Christopher Kayes), where we hang on to and internally defend faulty goals as a way of preserving our identity, because we’ve already invested so much of ourselves in a particular happy outcome. Build things up too much, and you get burned. So meditation is both practice in giving up control, and a way to honestly confront what life brings you. Burkeman quotes a great, great line from Barry Magid:

Meditation is a way to stop running away from things.

A related idea: considering any problems you face, how many of those problems are problems right now? As in, now now. Probably none or few–most problems we have (and our compulsively recycled thoughts about them) are about the past or about the future. Meditation brings you back to this moment, when you can actually do something.

Another way to think about the problem of optimism is that it can turn into a way of chasing security, and fleeing vulnerability. The problem, as Alan Watts says, is that

If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life.

I loved the final sections about death, too. Burkeman talks about memento mori, and mono no aware, and more broadly the idea of failure and “letting death seep back into life”. Carol Dweck comes up in a short discussion of talent and success, specifically her idea that the mindset we have about success tends to be either “fixed” or “incremental”. That is, we see success in terms of innate talent/ability vs. growth/learning, and thus tend to see failure in terms of dread/threat/identity crisis vs. improvement/opportunity/adaptation. (Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow!) So in the midst of a failure-shy, success-worshipping culture, we get a better sense of community and empathy when we acknowledge mess-ups as an expected, normal, more-than-likely-than-not occurrence. And more practically:

Failure is a relief. At last you can say what you think.

 

his book would pair well with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists–I detect similar attitudes in each. For good books on happiness, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, and Mark Kingwell’s In Pursuit of Happiness.

My first upholstery project

It had been a while since my last significant hands-on project, when I refinished a
table I inherited from my grandpa
. I figured I could use a padded bench/ottoman kind of thing. And I dove right in. This was my first attempt at any kind of upholstery. I got the original bench on the cheap from an antiques store. It was hideous, but I saw potential:

Floral
stripes + gold tassel fringe really ain’t my thing. First step, strip
all of that junk off of the frame. The previous owner/builder really half-assed
the internal seat support, and the frame itself:

After I added a few metal brackets to reinforce the frame, I
installed new jute webbing with some 5/8″ upholstery tacks. The webbing with the red stripe is stronger than the black-striped rolls, FYI, and hence better for areas that bear weight. I also made some
rookie mistakes at one ends by not weaving first. Whoops:

After that, I covered it with some burlap to help reduce wear and tear, and stapled it down:

I added some dense, firm foam as the bottom layer for the seat, and reused the previous
main cushion, which was still in decent shape (which also saved me another
$50-70, give or take). Both of those pads were attached to the base and
to each other with some spray adhesive:

For a little extra give, the bench gets swaddled in a few strategically-placed layers soft batting (focusing on the top of the seat and the corners of the frame), also affixed with some spray adhesive:

I completely forgot to take pictures of the final fabric-covering stage, but
basically it’s more staples and more tacks, with a little tugging and
tucking here and there to make sure the fabric is lined up correctly.
Like military bed-making, but permanent. Finished it off with a dust
cover underneath…

…et voilà!:

This simple project didn’t offer any special technical challenges, but it did provide some insight into how much of a pain in the ass it is to do a great job. So much of the material and so much of the effort is hidden when you’re all done. Shout-out to my mom, who I’ve seen refurbish
and reupholster about a million pieces of furniture, and who gave me a
great guidebook and some specialty tools that probably saved me 300-400 hours of tears and
frustration. I want to do this again.

This Is Running for Your Life (review)

Often I went to the movies to mess with time, to get
it off my back or keep it from staring glumly at me from across the
room.

This
Is Running for Your Life
is a pretty great collection of
essays, with a mix that includes some more personal, memoir-ish stuff
and some that are a bit more historically-minded, on-the-ground
reportage. I don’t think surgical focus is Michelle Orange‘s strong suit
here, nor her aim, really. The joy is in the wandering. As she says
late in the book,

Perhaps all I can offer is
the setting down of a space, one whose highest aim is that you might
roam, however elusively, within its borders.

Topics
aside, what I really, really appreciated were the regular, like,
slap-your-forehead/I-wish-I’d-written-that/I-need-to-read-that-again delights on the level of
sentence and word and image, little pivots and reveals from behind the cape. If you’re jazzed by turns of phrase, you’ll
find a lot to love here. A fun example:

Ryder’s shivering sad girl underwent a kind of
ritual sacrifice in 1999, when newcomer Angelina Jolie devoured her in
every frame of Girl, Interrupted and licked the screen. But Jolie was
quickly isolated and quarantined as an anomaly; she eventually shed the
force of her personality and slipped behind the imperial mask of her
beauty.

That’s great stuff. That bit comes
from what I think is my favorite essay in the book, “The Dream (Girl) Is
Over”, which is about movie stars and bodies and mythologizing and evolving
silver screen ideals. (Film is a recurring topic in the book. I can relate.)

Movie is the shorthand that preceded talkie. But it’s the latter term that faded away.
It’s the movement that sets the form apart (Action!),
and the beauty of bright, moving bodies that transfixes.

The
essay, among other things, touches on the ideals we’ve offered
ourselves on the screen, from the impossibly dreamy Marilyn Monroe and
Elizabeth Taylor, to later muscular heroines like Sigourney Weaver,
Linda Hamilton, Madonna. And, yes, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. (Oh, also
there’s this great aside on how actresses disrobing becomes an important part of the
meta-story, “explicit love scenes invariably described as ‘raw,’
‘real,’ and ‘brave.'”–cf. Girls?).
Another smart observation on how we talk about bodies:

Men queue up to log specious, self-congratulatory
elegies, ascribing vague laments for an earlier era’s voluptuousness to
the bodies of the women who inhabited it. Women, meanwhile, get lost in
arguments about the scourge of vanity sizing. But the body’s centrality
is what sets it beside the point: Marilyn Monroe’s measurements were
handed out by the same press agents hawking Theda Bara’s false
passports; I knew Elizabeth Taylor’s eighteen-inch waist size before it
matched my age. Because they look to our hourglass-starved eyes like
more generous, “normal” shapes doesn’t make it so, nor does it
retro-exempt former standards from their status as standards.

Some other favorite lines? In one essay that talks about brain scans and movie market-testing:

It’s no wonder
we have started pair-bonding with our iPhones. In device attachment
resides the old struggle between the possessor and the possessed, the
shifting sands of desire and consent. What we respond to is not the
gadget itself but its promise of some personal and highly specific
gratification.

And a related earlier quote, one hazard of our awesome gadgets and the not-quite-hereness they can engender:

Modern
cultural memory is afflicted by a kind of dementia, its fragments ever
floating around us.

And a related problem:

What we call nostalgia today is too much remembering of too little.

On email’s subtle, sneaky draw:

Email opened up a kind of perpetually empty stage, an endless call for encores.

A bit from an essay on compulsive running and loneliness:

As a way of escape, distance running is the sensory negative of sexual oblivion.

From a chapter on photography:

Especially when they are held out
blindly in big crowds, the screens that have replaced the traditional
viewfinder appear to function as a kind of second subjectivity, a third
eye to cope with a world that is less often collected with any kind of
discretion than amassed in daily reality dumps. So that to raise a
camera is mostly to remind yourself: Right now I’m here; I’m here right
now.

Reminds me of Field Notes: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” A related aside:

I
always laughed when a Dutch friend of mine referred to “making” a
photo—a translation glitch he couldn’t keep straight. I just thought it
sounded funny, but there is something strange about the one art form we
talk about in terms of taking, not making.

In her essay reporting on the development of the DSM-5, which also touches on war and addiction, and growing up:

We

reach maturity any number of times—biologically, religiously, legally,
academically, socially—before the age of twenty-one, but the imputation
rarely sticks. The world will not be informed of your various arrivals,
the world informs you. […] Slowly, sometimes moment by moment, small
choices about whom and how to be beget bigger ones–shading in the
background, scaling out the continuum; striking out villains, fleshing
in the overlooked–until the story begins to tell itself, with a
fully-fledged hero at its center.

Another good line from that essay, one of my favorite observations in the book:

Treating
apparently “new” emotional and behavioral disturbances like biological
events would seem to be another evasion of a problem the 12-step program
makes plain. It feels significant that the first thing someone seeking
that program’s help does is walk into a room filled with other
people.

So good. There’s much more range here than what my quotes might indicate. You’re likely to find something that works for you, too. Worth a read.

Favorite albums of 2012

My music listening was way down this year. I blame it on all the movies and starting a new job. The end result is that my best picks here probably aren’t quite as strong as they were in 2008, 2009, 2010, or 2011. But still, some good stuff. As in previous years, the vast majority of this came before 2012, but this was the year I paid attention.
January

Mariah Carey Greatest Hits

Greatest Hits – Mariah Carey. This album saw me through the end of a hard winter. So much goodness. I don’t know if I’ll ever dive into one of her full albums… but some of these peaks are so high I may reconsider. Emotions!

Return to the Winners Circle – Curren$y. If I needed to, I could rank this solely on the strength of Moon & Stars Remix. Rare that the headliner and two guest rappers all just destroy their verses. And I love that backbeat.

The Soul Tape – Fabolous. I like Pain (“An old head told me, let nothing disturb your business / Beef is only good when you in the burger business”) and In the Morning.

February

Da Chip

Da Chip Vol. 1 & 2 was a fun listen, but probably works best if you’re already familiar with Daft Punk, right?

March

Senor Coconut, El Baile Aleman

Sometimes you don’t realize it, but what your life is missing is an awesome collection of Kraftwerk tunes covered with a Latin/lounge feel. Thankfully my buddy John knew what I needed to hear: El Baile Alemán from Señor Coconut y Su Conjunto. For all the campiness, there’s some smart, creative arrangements here. Neon Lights and Showroom Dummies are good examples.

Fuck a Mixtape – T.I.. I don’t loooove the whole album, but worthy of mention: No Competition is my JAM.

Big Bach Set. It’s a great bargain. The Mass in B minor is a big draw, but besides that, the Adagio from the Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1060 really stood out. Pizzicato in stereo is so wonderful on headphones.

April

Young Jeezy, Come Shop Wit Me

My best music month overall.

Come Shop Wit Me – Young Jeezy. I’m 9 years late, but it’s album of the year for me. My faves from Jeezy’s second are: Let Me Hit Dat (love those reverb guitars and the overactive bass; Fi Chief & Big Dank kill it), Take It to the Floor (pump-up/act like I’m someone I’m not song), Come Shop Wit Me (fun storytelling, and the overdriven bass line reminds me of a late ’80s video game), Thug Ya (steel drums!), and Bananas (fat, dopey bass, and something about his voice in the verses here: looser, goofier, unhinged).

Way Down Low from my friend Kat Edmonson. Listen to “Hopelessly Blue”. I mean, geez. Incredible voice.

Blue Afternoon. You’d figure I’d catch on to Tim Buckley sooner, having spent college obsessing over his son’s music. You’d figure wrong. Listen to Happy Time and Blue Melody. He’s got a wonderful back-up band. The whole gang is so loose. And look at that album cover!

And I can’t forget Françoise Hardy’s Soleil. I don’t understand any of it, but the mood is right. My favorite track is Je fais des puzzles.

May

Beach House, Bloom

Bloom – Beach House. It’s a lot like the previous three, which is totally fine by me. (I think only Bach and Camera Obscura beats them in my music archive for comfy, catchy, beloved predictability.) Myth is an obvious stand-out, but I think the verses on New Year are kinda genius. Same for Wild.

Shortly after that album came out, I caught Beach House on tour again. On the drive back from Athens, a friend introduced me to Bad Vibes by Shlohmo. Drippy, druggy lullabies. Places and Seriously are favorites.

June
I got nothin’.

July

My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

Loveless – My Bloody Valentine. Woah. Slept on this one but the Grantland article woke me up. I was so proud of myself when I recognized the Loomer/Optimistic resemblance.

August

Tangerine Dream, Thief

A great month for radio in the car!

Kaleidoscope Dream – Miguel. Adorn has gotten crazy playtime in Atlanta. That bass is perfect for your car. And I love how the harmony is a little suppressed, so that voice and the bass do all the driving.

Trilla – Rick Ross. My friend Katie and I were driving to one of my favorite places to eat too much, if I recall correctly. I heard the opening sample from my favorite Stevie Wonder album in Here I Am and I was sold. I made her Shazam it for future reference.

To round out the group: Channel Orange – Frank Ocean. WRAS 88.5 FM played Pyramids while I was driving over to another friend named John‘s house and I lost it. I *had* to call in and find out what it was. You can’t beat that feeling.

I didn’t hear it on the radio, but I can’t forget the Thief soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Probably best if you’ve seen the awesome movie, but it’s great for working on secret projects.

September
{crickets}

October
I didn’t bother with the whole album, but Clique from Cruel Summer is dope. Perfect beat, but the song doesn’t really take flight until Jay-Z gets on the mic (that jet engine glissando helps). Kanye takes lovable insufferability to a new level.

November

Toru Takemitsu, Asterism, Requiem, Green, Dorian Horizon

Asterism/Requiem/Green/The Dorian Horizon – Toru Takemitsu. I really like it, but only recommended if you’ve got ears for late 20th-century orchestral music…

December
It’s not too late for your suggestions!

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
I have the hardest time finding good fiction. One working theory to explain that is that I usually don’t try very hard to find good fiction. I’ll own up to it. But sometimes my laziness (i.e., willingness to let trusted internet sources filter culture for me) works to perfection. This one got recommended by Austin Kleon, Maris Kreiszman, and Ben Casnocha, so I thought I’d better pick it up.

Ignore for a moment the fact that they mentioned it about a year ago and I read it this summer and I didn’t write about it until now. It’s a novel of baseball and college and friendship and family, and it is delightful to read at all times, from the off-hand asides…

This was a real college, an enlightened place–you could get in trouble for hating people here.

…to the self-aware observations:

Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.

And there’s the realist/critical eye toward modern business life:

Management consulting terms like *industry ante* and *decision factor* were the glue of their relationship–Affenlight tried to learn as many of them as possible, and to intuit or invent the ones he hadn’t learned.

Another good example, observing baseball scouts:

Smooth-featured and polite, business-casual in dress, with slender laptops in their laps and BlackBerries laid beside them on the bleachers, they looked like oversize consultants or CIA agents playing a very reserved sort of hooky.

Austin already pulled one of the best excerpts in there:

He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.

I also loved this section on the ontology of sport:

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed *sometimes*, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.

And one character’s thoughts on self-definition:

Don’t be dour about it. Straight gay black white young old–it’s not going to kill you or let you live.

This line reminded me of John Cage:

That was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed.

Lastly, on men:

Men were such odd creatures. They didn’t duel anymore, even fistfights had come to seem barbaric, the old casual violence all channeled through institutions now, but they still loved to uphold their ancient codes. And what they loved even more was to forgive each other.

Religion for Atheists (review)

Religion for Atheists
Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists has a simple, reasonable, open-minded premise: whether or not you believe in God/Jesus/Heaven/afterlife/salvation/etc., religions can still be interesting, useful, and consoling. The idea here is to explore function rather than truth. Religious institutions are some of the most successful, influential, widespread, long-lived things that humans have ever done, so there’s a lot to learn.

There’s the idea of community, for one. “Religions know a great deal about loneliness” de Botton writes. And if you’ve been to mass with any frequency, you know how often things like poverty, sadness, failure, and loss come up—because the church “sees the ill, frail of mind, desperate, and elderly as aspects of humanity and ourselves that we’re tempted to deny.” But acknowledging these things can bring us closer, or at least make us more humble.

De Botton talks about this sort of groundedness again later. There’s an earthly pessimism that comes with some religious belief. Hopes are ascribed to the next life, not this one. For this one you just try to do right, be generous, and get by as best you can. This pessimism deflates our hopes a bit, but helps to balance those needy, absorptive, consuming, ever-optimistic desires that come in everyday life. Christianity is sober, where perhaps the secular world is too optimistic, or maybe too cowardly, to face life’s hard facts. I like this line where de Botton summarizes all secular arguments:

Why can’t you be more perfect?

Luckily, “sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost.” We need teaching, and religion’s insistence on that is pretty useful.

Christianity concerns itself with the inner confused side of us, declaring that none of us are born knowing how to live; we are fragile, capricious, unempathetic, and beset by fantasies of omnipotence.

The ever-seeking nature of secularism can also lead to lack of gratitude. Religions bring us back to the basics. A prayer of gratitude before you eat. Marking the passing of the hours with prayer or the seasons or harvests with celebrations. We need reminders of the transcendent, of our smallness. We need rituals and practices that put us in our place.

Art could do this, perhaps—“We need art because we are so forgetful”. De Botton has a great section on the opportunities that modern museum culture misses out on.

We tend to enter galleries with grave, though by necessity discreet doubts about what we are meant to do in them. […] It would take a brave soul to raise a hand.

Museums have a hard time explaining why they’re valuable. Education, sure. They’re not made for prayer or worship, really. We end up with buildings about history of art-ness. But what about something more ambitious? There’s an opportunity to meet our own psychological, emotional needs. We see placards on the walls about style and era and medium and influence. But just like churches aren’t made to teach us about the history of theology, necessarily, museums need not teach us about art history (exclusively). Why don’t we see an exhibition about Death? Or Parenting? Loss? Courage?

De Botton makes similar arguments about secular education, which is fairly impractical. Things like accounting and psychology are useful, yes, but where are the classes about tensions in marriage, or dying gracefully, or the struggles of friendship? (Of course, a philosopher would argue for these things, of course.)

Topics aside, there’s also the structure and etiquette of the modern class to consider. Lector, desks, students, whiteboard. Boring. Contrast with a vibrant church where the attendees are shouting “Amen” and “Preach on!” and “Thank you, Jesus.” You can’t underestimate the value of rapture and assent and an active audience. Teaching is a kind of performance, too.

What purpose can possibly be served by the academy’s primness? How much more expansive the scope of meaning in Montaigne’s essays would seem if a 100-strong and transported chorus were to voice its approval after ever sentence.

There’s also the idea that religious education isn’t, well… it’s not all that new. But the lack of novelty is a blessing in its own way. It makes room for reflection. The church hasn’t had big discoveries or breakthroughs. But it does a fantastic job for structure, schedules, repetition, and reinforcement of its long-held ideas.

A Catholic lectionary, for example, outlines everything you’ll be reading over the course of three years, with readings matched to season and occasion in the church calendar. If you’re devout and interested, there’s a plan there for you to follow. Even if you’re a casual but regular churchgoer, you’re going to cover a lot of material, and it’ll be appropriate to the season. But what’s the best way and context for me to revisit Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations? Is there a good calendar for reflecting on Leaves of Grass, if that’s your thing? How can you carve out a space for secular reflection in your life? It’s not just a scheduling thing. It’s knowing what to do when the time comes. Church attendance is a kind of rehearsal for life outside its doors, and inside its doors you know exactly what’s going to happen.

Another favorite passage:

An absence of religious belief in no way invalidates a continuing need for “patron saints” of qualities like Courage, Friendship, Fidelity, Patience, Confidence, or Skepticism. We can still profit from moments when we give space to voices of the more balanced, brave, generous–and through whom we may reconnect with our most dignified and serious possibilities.

Again, whether or not Mary gave virgin birth, or whether or not Jesus was also God, or whether or not Saint So-and-so really bled from her hands and levitated? Make your own call. The truth is secondary to De Botton’s argument. The function of these beliefs is to get you to be a better person.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in 2012 so far. Very highly recommended.

Mindless Eating (review)

Mindless Eating

Eating right is a long-term goal, eating better is something we can start today.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think is really great. It’s not just prescriptive tactics (eat this, don’t eat that). It takes a bigger perspective, drawing on psychology and environmental influences, and suggests some guidelines with those pressures in mind. Smart, moderate changes over long periods of time.

There’s a double meaning in the title there: there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of the subconscious habits and tendencies we have around food (grazing, over-ordering, overeating, impulse purchases), and there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of re-writing those scripts and re-structuring our eating environments so that our choices about food are easier, healthier and more automatic in a smarter way. And since we make ~200 food decisions a day, relying on willpower alone is a recipe (ha!) for disaster.

Besides, deprivation diets don’t work. Our body and brain and environment tend to conspire against us. There are all kinds of signals and cues, both internal and external, that persuade us to keep eating. That brings us to what author Brian Wansink calls the “mindless margin”. We can only lose roughly half a pound per week without triggering our bodies’ metabolic alarms. It’s science. Lose weight more quickly, and your body panics a bit and starts compensating by being more stingy, storing more fats, etc. If 1 pound is ~3500 calories, we’re talking about cutting 1700 calories/week or 200-300 calories a day. Doable. At that amount, you basically won’t miss it. Slow and steady is the key.

With a modest goal in mind, the books explores a lot of the psychology and research behind eating, and comes up with some simple tactics. Many of these are great even if you’re not trying to lose weight, but just trying to maintain weight or get some better habits:

  • We tend to eat by volume, not by calories. So triple how much healthy stuff you put on your plate. Consider serving 20% less of the unhealthy stuff. You’ll tend to eat all that you serve and see in front of you, so get a head-start on setting a smart satisfaction point. Don’t cut the unhealthy entirely, immediately, because deprivation tends not to work and that’s no way to live, anyway.
  • See the food. Plate everything beforehand, and leave the serving dishes in the kitchen. Don’t clear away the refuse like chicken bones or corn cobs. You need a reminder of your progress through a meal.
  • Presentation counts. We eat more from bigger packages → Buy food in smaller packages. And dear God, don’t eat straight out of the box. We eat more from bigger dishes and silverware, and and drink more from shorter, wider glasses → Replace your dishes and silverware with smaller versions and get yourself some taller, narrower glasses.
  • We eat our expectations. We tend to think better-named products taste better. Those aren’t noodles, it’s Grandma’s Artisan Pesto alla Genovese. Would you rather have wine from Burgundy or Tallahassee? We eat what we think we eat. Remember this if you’re hosting a dinner, or if you’re the primary cook in your household. It’s salesmanship.
  • Beware variety. There’s a thing called sensory-specific satiety. You tend to get tired of one flavor or food item and stop eating. Introduce a new flavor(s), and it’s like getting a fresh new appetite. More variety, more consumption. That’s one reason why you overeat at buffets. Besides the fact that it’s really awesome sometimes.
  • Beware variety, part II. Since you’re gonna get bored with any flavor, remember you’ll get the most bang for your bite by ending dessert after a few forkfuls. Perhaps split one with the table.
  • Beware extra food. “Leftovers signal that you made too much—and probably ate too much—of the original meal.”
  • Beware visible food. We eat more of what we see (and think about) often. Apples and carrots go on the kitchen counter. Cookies go in the pantry. (Storytime!: I woke up one recent morning to find a cake on the kitchen counter. I walked past it about a dozen times that day, proud of my will to resist. Then I found myself in the kitchen at 1130 that night, staring at the platter, and sighed, knowing exactly what was about to happen. The next morning I draped a napkin over the cake stand. Haven’t touched it since.)
  • Beware eating scripts. The way you always do things. Do you eat cereal until you finish your magazine? Do you eat Peanut M&Ms until the TV show is over? Do you order a cheese plate basically every time you walk into Brick Store Pub because that’s what you do there? (Oh, me? Guilty on all counts…)
  • Beware distractions. TV. Books. Friends. These things pair well with just about every dish, and you’re pretty much guaranteed eat more and eat longer. Try pacing yourself with the slowest eater.
  • Welcome smart hassles. Leave food in the kitchen so you have to get up for a second serving. You’re much less likely to eat from the candy dish at the office if it’s tucked away in your desk drawer, or better yet, in the office kitchen. Maybe keep only one or two beers in the fridge, instead of the whole six-pack.

Great stuff. A couple other parts I appreciated…

  • I loved the observation that fast food places are designed for high turnover: bright lights, hard surfaces that do nothing to diminish noise, and high-contrast and high-arousal colors. I’d never put it all together.
  • One reason we tend to buy name brands, despite the added expense: “We like to remind ourselves that we’re not hopelessly cheap.”
  • When it comes to comfort foods, males tend to prefer meals like pizza, pasta, soup, etc. (Think: attention, being pampered, cared for). Females tend to prefer ice cream, cookies, etc. (Think: convenience, ease, time away from other people’s demands).
  • So simple, but kinda blew my mind: “Food companies don’t care if you eat the food, as long as you repeatedly buy it.”

The First 20 Minutes (review)

The First 20 Minutes
The First 20 Minutes is a decent summary of what we know about exercise, at least for those of us who aren’t preparing for the Olympics and are just trying to avoid dying. It’s worth flipping through for a hour or so.

“Exercise more!” Yeah yeah yeah. What’s best here is the attitude. It’s not motivational or encouraging, really, but it’s practical. The author calls out her own failings and averageness, which helps drive home one of the early points: if you’re looking to not die a stupidly early death, you have to exercise, but maybe not as much or as hard as you think. This book pairs very nicely with Mindless Eating. Moderate changes with a long-term attitude will do you a world of good.

The vast majority of exercise’s benefits come with any movement at all above zero. Think power law relationship or Pareto principle. If you get about 150 minutes of walking each week (or equivalent light activity), or about 75 minutes of jogging each week, you drastically reduce your risk of fairly avoidable things like diabetes and heart disease. When it comes to mortality, the benefit of a small activity change like that is right up there with laying off cigarettes. Anything beyond is icing on the cake.

And with that in mind, if you’re not a driven athlete and don’t particularly care to be one, you don’t need to train like one. Spare yourself the need for exercise paraphernalia that people would love to sell you. You don’t need special shoes, special clothes, performance gels or nutritional supplements. Basically the stuff you’ve got and a reasonable diet and you’re good to go. And exercise is going to make your brain even more awesome, too. Better memory, better mood, etc.

There’s also some good myth-busting in this book:

  • Static stretching before a workout isn’t worthwhile; a simple warm-up is.
  • Massages and ice baths don’t have much benefit for muscles after workouts, though the psychological perks probably still exist.
  • Your basic grocery store chocolate milk is pretty ideal for workout recovery.
  • Carbo-loading before a race isn’t particularly useful if you’ll be replenishing while you run, anyway (via sports drinks, gels, etc.).
  • Eight glasses of water a day is kinda bullshit. Drink when you’re thirsty. Don’t drink when you’re not.
  • There’s no “afterburn”/metabolic ramp-up over the day after moderate exercise–if that’s what you want, you have to do intense workouts.
  • Strength training can be just as beneficial as cardio, especially when it comes to the effects of aging. If you’re not a runner/swimmer/whatever, hit the weight room. And you’re not gonna Hulk out unless you really amp up the protein, too.
  • Simple running shoes are best. Shoes that feature fancy structure for high arch or pronation/supination control do what they advertise, yes, but they don’t seem to have any effect on injury rates.

One last interesting idea here was that inactivity has its own physiology. Sitting and laying about cause their own (often negative) processes in the body, like normal gene activities shutting down or enzymes getting made in the wrong proportions. And that’s gonna happen every time you spend a lot of time on your ass. I don’t claim to understand the science, but the point is, exercise can’t reverse all of it. You gotta stand up more. Walk around. Do some more ironing or cooking or carpentry. Pace while you’re on the phone. Dance. Wiggle. Fidget.

One small complaint: I wish this book had a better index.