It seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.

David Foster Wallace, quoted in Greg Carlisle’s Liverpool Keynote Address on David Foster Wallace – Consider David Foster Wallace Conference, University of Liverpool, July 29-30, 2009

Love Is a Mixtape (review: 4/5)

Love Is a Mixtape
If you like love and/or music, I think you will like Love Is a Mixtape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. Rob Sheffield wrote the book after the unexpected death of his wife of five years, Reneee. He didn’t write it right away—the story came welling up again as he was moving to a new apartment, unpacking some old tapes of theirs. The book’s 15 chapters each touch on a different mixtape and a different time. It explores the music and life and love they shared. It captures part of the Charlottesville music scene (they were both DJs) and the bigger stuff in the ’90s: Nirvana, Pavement, R.E.M., etc.

I liked Sheffield’s writing. The passage of time helps to bring out this sort of humorous self-awareness, like when he describes a moment shortly after they were married:

Now we were alone with each other.

Which meant we had all these neighbors to deal with. The old lady next door dropped by with a plate of muffins one Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of Studs. Renee explained that in the South, this is normal—you just drop in on your married neighbors. I was aghast. I was a husband in the South now. We had married into this alien landscape with its strange customs.

Or when he talks about his love as a supporting role, after a moment when he was driving and singing back-up on “Midnight Train to Georgia”:

When we got to the final fade-out with Gladys on board the train and the Pips choo-chooing their goodbyes, Reneee cocked an eyebrow and said, ‘You make a good Pip.’ That’s all I ever wanted to hear a girl tell me. That’s all I ever dreamed of being. Some of us are born Gladys Knights, and some of us are born Pips. I marveled unto my Pip soul how lucky I was to choo-choo and woo-woo behind a real Gladys girl.

And everywhere it’s saturated with pop-culture references, so the time comes alive. And that’s what makes it (and other good memoirs?) special: that the story is so specific. It’s not just a love story, but a story about what it’s like to be a music-lover in love with a music-lover mostly in Charlottesville in the early and mid-’90s. And when you read his enthusiasm (“how lucky I was to choo-choo”), you can’t help be a bit jealous/understanding of what he has, and you feel the loss more acutely than in a story that seems like it could be set anywhere (The Notebook, maybe, or how about Romeo and Juliet?). I think you should read it.

Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me (review: 2/5)

things i've learned from women who've dumped me
I wanted this to be better. It starts off well, introduced by Nick Hornby. With a few exceptions, most of the other 40-something essays in the book didn’t do much for me.

Rodney Rothman‘s piece—“I Still Like Jessica”—is probably my favorite. It’s a transcript of an interview with an old sweetheart (hear the interview and see an animated version of “I Still Like Jessica”!). Perhaps I liked it because it’s the most real and clumsy, and makes the fewest overt, Sedarian attempts at being funny, and is therefore actually funny. (Disclaimer: my struggles with humorous writing are well-documented.)

I really liked one of David Rees’ lessons about life and love in “Get Dumped Before It Matters”:

1. The fact that you mope around your “home office,” sighing and scratching the five o’clock shadow spilling down your neck, while you “work on your screenplay in your mind,” wearing sweatpants on a Wednesday afternoon, does not mean you are a tortured creative genius. It means you are a LOSER. If you’re old enough to drive, you may no longer wear pants with drawstrings—even if they are your “dressy sweatpants.” Look respectable for your woman, even while she’s at work. It will comfort her to know you are wearing a belt.

Dan Vebber‘s “Sex Is the Most Stressful Thing in the History of the Universe” is good, as is Andy Richter’s “Girls Don’t Make Passes at Boys with Fat Asses.” The context isn’t that relevant, but I can relate to Richter here:

There were moments in my childhood where a preternatural maturity rose up in me, where the Future Me would seem to pop through to the surface and say, “Hold on, wait a minute, what’s going on here is fucked up.”

Tom Shillue ponders the benefits of the ambiguous relationship in “Eggs Must Be Broken…”

Happy Fake Marriage -> Callous Behavior -> Half Apology -> D?©tente

And Paul Simms‘ “I’m Easy” is a funny and all-too-familiar look at crushing at first sight. And how it elevates and and destroys your hopes and dreams over and over again.

Marcellus Hall‘s “The Sorrows of Young Walter, or The Lessons of a Cyclical Heart” is also good:

the sorrows of young walter by marcellus hall

I’ve picked the best parts of the book for you. Skip the rest.

The Thurber & White send-up on the knee phenomenon:

Simply stated, the knee phenomenon is this: occasions arise sometimes when a girl presses her knee, ever so gently, against the knee of the young man she is out with… Often the topic of conversation has something to do with it: the young people, talking along pleasantly, will suddenly experience a sensation of compatibility, or of friendliness, or of pity, or of community-of-interests. One of them will make a remark singularly agreeable to the other person—a chance word or phrase that seems to establish a bond between them. Such a remark can cause the knee of the girl to be placed against the knee of the young man. Or, if the two people are in a cab, the turning of a sharp corner will do it. In canoes, the wash from a larger vessel will bring it about. In restaurants and dining-rooms it often takes place under the table, as though by accident. On divans, sofas, settees, couches, davenports, and the like, the slight twist of the young lady’s body incident to receiving a light for her cigarette will cause it… Now, a normal male in whom there are no traces of frigidity will allow his knee to retain its original position, sometimes even exerting a very slight counter-pressure. A frigid male, however, will move is knee away at the first suggestion of contact, denying himself the electric stimulus of love’s first stirring.

Bill Withers explains the origin of “Ain’t No Sunshine”:

Women can say stuff like, “I loved him, I really, really loved him. But he just left. Why’d he leave like that?”

Men, given the same situation, usually say something like, “I’m glad the old jive broad split, man,” knowing all the time that it’s really killing them inside.

The drummer is probably having too much fun. The guy on bass is like, “I’m not getting up.” [via megfowler on twitter]

Why Mars & Venus Collide (review: 3/5)

Why Mars & Venus Colllide is about stress and communication between men and women. Our modern lifestyle is breakneck-paced, relationship roles have changed, our responsibilities and stress levels grow as our time to deal with them decreases. Welcome to today, nothing new. So what do you do?
According to John Gray, the first step is to wake up and realize that men and women have different biochemistry going on, stress affects our chemicals in different ways, and we recover from stress and replenish ourselves in different ways. But we’re clueless: “Women mistakenly expect men to react and behave the way women do, while men continue to misunderstand what women really need.”

We each feel better when our personal chemical stockpiles are filled up. This is how it works: in a nutshell, women de-stress by talking, connecting, processing, sharing their ills—which restores oxytocin. Men de-stress by zoning out, shifting gears, detaching from the day’s troubles—which allows testosterone reserves to fill up again. These seem like competing solutions.

Women can’t just shut down and forget about it for a little while like men. Going ninja and crossing more items off the to-do list doesn’t work, either, because “in a woman’s brain there will always be more to do.” They need to talk—it’s biological. They’re wired to process and men need to respond:

Without understanding this, a man’s testosterone levels would drop when he passively listens to his partner’s feelings or her resistance to his action plans. Just listening to her feelings seems a no-win situation. When women talk about problems, men start to become restless, irritable, and then depressed… Men need to learn the art of listening without interrupting to solve her problems.

And when men convert to seeing attentive listening as a problem-solver in itself… then we’re on to something. Man gets the satisfaction of “doing something,” woman gets the satisfaction of being heard.

A man’s desire to make a woman happy is greatly underestimated by women, because women have such different motivations.

The rest of the book is about exploring these differences and finding sensible compromises that allow each partner to relax and emote in healthy ways. Gray paints with a pretty broad brush, but anecdotally, most of it squares with experience. I like this bit on the relationship scoreboard:

“At a subconscious level, a woman is always keeping track of how much she gives in contrast to how much she receives. When he gives to her, she gives him a point, and when she gives to him, she gives herself a point.” And this begins an extended and probably-not-intentionally hilarious section on how to “rack up the points on Venus,” even providing a “One Hundred Ways…” list that would be at home here on the internet.