Saturday, January 31, 2015

lazy Saturday afternoon

Sitting in bed next to napping partner, streaming Sly & the Family Stone, drinking coffee and eating grape tomatoes like jellybeans. Kitten at the foot of the bed. #nicelife

Friday, January 30, 2015

kate zambreno

and one more

song of the day (all day.....every day)

also, THIS treasure


The other night I sat down at my desk. I used to always write at night, often very late, but the last few years I've taken to writing early in the morning and going to bed before midnight. Lately, though, I've returned to my nocturnal ways. And it works.

Writing at night: all those hours before you in the dark. Nothing in the way. And the room dark, and outside dark, and just the spotlight of the lamp and the screen, the desk a small stage. I light a candle every time and start the music (I'll listen to the same album hundreds of times when I'm writing, usually something instrumental like Sigur Ros or Amiina or Kammerflimmer Kollektief, lately it's been Yo La Tengo's They Shoot, We Score.) My notebooks around me. The little flame flickering. Just like I always have, from Brooklyn to Iowa City to Portland to Berkeley to Portland to Oberlin to Virginia. It is the most familiar thing in the world, this small pretty space in the dark. And more than anything else I know it feels like home.

- Chelsey Johnson

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

I am saturated in digital life and I want to return to the actual world again. I’m a human being before I am a writer; and a writer before I am a blogger, and although it’s been a joy and a privilege to have helped pioneer a genuinely new form of writing, I yearn for other, older forms. I want to read again, slowly, carefully. I want to absorb a difficult book and walk around in my own thoughts with it for a while. I want to have an idea and let it slowly take shape, rather than be instantly blogged. I want to write long essays that can answer more deeply and subtly the many questions that the Dish years have presented to me. I want to write a book.

- Andrew Sullivan
A dear friend sent me this link with the awesome title, 'St. Jude vs. Santa Muerta: Steel Cage Match!'

As seen in these stunning photographs of St. Jude's annual feast day on October 28, 2014, the celebrations of the patron of lost causes are wildly colorful affairs with devotees from all walks of Mexican life, but especially the working classes, lugging life-sized statues of the holy man, and many others dressed in his trademark green and white garb, which are two of the three colors of the Mexican flag. What really stands out at the monthly fiestas attended by thousands is the presence of marginalized teens and 20-somethings, hundreds of whom are huffing glue and smoking marijuana on the sidewalks that abut the temple. Ironically, the saint who is depicted with the flame of the Holy Spirit on his forehead, has a reputation for healing drug abusers.

via (more pictures)

read a book read a book read a motherfucking book

The Worst Muse

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

sound the bells

Gorgeous song (my favourite on the album), gorgeous vid. Wow.

my whole life / was like a picture of a sunny day

Monday, January 26, 2015

To paint is to love again. It’s only when we look with the eyes of love that we see as the painter sees....To see is not merely to look. One must look-see. See into and around....I remember well the transformation which took place in me when first I began to view the world with the eyes of a painter. The most familiar things, objects which I had gazed at all my life, now became an unending source of wonder, and with the wonder, of course, affection.

- Henry Miller

Ceramic sculpture, Katharine Morling

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

When I am dead and over me bright April
      Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho' you should lean above me broken-hearted,
      I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
      When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
      Than you are now.

- Sara Teasdale, "I Shall Not Care"

Emily Dickinson, quietly and eternally abiding between two big male hot-shots. Elliott Bay Book Co

Thursday, January 22, 2015

We live in an era where the hard sciences are valued far and above other academic disciplines and where the humanities are frequently treated as luxury pursuits. This has resulted in a clinical culture, especially within psychiatry, that tends to treat neuroscience as the only rubric for understanding human experience, a clinical culture that applies the language of chemistry to describe patients' suffering, as in "titrating" a patient's emotional response to "prolonged exposure" therapy, as if a person suffering from a mental health disorder can be balanced like a chemical equation....As William Normand, a practicing psychoanalyst in New York, said succinctly, "Psychiatry has gone from being brainless to being mindless."

- The Evil Hours, David J. Morris

under "sublime" in the dictionary it says "see this"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

'It’s not punk, exactly, and it’s sure as fuck not indie rock'

Before we even get into how good the new Sleater-Kinney album No Cities To Love is — and it is very good — we should take a moment for what a miracle it is that the album exists in the first place. Sleater-Kinney’s self-titled debut turns 20 this year, and they are, without question, the best rock band to come along in the past two decades. (Who’s their competition? Seriously, who?) But when Sleater-Kinney announced their “indefinite hiatus” in 2006, it clearly was not one of these “we’ll be back on the festival stages in nine months” situations. They were done. They had other things going on. Corin Tucker had two kids, and if you know any women with small kids, you know that Sleater-Kinney’s relentless touring and recording schedule is not exactly compatible with doing mom stuff. She went on to record a couple of low-stakes solo albums and only barely toured on them. Carrie Brownstein wanted to try things like writing and acting — a sideline that started with a promising-enough NPR blog and somehow led to straight-up TV stardom. She’s more famous for Portlandia now than she ever was for Sleater-Kinney. Janet Weiss is the best drummer in the world, and she’s also an extremely fun hang, so she was never going to be hurting for work. The only Portland bands that didn’t try to recruit her were probably the ones who were scared to ask. When they went their separate ways, it wasn’t because they started hating each other. They were always friends. I went to Portland to interview them in 2005, when The Woods was about to come out, and learned that they still did shit like assembling at Tucker’s house to watch the Super Bowl or the Oscars. They probably still do that. But they’d done what they needed to do, said what they needed to say. They were ready to end that chapter and move on to other things. They did it. Those other things worked out. They didn’t need to come back. And yet here they are. Thank fuck.

- Stereogum

I'm not the anthem, I once was an anthem That sang the song of me

We are born in debt, owing the world a death. This is the shadow that darkens every cradle. Trauma is what happens when you catch a surprise glimpse of that darkness, the coming annihilation not only of the body and the mind but also, seemingly, of the world. Trauma is the savagery of the universe made manifest within us, and it destroys not only the integrity of consciousness, the myth of self-mastery, and the experience of time, but also our ability to live peacefully with others, almost as if it were a virus, a pathogen content to do nothing besides replicate itself in the world, over and over, until only it remains. Trauma is the glimpse of truth that tells us a lie: the lie that love is impossible, that peace is an illusion. Therapy and medication can ease the pain but neither can suck the venom from the blood, make the survivor unsee the darkness and unknow the secret that lies beneath the surface of life. Despite the quixotic claims of modern neuroscience, there is no cure for trauma....Trauma is our special legacy as sentient beings, creatures burdened with the knowledge of our own impermanence....The best we can do is work to contain the pain, draw a line around it, name it, domesticate it, and try to transform what lies on the other side of the line into a kind of knowledge, a knowledge of the mechanics of loss that might be put to use for future generations.
- The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David J. Morris

(He's clearly remembering Feeble's "we owe God a death" from 2 Henry IV, which is neat, as part 1 has Lady Percy quizzing her husband on his PTSD symptoms: "Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth, And start so often when thou sit'st alone?....")
There was no end to Williams’s guilt, remorse, and anger for having survived his sister, in particular, and his family as a whole. No survivor is ever free of his history of disaster.

- review of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by Hilton Als
Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us pause to honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even for nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.

Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business. There are “metrics” for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Numerical values are assigned to things that cannot be captured by numbers. Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything. It is enabled by the idolatry of data, which has itself been enabled by the almost unimaginable data-generating capabilities of the new technology. The distinction between knowledge and information is a thing of the past, and there is no greater disgrace than to be a thing of the past. Beyond its impact upon culture, the new technology penetrates even deeper levels of identity and experience, to cognition and to consciousness. Such transformations embolden certain high priests in the church of tech to espouse the doctrine of “transhumanism” and to suggest, without any recollection of the bankruptcy of utopia, without any consideration of the cost to human dignity, that our computational ability will carry us magnificently beyond our humanity and “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. . . . There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” (The author of that updated mechanistic nonsense is a director of engineering at Google.)

 And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where the humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new.

- Leon Wieseltier

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.

how to know when your neighbourhood is rapidly gentrifying

When we went to our sketch grocery store in our sketch part of town last night, the ENTIRE stock of extra virgin olive oil, every brand, had been cleaned out. Empty space to the back of the display shelf. No other kind of olive oil was gone, or even that depleted (not even the artisanal kind with shit floating in it, which always reminds me of specimen jars). Just the extra virgin.

ETA: how many fucking kinds of fake gourmet pepper do you need, anyway

Monday, January 19, 2015

Marc Simonetti, cover art for "The Neverending Story"

what I'm (re)reading

Guards! Guards!  There is no comfort reread like a Pratchett comfort reread.

Amazing, gorgeous art by Marc Simonetti. (I want that Hat Full of Sky art as a poster.)

no cities to love


I might have slept in it. Just maybe. (The grey is darker than it looked on my monitor, it's very pretty and classy. I am pleased.)

I usually don't wear shirts that advertise stuff because I think people who pay to make themselves into walking billboards are chumps. I am happy to be a walking billboard for Sleater-Kinney.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

I can't quit you baby But I got to put you down for a while

Oscar news

Also robbed: Pride, and Angelina Jolie. You KNOW if a male actor/director had had two huge popular successes in the same year,  one or both of his films would have been nominated.


Oh, will you shut up about that? God! Twenty years, you've been throwing that in my face, like it's some great thing, not eating me! Normal people don't even think about eating someone else! 
Much less that person having to be grateful for it!

- Guardians of the Galaxy

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

administer undiluted initial dose 2mg slow push

//grimly queues up today's anthem on Spotify yet again

but I know that someday
someday, darling
I won't be
trouble no more

ok it is time for the *hardcore* musical therapy

(no really, this album got me through the first awful unmedicated un-therapized semester ever of college)

fleshe of my fleshe (saith shee) and bone of my bone

Meanwhile my sins were being multiplied, and my concubine being torn from my side as a hindrance to my marriage, my heart which clave unto her was torn and wounded and bleeding. And she returned to Afric, vowing unto Thee never to know any other man, leaving with me my son by her. But unhappy I, who could not imitate a very woman, impatient of delay, inasmuch as not till after two years was I to obtain her I sought not being so much a lover of marriage as a slave to lust, procured another, though no wife, that so by the servitude of an enduring custom, the disease of my soul might be kept up and carried on in its vigour, or even augmented, into the dominion of marriage. Nor was that my wound cured, which had been made by the cutting away of the former, but after inflammation and most acute pain, it mortified, and my pains became less acute, but more desperate.

- St. Augustine, Confessions

black as midnight on a moonless night

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

tale of two cities

Temporary homeless camp to be closed down: "Equity purchased the building home to the much-loved E Madison pizza joint and other businesses in spring of 2013 for $10.3 million with plans to develop a six-story, 140-unit mixed-use apartment building on the land. To date, there are no demolition permit applications on file for the property nor any early signs of construction paperwork likely putting the project a long time from construction work.
"In recent weeks and through December’s bitterly cold nights, the doorways and old patio area of the Piecora’s building had become a refuge for homeless campers. Along with some piles of garbage, the campers have collected blankets and backpacks along with random treasures like a discarded Casio keyboard."

Meanwhile: "The most expensive single-family home sale in 2014 on Capitol Hill according to real estate site Estately was the $7.7 million plunked down for Harvard-Belmont Historical District mansion that at one point listed for $11.2 million....Overall, the top 5 home sales in our rankings averaged a price tag of $4.38 million."

Monday, January 12, 2015

something nobody can ever destroy (Marvin Gaye, "Pride and Joy")

Whoever is doing that fucking sublime piano part (this is the more jazzy Fellow version) deserves a seat in heaven.

("When The Beatles first arrived in New York City in 1964, they requested Murray the K play the song on his radio station." Ahh fuck you, Wiki, I didn't need to cry any more today.)
(The Funk Bros....Standing in the Shadows of Motown....who the fuck is it, Joe Hunter maybe? Earl van Dyke? This is upsetting me more than it should.)
When you're in a casino and you blow $50 on the slot machine, pull, pull, pull, pull, pull, pull, each and every time you're hoping that this will be the one that hits, and once in a while you get a little something-- it is the randomness, the suddenness, the unpredictability of that even tiny reward which keeps you pulling through your bankroll. "Variable ratio schedule."  Sound right?  Well, none of those $50 have anything to do with the cab ride.

But then you're done, tapped out, and you turn to go but.... wait a minute............................ you have one token left.  Stop now, look at that one, look carefully at it, it is your contract with the Devil, it is the selling of  your soul.  What is its value?  Look at it, it doesn't matter what you do, it matters what you think-- which means what you are about to do has already been decided.

You could pocket that last one.  Go home with something other than nothing.  Or, you could  play that last one with superstitious hope, praying and bargaining that if you hit you'll X/Y/Z.  But neither of those are what you think, right?  Instead you think, "whatever" and you put it in the machine-- NOT because you think this time it will pay off-- be honest with yourself, you know that that initial optimism of game play is gone-- you do it precisely because you know it will fail-- you are throwing it away, on purpose, so you can walk away from the machine "clean", finished, so you can play-act at catharsis.  "This is the last one!" you cry, like you're yelling out "it is accomplished!" The final suffering, look for a brand new me in a few days.  And unlike Amy's cab ride, you are turning this experience into a story in real time, you are writing the ending as if someone else is watching, as if it were a reality show or you were offering a voice over, you are constructing that experience, saying your lines, as the last Act of a story being told to an imaginary audience, a god, your future self, the balance of energy in the universe-- The Big Other.

And you think you're done but what you don't realize is you're only done with Act III.

That's the last chip in the bag-- "whatever, might as well."  That's the last swig, "I'm never drinking again."  That's selling your stocks into a downturn, that's your sexual history, throwing it away one more time not because this time the guy is going to be great but because it's not going to be great, it's a sacrifice to the volcano.

You throw it away, on purpose, because it's not worth holding on to it, you've already disavowed it as useless, evil, pointless, hopeless-- it is the last remnant of a part of you you want gone.  You play that last coin, drink that last drink, eat that last chip and throw your vagina at a billy goat-- all of those are the splitting off of a piece of yourself that you then can leave behind.  The act is the "physical expression of an intrapsychic process"-- you are acting out what you wish were true, like a rape victim scrubbing herself clean.  "That's not me---  anymore."  If only it were that easy.  I sympathize, you have no idea.

What's most sad about it is that you might have been right-- it might have worked-- except that instead of making that be the end of the story you drag it out for one more Act, and ensure that the pattern repeats, ad nauseam.  You don't want the story to end. It's not a great story, but it's the one you know, the one you understand.

- The Last Psychiatrist

Friday, January 9, 2015

My mom was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma so my internet presence is going to be spotty at best for a while. If you want to reach me email is probably your best bet, altho it might take me some time to respond.

je suis charlie

Thursday, January 8, 2015

this actually did make me laugh

which isn't happening much at all these days because we're waiting for confirmation of a family member's terrible medical diagnosis tomorrow morning.

you can never have enough of this song

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

psychic Twitter

Then there was news about a gun massacre in France, a bombing in Yemen and the Colorado Springs NAACP office was firebombed, just for a little perspective on my daily issues.

aaaand then the BBC felt compelled to inform me "Bill Gates drinks water distilled from human faeces" only sadly I can't give any details because I closed that tab with superhuman reflex speed. THANKS BEEB.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Top albums from the first week of the new year

Final "top albums of 2014" collage

QOTD # 2

A Christmas frost had come at midsummer; a white December storm had whirled over June; ice glazed the ripe apples, drifts crushed the blowing roses; on hayfield and cornfield lay a frozen shroud: lanes which last night blushed full of flowers, to-day were pathless with untrodden snow; and the woods, which twelve hours since waved leafy and flagrant as groves between the tropics, now spread, waste, wild, and white as pine-forests in wintry Norway.  My hopes were all dead—struck with a subtle doom, such as, in one night, fell on all the first-born in the land of Egypt.  I looked on my cherished wishes, yesterday so blooming and glowing; they lay stark, chill, livid corpses that could never revive.  I looked at my love: that feeling which was my master’s—which he had created; it shivered in my heart, like a suffering child in a cold cradle; sickness and anguish had seized it; it could not seek Mr. Rochester’s arms—it could not derive warmth from his breast.  Oh, never more could it turn to him; for faith was blighted—confidence destroyed!  Mr. Rochester was not to me what he had been; for he was not what I had thought him.  I would not ascribe vice to him; I would not say he had betrayed me; but the attribute of stainless truth was gone from his idea, and from his presence I must go: that I perceived well.

- Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre


....Lady Jane Gray, who tho' inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting....Whether she really understood that language or whether such a study proceeded only from an excess of vanity for which I beleive she was always rather remarkable, is uncertain. Whatever might be the cause, she preserved the same appearance of knowledge, & contempt of what was generally esteemed pleasure, during the whole of her Life, for she declared herself displeased with being appointed Queen, and while conducting to the scaffold, she wrote a sentence in latin & another in Greek on seeing the dead Body of her Husband accidentally passing that way.

 - Jane Austen

ten li yadchah

There is a wonderful story in the Talmud which I’ve cited here many times but which strikes me with particular force this year (2001). It’s the story of Rabbi Yochanan, who comes to give comfort to his dying colleague Rabbi Eleazar. He sees that Rabbi Eleazar is crying and he asks him why, or rather, he begins to theologize, to trot out one pat theory after another as to why Rabbi Eleazar might be crying, and why he really shouldn’t be crying after all.

Are you crying because you didn’t get to study enough Torah? Rabbi Yochanan asks. Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter how much you learned, only how sincere you were in your studies.

No, that’s not why I’m crying, Rabbi Eleazar says.

Well then, is it because you were always so poor? Don’t worry. You can’t have everything in this life, and after all, you were a great scholar.

No, that’s not it either, Rabbi Eleazar says.

Well then it must be because you lost a child. Don’t worry. This bone I wear around my neck is the bone of the tenth child I lost, so you don’t really have it so bad, do you?

No, Rabbi Eleazar says, that’s not it either. And then he cuts the ground right out from beneath Rabbi Yochanan. I am crying because of cal hai shufra d’baley b’afra - I am crying, he says, because of all this beauty which is fading into the earth. I am crying because life is impermanent, evanescent, and everything keeps disappearing and I don’t have the slightest idea why. I am not crying because of any of the reasons you suggest, and I am not comforted by any of your foolish explanations. I am crying because I live in a dangerous world, which I don’t understand. I am crying because this is a world of great beauty, which keeps disappearing on me and I don’t know why.

….All right, rabbi, so what do we do? And especially, what do we do with these feelings of despair and rage and impotence?

I think there’s an answer to these questions suggested by the ending of that story from the Talmud I started to tell you before. After Rabbi Eleazar finally tells the nudnick Rabbi Yochanan why he is weeping - that he is weeping lcal hai shufra d’balei bafrah - for all this beauty which is fading away - Rabbi Yochanan finally gets it right. He tells Rabbi Eleazar, well if that’s why you’re weeping, then of course you should weep. In fact, I’ll weep with you. Then the two of them weep together. And Rabbi Yochanan says. ten li yadchah - give me your hand - and Rabbi Eleazar gives him his hand and he is healed, the Talmud tells us.

- Alan Lew

first book read in 2015

Monday, January 5, 2015

the weird little shards stored in my brain

When reading Beard's book on Pompeii, I read "During this war, Pompeii itself was besieged in 89 by the famous general Lucius Cornelius Sulla," and my brain immediately went

et nos ergo manum ferulae subduximus, et nos               
consilium dedimus Sullae, priuatus ut altum

(New Loeb: "Well, I too have snatched my hand from under the cane. I too have given Sulla advice, to retire and enjoy a deep sleep." Old Loeb: "Well, I too have slipped my hand from under the cane ; I too have counselled Sulla to retire from public life and take a deep sleep....")


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Woody Guthrie's New Year's Resolutions

It's so dumb, whenever I see her even if it's just in an ad I'm all 'THERE'S MY GIRL,' even if it's that awful fake tarted-up engraving. (She did NOT wear a bow.)

(AKA "I can spot a Bronte at fifty feet")

Saturday, January 3, 2015

thoughts for a new year

In or around June 1995 human character changed again. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound – and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavours – radio, television, print – and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.
Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people or your trivia.
You opened the mail when you came home from work, or when it arrived if you worked from home. Some of the mail was important and personal, not just bills. It was exciting to get a letter: the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words. Going back a little further, movies were seen in movie theatres, and a whole gorgeous ritual went along with seeing them. The subsidiary pleasures – dressing up, standing in line with strangers and friends, the smell of popcorn, holding hands in the dark – still exist, but more and more often movies are seen on smaller and smaller and more private screens. It used to be the case that when you were at a movie, you were 100 per cent there, in the velvety darkness watching lives unfold in flickering light (unless you were making out). But televisions, DVD players, the rest: you were never totally committed to what they showed; you were always cheating on them, chatting and wandering away, fast-forwarding and rewinding, even when commercials didn’t shatter their continuity.
That bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my email while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone that’s all you were.
Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages (the first text message was sent in 1992, but phones capable of texting spread later in the 1990s). Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams – the state of the art technology of the 1840s – and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (‘you’re breaking up’ is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.
....I have reconnected via Facebook to old friends who might otherwise never have resurfaced, and followed grassroots politics and movements. And I’ve wasted countless hours on it that I could’ve spent going deeper, with a book, a film, a conversation, or even a walk or a task. Meanwhile the quality of my emails deteriorated; after many years of marvellous correspondences it became hard to find anyone who still wrote anything resembling a letter. Everyone just dashed off notes about practical things, with maybe a little personal stuff in the mix, and you can’t get epistolatory with someone who won’t receive it with enthusiasm, or at least I can’t. A gratuitous clutter of bureaucratic and soliciting emails filled all our inboxes, and wading through that clutter consumed a great deal of everyone’s time.
Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.
I live in the heart of it, and it’s normal to walk through a crowd – on a train, or a group of young people waiting to eat in a restaurant – in which everyone is staring at the tiny screens in their hands. It seems less likely that each of the kids waiting for the table for eight has an urgent matter at hand than that this is the habitual orientation of their consciousness. At times I feel as though I’m in a bad science fiction movie where everyone takes orders from tiny boxes that link them to alien overlords. Which is what corporations are anyway, and mobile phones decoupled from corporations are not exactly common.
Our lives are a constant swirl of information, of emails that can be checked on phones, and phones that are checked in theatres and bedrooms, for texts and news that stream in constantly. There is so much information that our ability to focus on any piece of it is interrupted by other information, so that we bathe in information but hardly absorb or analyse it. Data are interrupted by other data before we’ve thought about the first round, and contemplating three streams of data at once may be a way to think about none of them.
....Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed. Reading books has become hard; the mind keeps wanting to shift from whatever it is paying attention to to pay attention to something else. A restlessness has seized hold of many of us, a sense that we should be doing something else, no matter what we are doing, or doing at least two things at once, or going to check some other medium. It’s an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind. (Maybe it was a landmark when Paris Hilton answered her mobile phone while having sex while being videotaped a decade ago.)
....My time does not come in large, focused blocks, but in fragments and shards. The fault is my own, arguably, but it’s yours too – it’s the fault of everyone I know who rarely finds herself or himself with uninterrupted hours. We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.
It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void, and filled up with sounds and distractions.
I now feel under-equipped if I walk out of my apartment without my mobile phone, but I used to travel across the world with almost no contact with the people who loved me, and there was a dizzying freedom, a cool draught of solitude, in that. We were not so monitored, because no one read our letters the way they read our emails to sell us stuff, as Gmail does, or track our communications as the NSA does. We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded.
It will not be easy to go back, though I did see a poster recently (on Facebook) that made the case for buying books from independent bookstores in cash. And librarians fought a fierce battle in the Bush era when they refused to hand over our library records; but they are part of the old world. The new one has other priorities, and didn’t put up much fight to protect our information from the NSA (though squealed a little about it afterwards, plus Yahoo did win a lawsuit post-Edward Snowden allowing it to declassify documents that prove it resisted the NSA’s snooping, and two data encryption companies have since folded rather than be corrupted).
A short story that comes back to me over and over again is Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Harrison Bergeron’, or one small bit of it. Since all men and women aren’t exactly created equal, in this dystopian bit of science fiction a future America makes them equal by force: ballerinas wear weights so they won’t be more graceful than anyone else, and really smart people wear earpieces that produce bursts of noise every few minutes to interrupt their thought processes. They are ‘required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.’ For the smartest person in Vonnegut’s story, the radio transmitter isn’t enough: ‘Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses. The spectacles were intended to make him not only half blind, but to give him whanging headaches besides.’
We have all signed up to wear those earpieces, a future form of new media that will chop our consciousnesses into small dice. Google has made real the interruptors that Vonnegut thought of as a fantasy evil for his dystopian 2081. Google thinks that glasses that interrupt you constantly would be awesome, at least for Google, and they are now in development....A year or so ago I watched in horror a promotional video for these glasses that showed how your whole field of vision of the real world could become a screen on which reminder messages spring up. The video portrayed the lifestyle of a hip female Brooklynite whose Google glasses toss Hello Kitty-style pastel data bubbles at her from the moment she gets up. None of the information the glasses thrust into her field of vision is crucial. It’s all optional, based on the assumptions that our lives require lots of management, and that being managerial is our highest goal. Is it?
I forget practical stuff all the time, but I also forget to look at the distance and contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe and the oneness of all things. A pair of glasses on which the temperature and chance of rain pops up, or someone tries to schedule me for a project or a drink, is not going to help with reveries about justice, meaning and the beautiful deep marine blue of nearly every dusk.
Furthermore, Google glasses probably aren’t going to spring pastel-coloured bubbles on you that say ‘It’s May Day! Overthrow tyranny,’ let alone ‘Don’t let corporations dictate your thoughts,’ or ‘It would be really meaningful to review the personal events of August 1997 in the light of what you know now.’ That between you and me stands a corporation every time we make contact – not just the post office or the phone company, but a titan that shares information with the National Security Administration – is dismaying. But that’s another subject: mine today is time.
I wonder sometimes if there will be a revolt against the quality of time the new technologies have brought us, as well as the corporations in charge of those technologies. Or perhaps there already has been, in a small, quiet way. The real point about the slow food movement was often missed. It wasn’t food. It was about doing something from scratch, with pleasure, all the way through, in the old methodical way we used to do things. That didn’t merely produce better food; it produced a better relationship to materials, processes and labour, notably your own, before the spoon reached your mouth. It produced pleasure in production as well as consumption. It made whole what is broken.
....We won’t overthrow corporations by knitting – but understanding the pleasures of knitting or weeding or making pickles might articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and distraction, and inside a more stately sense of time. (Of course, for a lot of people this impulse has been sublimated by cooking shows: watching the preparation of food that you will never taste by celebrities you will never meet, a fate that makes Tantalus’ seem rich.)
....Getting out of ('the rabbit hole of total immersion in the networked world') is about slowness, and about finding alternatives to the alienation that accompanies a sweater knitted by a machine in a sweatshop in a country you know nothing about, or jam made by a giant corporation that has terrible environmental and labour practices and might be tied to the death of honeybees or the poisoning of farmworkers. It’s an attempt to put the world back together again, in its materials but also its time and labour. 

It’s both laughably small and heroically ambitious.

- Rebecca Solnit

Thursday, January 1, 2015

books read in January 2015

Fiction is in red. Date of first publication in (parentheses).

1. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit (2009) (reread; forget exactly when I last read it) (this is why having lists all over is a bad fucking idea)
2. The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, Mary Beard (2008)
3. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (2015) (yes, I read two serious books and then a trashy thriller. SIGH. I am trying to cut this kind of crap out)
4. The Goblin Emperor, "Katherine Addison"/Sarah Monette (2014) (absolutely smashing, an unexpected delight)
5. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning, Elizabeth Sigmund and Gail Crowther (2014)
6. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle (1902) (comfort reread, but of nice new Penguin edition with charming notes by Christopher Frayling)
7. Teach Us To Sit Still: A Skeptic's Search for Health and Healing, Tim Parks (2010) (quite enjoyable)
8. The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, David J. Morris (2015) (really excellent)
9. The Name of the Star, Maureen Johnson (2012)
10. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, Niall Ferguson (2000) (Morris mentions it)
11. Conversion, Katherine Howe (2014) (man, I swear I am done with freaking YA books)

all 2015 booklist posts