Sunday, March 1, 2015

Notes from No Man's Land

Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays
Eula Biss (2009, Graywolf Press)

     Right out of the gate, Eula Bliss's essays are arresting. In “Time and Distance Overcome”, Biss researches the early history of telephone poles, which were initially met with resistance, because they looked so ugly and unnatural. The New York Times carried stories about the workers putting up poles being threatened with tar and feathers, and other places where the city fathers ordered poles chopped down.

      Even more stories from the times concern telephone poles being used in violence against black men. “In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi.” The New York Times took a peculiarly dispassionate tone about these events; Biss lets that speak for itself, though she notes that “[m]ore than two hundred antilynching bills were introduced to the U.S. Congress during the twentieth century, but none were passed.”

      The string of facts does not necessarily appear tightly knit. Double spaced on the page, they might rather be the stone of a mosaic. But then there's a little burst of concentration: “The poles, of course, were not to blame. It was only coincidence that they became convenient as gallows, because they were tall and straight, with a crossbar, and because they stood in public places. And it was only coincidence that the telephone poles so closely resembled crucifixes.”

      In this collection, Biss shows us all kinds of ways our history lives on in our landscape, and in her own biography. (Her grandfather worked putting up telephone poles, having his back broken when one fell on him.) She has interesting things to say the differences between New York, Chicago, and San Diego, and about how she navigates her white identity while working for a black newspaper or living with a black cousin. 
     Biss can venture into very touchy territory, speaking of guilt, fear, politics and power, because she is light on her feet. She roots around in history that should not be forgotten; she offers a vision of things we customarily look past, one that might make our own neighborhoods, and neighbors, more visible to us. 

March 2015

Sunday, February 1, 2015

10% Happier

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works    
Dan Harris (Dey Street, 2014)

    Dan Harris was not expecting to have his life changed by a self-help book, still less one from Oprah’s Book Club. He was pretty successful already, after all: by the time he was thirty, his broadcasting career had advanced from small-town Maine to working for Peter Jennings at ABC. He had been overseas covering the Middle East and South Asia; later he garnered a respectable amount of airtime for his coverage of religious movements in America, though he covered it from a resolutely agnostic position. (“My private view was quite harsh, and rooted in a blend of apathy and ignorance. I thought organized religion was bunk, and that all believers–whether jazzed on Jesus or jihad–must be, to some extent, cognitively impaired.”)

    When Harris was invited by a producer to read a book by Eckhart Tolle, he thought that it might lead to a story about Tolle and Oprah, but he found himself captivated by the book’s weird combination of grandiosity, turgid jargon, and blazing insight. “Our entire lives, he argued, are governed by a voice in our heads. This voice is engaged in a ceaseless stream of thinking–most of it negative, repetitive, and self-referential.” That voice, which Tolle calls the ego, is never satisfied; it thrives on drama; it is constantly comparing itself to others; and it scampers ceaselessly from the past to the future, sparing almost no attention for the Now.

    Harris piercingly recognizes the truth of this idea. A fretful competitiveness has been his dominant mode of relating to his work, with not always agreeable results, but what is to be done about it? From the sincere but possibly crazy Tolle, he moves on to Deepak Chopra, who strikes him as definitely sane but possibly a huckster. The third time’s the charm: Harris’s girlfriend introduces him to the writing of Dr. Mark Epstein about Buddhism, which it turns out was the effective substance of what Tolle was saying.  On meeting Epstein, he’s pleasantly surprised to be offered an actual solution to the noise in his head: meditation.

    Harris being Harris, it’s not that easy. Meditation brings up all kinds of images of things he hates about ‘granola life-style’, like saffron robes, Sanskrit phrases, and new-age music. He thinks it would be uncomfortable, embarrassing, or difficult. Well, yes, it’s all that–but also “a rigorous brain exercise: rep after rep of trying to tame the runaway train of the mind. The repeated attempt to bring the compulsive thought machine to heel was like holding a live fish in your hands.”

    Challenged by some of his friends and mentors, Harris undertakes a meditation retreat. Ten days of silence in the beautiful California woods is just as difficult, and sometimes excruciating, as you might guess. If nothing else, he wonders why he didn’t just go to the beach with his wife. Some days are terrible, others radiant. “Having been dragged kicking and screaming into the present, I’m finally awake enough to see what I could never see in my regular life. Apparently there’s no other way to get here than to engage in the tedious work of watching your breath for days.”

    Harris is perfectly aware of the irony of his taking up a practice he would have scorned just a short time before. And he takes a while longer to find the balance between being unstressed and being too passive to work on television effectively - there are times when you need to Hide the Zen. The tone of this book is itself a corrective to the hippie-patchouli image of meditation; you could try it without going out of your mind or erasing all the neuroses that make you who you are. Harris’s good news is this: “Mindfulness, happiness, and not being a jerk are skills I can hone for the rest of my life–every day, every moment, until senility or death.”

Any Good Books                                                                                                                 
February 2015

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ                                                                 
Philip Pullman (Canongate 2010)

    I’m surprised to learn that the popular novelist Philip Pullman has retold the Gospels, because he is, quite publicly, a skeptic on religious matters, and a thoroughgoing materialist. (He started out as a schoolboy within the Anglican tradition, but turned away as a science-minded teenager.) But even if the Gospel is empty of religious truth for him, Pullman wants to wrestle with it; he’s a storyteller, so the Bible’s unresolved contradictions and paradoxes earn his interest and respect.

    In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman sticks very close to the received story, mashing highlights of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into the familiar tale of a charismatic and impatient Jesus. Pullman’s imaginative innovation is to posit a twin brother for Jesus, called Christ. Christ is the chronicler, witnessing and recording key events of Jesus’ life, either at first hand or by the report of a friendly apostle. In his chameleon anonymity, he also serves as his brother’s betrayer, and the stranger the friends recognize in the resurrection.

    Christ is gifted, or perhaps cursed, with a long view of what Christianity will become; Jesus not only doesn’t share this vision, he spurns it. The temptation of Jesus in the desert, turned into a conversation between these two characters, acquires a new dramatic heft when told from the tempter’s point of view. His logic is, in fact, unassailable. The power of miraculous stories will indeed be one of the vehicles that carries the story from that day to this, so the resistance Jesus shows about being famous for his miracles is self-defeating.

    As Pullman says in his afterword, the Christ character got away from him in the course of the writing, developing motives and feelings Pullman did not have in mind at the outset. Like anyone, Christ is not the villain of his own story, and he’s doing the best he can. His treatment of the words of Jesus is at least a credible way of describing what may have happened in the handing down of the stories. It’s also a way of dealing with the parts of the Jesus story that cannot, on their face, have had human witnesses. (I’ve always balked at those parts, too, which is a literalist error of some kind.)

    If you think all this sounds terribly cheeky, it is, but it isn’t played for laughs, in the ‘Life of Brian’ vein. Pullman addresses one of Christianity’s central paradoxes, how the humility of Jesus stacks against the grandeur of the Church – can all that ritual, and material wealth, really have been what he had in mind? Do we know better than Jesus  himself what his life was about? And what was the price of Christianity’s trade-off in the time of Constantine, from being an oppressed minority to taking the reins of power, and inevitably becoming the oppressor?

    These are honest and genuinely provocative questions. I don’t think I’ll come out where Pullman comes out, but I’m grateful for the conversation.

Any Good Books                                                                                                                  
January 1, 2015

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Sense of Style

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Steven Pinker (2014, Viking)

    Steven Pinker is admirably qualified to write a style guide for the twenty-first century. He’s a leading thinker about linguistics and cognitive science; he chairs the Usage Panel for the American Heritage Dictionary; and he’s a wonderful writer. In The Sense of Style, he brings his expertise to bear on reading, writing, and the history of style guides. In particular, Pinker jousts with The Elements of Style, which dominated the field in the twentieth century. “Writers can profit by reading more than one style guide, and much of Strunk and White (as it is commonly called) is as timeless as it is charming. But much of it is not.”

    English changes all the time, of course; rules go out of date because the common usage changes. There are quite a few, as well, that never should have been rules in the first place, like the prohibition on split infinitives. “The very terms ‘split infinitive’ and ‘split verb’ are based on a thick-witted analogy to Latin, in which it is impossible to split a verb because it consists of a single word, such as amare, ‘to love.’” Pinker doesn’t replace the prohibition with a new rule, but with a set of observations that enable the writer to choose for herself. Perhaps the modifier is the main thing she wants to say, in which case she’ll consider moving it to the end of the sentence, doing justice to its importance. Maybe it sounds just fine coming earlier in the sentence, so she can painlessly avoid a run-in with the Gotcha! Gang; and sometimes, especially with negation, it fits most comfortably right up against the verb.

    The chapter on rules, worthy and unworthy, is great fun, but what stands out about this book is Pinker’s psychological acuity. He’s always paying attention to how writing works for the reader. In the chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” he explores the difficulty of remembering that the reader can’t see what you see and doesn’t know what you know. Specialized vocabularies in every scientific and academic field help experts communicate among themselves, at the cost of leaving the rest of the world out of their discussions. “The curse of knowledge is insidious, because it conceals not only the contents of our thoughts from us but their very form. When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it.”

    Pinker also brings his expertise in Linguistics to bear. The study of grammar has come a long way since the days of “A Noun is the name of a person, place, or thing.” The modern theory separates grammatical categories (like ‘noun’), from grammatical functions (like ‘subject’), and both from syntactic categories (like ‘physical object’). With just a little of this background in mind, we can follow Pinker as he diagrams sentences to show us how the parts fit together. While we will not often actually draw such diagrams in real life, we can develop a mental picture of the tree that will be a great help in combing out our snarled sentences.

    Pinker’s own writing is both sturdy and beautiful, and frequently witty as well. He’s a professional descriptivist, an astute observer of how people actually talk and write, who is has written a distinctly prescriptivist guide. Of course, you are free to disagree with some of his opinions about usage – that’s part of the fun – but he explains his reasons, which helps you think more clearly about your own. His attitude is fundamentally courteous: “We can try to remedy shortcomings in writing without bemoaning the degeneration of the language. And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world.”

    As indeed he does. Thanks be.

Any Good Books   
Emailed December 1 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Being Mortal

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
Atul Gawande  (2014, Metropolitan Books)

    Atul Gawande is a surgeon, a writer, and, lucky for us, a perpetual student. What he knows about death and dying, he did not learn in medical school. In fact, the attitudes and practices of medicine often make aging and dying harder these days; since three out of three people die, Gawande is hoping we can learn to do it better.

    Geriatric care is one area with vast room for improvement. The care of the elderly  is not a glamorous or highly paid field, and there are far too few doctors (or nurses or social workers) taking it up. This is partly because of the perverse incentives of our insurance system, which would rather pay for x-rays and blood tests than for conversations about nutrition and exercise. Gawande thinks it’s also because people go into medicine to solve problems, and geriatric patients often have problems that can’t be solved. “What geriatricians do–bolster our resilience in old age, our capacity to weather what comes–is both difficult and unappealingly limited.” The results of such care can be dramatic, with far fewer negative side effects than drugs and operations, but it takes time, slow time, that doctors generally cannot spare.

    Nursing home care is another case of the medical model failing to give satisfaction. Gawande delves into history: for most of the human era, the few people who lived to old age were cared for by family or in community almshouses. Since the middle of the last century, people leaving hospitals when the hospitals couldn’t cure them have mostly been moved to nursing homes, where they’re treated as helpless patients. It’s no wonder people find them lonely and depressing.

    Gawande looks at several groups of people trying to work out a third way, that would relieve the burden on wives and daughters, yet feel more home-like, and give people an opportunity for a more meaningful life.  The original model of assisted living has been diluted, in many places, but the impulse is sound, to balance safety and autonomy. We don’t want people to fall and break their hips; but keeping them in wheelchairs, as though they already have broken hips, is a lousy solution.

    Gawande comes to a conclusion that challenges medicine at its foundation: “ people’s capacities wane, whether through age or ill health, making their lives better often requires curbing our purely medical imperatives–resisting the urge to fiddle and fix and control.” Patients, families, and doctors frequently wind up on a treadmill of treatments, side effects, and complications that no one knows how to stop, leading to a death without comfort or consolation.

    Hospice care tends to be seen as a last resort, implying that doctors have given up on a patient, but Gawande uncovers a more nuanced reality. Again, it is a matter of altered perspective, giving greater weight to what the patient actually finds meaningful, whether that’s visiting grandchildren, watching baseball games, or drinking beer.

    Most of us are not doctors, but we will surely not get through life without facing the question of how much treatment is too much. “The battle of being mortal is the battle to maintain the integrity of one’s life–to avoid becoming so diminished or dissipated or subjugated that who you are becomes disconnected from who you were or who you want to be. Sickness and old age make the struggle hard enough. The professionals and institutions we turn to should not make it worse.”

    I hope this book starts a lot of conversations, both systemic and personal.

Email edition, November 2014