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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Is a Loveless, Joyless, Purposeless Life Still Worth Living?

Life doesn't end. It merely changes form.

I've never been a fan of what I call the "Bleak School of Literary Book Writing." In my many-times rejected and ignored (and therefore unpublished) short story "Metamorphosis or How to Become a Famous Writer or How to Make it Okay to Eat Unlimited Quantities of Candy Corn," the first-person protagonist (a struggling writer) defines this genre as fiction that "ascribes to the philosophy that life sucks, there is no way out, and this is best expressed through endless lists of obscure adjectives, designed to inject just enough intellect and depth to appeal to serious reviewers and get those oh-so-important front-cover praise blurbs."

 

I've recently read two books in a row that do not fit into this School because they are, in the case of the classic A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis, filled with humor, or in the case of The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrère, decidedly not bleak because of the high-energy Kafka-esque plot turns. However, both of their endings seem to ascribe to the Bleak School's notion that if you can't get what you want, if you can't control life, if you can't even agree on a common reality, life is not worth living or else it is merely a bleak and hopeless exercise to tolerate.

 

In my last blog about Herman Hesse's novella Bartleby, the Scrivener, I make the point that I don't believe Bartleby, a man who simply refuses to participate in life, is a victim of his oppressive obligation to make money unhappily, but rather he is walking apathy—a choice. Yes, he has an apparently loveless, joyless, purposeless life, in which (as in the earlier-referenced books) he cannot get what he wants and his death seems to be an attempt to at least control that. But I posit that all these conclusions are a kind of delusion and misunderstanding of what life is and what it is for. And therefore they are, in a sense, false endings.  Read More 

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The Lasting Message of Bartleby, the Scrivener: PARTICIPATE

Of my comment that Herman Melville's novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street speaks to today's apathy, an attorney friend wrote:

"I can't agree with your reading. In my view Bartleby is, like Kafka's The Trial or Metamorphosis, a parable about the grinding impact of modernity and its inhumane conformity. Bartleby is the farthest thing from apathetic; he would prefer not to, but he is overwhelmed by the irresistible oppression of being a wage slave, for which there is no escape. Interesting that he is a writer as a trade. Alas Bartleby, alas humanity."

Other people have written that the story's themes are depression and isolation. Originally published in 1853, Bartleby, the Scrivener is told by a first person narrator, a reasonable and almost pathologically tolerant attorney, who hires a clerk named Bartleby whose job it is to copy legal papers. However when it comes to proofing the copies, a tedious task that requires participation of all of the copyists, Bartleby replies, "I would prefer not to." This quickly escalates to his preference not to leave the office—ever, and to do no work whatsoever—all of which the lawyer tries to mitigate by cajoling, begging, bribing, and finally vacating the premises and moving his office . . . only to learn that the new tenant cannot get rid of Bartleby either. In the end, this man who would "prefer not to" is carted away and starves to death in prison because eating does not appeal to him.

 

I am a writer by trade and a former actor who's spent my life preferring not to do any job that would get in the way of my art. Miraculously I've survived, but it may be due to the fact that although I've been picky about work hours, I've always done the work I've been hired to do, no matter what my private preferences may be. My main currency has been time—time to create. So certainly I understand preferring not to, but reading this story in 2019, in an era when the Naked Orange Emperor won an election where only 58 percent of eligible Americans voted, meaning that 100 million people "preferred not to" vote, according to the Washington Post, honestly made my skin crawl.  Read More 

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This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren

This past Saturday I went back to my hometown for my 50th high school reunion. When I lived there it was a tiny village and many of my graduating class of about 70 had known each other since first grade. A guy I've stayed in touch with, Doug, picked me up at the train station and proceeded to give me a tour, with such detailed understanding of the architecture, layout, relationships between families, and therefore the history of change that I felt as if I was meeting where I'd lived for the first time. "When did you learn all this?" I asked, astounded. It turned out he'd always seen this way and just kept learning from the time he was a small boy, until now when he is an architect turned city planner. He goes through life with a grid in his head about the relationship between people and landscape that I cannot begin to approach. If I ever wanted help with anything to do with building anything, I'd call Doug.

 

In This Fight Is Our Fight, Elizabeth Warren demonstrates the same grid-like understanding of cultural politics and economics, and therefore how the world works and doesn't work.* Through heartbreaking stories, she clearly explains the relationships between housing, education, systemic unfairness, people, and mega corporations. I cannot begin to convey what is in this book. But after reading just a couple of chapters, I wanted to hire her to lead the renovation to make the United States work for everybody.

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3 Alison Lurie Books: Why Do People Act as They Do?

I am endlessly fascinated by the way people act in groups and how individuals in groups often evolve into homogeneity—talking in the same lingo with similar intonation, believing the same beliefs, etc. Probably my fascination comes from my loner inclinations. I've rarely done well or enjoyed being in large groups; hence, I have spent a lot of time examining them and me. My newest novel, currently circulating to publishers, largely concentrates on this topic, and I've recently discovered another novelist who seems equally fascinated by the mystery. In the interest of promoting (sometimes funny) loner perspectives about groups, I offer the following brief reviews of Alison Lurie's wonderful books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foreign Affairs

From the first sentence, I was sucked into this Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Vinnie Minor, a 54-year-old children's literature professor with a lot of fixed ideas about other people and herself. She is a loner and likes it . . . until she allows herself to soften and change, and yet still be a loner. This is a quiet story about truth and phoniness and relationships. The cover blurbs call it a comedy, which I found perplexing. I didn't laugh once. But that didn't matter. I was invested in and identified with Vinnie and the other characters, and enjoyed their ride immensely.

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Learn from the Past—Life Photographers: What They Saw by John Loengard

 

Growing up as a photographer is like going to medical school and becoming an intern. You start understanding what the world is about and how to translate it into photographs. You may become more efficient, more proficient, more educated, more intelligent, more loving. If you’re not moved by what you’re looking at, your pictures will not contain the human response.
—Cornell Capa, p. 251

I think it was in 1996 or 1997 that I was working as a freelance transcriptionist when I got a series of tapes that changed me. Sitting alone in my room, I was hearing the voices of people who talked about events that I'd learned about in school, and many nobody could ever learn about because they were private knowledge from firsthand experience. These photographers had not only been on the frontlines of WWII, but behind the lines, in the rooms where Roosevelt and Stalin and Churchill sat; in a cave with Tito; on the sidelines as Hitler passed; on board the ship Vincennes when it was sunk in Guadalcanal (photographer Ralph Morse described, in the most matter-of-fact way, how men died right next to him and how “You’re in that other thousand that didn’t get scratched. Why? I don’t know. Your number wasn’t up.”*); with John Steinbeck supplying the back story that turned into The Grapes of Wrath; they had been with movie stars and poor black families that nobody ever heard of. And these were only the batch of audiotapes I transcribed. What about all the other interviews?

 

At the time, the entire collection comprised about half of the still-living original Life magazine** photographers—the first so-called photojournalists. At the time of their interviews, they were in their 80s and 90s and still humble and arrogant and regular people who had found themselves, mostly with no preparation, in extraordinary situations where they not only coped, but thrived. It was not just what they had witnessed that moved me; it was their ordinariness (and, in the case of a couple—Cornell Capa and Gordon Parks—their compassion). I'd listen and type for a while, then find myself lying on my floor sobbing, so overcome with the sound of their voices telling little me, an anonymous NYC transcriptionist, their history through my headphones. Nobody but John Loengard (the interviewer who was also a Life photographer who was tasked with videotaping these picture-taking historians) and his associates had heard this extraordinary material.

When I returned my transcripts to my boss at the transcription agency, I was gasping. "This stuff is unbelievable," I told her. "I can't stop crying." To which she responded that all the transcriptionists were reporting this reaction. Read More 

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What If Altruism is Our True Nature? Review: Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger

Scientists tell us we are programmed to be drawn to round baby faces; dopamine is released in our brains and we feel protective instincts. Likewise, when we see somebody struggling or hurt, there is an instinct to help.

The word "perversion" derives from the Latin perversionem and is defined as "action of turning aside from truth, corruption, distortion."

So, looking at our present government policy of taking children away from their parents, locking them in cages, and neglecting them, one can deduce that we have a policy of perversion. In response to being directed to commit perverted acts, some of us refuse and blow the whistle, and others become full-fledged perverts. On a recent 60 Minutes interview, Nazi war criminal prosecutor Ben Ferencz says that "War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars and all decent people." It turns people against themselves—their inborn altruism—turning them into perverts.

The election of the Trump administration has brought us into all-out war with and for our national soul.

John Ironmonger's 2015 novel Not Forgetting the Whale begs the question of what is natural—self-preservation or generosity and sacrifice, and the story swept me away and ultimately reaffirmed my belief in our innate altruism.

In this smart and compelling parable we learn about dependencies, supply chains, connections between everything, and how things happen according to streams of supply and need. We debate the possible end of civilization as we know it due to our human self-interest vs. an optimistically imagined natural impulse for generosity and sacrifice. All this forms the matrix of this story about a naked man and a beached whale, both of whom wash up on the shore of the off-the-grid village of St. Piran in the southwest corner of England.

The writing and storytelling are wonderful. The profound issues start artfully and become more heavy-handed as the book progresses. But I am interested in these subjects so I was consistently intrigued, sometimes pausing to contemplate the big issues of what causes everything to happen and how to redirect the train of actions leading to catastrophic events. There is a mythical quality to the tale, and the sometimes-sentimentality or intellectual debates about our nature worked! I was completely engaged and couldn’t put the book down. Read More 

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The Human Mob—Our Destiny?

It was the summer 1980 or thereabouts. It's hard to remember, but I know it was hot because I was wearing a soft white cotton dress with shoulder straps. I wasn't that interested in clothes, but when I'd seen this dress, it had beckoned because of its unconstricting beauty and flow, and I needed dresses that I could stand inhabiting for eight mind-numbing hours a day doing temp work in New York City offices. I was headed back to one such office and in a hurry because my hour lunch was almost up.

 

Madison Avenue and Fifty-second Street or thereabouts. A midtown torrent of people and vehicles. I don't remember if the walk light was green when I stepped off the curb. It might have been. It might not have.

 

The week before, the light had definitely been green—the green "Walk" sign solidly radiating permission as I stepped off the curb on quiet Central Park West. No cars even stopped at the red light, so I didn't bother to look to my left to see the cyclist hurtling toward me. And when she slammed into me, I was too stunned to do more than gasp, "The light was green!" To her credit, she leapt off the ground and checked that I was unhurt before speeding away.

 

But on this day—this hot summer day a week later on Madison Avenue—I not only saw but I heard the cyclist coming, screaming at me to get out of the way, and in a kind of frantic flashback of the previous accident, I stepped right into his path as he heroically tried to avoid me.

 

What happened next is as vivid as right now: Read More 

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The Mueller Report Is a Must-Read

Like a good book, this report has a solid structure: each section builds on the previous one, if you contemplate the stated facts.

 

We may think we already know most of the information in this report via the media, but reading the first section account of Russian interference in our elections by affecting our culture is a personal experience unlike hearing news. It is chilling to read about specific Russians masquerading as Americans, setting up organizations and rallies, and sowing lies that bloom and grow exponentially as they are repeated by the likes of Trump et al. as well as millions of ordinary citizens. If you read this blow by blow, you will experience the truth of the words "We were attacked."

 

Mueller reports facts, but I believe metaphor is the best way to convey the impact of those facts to anyone who doubts we were attacked or to anyone, like me, who accepts that we were attacked (and that it is ongoing), but who hasn't viscerally connected with what this means:

 

Imagine that alien beings infiltrated all of our communications grids. They became part of our phone conversations, the media we consume, and our culture. Imagine these aliens have studied our American culture and can mimic it, blending in so seamlessly that they can participate in our communities as any local does. They get to know people, learn their vulnerabilities, and craft just the right things to say to trigger their deepest fears and angers, thereby making these Americans unwitting alien surrogates, carrying the carefully crafted messages further into our culture to create maximum conflict (and—my opinion—eventually war, thereby changing the world stage because people will no longer wish for democracy if this is the result). Imagine these aliens infiltrate our voting mechanisms, knowing better than we do how they work and all kinds of statistics about the layout of our electoral college and what kind of pressure and persuasion will work best where.  Read More 

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E. B. White, What a Writer

Because a friend on Goodreads raved so passionately about Melissa Sweet's Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White that I could not wait to get my hands on a copy, and because said copy was not immediately available at the local branch of the blessed New York Public Library, I found myself drawn to a languishing edition of One Man's Meat. It is ridiculous to review a seventy-five-year-old book, but that hasn't stopped me:

One Man's Meat by E. B. White

This house, this house now held in Sunday's fearful grip, is a hundred and twenty years old. I am wondering what Sabbaths it has known. Here where I sit, grandfather H. used to sit, they tell me—always right here. He would be surprised were he here this morning to note that the seams in the floor have opened wide from the dry heat of the furnace, revealing the accumulation of a century of dust and crumbs and trouble and giving quite a good view of the cellar. (46)


For the last six days, I have been inhaling my mother's 1944 edition of E. B. White's volume of heavenly essays, written between 1938 and 1943 when White was both farming in Maine and doing his duty as a watchman to support the War effort.

My edition lacks a dust cover but has an inscription dated 10/27/45 from a long-dead friend to my now-dead mother, Edna, on the occasion of her twenty-fourth birthday. This browning tome has been on my shelf for decades. And when I finally took it down and began to read, I almost drowned in the accrued feelings: This book, this book is seventy-five years old. And I am wondering about all the hands that held it—from the printer's to warehouse workers' to bookstore clerks' to my mother's dear friend Tommy, to young, optimistic Edna, a budding writer, who—once we were both finally grown up enough to be friends—often mentioned E. B. White and kept this book through marriage, popped fantasy bubbles, and numerous dwellings. We never talked much about books, and although I remember her expressing reverence for White's writing, in my arrogance, ignorance, and youth, I never thought to explore his work beyond Stuart Little, which was enough to make him my hero for life. (I didn't see the need to read Charlotte's Web until a few years ago when it beckoned from my top shelf and ended up being a driving force in my own novel, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg—so it was research. I blush at my oblivion.) Edna died in 1990 at age sixty-eight, the age I will turn in two days, and I want her back so we can talk: "I get it! I get it!" I cry. "If only I had known more when you were alive so we could share our love for Andy White."  Read More 

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Benefits of Becoming — Much More than a Memoir

A page and a half into the preface of this book, I found my heart pounding, as if syncing up with an all-consuming life force. It consumed me, made me tear up, and I had to stop reading to type the previous sentence.

Every writer has an energy. Some write from a shallow pool, and I really don't care about those books. Others, not that many, write from an ocean — a place much bigger than their everyday self — and it's called Love. Becoming has an almost palpable pulse as strong as the ocean tide.

There is something for everyone through this pulse:

    • If you are an inveterate skeptic, or an order devotee, or someone who has been torn apart by seemingly opposite obligations and doubts about being good enough, Michelle Obama speaks for you.

 

    • If you're black or brown, you'll probably nod a lot with recognition.

 

    • If you're white, same thing, even as you relate to unfairness you've never faced; Obama's openness, vulnerability, and warmth make her experience feel as if it is your own — no small trick.

 

    • If you have ever felt in over your head, with more responsibility than you can handle, yet simultaneously in awe of the situation, your experience will both resonate with and be dwarfed by this story.


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Favorite Books Read in 2018

links in text lead to my Goodreads reviews

I want to read and I want to write "stories that have to be written." Everybody will have their own definition of that, but mine is stories that scratch an itch I might not have known was there, and once scratched, I feel relief; stories that express something in a particular writer's essential voice (a voice that doesn't belong to or mimic anyone else) and move the culture or change a perspective; or stories that make me laugh really hard.

This year was low on comedy, but high on scratching itches. And if I couldn't stop talking about a book, or if I didn't talk about it at all because it was too personal, or if it left me with flashbacks that are between me and myself, it's on this short list of 2018 favorites.

Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country (Steve Almond) got below the surface of our politics, biases, and affinities and told the truth about how we created the swirling mess we're negotiating.

Circe (Madeline Miller) uses mythology in a way that feels current and more truthful than truth to tell a strong woman's journey—the journey of a woman who could be any of us.

Cove (Cynan Jones), in a mere 92 pages, makes you feel how badly we really want to live and survive. After reading a library copy, I had such a craving to be able to pick it up whenever I wanted that I bought a copy and read it again. It gets better every time.  Read More 

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Bob Woodward's Fear: a review

About a quarter of the way through this comprehensive history of everything leading up to the election of Trump and all the current events, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs who is the president's top economic advisor, attempts to explain our economy to Trump. He brings him copious research and data and finally makes it as simple as possible by asking: which would you choose—to go into a mine and get black lung or to make the same salary doing something else? He is attempting to intrude into Trump's belief that our trade agreements are disgraceful because we're losing manufacturing jobs—despite the data that more than 80 percent of our jobs are not in manufacturing and that a trade deficit is not a bad thing since it allows people to spend more money on what they're spending it on anyway—services. Nothing seems to penetrate.
Several times Cohn just asked the president, "Why do you have these views?"

"I just do," Trump replied. "I've had these views for 30 years."  Read More 
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When Daddy Is Nuts

A reaction to NY Times Op-ed
I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration



In his seminal book Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, linguist, cognitive scientist, and expert on the framing of political discourse George Lakoff writes that the conservative worldview is one of patriarchal top-down authority. Children are raised to be good through punishment and discipline, and Daddy will support and protect the family from a dangerous world.

But what if Daddy is nuts? Read More 

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

What keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness and our place on this planet in the context of all that is—and responding rationally? And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not? These are the questions at the heart of Richard Powers's powerful new novel The Overstory as he attempts to tell us "something [we] need to hear."

 

This is a book for right now—a time when we face the possibility of the extinction of democracy and the extinction of human life as the planet screams and we ignore it, placing our addiction to consumerism above the right to life of trees and subsequently all living things (including us) who are connected to the lives of trees.

 

In The Overstory, Powers gives trees, our closest plant relative with whom we share most of our DNA, a voice, a voice that is praying for us to change our ways and let Life live.

 

Maybe we'll listen; maybe we won't. But for me there is one small consolation: if we don't listen, if we kill ourselves and our environment, life will not end. In the wonderful PBS documentary, Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl, we get a glimpse into such a future, where twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, scientists have found life flourishing—"a sort of post-atomic Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons, and ruled by wolves."

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Truthiness in "Reading"

One night many decades ago when I was working as a legal secretary, one of the partners asked an associate about a brief she was working on—what was its status?

"I typed it," she answered.

I held my breath waiting to hear the partner's response. He did not disappoint me: "You typed it yourself?" he asked pleasantly. And although he made no show of noticing me, I'm sure he heard my strangled laugh and enjoyed it.

"Well, no," answered the associate, blushing deeply. "I mean I had it typed."

"By a secretary," said the partner.

"Yes," she nodded, avoiding my side of the room.  Read More 

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