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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Joys of Solitude 101: 10 Tips

As a person who woke with dread for the four decades I was compelled to work with other people in offices, silently thinking "if only I could work alone," I may have some wisdom for people who normally leap out of bed in anticipation of social contact—people who are now forced into a routine that requires low levels of oxytocin to enjoy. So to you, I offer the following tips, the first one of which got me through my years of mandated social agony:

 

1. It's only temporary. If you can just do this for the required time in order to stay well, know that one day you will be able to revert to your happy natural self. Anything is do-able, even life, if you remember that the only consistent thing is change, and this too shall change.

 

2. No more makeup, no more appropriate dressing of any kind. No more need for clothes! Think of the money you'll save.

 

3. You can fart with abandon.

 

4. Relax your facial muscles. I'll bet you have no idea how much time you've spent stress smiling, faking care when you really didn't want to hear about Bob's grandmother's operation, pretending you were okay with that guy/girl in the neighboring cubicle latching onto you when their very presence made you want to shower. No more pretending! Feel the relief and let it move through your now-flaccid body.

 

5. To keep that flaccid body from melting into a puddle of adipose, exercise at home—YouTube videos, Kathy Smith videos are my go-to, free weights, a treadmill, dance like nobody's watching—because nobody is. Nobody to impress. Enjoy some private endorphins. Work up a sweat. And, again, fart with abandon.

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I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, "Was my father handsome?"
She replied, "Some might say yes."
"Was he smart?" I asked.
She stared at the television. "Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman's chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?"
I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died. (pp. 84-85)

I've quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book about a boy who is named "Not Sidney Poitier" although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.

 

However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain.

 

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a quest story—a search for identity, or one's true essence, in a culture where that is largely obscured by other people's perceptions of race, wealth, and the like. Each event in this quest is a step for Not Sidney to find out who he is. The book opens with him wondering who his father was, then careens into a life where he is a screen for other people's projections. After getting beaten, locked up, applauded for his money, and locked up again, he finally decides to go back to where he came from . . . only to be met at the L.A. airport by yet another person who mistakes him for the real Sidney Poitier. Exhausted and depleted of any sense of identity, he acquiesces and ends up receiving an award as the Greatest Black Man in the Universe—a role that is a distortion of anybody, including the real Sidney Poitier. His last line, in my opinion, is perfect:  Read More 

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I Wish More People Would Read Books

Because I write books, of course I wish more people would read them. But I write fiction, and this morning, after seeing a plethora of fearful social media posts as well as the New York Times's trepidatious headline about Bernie Sanders's New Hampshire primary win ("Tightens Grip on Party's Liberal Wing"), my wish is that people would read more nonfiction.

 

Why?

 

Because, unless the books are the fabrication of a good ghost writer (i.e., The Art of the Deal, now disavowed by repentant ghostwriter Tony Schwartz), people tend to expose who they really are when they write.

 

Since the 2016 election, I have read a lot of political books:

 

In A Higher Loyalty, former head of the FBI James Comey came across as thoughtful and introspective . . . with a fatal flaw that turned off his self-analysis talent: blind righteousness when it came to his decision to talk about an ongoing investigation, despite the fact that it was against FBI policy.

 

In Hillary Clinton's post-mortem, What Happened, she is warm, funny, dedicated, smart, and unbelievably oblivious when she dismisses, with one line, the Democratic National Committee's rigging of the primaries—because it was legal, albeit completely unethical. She gives not one thought to all the people who felt betrayed to find out what really happened in that instance. It is the same oblivion that allowed her to condemn "deplorables" and promise unemployment for coal miners. For a smart and usually ridiculously controlled person, she could be incredibly flippant.

 

I like Comey and Clinton—a lot. I understand flaws and have plenty of them. I don't believe either one of them wants anything other than the best for this country, but they have blind spots—a similar tendency to instantly dismiss what they disagree with.

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Awakening the Ancient Power of Snake by Dawn Baumann Brunke

 

I used to work as managing editor of a magazine whose theme was spirituality. Despite its subject, it was news and research-based at its core. Readers liked this, but often we would get pitches from New Age writers who couldn't understand the importance of science, verification, and credentials. It was my job to gently explain that although I understood that people had powerful personal experiences, for us to publish a "fact" story, the writer and/or material had to have had some kind of vetting.

 

I cannot imagine a better writer than Dawn Baumann Brunke for material that might otherwise fall into the "woo-woo" category for many readers. She is not only a deep dreamer with apparently 20/20 vision for details that she remembers, but she is a skeptical analyst of all things and a researcher who understands that history matters—that everything, including dream images, has history that informs meaning. And it helps that she is also an elegant writer who knows how to tell a story.

 

Who better to write about one of the most potent and controversial animals—snake? Snake is worshipped and loathed. It is embedded in our stories and architecture and reflected in our DNA. There is even a named phobia (ophidiophobia) because fear of snakes is common among our species.

 

This generously illustrated book is so full—from history, art, myth, and science, to personal stories of owning and feeding snakes, to understanding why our feelings about the iconic snake (in body and in image) are indicative of the sharp divides in today's culture, how these divides came to be, and what we might do to accept the synthesis of opposites offered by one of the most ancient symbols of healing, protection, and oneness. Read More 

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Watching the Human Race

 

To mark publication of my anthology of stories and plays, Girl Stories & Game Plays, I'm sharing one story from the collection. Although I wrote it many years ago as a manifestation of my ongoing effort to soften my own judgmental nature, at this time when our culture has devolved into accusing "sides," this seems more applicable now than when I wrote it.

 

(Two other stories from the collection are also available on this site: Jakey, Get Out of the Buggy and a video of me reading Pose Please at the botton of Girl Stories & Game Plays book page.)

 


Watching the Human Race

 

Marla barely tolerates people. They make unreasonable demands, lie when it is to their benefit, and, worst of all, behave irresponsibly. Irresponsibility Marla cannot stomach. She hoped a Sunday walk across Central Park and an afternoon of shopping would distract her from her desire to murder the woman on the 35th floor at work who seems to take pleasure in upsetting Marla's orderly habits, and in whose presence, seemingly intelligent men's brains turn to mush. It is this mush factor that's kept the woman employed no matter how many days off she takes, how many rules she flaunts, or how, despite the five years Marla has personally handed her a paycheck, the woman cannot remember Marla's name and persists in calling her Maria!

 

That woman has everyone but Marla bamboozled. She wears Laura Ashley dresses, speaks in a studied throaty voice, and has unruly waist-length blonde hair that falls into her eyes at orchestrated moments of vulnerability. Friday, she suggested to Marla's boss that that idiot Selma handle payroll, knowing full well that this is Marla's job—a job that makes Marla feel powerful. Marla wishes to kill this woman, but since that is not realistic, she went shopping. Read More 

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

[2/27/20 Update: See author John Ironmonger's blog about how this book relates to our current coronavirus outbreak.]

 

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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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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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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What Would Mister Rogers Do?



The new documentary about Mister (Fred) Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, could not be more timely. Some of the seasoned professionals at the Directors Guild screening last night wept—with longing. Mister Rogers's message was simple: Be Kind. A Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers never "preached." He just loved. He looked deeply into the eyes of children and said, "I like you just the way you are." He embodied the Golden Rule. He knew that at the core of every person is a small child who wants to be loved and valued as they are. He knew that human beings start in this world filled with a desire to be good.

It is no coincidence that director Morgan Neville received unprecedented support to get this movie into theaters as soon as was humanly possible. The message from everybody who helped—financially and otherwise—was "We need this movie!" And in fact the film ends on questions about what Fred Rogers would do right now, in our current political and cultural tumult. "I think he would try to make it bend," says his widow Joanne. I interpreted that to mean that rather than rail at the reprehensible behavior of President Trump et al., he would look this man deeply in the eyes and try to address the hiding child full of goodness inside. Read More 
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A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

James Comey is a very good writer, storyteller, and teacher, so on a literary level (except for one odd plot order choice—the highly dramatic John Ashcroft hospital showdown between Comey and Bush representatives—which I suspect has to do with the need to insert a ton of detailed background information), this book works.

Comey is a man who is in love with the law and justice and has a loathing of bullies. He is a student and practitioner of ethical leadership—which is really the topic of this book. He is a deeply reflective person. Yes, he tries to make himself look good by talking about his noble motives, but, unless he practiced introspection, he could not relay his introspective self-interrogations about his motives and whether something is ego-driven or directed for the higher good. If he were not compelled to know what's honest, he would not have told the story of the time he was the very thing he loathes—a horrible bully. I relate to this introspective inquiry because I do it myself—constantly, relentlessly—and I'm amazed so many other people don't. But I shouldn't be surprised. As Comey writes, "It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future. (137)" One can only know this pain by experiencing it, so I believe he is committed to this. Also like me, Comey has had a lifelong struggle with his tendency to think he's right—overconfidence—and he has had to learn to check his opinions with others, let in belief-disputing information, and monitor his tendency to be impulsive and arrogant. He freely admits all this, and he sees and admires Obama's enlightened ability to believe in himself yet remain humble enough to learn from others "which doesn't often exist alongside overconfidence. (155)"

I like this guy. I really, really like him. We are made from a lot of the same stuff.  Read More 
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Books We Cherish in Multiples

On the anniversary of publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, my friend Karen Troianello posted a Facebook homage to her multiple copies of the book, and it got me thinking about my own multiples (see photo) and the personal reasons I will hang onto them for the rest of my life. And that got me wondering about other people's multiples and reasons for holding them. So I asked.

Boy, are we loyal to books we love. We cherish them like family members. My friend Maureen Phillips who writes delightful stories and poems about fairies calls her multiples "a little family of weirdos who all sit on the shelves together." (Madame Bovary, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Shipping News, A Confederacy of Dunces, the stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe.)  Read More 

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