George Saunders & the age of distraction

I do know that I started noticing a change in my own reading habits – I’d get online and look up and 40 minutes would have gone by, and my reading time for the night would have been pissed away, and all I would have learned was that, you know, a certain celebrity had lived in her car awhile, or that a cat had dialled 911. So I had to start watching that more carefully. But it’s interesting because (1) this tendency does seem to alter brain function and (2) through some demonic cause-and-effect, our technology is exactly situated to exploit the crappier angles of our nature: gossip, self-promotion, snarky curiosity. It’s almost as if totalitarianism thought better of the jackboots and decided to go another way: smoother, more flattering – and impossible to resist.
— George Saunders
Source: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/...

Reading lately

The purposes and goals we create are phantom bodies — vestiges of and memorials to the people, places and things we stand to lose and strive to keep. Purpose indexes the world’s impermanence, namely our own. Sure, my grandfather’s T-Bird will function well as transportation once I’m finished. But, that goal only makes sense as an enduring reminder of the stories and memories of him. Purpose is about loss, or at least the circumvention of it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We create purposes to establish happy endings in a universe where endings are simply that — endings.

Dig the caption on this one (& props to my friend Judah for flagging it):

I did a dry run of my morning commute yesterday and resisted the urge to read on the train or even listen to the 8 million podcasts waiting for me on my phone. I just stared out the window on the way downtown and back. My romantic* fascination with becoming a suburb-to-city commuter is owed exclusively to John Cheever stories and Mad Men, none of which ended well. It is my lifelong habit to learn all the wrong lessons from dubious source materials. But my resistance to stacking stimuli atop stimuli did speak to this (from Raptitude.com): 

One evening last week, I was sitting on my front stoop waiting for a friend to come over. I brought a book out with me, but instead of reading I just sat there and let my senses take in the scene.

I didn’t look or listen for anything in particular, I just let the details of this particular moment in the neighborhood come to me: the quality of the air—heavy and warm, the incoming summer storm kind; birds; two couples having a conversation down the sidewalk; the clinking of dishes coming from inside the house to my right; distant hammering from a construction site somewhere in the blocks behind my house.

There was also a scent that I only recently learned has a name: petrichor. It’s the earthy scent of rain having just fallen on soil after a dry spell. You definitely know it. It was a big part of the overall flavor of the scene.

I engage this kind of receptive awareness often, particularly when I’m waiting for someone, and there’s something very satisfying about it. Every scene in our lives—whatever’s unfolding at any given time in a front yard, a living room, a doctor’s office, a grocery store—has its own unique tone and emotional signature, which you can notice if you’re not talking in your head, which we usually are.

My head never shuts the fuck up, but I'm honestly trying.

*I'm using "romantic" in the sense of "having no basis in fact : IMAGINARY" rather than Judith Krantz. (Do people still read Judith Krantz? Or is it all YA dystopia these days? I do not know the current landscape, I only want the Danielle Steel Palominos and Changes of yesteryear.) 

3 things for today

1. I have a new job for real that starts very soon so I can finally let out this breath I've been holding in since March. We'll talk more about this later (the time of unemployment, not the job), but let's just say: WHEW.

2. Yesterday I pulled into a parking space downtown and realized I was worrying about X number of stupid things so I said "Hey Siri, take a note: you don't need to feel guilty about enjoying your life." Siri got it all wrong as usual so I cursed at her and we engaged in a minor inter-car tiff before I remembered I could just stop talking to nobody.

3. I'm always wary of people handing out koans for free but this fit into my current frame of mind so well I drank it up like soup:

“What if there is no ‘next level?’ What if it’s just an idea you made up in your head? What if you’re already there and not only are you not recognizing it, but by constantly pursuing something more, you’re preventing yourself from appreciating it and enjoying where you are now?”

I mean seltzer or beer or anything but soup, obviously. Soup is the worst. "Here, drink this salty hot garbage with chunks of mush in it." Really, the worst.

4. This profile of GOOP founder Gwyneth Paltrow at the NYT is well worth the read, as is every single thing written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. It's generous but skeptical and critical but not mean-spirited, although my favorite parts had little to do with GP:

My phone rang. It was the mother of my son’s friend, back home in stupid New Jersey, and I realized she wouldn’t be calling if not for something gone awry. I apologized to G.P. and picked up the phone. The mom told me that my son was insisting that I was supposed to be picking him up. “I’m in California!” I whispered. “I’m with Gwyneth Paltrow!” She said she’d pass the message along and proceed as usual. G.P. said something, but I couldn’t concentrate because I was trying to understand how my 7-year-old didn’t know that I was out of town. Had I not said goodbye?

I get that it's dicey to make yourself (as the writer) a heavy part of the profile, but I dig it. It adds texture and meaning, as long as it's tied to the larger story.

I drove back to my hotel to find that a family that owned a Mercedes dealership would be hosting an impromptu all-night party around the pool and that I would never get any sleep. I thought about my children, one of whom plays the flute, but unwillingly, and therefore won’t practice. Yes, I thought about my children, only one of whom might shake your hand while the other would sooner spit on it, though they will both reliably do an elaborate orchestration of armpit farting while I’m trying to hear myself think. I thought of my mother and father, and an earlier conversation I had with my sisters that day about where to arrange our parents in a room for one of our kids’ bar mitzvahs so that they wouldn’t interact, so raw still are the wounds 35 years after their divorce. I thought of my big, disgusting Size 11 feet, which are wide and flat and have the look of scuba flippers and which designers have shod only begrudgingly. I thought of the third child I don’t have, the one I ache for. The car salespeople danced below.

5. A few other keepers by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who as I mentioned is always worth reading:

Any boob can take and shove a ball in a pocket

Linda Holmes at NPR did a deep dive on 'Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man back in 2014 (which she notes was written in 1957 and set in 1912):

It's just worth taking a moment now and then to remember that people have long believed the culture was collapsing, the world was going dark, the music was all junk, the books were all corrupting, and the new thing replacing the old thing meant the new people were going to be worse. And that panic has always been built in the same ways, and always used to motivate people to do things and spend money and join causes.

And earlier:

And ragtime! Shameless music that will grab your son, your daughter in the arms of a jungle animal instinct.

Well, it wouldn't be a classic cultural panic without a little appeal to racism about a genre of music that originated in black communities and how it's going to bring out the out-of-control, sex-having jungle animal in your nice little kids (including daughters, mentioned here for the first and only time during a rant that's been mostly about boys).

And then he yells:

Massteria!

He just told them he's inducing mass hysteria, but that's okay — they're not listening.

“But that’s okay—they’re not listening.” It always is as it always was.

Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/201...

On uselessness

First in the era of America Online, and then in the era of LiveJournal and micro-blogging, the internet was at least partly an escape. It was a place where the boundaries of real life, in which everything was more or less a job interview, could be sloughed off and one could imagine the internet as a quiet, uninhabited space of whispered intimacies. In this era of hyper-usefulness, what seems rarest and most valuable online are spaces that offer, however illusorily, a return to this original uselessness. There are places where, against the constant obligation to be seen and remembered, we might get to be unseen, unrecorded, and forgotten.
— Helena Fitzgerald @ The Verge
Source: https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/18/1736652...

Side effects

No joke. From the New York Times:

Could common prescription medications be contributing to depression and rising suicide rates?

Over one-third of Americans take at least one prescription drug that lists depression as a potential side effect, a new study reports, and users of such drugs have higher rates of depression than those who don’t take such drugs.

Many patients are taking more than one drug that has depression as a side effect, and the study found that the risk of depression increased with each additional such drug taken at the same time.

In the last few years I had to go cold turkey on birth control pills and more than one asthma medication (inhalers, antihistamines) because I could tell they were messing with my brain. I recognized pretty quickly that ongoing, daily, seemingly bottomless slack-jawed depression and intense fits of weeping were 100% not the norm for me—and was lucky enough to pinpoint what was causing them—but it felt like a very slippery downhill slope. I’m certainly not advocating this route for all peoples, but it’s important to be aware of, and pay attention to.

Forward by

I'm sitting on the sofa in my pajamas at 11:58 a.m. I just finished my lunch (farro topped with these Jodhpur lentils from Tasty Bites; tiny peppers; banana) and have nowhere to be until 7:30 p.m. (The Cher Show, if you can believe it!). I had two recruiter calls scheduled for today; one of them failed to call and the other I pushed back to next week as I'm preparing for two real interviews on Thursday and those jobs aren't going to get themselves.

Is this any way to live a life?

I awoke later than usual (6:30 a.m.) and was immediately in a bad mood, for hormone reasons. I was ready to be crabby all day, to lean in to some generalized, zero-proportion rage, but as I microwaved my morning oatmeal I heard Lin Brehmer on XRT say "The world is changing, bro" as he led into a song—from what I could tell, apropos of nothing—and I laughed out loud, on and off, for the next half an hour. Naturally this torpedoed all my previous plans, which included no smiling again, ever. I told my friend Groucho once that Lin Brehmer is the only man I would consider marrying, and it's still true. I really, really love Lin Brehmer (an already-married man I do not know and despite all this evidence to the contrary have no plans to stalk). Keep this news between yourself and this blog, thanks.

+ I'm reading this Grand Forks book of restaurant reviews by that lady who took all the heat for writing about the Olive Garden way back when, and who Anthony Bourdain championed and then rewarded with a publishing contract. It's quite charming but many of the reviews, which date back to the mid-80s, include italicized, no-context "where are they now?" disclaimers at the end that are severely heartbreaking. A small sampling:

  •  "At the Tomahawk, They Roast the Whole Turkey, People Go to the Highway Cafe for the Kind of Meals They Used to Eat at Home: Meat, Potatoes, Pie": Marilyn says Tomahawk has closed down, and there is no new restaurant in its place.
  • "Sonja's Hus Has Cheery Blue and Red Norwegian Decor": The Regency Inn and Sonja's Hus no longer operate in East Grand Forks.
  • "Frenchy's Cabaret Has New Menu with Combo Options": Hubert 'Frenchy' LaCrosse closed Frenchy's in the mid-1990s.
  • "Mr. Steak Aims to Be the Gathering Place for Birthdays": Mr. Steak is no longer in business.
  • "Neon Lights, Burgers, Malts Are Topper's Trademarks": Topper's succumbed to a fire and the site is now home to a bank.

Jesus Christ! She also reports that Mr. Steak served an average of 100 to 110 free birthday steaks every week, so maybe it's no surprise they're out of business. More than anything else this book is a good reminder that most restaurants started out as somebody's dream, which was then ground into the dirt by the fickle and unknowable appetites of humanity.

The magic of ordinary

I subscribe to 8 billion newsletters and am always glad to add another. This is the gift of the internet, which is appalling in so many ways. Enjoy it when you can! Jesus Christ! We're all dying!

This is from food writer Ruby Tandoh, who I just found at this website:

And the magic doesn’t stop there. When the bread hits the oven, proteins and sugars in the dough transform in what is maybe my favourite chemical reaction of all time: the Maillard reaction. It gives that lovely, slightly chewy, golden top to a loaf of bread, as well as all these things: the rich, sweet, browned layer on the very outside of a steak cooked to perfection; the soft upper edge of a Madeira cake, that melts on your tongue; onions collapsing into a caramelised, sticky tangle in a butter-slicked pan; dulce de leche, scooped by a finger straight from the jar; the chewy, salty, mahogany crust of a fresh-baked pretzel. This complex, wondrous chemistry even makes an appearance at the breakfast table. While your eyes are still heavy with sleep, it’s there in your mug of coffee, your breakfast cereals, and even in the pleasure of a slice of perfectly golden-brown, buttered toast. It doesn’t matter how culinarily skilled (or otherwise) you are – if you can make toast, you’re a modern-day alchemist.

Source: https://tinyletter.com/rubytandoh

In all of time

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
— Martha Graham, quoted by Agnes DeMille
Source: https://www.amazon.com/Martha-Life-Work-Gr...

The only thing you need to read about the royal wedding

Actually I have read many, many things, but as a general life rule I'll follow Caity Weaver anywhere she goes:

“Why do you care?” is a question that has been slapped against me like a cold, slimy haddock carcass many times since the royal wedding became a topic of conversation last fall. The answer is: I don’t care at all, and yet I must know every detail or I will die. Do I love “Suits,” the show on which Meghan Markle portrayed a former paralegal? Yes. Have I ever seen “Suits”? Absolutely not. Do I have plans to watch it? No, no offense. Am I addicted to Meghan Markle? One hundred percent. What is the cure? More Meghan. Am I Meghan? Unclear. Am I not not Meghan? Almost certainly. What would I do if Meghan attempted to install herself as a monarch ruling over the United States? Strike her down. Do the inner workings of the British monarchy affect me in any way? Meghan loves cross-body bags.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/24/style/i...

On voluntary aloneness

From Linda Holmes at NPR, "The luxury of solitude":

We have a certain cultural mistrust of solitude, I think. It is for weirdos and lost souls, spinsters and misfits. But in truth, I can't tell you what a luxury I think it is to be entitled to it. Most of the time, I want good company, like most people do. But the experience of earned, voluntary aloneness is, among other things, instructive. I don't think you can really understand how accustomed you are to being scheduled and operating off an internal to-do list at almost all times until you think to yourself, "My goal will be to get to Providence by 4," and then you think, "Why is there a goal?"

+ see also: "Everything you make is an engine," flagged in Laura Olin's weekly newsletter, which you should subscribe to