Monday, October 16, 2017

Chicago Marathon - October 8, 2017

I ran the Chicago Marathon again because of my sister. This time, instead of teaming up with my younger brother to challenge me, she picked her wife, my sister-in-law.  My brother had no interest in doing it again.  The lottery drawing seemed like it was much earlier this year.  They both got in; I didn't. And I wrestled for about two months with whether or not to do it, coupled with a job change that dramatically impacted the decision.  I don't want to get into that here.  Suffice to say, I made training more of a priority than my boss thought it should be.

And yet I trained far less this year.  My total mileage was down overall.  Perhaps I thought I was "over-training" in 2015, but I have to believe that losing weight plays a factor.  I lost about 20 pounds during the course of training in 2015, got down to about 140.  This year, I lost about 10-15 pounds, and doubt I even got down to 150, more like 155.  So carrying 10-15 extra pounds of weight has to be a factor.

And the other factor was the night before the race.  I couldn't sleep.  I took the natural sleep aid included as part of the swag bag from the Expo, and even after I had trouble passing out, I didn't take an Ambien.  I don't think I took Ambien in 2015.  I've been trying to wean myself off it, but certain times I just know I will have trouble sleeping and I take it, and this should have been one of those times.  I slept about an hour, maybe 90 minutes, from 1:30 to 3:00.  Then I couldn't fall back asleep after going to the bathroom and laid awake, anxiously hoping up to the very end to get just 15 minutes of semi-consciousness.  But the alarm went off at 5 AM, and I cursed myself mercilessly and began to get ready.  

I also wanted to make a total side-note here and talk about how I make excuses.  And how it's bullshit when people say, "Excuses, excuses," or "stop making excuses."  No, fuck you.  I will make my fucking excuses on my blog and you can take them or leave them.  There are perfectly valid reasons for everything I have done, and yet the result of them all is complete shit.  My intentions have always been pure.  I can't truly say, "but I did everything right!"  But I've dramatically lowered my expectations about the sort of future I wish to have.  Side-note over. 

So I couldn't sleep, I didn't lose as much weight, and I didn't put in as much mileage.  Also, I was on a 13-days-straight doc review project from September 18-30 in which I put in 125 hours sitting at a desk, and about 6-7 running the 606 and Lake Shore Path.  I really only tapered a week before the race in 2015.  This time it was more like three. 

These four excuses are necessary for me to maintain the illusion that I did not just run a 4:06:18 marathon rather than a 3:57:46 because I was two years older, and experiencing signs of the inevitable decay of my body in a numerically ascertainable form.

That's the first story.
***
The second story is that I ran for charity.  Because I didn't get in through the lottery, and because I can't run a 3:15 marathon (or 3:45 for women), I would have to run for charity.  I looked at the available options, decided that homelessness would be my pet issue, and selected La Casa Norte.  LCN is, in the words of our team leader (who graciously assisted in the editing of the sole e-mail blast, titled "This is a Marathon, Not a Sprint"), "an organization whose mission is to serve youth and families confronting homelessness by providing access to stable housing and delivering comprehensive support services."

I don't want to to get too deeply into the details of the fundraising experience--I want to get to the race--but suffice to say I could write a lot about it and will be happy to talk to anyone that would like more information on what it is like to run for a charity, and what my team experience was like. 

The one thing that came out of the fundraising were the results of the aforementioned e-mail.  I sent out that e-mail September 27, a little less than two weeks before the race.  I had raised $500, and I needed $1,500.  I started to get worried that I wouldn't make it, and that I'd be liable for the shortfall.  But I sent it out and within 12 hours, I had close to $1,000.  I sent a targeted message to about 140 people that I had known over the years and singled them out as special in some way to me.  Only one of them wrote to ask to kindly be removed.

And several complimented me on the e-mail itself.  For me, it felt like a trademark piece, a flash of the panache with which I used to write.  One friend told me that I had a future in fundraising, and it got me thinking a little bit about starting a 501(c)(3).  We'll see how that goes. 

At the moment, my fundraising total sits at $1,434.  I have until Halloween to get that last $66.  I have no problem paying it myself as I have not made a donation in my own name to LCN.  I would have to pay $195 to register.  However, I do think I should be entitled to compensation for my efforts, in whatever form that may take.   

The experience of writing thank you letters to each donor was quite special as well.  Sometimes I think I went over the line and wrote ridiculous notes, such as the one to my friend Annie, which was the latest to come.  It actually gives me a bit of anxiety, like, okay, now I've got to convince them that their donation was worth it.  It was a challenging and educational endeavor, and though I would prefer to run without the additional stress of fundraising anxiety, it has inspired me to think more broadly about charitable work.  To everyone that is reading this, and donated, thank you again for being part of this beautiful collaboration.
***
The last story is the race.  To continue from the first story, I woke at 5:00 AM.  I hit snooze and probably didn't get up until 5:20 or 5:30, and this put me into a stressful situation all morning, worrying that I would be late to my corral (F).  If I wasn't there by 7:45, I'd have to start at the back.  I ate an everything bagel with cream cheese, maybe a tiny bit of cereal, a Clif bar, and some orange juice or apple juice.  I showered and changed and grabbed my really heavy gear check bag (I put way too much in it this year) and headed to the El around 6:15 or 6:30.  As usual, the train ride had a special energy to it, with most of the other riders also running.  I got off at Jackson, and got to Grant Park, and tried to make my way to the blue gear check.  This took forever.  There were a particular hold-up (that I didn't recall in 2015) at the top of the stairs near the Art Institute.  This was standard procedure, and not necessarily an enhanced measure in light of the recent tragic events in Las Vegas, but memories of the Boston tragedy, and reports that the Vegas shooter had booked a room overlooking Grant Park during Lollapalooza in August loomed at a distance.

Once I passed security, I walked, quickly, to my the blue gear check, which was very far from the start corral.  I put it in (and I didn't do my tag properly, but I trusted the attendant to fix it right for me), but not before I took a swig from my Nalgene to swallow an adderrall.  I had mentioned this to my roommate the night before, and in an apparent moment of clarity, he cautioned strongly against it.  I knew it was wrong then, and I know it is now, but when the option is there for me, and I think it might make things easier for me, it is hard for me to resist.  Perhaps that can be excuse #5 and abstinence from that medication which I take most days anyways will improve future performance.  I also had a 5 hour energy shit, which I had gotten from the Expo as a free sample--I swigged that after I got to the corral.  I vaguely wanted to go to the bathroom, but the lines were too long, and it was getting late.  I got a pack of Gatorade energy gummies at a kiosk for free (which I kept in my pocket, along with a few pieces of gum).  I also got, and took, an energy gel there.  (I had also eaten an energy bar on the El ride).   

I was worried about getting to the start corral in time, but I arrived there somewhere in the 7:20's.  It felt like a long wait.  Our wave would go off at 8.  I moved around, trying to find an interesting group to be around for the actual start, sitting down at moments, stretching a little bit (I never stretch because I am too lazy, but it definitely feels good and seems to help--at least stretching the night after the marathon dramatically helped me get into work the next day).  I ended up near a team representing Brazil, because sometimes I feel more comfortable around foreigners than Americans.

The start of the race was announced, and we began moving, and I put on the start of my playlist as I crossed the starting line at roughly 8:02.  I used the same playlist I used in 2015--with a few modifications.  I could write out all the songs again and discuss the slight changes, but I'll leave that to your imagination this time.  Suffice to say, 2015's had 72 songs, and this one had 64, and it ended when I had about a mile left to go.  I had to skip ahead to hit the ending songs as I finished in 2015.  Still I think this is an improved playlist and will be happy to share with anyone that is interested. 

As for the actual race, the opening minutes held the same sort of excitement and exuberance that I felt in 2015.  Truly, the opening of the Chicago Marathon is one of its greatest moments.  The mile or so spent traversing the downtown area is easily the most exhilarating part of the race.  From there, the race continues north, and even passes right by the Goethe statue! 

Now I love Goethe, and I love his statue at Diversey and Canon Dr.  I would often run past it as I made my way down Diversey en route to the Lake Shore Path.  I noticed that very few people were standing there and I reflected that in the future, I would ask any friends to wait there for me to say hi, and then proceed to the finishing area, stopping perhaps somewhere else along the way.  Instead, I saw my family a little bit later.

Now because I was running for charity, my shirt said JACK.  Maybe you can see it in the horrible cell phone camera shot of a computer screen photo below of me at the finish line.

So a lot of people were shouting, "Go Jack!"  Which was nice, it was, but then when my sister shouted it, it didn't register, and somehow she got my attention.  She got two pictures of me--one where I was oblivious, and one where I realized it was her and turned back and waved:

I like the second one better. 

Later, I saw my friend Chuck and his wife Anne, and their two twin boys.  I didn't know he would be there and he didn't know I would be there.  I noticed them and noticed he didn't see me and I shouted "Chuck!" and got his attention and it was kind of a hilarious and surreal moment.

Later I saw my friend Juan across from the UIC Blue Line stop.  I knew he would be somewhere, but not there, and it was immediately apparent where he was and I stopped to hug him and told him to have a good day and continued on my way. 

I felt good the whole way, no real problems, up through mile 18.  And things didn't necessarily get bad there, but it was a turning point of sorts.  I would say around mile 20 and 21 is where things got bad.  You always know it's going to get bad, and I'd tell people if I could get to mile 22 before that hit, I could probably do it. 

But man, was it ever bad.  Pilsen is the last great moment of the course.  The neighborhood gets into it.  It's still fun there.  But then you get to Chinatown and die.  And the rest of the course after Chinatown is just brutal.  It's right out in the sun, there is no kind of shade at all.  And this day got hot.  It got up to about 82 degrees by the time I finished around 12:08.
 
As for the race, I will just say that the last mile was significantly harder for me than the last mile in 2015.  When I saw the last 1000 M sign, it felt like it was going to be a piece of cake.  Then I went forever, and I was like, okay, that sign up there must be like, the last 500 M sign.  Nope. 800 M sign.  It was a very difficult ending.  I became angry at the race, like they were making me feel like I was closer to the end than I really was, that they were purposefully torturing me.

I crossed the finish line and immediately said to myself that I would never do it again.  I staggered around, drinking the first free beer, and several volunteers offered me assistance, which I declined.  I staggered over to a photo area and got this picture taken:
The next guy to get his picture taken was telling the camerawoman about how he had just gotten the exact same time as he had gotten 16 years earlier. 

This is the final picture I will post.  It was taken in Chinatown.  It is my favorite picture because it looks like I am blowing kisses to the crowd.  If I ever do the Chicago Marathon again, I will promise many more kisses for the crowd:

I don't think I have much more to say about it except to say that it was a wild ride, and even though I told myself it was just stupid to run marathons and I would never willingly put myself through that specific, sharp pain upon completion again, found myself looking at the registration dates for 2018 (October 24).

One final note: I availed myself of the free medal engraving services at the Fleet Feet in Lincoln Square, and I would like to call attention to the quality of the engraving from this year, alongside the engraving in 2015:

To this I have to say, Fleet Feet, step up your medal engraving game, and Bank of America, leave three lines on the back again. 

Also: Go Cubs!




       

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate - Al Franken (2017)


This is the second post about politics in as many months.  Perhaps it being 2017 has something to do with that.  People have their ways to speak out about various issues through social media, and this is mine.  I do not engage in prolonged persuasive argument, nor condemnations via Facebook status updates against the scores of politicians and other bad actors that commit atrocious acts every other week, or day.  While I do find many of their actions hilariously terrible, I write about them by writing about books by Democratic Senators.

I am referring, of course, to Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Ted Cruz.  I do not need to say that Trump is the worst president in history.  He is just hilariously terrible.  Hopefully no major damage will be done by his administration.  Many will say, "C'mon man, how can you say that?  What do you call the travel ban?"  And sure there's that, and probably a number of other things that have already been actively changed for the worse.  My point is, he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and he can't seem to get the votes, so we can hope that his term will be mired in the same gridlock that compromised so many of the bills passed by the Obama administration.

Franken tells that story in a very effective way.  The obvious thing to do here is compare it to This Fight is Our Fight.  Giant of the Senate is a better book.  Warren specializes in financial policy, so it makes sense that she needs to make a little extra effort with the reader.  Franken supports Warren on the vast majority of issues (I would be interested to see if they voted the same way on every bill).  He does not, however, purport to be any kind of expert on financial regulation.  Like Warren, he writes about how his previous career informed, and continues to inform, his political career.  He writes saliently about many of his pet issues (minute details of the ACA, especially) and outdoes Warren in the departments of readability and creativity.  And we always have to go here too--everyone wants Elizabeth Warren to run for President, and she's made it clear she doesn't want that, but what about Franken?  No one ever talks about him running for President.  He says nothing whatsoever to suggest that he would like to run.  Nor does he say why he wouldn't.  

Considering the book on its own, it's quite good and highly recommend it.  Like the recently-reviewed NYC 200's oral history, I did not want it to end.  Okay, it wasn't quite the same--I didn't enjoy it quite as much.  However, it was much more consistent.  They're completely different books.  I don't know what I am doing.  I wanted to excerpt one thing about the ACA, because Franken explained something about the Supreme Court decision in 2012 that I never really knew or understood (how Justice Roberts struck down certain provisions of the law) even though I wrote an extensive feature on the various opinions issued by the Court for my school newspaper.  Franken's tone is less of a teacher and more of a regular guy acerbic comedian that went to Harvard who just tells you how things worked:

"But Chief Justice John Roberts, custodian of the Court's reputation, knew that killing health care reform with a third highly partisan, legally dubious, and immediately impactful 5-4 decision on the heels of Bush v. Gore and Citizens United might undermine any remaining confidence in the Court's integrity once and for all.  So Roberts voted with the liberals, agreeing that the mandate was constitutional.  But he picked a different rationale, concluding that the mandate was allowable because the penalty it imposed on people who didn't buy insurance was really a tax, which Congress is empowered by the Constitution to implement.
Roberts's reasoning was so weird that Supreme Court reporters from both CNN and Fox News initially reported the ruling wrong.
Also, critically, Roberts's decision included a drive-by shooting: It eliminated the requirement that states use federal dollars to expand their Medicaid programs, which would have helped cover millions more low-income Americans.
An expert marksman, Roberts had aimed directly at the ACA's foot, weakening the law before it could go into effect.  Republicans hadn't succeeded in getting the Court to block Obamacare, but they could take solace in the fact that Chief Justice Roberts had made it less good." (258)

On the subject of health care, there is another example early on that underscores why the Affordable Care Act makes sense.  Here I will pause briefly to say that, I do not like the ACA because I consider the premium for my exchange plan very high ($366), having known what it's like to have excellent employer-provided coverage ($30, pre-tax).  Franken describes how the U.S. health care system is analogous to the Cambodian system (for those without a job that gives them insurance), and he does it so well as to be nearly immune to criticism:

"The day after the announcement, I visited a health clinic in Minnesota where my friend Dr. Margie Hogan worked.  I spent time meeting with health care providers and patients and listening to some of the horror stories that were commonplace before the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
One of the stories Margie told me became a mainstay of my stump speech.  It involved an incredibly promising seventeen-year-old girl from a Hmong* family who was doing college-level work as a junior in high school.  But she had lupus.  And her family earned just enough money to no longer qualify for MinnesotaCare, a program that covered low-income families in the state.  The girl lost her health insurance.
Lupus is a chronic disease, and the medication that controls it is extremely expensive.  The girl told her parents to stop buying it so they could afford to take care of the other kids in the family.  It broke their hearts, but she was right: They couldn't afford the medicine, not with everything else weighing on the family budget.  So they stopped buying it.
The next time Margie saw the girl was six weeks later, back in the hospital.  But this time, she was in the emergency room, suffering from renal failure.  She had to be put on dialysis, and doctors thought she might have to be on dialysis for the rest of her life.
'Now, that's wrong,' I would tell crowds that had invariably gone quiet by this point in the story.  'But it's not just wrong--it's stupid!  How much is it going to cost our system to give her dialysis throughout her life?  And how much is this going to cost her, in terms of her potential and her quality of life?'" (80-81)

That asterisk goes on to describe the Hmong people (random aside: isn't the kid's family in Gran Torino Hmong?) and is also the major point of my criticism: the asterisks are too small!  Clearly, I can see when each page has footnotes, but I would always miss the asterisk in the body of the text itself and search for sometimes like 30 seconds to see which part Franken was joking about or explaining further.

There are a ton of jokes in this book and that is one of the ways it is most refreshing.  Because Franken writes a lot about how he has not taken most of the opportunities he has gotten as a Senator to be funny, and he seems to have been holding his breath for the past 8 years, and finally this is like a big vomit pool of jokes.  I was kind of excited when Franken got elected because I thought he would bring more humor to various political events, but he hasn't done that very much.  He does in this book, however, and he also mentions every time he tried to be funny and how it backfired.

Those above quotes about health care also make me want to mention Mitt Romney. Because part of what makes this book good is Franken's willingness to point out the few redeeming qualities his Republican colleagues possess.   I have never heard anybody complain about Romneycare, and regardless of how much credit he is due for that piece of legislation, it appears to be the gold standard in the American health care system:

"What would a conservative solution to the 'Cambodian system' problem look like?  Well, actually, a lot like Obamacare.  The three-legged stool model, in fact, had originated with the very conservative Heritage Foundation, and had been enacted in Massachusetts under a Republican governor with the improbable name of Mitt.  Where, by the way, it worked extremely well: Romneycare now covers 97 percent of Bay Staters, and both Democrats and Republicans there intend to keep it intact, no matter what Trump and my Republican colleagues do to Obamacare between the time I finish this book and the time you read it." (250-251)

This is the beginning of the change I hope to see develop in this country over the next few years.  Democrats never give Republicans credit for anything, and Republicans never give Democrats credit for anything, but Franken recognizes that we need to focus on our commonalities rather than our differences.  This is most effectively established in his "64 Percent Rule" chapter.  Most of this is spent discussing No Child Left Behind and amendments thereto.  It comes across more generally throughout the rest of the book as well.  Franken is very good at "reaching across the aisle."  Even though he humiliates several Republican members of Congress, he generally has something nice to say about them to offset the opprobrium.  This is not the case for Ted Cruz.  Notwithstanding that, he still refers to Cruz as "extremely smart," a "gifted speaker" and a brilliant advocate at oral argument in the Supreme Court.  The chapter "Sophistry" details many of their encounters and is one of the true highlights of the book.  In particular, the whole joke about the Carnival cruise line incident is very memorable.

***

Okay, big mistake.  This is the worst mistake I have made on this blog in years.  I had written a whole other long section of this review, and I think it may have been the best part.  It touched on how this book was also notable because it could be classed in the same category as books like Bossypants.  It touched on the fact that I saw Ted Cruz on CNN yesterday, doing an interview segment from Houston, and expressing that Texas did not have enough disaster relief funding, and how that is one issue that is non-partisan.  Still, NPR could not help bringing up climate change and asking if the storm was caused by it.  Their scientist said it couldn't be directly attributed to it, but more moisture will generally form as the air gets warmer.  I compared it to Katrina and basically forgot about the more recent underfunded disaster Sandy, maybe because I was in a part of Brooklyn largely shielded from it.  I think we can all agree that Katrina was more devastating.  Yet the point was made that Sandy was more devastating, and many Texas congressmen (35 out of 36) voted against additional funding for Sandy relief effort.  So yes, we could think that disaster relief will become a partisan issue too, depending on the state that is being affected.

And I excerpted the second half of a section about a joke Franken made about the Supreme Leader of Iran.  During a hearing, when his turn came, he said something like, "I'd like to question the Supreme Leader, whom I like to refer to as Supreme Being, a few questions..." Everybody thought this was hilarious, and it is funny, but the story of how Chuck Schumer botched the joke with President Obama is funnier.  I regret that the book was due at the library today and I finished up yesterday, thinking it was close to complete--or at least complete with excerpts, because I needed to include one that was actually funny.  On the subjects of botched jokes and Ted Cruz again, the line where he suggests changing "difficult" to "challenging" (as an adjective for "cruise") was probably the funniest moment of the book for me.

I didn't hit "save" last night, maybe because I was interrupted by a door-to-door canvasser for an alternative energy supplier (Constellation) that led me down a 30 minute rabbit hole and no small bit of consternation.  I am not going to write about that but it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.  So that is my excuse.

I ended on a very "book review ending" note.  I assessed the work as a whole, and I mentioned that Franken was unique because he was the one politician that was actually funny.  Somehow, I linked to reviews of both of Warren's books for some proposition that I forget.  I believe I mentioned that he did not have as specific ideas as Warren when it came to re-allocating government funds.  For the life of me I cannot recall what idea led to that statement.  Like, I wasn't saying Warren wasn't funny, but acknowledging that her career as a law professor did not prepare her as well as Franken's for writing funny books.  There is a little bit of Kurt Vonnegut in Franken's literary style, and it is refreshing to witness a lawmaker write about serious issues and still maintain a certain ironic distance to capture the absurdity of the situation.  This quality makes Franken an effective writer, speaker, inquisitor, leader, and whatever other nouns might be relevant.  Most importantly though, he hates lying politicians.  People hate politics because they hate all the lying.  Franken calls out a ton of it in this book, and it's always infuriating and ridiculous.  So that's ultimately why Franken is such a likable political figure.  It never feels like he's feeding you any B-S line.  If he did, he would self-consciously admit that it was a B-S line.

Except the line about Mitch McConnell snorting milk out of his nose from laughing so hard with him.  I think I only know he meant that satirically by hearing him mention that on a podcast.





Friday, August 18, 2017

The Days of Abandonment - Elena Ferrante (2002) (Transl. Ann Goldstein)


About a year ago, after seeing Suicide Squad, my longest-time friend started talking about this Italian author who wrote under a pseudonym, raving in particular about her novel concerning a woman being left by her husband.  I forgot the name of the writer--but there were enough details to remember (female, Italian, pseudonym) that I could piece together who she was.

I finally got around to picking up The Days of Abandonment in late June, and took it with me on a recent trip to New York.  Just as we were landing in New York, my seat neighbor inquired if the book was good, and I recited the above regarding the recommendation.  He told me he had read My Brilliant Friend and the other trilogy.  I told him I was surprised it was published in 2002, but that I hadn't heard of it until now.  He said he thought it was because Hollywood had come knocking.

The Days of Abandonment is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Olga, a 38-year-old mother of two (Gianni and Illaria), recently left by her husband, Mario.  To get more detailed, Mario leaves her for a younger woman, the identity of whom is unexpected, and sort of obvious at the same time.  Olga basically falls apart, and the novel is about her going crazy.  It culminates in a sort of nightmare day from the hell, after which she gains some form of clarity on her situation.

Ultimately, it is a very satisfying novel, and sprinkled with that sort of European attention to detail and simplicity of style that feels effortless.  The opening line is a perfect example, immediately reminiscent of another European master (Camus):

"One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me." (9)

Okay, that is not nearly as simple as the opening of The Stranger, but that same sense of the immediate impact of sorrow is struck.  The novel takes the shape of 47 relatively short chapters of varying length, which feel more like sketches of scenes.  It seems to take place over the course of six months, but the primary action in the novel is the day that comes right around month four (Saturday, August 4th), chapter 18 - 34, pp. 88-151.  A great deal of this section has to do with the locks on the front door.  She manages to lock herself and her family inside of their apartment because she cannot undo the locks.  She has a special set installed, with two keyholes that have to be turned just right.  As a person that has had to call a locksmith to get into his apartment after his key broke off in the door, at least once, maybe twice, I could identify highly with this section.  However, it goes a little bit too far!  Here is one example I randomly flipped to:

"But I knew immediately, even before trying, that the door wouldn't open.  And when I held the key and tried to turn it, the thing that I had predicted a minute before happened.  The key wouldn't turn.
I was gripped by anxiety, precisely the wrong reaction.  I applied more pressure, chaotically.  I tried to turn the key first to the left, then to the right.  No luck.  Then I tried to take it out of the lock, but it wouldn't come out, it remained in the keyhole as if metal had fused to metal.  I beat my fists against the panels, I pushed with my shoulder, I tried the key again, suddenly my body woke up, I was consumed by desperation.  When I stopped, I discovered that I was covered with sweat.  My nightgown was stuck to me, but my teeth were chattering.  I felt cold, in spite of the heat of the day."  (117)

She has a new set of locks installed after a set of earrings from Mario's grandmother go missing.  She has a vaguely unpleasant, vaguely sexual experience with the two men installing the locks, particularly the older of the two.  The book is filled with such vignettes.  Her complicated feelings about herself as a sexual being culminate in an encounter which ends up becoming an unlikely, ambivalent romance.

Her relationship with the family dog, Otto, is also worth comment.  Otto is arguably a bigger character than either of the children, because she feels more saddled with him than the children.  It seems as if Mario was the one to get him, but does not take him with him, and she resents the additional responsibility.  But as always tends to happen, she develops a bond with the animal--however, not before a somewhat shocking incident in the park following another woman's reproach after he scares her and her baby:

"When he didn't stop I raised the branch that I had in my hand menacingly, but even then he wouldn't be silent.  This enraged me, and I hit him hard.  I heard the whistling in the air and saw his look of astonishment when the blow struck his ear.  Stupid dog, stupid dog, whom Mario had given as a puppy to Gianni and Ilaria, who had grown up in our house, had become an affectionate creature--but really he was a gift from my husband to himself, who had dreamed of a dog like that since he was a child, not something wished for by Gianni and Ilaria, spoiled dog, dog that always got its own way.  Now I was shouting at him, beast, bad dog, and I heard myself clearly, I was lashing and lashing and lashing, as he huddled, yelping, his body hugging the ground, ears low, sad and motionless under that incomprehensible hail of blows.
'What are you doing?' the woman murmured.
When I didn't answer but continued to hit Otto, she hurried away, pushing the carriage with one hand, frightened now not by the dog but by me." (54)

There could be many more things to say about this novel, but I don't believe in spoiling several of the smaller details.  For example I found this feature in the New Yorker by James Wood which covers much of the same ground of this review, but divulges a few more details.  It is also probably much better written because it was composed and edited as part of a day job, rather than a hobby masquerading as an entryway into the limited commercial landscape of art.  Suffice to say, sometimes spoilers are necessary to explain my estimation of a novel's worth, but I think the halfway point of a story is (generally) a fair boundary.  It spoils nothing to say however, that anybody who has ever been dumped or left to their own devices--especially those left in Olga's unfortunate position--will find some measure of solace in this work.  Regardless of one's perspective, there is great humanity and truth within it, and a likely catharsis for the reader.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001-2011 - Lizzy Goodman (2017)


Meet Me in the Bathroom is an oral history of the NYC rock scene in the early 2000's.  It is about the Strokes, Interpol, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and DFA Records/The Rapture/LCD Soundsystem.  To a lesser extent, it is about the White Stripes, Kings of Leon, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, Fischerspooner, Franz Ferdinand, the Killers, Ryan Adams, the National, Conor Oberst, the Vines and the Moldy Peaches.  And there are even more incidental references to other bands of the era.  It starts off with Jonathan Fire*Eater, as a precursor to the Strokes.  I had never heard of them before and I thought the Walkmen (which 1/2 of the band eventually became) were a bigger deal.

Jonathan Fire*Eater is positioned in the kind of Velvet Underground role in Please Kill Me, the first band to get mentioned out of the gate, the primary influence from which the scene sprouts.  Everybody that listened to the Velvet Underground started their own band.  Admittedly, it is a tall task to match up to VU, but JF*E do not directly influence the sound of many of the bands that are later written about, in quite the same way.  Regardless, it is an interesting way to the start the book, because it is really more about the scene in the late 1990's.  It goes right into the Strokes from there and never lets go.  This is really the Strokes book, at least in terms of myth-making and cementing their status as icons.

I am really conflicted about this but I cannot quite put it on the Best Books list.  It is really, really good, but it would basically equate it to Please Kill Me and Lexicon Devil.  And obviously, Please Kill Me is a classic, and Lexicon Devil was just a blistering experience for me.  This book was extremely entertaining though and I loved it.  I was sad when it was over, and that to me is one of the signs of a great book.  Whatever, I change my mind.  It belongs on the list with that qualification.

It is perhaps worth noting that I went to NYU in 2001 and so was the target at which so much of the buzz of these bands was aimed.  My friend Danielle burnt me a copy of Is This It.  Interpol was a band of NYU graduates (Paul Banks met Daniel Kessler at NYU in Paris, where I would be 4-5 years later).  Also in Paris, I went to see the Rapture at some festival type thing at a club in the Bois de Bologne.  We would sometimes go out dancing at Favela Chic and I remember my friend Tommy talking about them.  One night the DJ played "House of Jealous Lovers" and he was like, that's them!  It was pretty awesome, so we went to the show, and afterwards we saw the band and walked up to them with our third friend, Sarah.  We were like, "We're from New York too!"  And they were like, "Um, cool."  They weren't very interested in talking to us, so I always had kind of a weird feeling about them after, but I still got Echoes.

A fair number of the bands featured in here played $5 NYU shows, and I went to almost all of them.  I also miraculously got a press pass to the CMJ Music Marathon in the Fall of 2002, and saw many there as well.  I was there as the scene shifted from Manhattan to Brooklyn.  I read Our Band Could Be Your Life and gave it to my friends.  I  recruited about twenty of them to join a potential band, with which we had two very tentative practices.  I took guitar lessons and wanted to learn the drums.  Finally I convinced my friends to let me manage their band, and got them their first gig.  Even though I had no musical talent and could not (and still cannot) play any instruments, I wanted to be around people that did, and I wanted to get involved any way I could.  My point is, it wasn't just the Strokes, but the whole scene, that made people want to start their own bands.  That kind of situation lends itself well to an oral history.

The atmosphere of New York circa 9/11 also influenced us all.  One of the things about this book that elevates it into Best Books territory is chapter 30.  I would say that it is the finest piece of writing I have read, to date, on the subject of 9/11.  Nothing else had ever so perfectly encapsulated my experience:

Andrew VanWyngarden [MGMT]: "I was a week into my freshman year at college and that's such an impressionable stage.  I was a virgin and I was meeting all these new people and was just bright eyed and wow.  Then September 11 came and I got so deeply freaked out, paranoid, and just knocked off of my foundation of what reality was that it just totally fucked me up." (203)

There are also a ton of journalists that supply the oral history.  The book is dedicated to Marc Spitz, a voluble presence, who recently passed away.  Marc Maron is also a contributor and I have been listening to the WTF podcast a lot recently.  One of them was with Ryan Adams and my friend actually asked me to go to a Ryan Adams concert in Milwaukee right around when he dissed the Strokes on Twitter.  So this is really still topical.  Apparently Marc Maron is also putting out a book in October that follows a similar format to this, so I'll probably check that out.  Perhaps he was influenced by his experience participating in this, and realized that it is a pretty interesting way to construct a book.

David Cross also hangs out with the Strokes and there are a couple embarrassing stories that I won't recite here.  But the stuff about Ryan Adams is too funny to pass up:

Ryan Adams: "One night I was hanging with the Strokes guys and Ryan[Gentles].  We were really stoned because we were basically always smoking pot.  It was very late.  Fab would always play me a song that he had written, some beautiful romantic song.  So one night, jokingly, I'm also certain Fabby said, 'Dude, what if John Mayer was playing that guitar right now?'  And I said, 'I can make that happen.'  And they all said, 'You're full of shit.'  I said, 'Give me three fucking beers'--because there were only so many beers left at that late hour--'and I'll make it happen.  I'm a goddamn genie in a bottle.'  And we died laughing.  Now, I lived down the block from John Mayer and he'd been talking to me about his new song for a while.  So I texted him, because he was always up late back then.  I said, 'Come to this apartment.  Bring an acoustic guitar.  I really want to hear your new song.'  I didn't tell them that I'd done it.  So everyone is sitting there and I was like, 'Let's all take bong hits.'  I really wanted it to get crazy.  We smoked some bong hits; I probably did some blow.  I started to drink my three beers.  The doorbell buzzer rings and I open the door and John Mayer walks in with his fucking acoustic guitar and they were all slack jawed.  John sat down and played the fucking acoustic guitar--three or four songs that probably have gone on to be huge--while those guys just sat there staring at me like ,'Oh my god, you're a witch.'  The next day John was like, 'Hey man, next time maybe less cigarette smoke?  That really hurt my throat.'  That apartment was like an airport smoking lounge." (379)

In short, I could understand why Ryan Adams might not like the way he comes off in this story, but I finished the book more interested in him.  He's basically one of the greatest characters in the story.  He comes up in his own way, as he arguably peaked in his popularity with the video for "New York, New York," which was released at almost the exact same time as Is This It, basically on 9/11, or maybe a week or two later.  But he mostly comes up as a friend to, and a potential "bad influence" on, the Strokes.  Most others are candid about their drug use, and also use the excuse that 9/11 bestowed upon the city a kind of desperate party-because-we're-going-to-die atmosphere.  One reads a book like Meet Me in the Bathroom because it has the kind of gossip that you don't usually read about except in really unguarded stories in Spin or Rolling Stone or on Pitchfork.  It is also good for correcting inaccuracies that are awkward to kind of mention out of the blue, but fit perfectly with the subject matter.  One of the most striking is about the LCD Soundsystem song "Someone Great."  Now, many people really love this song, and I think most consider it the second best song off Sound of Silver after "All My Friends."  It also supplies a sizable piece of "45:33" (which I actually bought).  Everybody says that this song is about mourning a lost lover.  But I found the truth even more touching:

Tyler Brodie: "Do you know about the therapist?  I never met him, I don't even know his name, but I do know LCD's "Someone Great" was later written about him."

Tim Goldsworthy: "That's not about a love affair.  That was written the day that James's therapist died." (265)

James Murphy apparently did therapy three times a week.  The book also touches on "Beat Connection," which gave me occasion to play it just now, and I have to say it is a really great song.  I think Murphy sounds more like Mark E. Smith on it than on "Losing My Edge," though he is more on rant mode in that song.

The book is just filled with interesting stories and I think it would appeal to a general audience even if the reader doesn't know very much about the bands themselves.  There are also little tidbits about the realities of life as a musician that is yet to "make it" that are particularly amusing.  Take, for example, this nugget of truth that I appreciated as the purveyor of MEP:

Chris Taylor: "When I first moved to Brooklyn, Chris Bear, who plays drums in our band, moved into the same loft as me; we built it together.  We were in this band, and at that age when you really have the energy and ambition to do all of this.  There's just things that you don't care about that allow you to be free and experimental and take big risks and live in a dirty place and you don't give a shit.  Rent was really cheap, $600 a month.  Chris and I were vegetarians because it was cheaper--we cooked rice and beans so many nights.  We priced it out.  We knew the cost of the beans and the cost of the rice and we bought the onions and we're like, 'Okay, cool, this whole food element of life is under five bucks.'  We can buy a Yuengling, which was like a dollar fifty, which was definitely a choice beer at that time, and that was enough.  You find a cheap bike, so you don't even have to take the subway.  That and some money for weed, that was your budget.  That was all you needed."

Dave Sitek: "It was so cheap that you could afford to take risks and fail.  If you failed at what you were doing it didn't matter because you were in Williamsburg.  If you failed in Manhattan, it was different."

Eleanor Friedberger: I rode my bike everywhere.  I got all of these amazing jobs that were so easy and stupid.  I would work these office jobs, then go out every night, and I could afford to pay my rent" (310-311)

Speaking of Eleanor Friedberger, she really only has one revealing story, which involves the period when she was dating Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand.  I don't know if there will be a "deluxe edition" of Meet Me in the Bathroom that comes out in 20 years (the way Please Kill Me was later supplemented), but I would read it if there were chapters on the Fiery Furnaces, and other bands like Liars and !!!.  That is one of the primary criticisms I have of the book.  It could have been even bigger and better.  Actually there is a brief mention of the Fiery Furnaces record deal.  And this classic bomb she casually drops:

Eleanor Friedberger: "It only seemed weird that bands like the Strokes and Interpol were around at the same time as us when they started doing so well and I thought they were so bad.  I just didn't give a shit about that stuff." (315)

Oh snap, Eleanor lays it down!  Of course no one is obligated to like everything, but she is pretty much the only one in the book that says she didn't like those bands.  It would be nice if Julian Casablancas tweeted, "Sad @eleanorfriedberger, I love your music :(," and if she replied, "Okay I guess Room on Fire is pretty okay :)."  But I doubt that will happen. 

Vampire Weekend signals the beginning of the end of the book.  There is a special place in my heart for them, as the subject of one of the earliest posts on Flying Houses.  I think that review is a little bit harsh, and I partially disavow it.  And actually I think they have gotten better with each album and believe that they delivered on their early promise.  Nevertheless, I am not the only one who cannot resist poking fun:

Laura Young: "I was there [at the Strokes' Madison Square Garden show in 2011].  I had seats but I traded with somebody so I could be in the pit.  I thought, 'I know I'm a little bit too old for this but I'm going anyway.'  I remember seeing these kids that were fifteen years old.  I was either talking to them or overhearing them and they were saying, 'This is the first time I'm seeing the Strokes.  I listened to them all through elementary school and middle school.'  It was so cool to see them there and so excited.  I don't know, maybe somewhere, somehow, years from now Vampire Weekend will do some kind of reunion show, but I can't imagine young kids being there saying, 'I love Vampire Weekend so much.  I'm so excited about them.  I've been listening to them since elementary school.'  And if they are, they should be punched in the face." (589-590)

The story of their band is one of the most boring in the book, primarily because they all seem to have their lives together.  The reason why I think I hated them so much before is because everything just seemed sort of effortless and easy for them.  I doubt that was true, and the story of how Ezra Koenig lived with Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors and all these other people in this quasi-bohemian house-studio is pretty interesting.

I haven't really talked about Interpol and they are a major part of the book as well.  Paul Banks is quite entertaining in almost everything he says.  Even though he sounds like he's really serious and kind of weird from his lyrics and singing, he is extremely self-effacing and claims to have no talent.

Paul Banks: "...'Like now to college kids, we're old people?!  How the fuck did that happen?'  I don't feel like I look that different but apparently I'm an old guy now.  You know, I'm the guy trying to pick up eighteen-year-olds.  'Hey, kids, want some reefer?'  Just kidding." (575)

The gaping hole in this book is Carlos D.  He is often talked about--many myths are made about him--so his absence as a contributor feels all the more striking.  He maintains an air of mystery.

In almost every other dimension, however, Meet Me in the Bathroom feels very complete and authoritative.  On third thought I don't think I'm going to add it to the Best Books list--but it was definitely the best book I read in the past year.  I'm not sure I'll read it again, but I think everyone should at least read it once.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class - Elizabeth Warren (2017)


I've written a fair amount about Elizabeth Warren already in the review for A Fighting Chance.  So I will direct you there for background.  Here, all I will add is that, I got this book from the library when a friend was visiting, and after briefly discussing more serious literature (Elena Ferrante), I revealed that I had gotten this book out at the same time as The Days of Abandonment, and laughed, and he laughed.  I then explained that something about the book seemed a bit disappointing.  But that was only in the first 20 pages or so, and my opinion evolved.  I explained not to get me wrong, I love EW, but the message just seemed to be more of the same.  Is it a sequel to A Fighting Chance?  And does she always have to use "fight" in the title, and be so combative about things?  I agree with pretty much everything she says, but there didn't seem to be much that was "new" about it.

Now as I said my opinion evolved, and I actually ended up enjoying this book very much.  But as a pure reading experience, it is not as essential as A Fighting Chance.  In general, that book was much more entertaining.  This is not to say that This Fight is Our Fight is boring, but it does tend to focus on Washington DC and its relationship to big business.  There are still a few personal stories sprinkled throughout, but A Fighting Chance feels more like an autobiography and This Fight is Our Fight feels more like a position statement.  

Still, just three years later, life is radically different in 2017 than it was 2014, or at least seems to be that way.  So, much of this is an update on the situations that Warren explored in her previous book.  But yes, a great deal of this is directed at Donald Trump (which now I guess will have to be added to my tags/labels--the floodgates have opened).  Trump is one of the main threads in This Fight is Our Fight, along with the Republican party, and big business executives (and overt disdain for each of them) and the struggles of the middle (now "working poor?") class.  

If I have any criticisms of Elizabeth Warren, it is that sometimes her prose reads as if she has commissioned someone to adopt her artistic license and write in her voice.  There are moments of rhetorical flourishes that would likely go over quite well in a speech, or at one of the many readings Ms. Warren must have given on her book tour.  But on the page they seem somewhat unnecessary, and sometimes make it seem like she is talking down to the reader.  I mean, I really can't call it a condescending tone at all, just a tad geared towards the lowest common denominator.  And perhaps I only feel this way because I've read an Elizabeth Warren casebook and I know she can write in a more academic tone.  Perhaps Ms. Warren has intuited that she is popular with many young people and so she is aiming even towards super idealistic high school debate club team members.  It's worth noting that she doesn't spell out bull**** in this book, but did in A Fighting Chance, and apologized.  So that is one way it feels a little censored, or safe.  I don't disagree with it from a professional perspective, only in an artistic one.  She doesn't need to resort to objectionable language to get her point across but I wonder how much she swears in her life.  

Income inequality is one of the first topics addressed in the first chapter.  She goes after a company I had never heard of and its CEO and it is hilarious:

"It's gotten so good that even lavish Wall Street parties have ratcheted up.  Citadel, a major hedge fund, had a good 2015.  It celebrated with a party featuring Katy Perry (for a rumored $500,000) and another party starring Maroon 5 (also $500,000 or so) along with--my favorite touch--violinists suspended from the ceiling by cables.  Maroon 5 and Katy Perry are hugely talented, and both have fought hard for progressive causes.  If a billionaire wants to pay them and an army of violinists a fortune, they should all take the money.  But good grief, a party where just the entertainment costs as much as it would take to feed a family of four for half a century?  The next year, according to news reports, Citadel's CEO was buying a new condo spanning three floors of a high-rise overlooking Central Park, a pad priced at a cool $200 million.  This condo in the sky has about the same square footage as twelve typical american homes.  And why shouldn't he go for it?  He had already set the records for the most expensive home purchases in Chicago and Miami, so obviously it was time to upgrade his New York digs.
Pop the champagne corks!" (18)

She then tells the story of Gina, 50, who had raised two sons with her husband, and had done reasonably well as a middle class family--buying a home, combined income of $70,000--to dropping down to $36,000 combined, and working at Wal-Mart.  She tells a similar story about Michael Smith, in his 50's, worked at DHL and had a pretty solid middle class lifestyle, moving around the south side of Chicago from Woodlawn to Hazel Crest to Homewood--until the crash of 2008 hits and his job gets eliminated and his mortgage payments balloon.  Finally, she tells the story of Kai, 27, who decided to go to school with the Art Institutes and earned a 3.9 GPA, and had loans of $45,000 after 2 years there.  They go up to $55,000 before the school begins to implode after a DOJ investigation and she leaves to go to another art school in Florida for $30,000, then finally the University of Colorado.  Then finds out that her credits from Art Institutes would not transfer due to accreditation standards, and she would need to complete another 2 years.  Her loans hit about $100,000 and she never finished her degree.  Of course, I identified most with Kai's story:

"The loans can also chop off big parts of a former student's future.  In Kai's case, they kill her opportunity to take out a mortgage to buy a home.  They kill her chances to borrow more money to go to school and finish her degree.  Without that degree, those loans kill her dream of getting an entry-level job in a business that employs people with a degree in visual arts.  And she can just plain forget about building up a little savings, buying health insurance, or stashing away some cash for retirement." (50-51)

It does appear that Kai has actually paid down enough to get the debt down to $90,000.  As a person whose debt has grown $15,000 higher over the past several years, effectively rendering my life a Sisyphean struggle, there is also this reality to address.  Warren does work on a bill to reduce student loan interest rates and allow them to be refinanced, but it gets killed.  Still, I feel like a good portion of Kai's debt should have been dischargeable because Art Institutes seemed to close while she was still in it.  I feel like that's one of the few exceptions.

After the broad overview of the first chapter, Warren delves into the economic history of the United States, with a particular focus on FDR and the wave of prosperity that persisted until the election of Ronald Reagan and the institution of trickle-down economics.  She bemoans the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, as she did in A Fighting Chance, and advocates for a 21st century version of it, with this incredible factoid:

"This doesn't have to be partisan.  My first cosponsor for a twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall bill was the Republicans' 2008 presidential nominee, Senator John McCain.  In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned on this idea, and, at his insistence, adopting Glass-Steagall was added to the Republican platform." (93)

Of course that was undone in short order, and is now "headed in the opposite direction."  But it's still incredible to think that Warren and Trump shared any common ground, particularly after what comes later in this book, which is basically a blow-by-blow retelling of their Twitter wars, calling each other "Loser" and "Goofy" and "Pocahontas."

There is a great deal of rancor reserved for Wells Fargo, which is one of the most righteous sections of the book, and while I earlier called this a "position statement," I would revise that to say 3/4 position statement and 1/4 narrative of the 2016 campaign.  She details her hesitation to endorse Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders until the primary was decided, because she "didn't want to undermine either of our candidates or to short-circuit any part of that debate." (221) She concludes the book with a reflection on the Women's March in Boston on January 21, 2017, remarking, "We are an army--an army filled with optimism and hope and fierce determination." (270)

 With this book, Warren establishes herself as one of the leaders of the Democratic party.  When A Fighting Chance came out, people considered it a potential prelude to a presidential campaign.  She comments upon that here, briefly, and also tries to put to rest any speculation that she might run in 2020.  I am sure there were still be people that want her to do it, but it is clear that she loves her job as a Senator.  I highly doubt she will change her mind, but it will be interesting to see who emerges as the next Democratic candidate.  Anyone considering that run will hopefully adopt many of the policies spelled out in this volume. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Fires - Raymond Carver (1983)


Fires, a collection of essays, poems, and short stories by Raymond Carver, was published in 1983, the year I was born.  Sometimes, I used to think that I was lucky to live within the lifetime of some of the greatest writers.  Raymond Carver is definitely one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if some people consider him to be overrated nowadays.  Anyways, he passed away in 1988, when he was about 50, way, way too young.  He would have just turned 80 a few months ago.  Fortunately, Milan Kundera is still kicking around somewhere in France at 88.  (Note: I had no idea that The Festival of Insignificance existed until a moment ago.)

The only other American authors that I can think of that are on similar footing are Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth.  I might have said John Updike, but I haven't read enough of him, and he passed away 8 years ago.  Perhaps JCO and Joan Didion belong in that category, but again, not familiar enough with oeuvre.

I don't want to retread too much territory from Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, which made the Best Books list, but I will need to use that as a reference guide for some of the material here to provide background information.  I first became aware of Raymond Carver via a Roger Ebert review of Short Cuts, a Robert Altman film based on a number of Carver's short stories, which was released in 1993, and I first became aware of that film because my older brother rented it from Blockbuster some random night in the early-to-mid 90's.  If you haven't seen it, see it.  If you have seen Magnolia, but not Short Cuts, see it and you will see how badly it is ripped off (yet also improved upon).  While Short Cuts is a great film, and an epic viewing experience, the ultimate power of it does not match the short stories themselves.

Only one of those stories that figures into Short Cuts, "So Much Water So Close to Home," is reproduced in Fires, but the real menace in the story is absent in the film.  It is a much, much better story.  Ultimately it is still somewhat inscrutable, and I will use this review as a way to ask questions, in the hope that other readers may provide their own interpretations.

I think there is a quality of mystery to short stories that people consider "really good"--the type of stories that get published in The New Yorker or The Best American Short Stories of XXXX.  Like, there is an undercurrent of only hinting at something that a reader may miss, whereas in a novel, it's all pretty much going to be in your face.  There's going to be a fair amount of plot, or else the reader is not going to miss the quality that makes it great by the sheer force of the word volume.  But in a short story, it can be like a poem, and maybe this is why I don't care all that much for most poetry-- that quality of inscrutability, or archness, or intellectualism.  Another reason why I don't mind Carver's poetry.  Most of the poems are closer to prose, and most of Carver's short stories only have a slight quality of inscrutability, enough that I can say I love them for the most part.  The only exception here is "The Cabin."  Also, "The Lie."  Actually I like "The Cabin" for the most part, but don't care as much for "The Lie."  But I see I am getting ahead of myself.  We should discuss the book chronologically.

It starts off with the essays, and the essays may actually be the best part of Fires, the part that made it worth publishing (because I believe most of the other material had already been included in other volumes).  This is the first mention of Fires from A Writer's Life:

"Besides the story collection for Knopf, Carver was preparing a new book for Capra Press.  Since At Night the Salmon Move and Furious Seasons were both almost sold out, Noel Young proposed combining them into one volume and adding new pieces to make 'a kind of Carver reader' to be called Fires.  The advance was under $1,000 but Ray wanted to keep his less commercial work in print.  He rearranged the poems and added thirteen that were not in his earlier collections.  He republished the long versions of "Distance" and "So Much Water So Close to Home" from Furious Seasons and also took the opportunity to include "Where Is Everyone?" (from which Lish had carved "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit").
Carver must have realized all this shuffling and reshuffling would confuse even the most earnest scholars.  Whether for his own peace of mind or theirs, in an 'Afterword' to Fires he explains that he'd 'rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than to have to write the story in the first place...I think by nature I'm more deliberate than spontaneous, and maybe that explains something.'  He explained, too, that 'Distance' and 'So Much Water' had been 'largely rewritten for the Knopf book' but neglected to mention that the rewriting had been done by Lish.  'After some deliberation, I decided to stay fairly close to the versions as they appeared in the Capra Press book...they have been revised again, but not nearly so much as they once were.  But how long can this go on?  I suppose there is, finally, a law of diminishing returns.  But I can say now that I prefer the latter [in other words, earlier] versions of the stories, which is more in accord with the way I am writing short stories these days.'" (A Writer's Life, 383-384)

Nothing about the essays, but maybe there's something in there, some passages in A Writer's Life that delves into the background of the essays.  There's certainly something about the essay "Fires," as apparently it made his children hate him, or was viewed as an extremely mean-spirited piece of writing.  Frankly I think it is hilarious and true and heartbreaking, but it primarily concerns how his children are his greatest influence, and "have been a negative one, oppressive and often malevolent" (28), and that he would always find himself in the position of "unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction." (33) It has a certain sort of rambling drunk ramshackle quality, but it's an extremely entertaining and honest piece of writing.

Two of the others directly concern his thoughts on writing and being a writer, one of which is focused on John Gardner, who was his teacher at Chico State College in the summer of 1958.  The other essay is about his father's life.  All four are excellent, but "On Writing" and "John Gardner: the Writer as Teacher" seem to run around some of the same territory.  If pressed, I would have to say "On Writing" is the best of the four:

"I have friends who've told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them--something, some apology for the writing not being very good.  'It would have been better if I'd taken the time.'  I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist say this.  I still am, if I think about it, which I don't.  It's none of my business.  But if the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it?  In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave.  I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven's sake go do something else.  There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living.  Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don't justify or make excuses.  Don't complain, don't explain." (25) (underline by me, circa 2001 or 2002)

All of these essays are great because they are imbued with the quality that makes all of Carver's writing special.  The simplicity of its style and clarity, and his ability to beautifully evoke a scene, is perhaps influenced by his desire to "write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense even startling power.  It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine--the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it." (24) I think we should move onto the poems before I run the risk of excessive excerpting.

The next 74 pages or so are devoted to poems, in four sections.  The first section is the most accessible and the best, in my opinion.  "Fear" is not included, but I feel that "Drinking While Driving," "Luck," "Bankruptcy," and "Iowa Summer," are all amongst his best poems.  The second section consists solely of a long poem about an evening with Charles Bukowksi, which seems to mimic his literary voice, or at least further his legend.  The third and fourth are more impressionistic and not as interesting to me (others that are into more naturalistic writing about fishing and the outdoors may like it more), but "Morning, Thinking of Empire" and "Trying to Sleep Late on a Saturday Morning in November" are two of my favorites.  Then you get to the stories, which run roughly 72 pages.  

"Distance" is about a young couple growing irritated by their baby waking up all throughout the night, and plans to go hunting, and co-parenting responsibilities.  The framing device in particular makes the story especially heartrending, with the father telling his adult daughter a story from when she was a baby.  

"The Lie" is so short that I hardly know what to say about it, but seems to be about a quarreling couple, something heard from a friend, purported to be a lie.  It is probably my least favorite in the selection, but its brevity might make it another's favorite, as it is one of several Carver stories that could be seen to influence "flash fiction." It also may or may not be a total ripoff of "Hills like White Elephants" (except that it could be about any number of things besides abortion) by Ernest Hemingway, whom Carver acknowledges as a kind of spiritual forbear in one of the essays.

"The Cabin," however, is generally the more enjoyable of the two mentioned above as "inscrutable."  It is about a man going away for the weekend to a cabin to go fishing, and a menacing encounter with a gang of unruly youths, and his plans and how they change.  If anybody can shed light on the ending (why he decides to leave earlier) I would appreciate it.  Is it just because he got scared during the encounter, and he didn't want anything worse to happen?  Because he missed his wife?

"Harry's Death" concerns the death of a friend, and dealing with the aftermath and how it ripples throughout all of their shared relationships and how it changes his life.

"The Pheasant" is an interesting story about a couple with a fairly large age gap (12 years) and a spontaneous trip from L.A. to Carmel and an unfortunate road kill incident that is revealed to be semi-intentional and other moments of self-sabotage.  For its lightness and strangeness, it is probably my favorite story.

But then, "Where is Everyone?" is pretty great too.  It's definitely not as light, but it is arguably as strange, as it eventually settles onto a thread after going off on a bunch of weird tangents like the narrator's 65-year old mother's dating life, his kids and his casual hatred of them, going to AA meetings drunk because "[y]ou're scared and you need something more than cookies and instant coffee," (177) and his father's death at age 54, drunk in his sleep.  The thread concerns Ross, or "Mr. FixIt," an unemployed former aerospace engineer whom the narrator's wife has a "thing" with after meeting at an AA meeting.  Ross collects old cars and appliances and tries to repair them and .  It is basically a character study on Ross.  But it is also about the narrator and how he wishes him well now.

Then you get to the end, "So Much Water So Close to Home," which must be the longest story here and is certainly the most epic.  This is probably the most "classic" story collected here, because it just seems to be of a more substantial nature.  Perhaps because a lot happens in it, but it is really very simple: a man discovers a dead body while fishing with his friends for a weekend, and they decide to keep fishing for the weekend before reporting it to anybody.  The narrator is the man's wife and expresses her disbelief at how he could do something like that.  She becomes suspicious of her husband and obsessed with the young woman who died, traveling to her wake, and having a scary encounter with a man that may have been her murderer.

There are other Carver stories that I love more, and I hope to review a couple other collections in the near future.  I was taking college creative writing classes a comparatively long time ago, now, and I'm not sure if Carver is still all of the rage and cited quite as frequently as the late 20th century master of short fiction--he had only been gone 12 years then, and 16 years have passed since--but I think he still is, and he's one of the few writers whose entire oeuvre is worth digesting.  I hope to review Beginners soon, which I got for my mother for Christmas in 2015, despite her not having ever expressed any desire to read Carver.  I did the same for my oldest sister with Where I'm Calling From in 2001 or 2002, putting asterisks next to all the stories I thought were worth reading.  Basically I think he belongs in a person's library, and perhaps over the next thirty or so years I will continue to foist upon each family member's shelf a different Carver volume.  I remember thinking Where I'm Calling From as the more essential volume, so Fires is not going in the Best Books list but it is probably the most essential for a creative writing teacher to photocopy and share with students.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness - Jill Filipovic (2017)


I need to start out this review with a confession.  In the past I've exhibited a few misogynistic tendencies, perhaps in part as a tongue-in-cheek backlash to the majority of my female friends who seem to identify as feminists, but more likely as a result of not being "successful" with women.  I watched  I Shot Andy Warhol about ten years ago and thought about writing an anti-S.C.U.M. manifesto, shortly before the phrase "men's rights" could cause someone to be "triggered." This was no doubt a result of the general frigidity that I felt from girls around this time, shortly after finishing college and entering the real world.  My feelings in retrospect are perhaps best summed up (as they often are) by a sketch from Mr. Show.

Girls didn't want to talk to me, and sometimes still don't want to talk to me.  There is something creepy or sleazy about me underneath.  My motives appear one-dimensional.  I am not confident enough.  I am not an alpha male (I am not even a beta male).  I do not make a lot of money.  My facial hair doesn't grow in the right way.  I am shy and do not make good eye contact.  I do not seem interested.  I seem too interested.  I have not, however, told anyone to smile, nor ever engaged in street harassment.  (Except the time my friend and I were drunk in a cab and we thought the girl in the next car over looked like Britney Spears and we tried to inform her of such as she inched away, and rolled up the window.)

Perhaps the reason most of my female friends are feminists and why I have scoffed at "typical girls" in general is, the girls that couldn't bear to waste their time on me haven't properly absorbed feminist values?  Or there is something legit wrong with me.  Probably the latter.  In any case, I think it's the type of girls that really just want to be a stay-at-home mom and have her husband provide for their family that have been most disinterested in me, followed by the girls that are extremely successful in their careers and sense that I would really just prefer to be a stay-at-home dad and have them provide for me and write in my free time.  So maybe I unfairly rejected the entire gender five years ago?  It was an immature position to take, that I could do that sort of thing in retaliation, or out of despair, and not out of a more basic understanding of orientation and acceptance of one's feelings going back to childhood.  It took a very long time to understand that all of these confusing emotions could be tidily ensconced within the "B" of LGBT.

I say all of this in the way of an apology, and to acknowledge that the reason many men treat women the way we do is wrapped up in our own issues that we haven't recognized or resolved.  That, and yes, the societal expectations that this book addresses.

Full disclosure: Jill Filipovic and I are friends on Facebook and went to NYU together.  We have a great deal of mutual friends (24 to be exact) but I am struck by a lack of independent recollection of personal interaction with one another.  We probably met briefly at a party or two.  Regardless, she is the third alum of the Class of 2005 to be featured on FH after Tao Lin (our mutual friend) and Aziz Ansari (we wish).  My short version opinion on the book is this: while it is fantastically written, and quite compelling overall, it is stymied a bit by its semi-clinical stance, teetering somewhere between a law review article and selective memoir.  And this is the right place to start the review for me, as an attorney in practice four years now that would like to leave the profession and write full-time.  If I could be so lucky!  I am not aware of where Jill went to law school, but I am assuming it was a very good one and that she did very well and that she got the Summer Associate 2L gig and made bank at a large firm and was able to retire her loans in short order, but maybe I'm misreading things or being presumptuous.  I'm sure she didn't go to a second-tier school, finish outside the top 50% of her class, and flounder from one horrible situation to the next after passing the bar, all while loans accrue at an outrageous interest rate and effectively become a perpetual burden.  But she earned it, and I applaud her for the decision.

Like the recently reviewed Letters to Felice, I have something to say about the end notes.  In this case, I say they are well-placed.  I also think if they were posted as footnotes on each page like a law review article, they would lose some of their impact.  Some of the sources are not exactly paragons of erudition.  But let's be clear about something in this law review comparison thing: law review articles have a citation for practically every sentence, and this is why their appearance becomes cartoonishly distinct.  The H Spot is sort of like a sloppily written law review article, and I mean that as a compliment.  Nobody likes to read those.  They're a perfect example of doing for the sake of doing, because it's the necessary thing to have on your resume.  Though students and professors may have a passion for the topic they write about, their composition is generally a tedious miserable exercise.  By contrast, The H-Spot is light enough to be read on a beach this summer.  Much of the time, it is very entertaining.  Sometimes it veers into preachy territory, but I was struck by the virtual absence of male-bashing for which feminism is often derided.  Jill opens up about her personal life just enough to give the reader insight into how she came to her perspective on these issues.  Something seemingly innocuous, like female partners in law firms being in charge of ordering lunch, inspires miniature outrage.  Also that most paralegals are female.  I would love to be a paralegal and be in charge of ordering lunch!  Is it a path towards assured financial success and growth?  At a large firm, probably!  But I digress.

The book opens up with an Introduction, which lays out its thesis, which is neatly summarized in the conclusion and its public policy proposal:

"One of the goals of this project was to show that there is no one definition of womanhood, no singular experience of pleasure seeking, and no individual things that will bring happiness for all women, but there are a great many commonalities, and a great many ways to improve the status quo.  My hope is that this book offered a little peak into the overlapping struggles of so many women, as well as the many joys--however unsupported and individualized." (267)

The best thing I can say about this book, I think, is that it made me want to be a better person.  It offers great insight into womanhood and all of its attendant anxieties, and it may cause men (such as myself) who have been insensitive in the past to think twice before making what seems like a harmless joke.  The only real criticism I can make is that "law review" thing mentioned above, and the statistical methodologies employed by the author.  The thing about the internet is that one can find pretty much any source to back up one's opinion, even if it's particularly odious or unreasonable (and just to be clear, this book is neither).  Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, but I feel like, when you sit down to start a law review article, you write up the position you want to take, and then you find your sources later to back up that position.  Maybe your initial position is informed by everything you have read and digested, but there is still sometimes that lingering feeling of padding by citation, as if you are not quite confident enough just to make an assertion without citation to any greater authority.  In law review contexts, it's because that's just not allowed.  In the context of a book, however, I feel like this book is most powerful (but also most challenging/slightly irksome) when it enters into "manifesto" territory.  I am thinking of Great Books from the past, like The Prince or Utopia, where the author simply writes down their thoughts, damned if anyone agrees with them or not.

Basically, in my opinion, the book is at its weakest when it is relying on statistical methodologies to define happiness, primarily because it makes me feel very anxious and insecure.  There are dozens of passages that made me curse my fate (but then again there are dozens of moments a day, dozens of things I see, that make me do the same), but here is just one:

"This new standard, of marrying an autonomous individual only once you're an autonomous individual yourself, is what marriage researchers call the 'capstone' model: marriage as the final marker of a solid, stable life, as opposed to a cornerstone of one.  Educated young people today see marriage as something they do after most of their other ducks are in a row: they have a college degree, they're working at a stable job, they can afford a wedding [Yes, No, No].  And most crucially, they want to marry someone who is a great match and from whom they derive emotional and sexual fulfillment [Gulp], not simply someone who plays a complimentary role--that is, an employed man looking for a woman who would be a good mother and homemaker, and vice versa.  Americans say a happy sexual relationship is one of the primary things that makes a marriage work, second only to faithfulness; more than 60 percent also agree that sharing household chores is crucial to a successful union [YES].  Of unmarried young people today, about a third say they haven't tied the knot because they're looking for the right person.  About the same number say they don't feel financially ready.
That capstone model means that women and men are marrying later than ever before [thank God], if they marry at all--and many don't.  The most well educated and financially prosperous, [fuck them] though, continue to wed, building their families like the children's rhyme: first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage. [That's not all, that's not all, Jack is drinking alcohol]." (141, bracket parentheticals mine)

I could do this all day, as the book often caused me to reflect upon my own wretched state.  At the same time, however, I must admit that it felt very "cozy" and comforting at times, because Jill and I are the same age and went to the same school and know a lot of the same people and our experiences are sort of spiritually intertwined to an extent.  Moreover, Jill's own experience as a lawyer-turned-writer give me hope that a happier life is not necessarily a rank impossibility.

This review needs to be wrapped up, and I haven't given an appropriate road map of the territory this book covers.  Basically, there is an introduction and conclusion, and eight chapters in between.

The first is a sort of history lesson, which was one of my favorite parts, particularly when it was revealed that Mary Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist pioneer (and not actually the same person, which made me feel very dumb as a person that loved Frankenstein).  The second is about female friendship, and adequately covers the topic except for maybe not addressing the phenomena of girls going to the bathroom together.  The third will probably become the most infamous in the book, and is about female sexuality and pleasure.  The fourth is about women as mothers, the fifth is about women as wives, and the sixth is about women in the workplace.  The seventh is about female body issues and food, and was another one of my favorites (as a person with an unhealthy diet and a bizarre relationship with food).  The eighth is about the (fading?) tradition of women taking their husband's last name after marriage.

Jill does devote a fair portion of the book to primary sources, interviews she had with women and couples in several different states.  Generally, these are some of the best parts of the book, but there is no more noteworthy subject than Janet.  Janet's story is brutal and outrageous, but also ordinary in many poorer, predominantly black communities.  Her struggle is not uncommon, but the specifics are extreme:

"The one thing that keeps Janet afloat is her children.  The dream, Janet said, is a combination of basic financial stability and that coveted 'balance': that she could both enjoy time with her children and work full time at a job that would actually bring in enough income to support her family.  Both time and money, though, have proven elusive, no matter how hard she tries and no matter how much she sacrifices one for the other.....She was there when her second daughter walked, but only because she was unemployed.  She had found a new job by the time she had her son, and so she missed his first steps, too.  'When I work, I get up at 4:30 in the morning,' Janet said.  'I work.  And then normally I'd do doubles and get home at about one o'clock in the morning and my babies were asleep.  This is the most time I've ever spent with my kids.  And I've been sitting here thinking about that.  I worked all of these years.'" (202)

It's pretty much a terrible world in terms of the amount of time that people are expected to spend working to make a living, but Janet's case is simply too much.  You hear about people getting 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, but 3.5?  Insane.  In a way this book is also about the impossibility of time management, and that hit me particularly hard as a person that doesn't think he ever has enough of it and has no spouse or kids to consume it.  Actually, a spouse should help with that time crunch, and the idea of better equality in relationships between spouses and partners is one of the most effectively presented in this book.  While The H-Spot is not necessarily perfect, it is a big-hearted contribution to the world, and one that will hopefully play some small role (if not as large as say, The Feminine Mystique or The Second Sex) in bringing about a more just and equal understanding between the sexes.