Sunday, July 16, 2017

Turning the Mind Into an Ally


I managed between September of last year and June of this to put together 280 consecutive days of either meditation, Tai Chi, or both. I tracked my data in an app called Insight Timer. It felt great, and helped me through some stressful times. But then the goal of extending my consecutive days streak became the point of meditation, rather than learning to control the mind and turn it to more disciplined pursuits. Once I saw that, I took an immediate break from data chasing and took a couple days off from meditation and Tai Chi. I wanted to re-set my goals for practice.

This short book is the right pick-me-up. I think I read about it in a review by Pema Chodron? It's really clear, unpretentious, easily relatable, clever...and practical. If you're considering starting a meditation practice, this would be a great foundation. If, on the other hand, you are hoping to deepen your practice or restart after stalling. you will find a great guide and mentor in Sakyong Mipham.

I want to add that Insight Timer in no way caused my obsession with mindfulness data--this is a realization I needed to make via work on myself, my motivations, my competitiveness, my manner of approaching goals. Insight Timer is useful in many ways, including reminder chimes, timers with a variety of bells and options, of course the ability to chart and track your data, and a journal/log. You can also link with others and see who meditated at the same time as you around the world (if that's your bag--these options are all optional).

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Recent Reads



Love this short graphic history of the IWW and its radicalism, its struggle for justice for the oppressed, and its myriad accomplishments. Social Studies teachers take note that this has substantial usefulness if you teach economics, labor, civil rights, or race relations as part of your curriculum. I dreamed I read about Joe Hill last night--in cartoon form!




Had a nice conversation with a Lyft driver from Nigeria about politics in our home countries and about the immigrant experience in Trump's America. I told the driver about this novel, which focuses on the experiences of a half-Nigerian, half-German immigrant living and working as a psychiatrist in NY. The narrator sees the world mostly through a European lens, with European attitudes, tastes, and morals. He seems a nice sort, well-rounded and hard-working, intellectual and curious about the world. But he is unable to really connect with other immigrants, those living on the margins of Western societies.  Though he is familiar with and a bit sympathetic to their reasons for radicalization, he is too inside his European self to really understand them. There are nods to Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Franz Fanon. Late in the book a childhood acquaintance confronts the narrator about a long-repressed crime. This crime serves as analogy for the West's imperial/colonial crimes and their repression on a societal level. A beautiful and sad work, quite substantial.





And speaking of beautiful and sad works--damn! Great portrayal of Lincoln's grief at the loss of his son. The manner of story-telling here is documentary style, with snippets from correspondence, diaries, newspaper reports, and also from the POV of denizens inhabiting a purgatory centered around the cemetery where young Lincoln is buried, and where Abe goes late at night in his despair. Like most of Saunders's fiction, the tragic is balanced by outrageous hilarity. A brisk and thoughtful work, clever in construction and much deeper than expected.




Dixon is an acquired taste, one I acquired back in the '90s when I read Frog. No other writer peels back the curtain on his process to this degree--the reader is plunged into the reminiscences, revisions, and constraints that went into the craft of the story. In fact the structure of his work often IS the story being written overtly on the page. Knowing his oeuvre quite well, I would place this in the middle tier of his novels. It's quite frustrating at times and at others is deeply sad or hilarious. What I like most about Dixon's fiction is his ability to show through that unique voice our own fussy self-revisions, repressions, and constraints--how we craft our own stories about ourselves and those we love. I remember him signing Frog for me at Borders back int he '90s, and correcting by hand with a blue marker two typos before returning it to me. Mind you, Frog is like 800 pages long and he flipped quickly to both spots and made the corrections. Something one of his narrators would do, or do do, or would think about doing and then not.



Chunks of a giant comet smashed into Earth 12,000 years ago, destroying an already advanced human civilization. A few survivors roam Earth teaching other peoples the lost knowledge, and encoding warnings about the calamity's return in sites like Gobleki Tepi and the Giza plateau. I like Hancock's books--because I, too, believe there have been previous civilizations here that were destroyed, and that the presumption we have achieved the heights of wisdom and knowledge and that all who came before are "primitive" is likely the sort of hubris that sank the Atlanteans. But I don't always buy Hancock's arguments or his reasoning--what is a speculative leap on one page becomes an accepted fact later. But: FUN!





Sometimes gorgeous and wise, sometimes cloying and silly--but always worth the journey.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Recent Books


After a half-decade of precipitous decline in book learning, I'm back on track for a fifty-plus volume year. Of course fifty-plus volumes is about half what I used to read, but it beats the abominable and inexcusable past five years. But being a teacher is hard. The last thing I want to do after work is read!

SPQR is a tidy and engaging exploration of current scholarship about Roman history from its beginnings to its fall. Of course doing all this in one volume means one gets a SKETCHY history, but Beard knows what she's about, and her focus on a few key themes (such as the foundational myths of the Roman state and their resonance and recurrence and use by the powerful) keeps the volume from bogging down or seeming too light. I enjoyed it immensely.



A passionate, heavily documented, and well-argued case for the re-establishment of John Brown as more than just a fanatical curiosity in US History. At times there's a bit TOO MUCH hagiography, as in the chapter about poetry and music which seems to claim that John Brown was the topic of every poem ever written...but I agree that his impact on the fabric of America cannot be understated, and that he was purposefully diminished by a century of haters in order to make him appear a crazed terrorist and no more for a reason.

Brown's raid terrified the South and inflamed their passionate fear-mongering of Northern aggressors, and his martyrdom was latched onto by propagandists in the North who created a myth and a series of patriotic and religious songs about Brown's scaffold equating to the Crucifix. It was his speeches and correspondence between capture and hanging which made him a substantial man of letters, words that inflamed the Transcendentalists to memorialize him, and which laid the groundwork for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Brown believed more ardently than 95% of his fellow Abolitionists in the humanity of black folk, and their equality, and that God hated slavery. He also knew it would require tons of blood to cleanse it from America. It has yet to be cleansed.





H,P. Lovecraft imagined bizarre and bleak alternate realities which have captured the imaginations of introvert nerds for decades. I include myself in that category, though I must admit that since adolescence has passed I find much of his stuff completely unendurable. But the impact he had on my imagination lingers, despite the fact that I learned later he was an irascible racist and would likely have found Hitler's Final Solution quite satisfying had he lived to know about it.

So this "novel" (actually a series of interconnected novellas) sets a family of African Americans in a Lovecraft Mythos tale, replete with a wizard family, subterranean chambers in New England, inbred small town communities harboring ancient lore, etc, etc. Of course the complications of racism and racial intolerance and violence against persons of color are the TRUE horrors in this story, as the heroes and heroines of the tale are more than a match for their white wizard opponents and the many eldritch terrors they encounter. Lovecraft Country is not on a par with Junot Diaz's stuff, but is in the same vein--kind of Chabon-ish in tone and humor and delight in mining a vein of pop culture and fleshing it out with social commentary.



Stories without exception of a very high quality. Bobbie Ann Mason, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O'Connor---Gaitskill belongs right up there. Includes the source story for that kind of crappy "Secretary" movie, which isn't nearly as funny and sad as it should have been,

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Catharsis



A couple years back I read an interesting article in Harper's about some dude who was using ancient Greek tragedies to help soldiers with PTSD and addicts and communities of color following tragedies.

Last night we had the opportunity to see one here in Baltimore. Antigone in Ferguson was necessary medicine for a community still suffering following the Uprising. Paul Giamatti went deep and when I used the restroom at the end of the show he was in there bawling following his powerhouse performance. The discussion afterward was potent and honest, though a few speakers took too much time tooting their own horns. The panelists were wise and compassionate (even towards a poor young soul whose heart was in the right place but whose exasperation and "exhaustion" at having these conversations over and over was handled with care). And local activists and artists like Sonja Sohn and Adam Jackson and Kwame Rose and D. Watkins were in-house.

(sidenote: When we left the auditorium Rose and Sohn were outside. I thanked Mr. Rose for opening eloquently for Bernie Sanders at a rally at Royal Farm Arena last year, and Sohn yelled "Yes, if it had been Bernie we wouldn't be dealing with ANY of this BULLSHIT." We'd met Sohn at a Heather Mizeur event at Black Olive 2 years back).

What we need in the US is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, much like South Africa had after Apartheid. We need to bare our souls and concerns and guilts and fears in public, focused on ways to heal--otherwise we'll continue refighting the same battles. Because it is unlikely our dysfunctional public institutions will give us the opportunity to air grievances and mea culpas, the arts can help. Kudos to Bryan Doerries and his team for bringing Antigone in Ferguson to B'more.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Recent Books



This is not the first time travel novel I've read. It's not even the first time travel novel I've read which takes place in and around Vienna (at least for a while). This IS the first John Wray novel I've read, and I will likely read others based on its strengths.

The Lost Time Accidents puts Wray into the current crop of male writers of a "certain age" (meaning about my age) who rely on deep and sophisticated knowledge of  4 decades of American pop culture and esoteric nerdy references to Lovecraft and Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy and sci-fi shit. In Wray's case, the novels of Orson Scott Card, L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Asimov's universe, Relativity; these are blended with deep knowledge of history and literature and we get a references to Fascism, Dickens, Einstein and Bohr--I could go on. If you've read Lethem or Diaz or Chabon or one of those other cats in a similar vein you know what I'm talking about.

The book pegs these things to larger questions about the nature of Time and reincarnation and destiny and cycles of justice and injustice and propaganda. But its sophistication and geeky intellectualism don't ruin the fun of a simple sci-fi romance story. Boy meets girl, gets manipulated by girl, fails to see her for what she is and pursues girl through Time and Space only to get his heart broken. With Nazis and evil religious cults thrown in for fun!



 

Lorrie Moore cracks me up. I mean just out of the blue one of her sentences will make me guffaw. And at the same time she is precise and acerbic and insightful about the Human Condition suffering the rampages of Late-Model Exploitative Capitalism and its associated environmental degradations.

One gets the delicious sense that all her characters are complicit in awful things about which they remain wholly ignorant, or perhaps they are fully aware of these crimes but the desire for convenience and self-medication allow them to justify their many disgusting behaviors.

I like these first sentences from the story "Paper Losses":

Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing,
making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also,
a little pro-nuke.

These stories are high-quality, like perhaps the highest quality. The story "Wings" is a modern retelling of James's Wings of the Dove. James was another master of the short story, with an eye for repressed guilt and the callous manipulations of "good" civilized people whose entire existence was predicated on awful institutions like slavery and colonialism and patriarchy and classicism. This story is a nod to The Master from a master who learned good lessons about craft at his knee. But Moore likes to have more fun with her readers.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Third Reich in Power

Every two years I teach a Learning Expedition about the Holocaust. In between I like to read another handful of books about the topic (broadened out to include WW2 and other context-building avenues).

I use what I learn to think about revamping both the Expedition and its arts-integrated final product. And now the school year looms so I'm busy churning over changes and refinements



I just finished Richard J. Evans's The Third Reich in Power, and as was the case with its predecessor The Coming of the Third Reich I cannot imagine another more comprehensive and yet engaging history of this place and time period appearing in my lifetime. The level of detail marshalled, the attention to different social strata and regions, the careful coaching of readers through complex contextual matters...it doesn't get better than this. The index alone runs to nearly 150 pages, and is a valuable resource for further teaching materials and research.

In class we'll have to approach Trump's radical faux populism and demagoguery a bit...the kids can decide if he is really a fascist or not.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Earthly Delights


I think the two artists I knew best before I ever stepped foot into a museum were Hironymus Bosch and Salvador Dali. I still really like Bosch, and have stumbled upon his work in museums in several countries on multiple continents. I wish I had some cash to fly to Europe this summer, because...

For the 500th anniversary of Bosch's death, the Prado in Spain and the Het Noordbrabants in Belgium are staging major exhibitions of the artist's work, gathered from museums all over the world and from their own collections.

Two of my favorite periodicals have chimed in with thoughtful and illuminating pieces--here's Nat Segnit at Harper's, and Ingrid Rowland over at the New York Review of Books.