Claims About Childhood

Griffiths believes that we force very young children into too much independence at a time when all they want is intimacy (she particularly deplores Ferberization, or controlled crying), and that we then exert too much control over older children who yearn only for freedom (she is dismayed by standardized testing). She questions the hierarchical nature of most adult-child relations, and demonstrates that in many cultures and across much of history, children have been given a much broader right of self-determination. She is fanatical about the importance of the great outdoors, and believes that all children need the kith of woods, sea and sky. She laments the enclosures movement of the 15th to 19th centuries that eliminated most common agricultural rights.Concerned that so many children today require treatment for psychological ills, she proposes space and freedom as the cure.She makes an eloquent, loosely Marxist argument that children’s play has been overtaken by commercial interests, so that imagination gets upstaged by sophistry. She objects to the way the nuclear family excludes the wider penumbra of people who stand to love any child, describing all the advantages of a “well villaged” child who may belong “to the street or the commons as much as to the home.” She lauds the idea of childhood as a quest that is precious regardless of its destination. And she regrets the fact that too many children are cut off from their daemon — their true calling — by a dreary pragmatism and a rigid, unresponsive education system.

Andrew Solomon on Jay Griffiths’ book “A Country Called Childhood”

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. The best collection of advice columns I’ve read.tiny-beautiful-things-vertical_320 People wrote to the “Dear Sugar” online column (the author of which was revealed to be Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame) with some pretty tricky questions about their personal life, career, sex, family, and so on, and she delivered just the right mix of encouragement, tough love, and concrete tips for action. There’s a story of guy who overhears his friends talking shit about him. There’s a woman who wants to write a book but is overcome with self-loathing and anxiety about being a woman in what she perceives is a man’s game. Strayed tells her, “Don’t write like a man. Don’t write like a woman. Write like a motherfucker.” One questioner expresses insecurity over her “useless” English degree. Srayed concludes her answer thusly:

I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say, Oh.

2. Mindful Work: How Meditation is Changing Business from the Inside Out by David Gelles. My friend David Gelles of the New York Times has written a solid book on how companies around the world are institutionalizing meditation practices in their offices. His timing couldn’t be better. I suspect many managers, wellness directors, and executives will be picking up his book to learn how to support employees on a quest to be more mindful and to learn why it’s beneficial to the corporate bottom line to set aside time for employees to meditate. More generally, David also offers some nice reflections on his own practice and a summary of the academic literature on the how meditation shapes our brain which will be helpful to anyone getting up to speed on the basics. The book will be published March, 2015.

130723132310-sports-gene-cover-single-image-cut.jpg3. The Sports Gene by David Epstein. A wonderfully researched and engagingly written book about genetics and athletics. It makes you not only re-think a lot of what you thought you knew about sports performance, but also questions assumptions about achievement in general. I recently met David and he’s already become one of my favorite people. Below the fold are my highlighted paragraphs from his book.


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“Waking Up” and My On-Going Meditation and Buddhism Explorations

Sam Harris has written an excellent new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion that I highly recommend to anyone interested in a hard-headed take on spirituality and meditation. This post contains highlights from the book combined with updates on my own evolving understanding Buddhism and meditation.

Meditation feels like it’s at the peak of the hype cycle right now. The new Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco attracts flocks of suit-wearing business people, not spiritual loonies. Calm.com raised over a million bucks to bring a guided meditation app to the masses. Arianna Huffington’s recent book Thrive articulated meditation’s many benefits with great mass market appeal. As a fan of meditation, I’m excited by how many new resources there are. There’s no doubt that folks who’ve turned away from organized religion still need a kind of purpose that’s hard to develop on your own, and meditation can be seen as a tactical tool in the quest for developing a higher understanding about life. But it feels inevitable that there’ll be a backlash, as people take up the practice expecting a cure-all. As Rupert Murdoch tweeted, “Meditation said to improve everything!” Yup — that’s a recipe for disappointment. Eventually, we’ll end up somewhere in the happy medium in terms of meditation delivering on the realistic expectations of its practitioners.

I first learned about meditation a decade ago. I distinctly remember the moment. I was sitting in my bedroom and felt a twitch in the tiny muscle below my left eyebrow and above my eyeball. I walked into the bathroom, put my face close to the mirror, and waited. Sure enough, a minute later, the same muscle spasmed. Some quick research that night revealed that this is a classic sign of stress. It figured: I was exceptionally busy with entrepreneurship and school, and I was exceptionally unskilled at managing busyness. I hopped on Amazon.com and bought the first book I found on stress reduction. That book introduced to me to meditation.

For several years thereafter, I meditated sporadically, in search of stress relief. I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and focused on the inhale and exhale of my breath. After 10 or 15 minutes, I opened my eyes, and felt calmer. There’s a growing literature that suggests that what I felt was real: simple mindfulness meditation generates positive health benefits such as reduced blood pressure and etc.

Even though meditation is an essential component of a Buddhist practice, I’ve never known much about Buddhism. As a bit of personal history, I was baptized Catholic but was atheist by my teen years. I remained open to the idea of “spiritual” experiences, though. I’d had some experiences in nature that induced feelings of awe, which is the most concrete, secular type of spirituality I can think of. For example, staring up at the stars in a rural village outside Beijing or hiking in Kenai Peninsula in Alaska and stopping on a mountain of shale and looking out over the vast land. I’ve also experienced moments of extreme present-ness: I vividly remember hearing a teacher tell a story once of returning to his native war-torn Lebanon as a child on Christmas eve, driving through the rainy streets in his parents’ car on the way to his childhood home, and during that drive, looking out the window and seeing the reflection of Christmas ornaments in the puddles of water. It was the happiest moment of his life, he said. When I heard the story, I got goosebumps.

For a time, I began to identify as “spiritual but not religious” without really knowing what it meant. The designation pained me because of how irrational so many “spiritual” people tended to be. Many people I encountered who talked about their spirituality did not seem very rigorous in their thinking. In 2009 I wrote a post somewhat backing away from the label. I’ve since come back around to the word “spiritual,” for reasons Harris describes in his book:

Yes, to walk the aisles of any “spiritual” bookstore is to confront the yearning and credulity of our species by the yard, but there is no other term—apart from the even more problematic mystical or the more restrictive contemplative—with which to discuss the efforts people make, through meditation, psychedelics, or other means, to fully bring their minds into the present or to induce nonordinary states of consciousness. And no other word links this spectrum of experience to our ethical lives.

Over the years, I’ve gotten increasingly curious about — and have taken steps to understand — more advanced forms of meditation and the Buddhist ideas behind them and the connection between the two.

Buddhism: What Resonates, What Doesn’t

Yes: Happiness Must Come From Within

Modern Buddhists talk a lot about the unhappiness of rock stars, CEOs, and others who’ve won fame and fortune in today’s world. It’s an idea that resonates strongly: many of the people I know who have it all seem not much happier than those who lead lives of average material existence. Harris offers a helpful re-frame of the famous Buddhist line that “life is suffering.” It’s not “suffering” we all must deal with. It’s the unsatisfactoriness of more and more external success, as those successes — and everything in life — is ultimately impermanent. “Everything changes” is Buddhism summed up in two words. Thus, true happiness and purpose must come from within. Here’s Harris:

our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. If we enjoy some great professional success, our feelings of accomplishment remain vivid and intoxicating for an hour, or perhaps a day, but then they subside. And the search goes on. The effort required to keep boredom and other unpleasantness at bay must continue, moment to moment. …

The Buddha taught mindfulness as the appropriate response to the truth of dukkha, usually translated from the Pali, somewhat misleadingly, as “suffering.” A better translation would be “unsatisfactoriness.” Suffering may not be inherent in life, but unsatisfactoriness is.

And this:

Most of us could easily compile a list of goals we want to achieve or personal problems that need to be solved. But what is the real significance of every item on such a list? Everything we want to accomplish—to paint the house, learn a new language, find a better job—is something that promises that, if done, it would allow us to finally relax and enjoy our lives in the present. Generally speaking, this is a false hope.

Agreed. Good things happen, bad things happen, everything arises and passes away. True harmony must be something steadier.

Yes: Self-Transendance (Or, Using a Window as a Window, Not a Mirror)

The more important idea of many Buddhist teachings — and the primary emphasis on Sam Harris’s book — is the illusion of a separate ego. Harris focuses on the quite secular project of “self-transcendance”:

The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is—the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself—can be altered or entirely extinguished. Although such experiences of “self-transcendence” are generally thought about in religious terms, there is nothing, in principle, irrational about them. From both a scientific and a philosophical point of view, they represent a clearer understanding of the way things are. Deepening that understanding, and repeatedly cutting through the illusion of the self, is what is meant by “spirituality” in the context of this book.

I need to re-read these passages of the book and do quite a bit more practice to fully understand this idea. It’s not simple! But it feels potentially quite profound, and an area I’ll explore in the years ahead.

Yes: Understand via Experience. Observe Yourself. There is No Book with Answers.

Buddhism asks its students to observe themselves and come to their own answers. You learn by experience. As Larry Rosenberg wrote in Breath by Breath, another good book on the topic, Buddhism isn’t about beliefs — it’s about first hand knowledge. By observing the impermanent sensations on your body, for example, you learn about the impermanence of thought patterns. The historical Buddha was a man who woke up and offered thoughts on the illusion of ego and the path for true harmony. Contrast his life story to the Christian narrative of Jesus — who’s billed as the son of the creator of the entire freakin’ universe. There’s a humility to Buddhist teachings that’s attractive. Although there are celebrity spiritual gurus alive today, in the Vipassana retreats I’ve been on there is a kind of disavowal of higher spirits or gurus. The unpaid “civilian” teachers wear sweatpants and t-shirts. There are no candles and no prayers. Only attention to your breath and your body.

Not So Much: Reincarnation and Other Claims About the Cosmos

The Buddha made several claims about the cosmos that are fanciful. E.g. Reincarnation, karma, and so on. Harris argues that you can ignore them and still profit (spiritually, that is!) from the other claims about self-mastery. I’m persuaded that’s the case.

Not So Much: Focus on Self to the Exclusion of Needy Others

Buddhism strikes me as self-absorbed. In a Christian church, there’s wonderful emphasis about how Jesus taught us to help those in need. You never hear that theme in talks about Buddhism. To be sure, there are teachings about compassion and a type of meditation called metta that promotes loving kindness, but it’s never felt as foundational to me as the idea of liberation of one’s self, transcendence of one’s ego, and achieving “perfect equanimity,” as S.N. Goenka says over and over again. Here’s Harris on this point:

The fact that your mind is all you have and that it is possible to be at peace even in difficult circumstances can become an argument for ignoring obvious societal problems. But it is not a compelling one. The world is in desperate need of improvement—in global terms, freedom and prosperity remain the exception—and yet this doesn’t mean we need to be miserable while we work for the common good.

Being wisely selfish and being selfless can amount to very much the same thing.

Okay, but it’s hard to do both at once.

Not So Much: Apathy and Passiveness, Instead of Passion

Can you really change the world and still be Buddhist? Is making the world a better place even embedded in the idea set? Harris again:

There is nothing passive about mindfulness. One might even say that it expresses a specific kind of passion—a passion for discerning what is subjectively real in every moment. It is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) nonconceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves

We crave lasting happiness in the midst of change: Our bodies age, cherished objects break, pleasures fade, relationships fail. Our attachment to the good things in life and our aversion to the bad amount to a denial of these realities, and this inevitably leads to feelings of dissatisfaction. Mindfulness is a technique for achieving equanimity amid the flux, allowing us to simply be aware of the quality of experience in each moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant. This may seem like a recipe for apathy, but it needn’t be. It is actually possible to be mindful—and, therefore, to be at peace with the present moment—even while working to change the world for the better.

I’m not so sure these two can be squared. The classic change-the-world entrepreneurial vision requires a huge amount of passion, often with extraordinary highs and extraordinary lows along the way. It requires commitment to goals.

Advanced Meditation: Beyond the Retreats

More serious meditative practice intrigued me because I was interested in achieving a higher degree of self-possession beyond simple relaxation — being able to better control what I think and when, to cut short unhelpful thought cycles, to be present in a new moment even if something lousy happened just prior, to quiet the monkey mind in bed so I could sleep better, and perhaps ultimately achieve some of the higher Buddhist ideals of harmony. Breathing for 5-10 minutes certainly calms you down, but doesn’t sculpt the mind. It doesn’t shift your “doggy mind” to the “lion’s mind” of deep steadiness. Occasional breathing exercises is like going on the occasional jog in the park: the result will be positive but very different than lifting weights in a gym under a trainer’s watchful eye.

Harris writes, “No one hesitates to admit the role of talent and training in the context of physical and intellectual pursuits. But many people find it difficult to acknowledge that a continuum of moral and spiritual wisdom exists or that there might be better and worse ways to traverse it.” Exactly. I needed to train.

To more seriously train my mind and jumpstart a regular practice, a couple years ago I attended a 10 day silent Vipassana retreat, followed by a 3 day silent retreat. I wrote extensive blog posts about each retreat. As I wrote in my 10 day retreat reflection, the peak of the experience came around 80 hours in, when I began to understand the difference between being “lost in thought” and being hyper observant of what thoughts I was having. It wasn’t that I had no thoughts; I had thoughts because I was fully conscious, but I felt in control of my thoughts.

This is one of the most helpful analogies I’ve come across about what it means to be totally present in meditation, via Harris:

 Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives.

The power of your mind:

Become sensitive to these interruptions in the continuity of your mental states. You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else—something that no longer supports your current emotion—allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.

Since the retreats, I’ve maintained a regular practice, meditating for 4-5 days a week for on average 20 minutes each sit, totaling about 500 hours of meditating in my life. For the first year after the 10 day, I was obsessed with not skipping a day. “Daily practice” is an idea pounded into your head by meditation teachers, and most apps that track your sits (I use Insight Timer) display how many days you’ve consecutively logged time. I sought to do it daily — even if it was for a throwaway 3 minutes at 11:57 PM. My reasoning was that if I focused on daily practice eventually it would become so ingrained that even if I did miss a day, I’d be conscious of the skip, and pick it up the next day. Today, that is indeed the case: when I’m getting ready to sleep, if I haven’t meditated, I’ll think about it, and sometimes choose not to meditate. That, to me, is the habit formation I was looking for. Missing a day here or there isn’t a big deal and having that attitude relieves yourself of the practice feeling like a burden. If I’m traveling and exhausted, and I know sitting for 10 minutes won’t work very well, I’ll just skip.

Everyone should do a 10 day retreat at least once in their life, even if you never meditate again. A silent retreat will almost certainly be a mind bending experience. No using any technology, not reading, not writing, not speaking — that alone will be hugely impactful, even if you get nothing out of the meditation aspect. Being alone with your thoughts for such a length of time is an experience unlike any other.

My meditation practice has certainly promoted a greater degree of mindfulness (being intentional with my attention) in my day-to-day life when I’m not on the cushion. With a subtle attention to my breath and bodily sensations, I can return to the here and now more easily, and calm the monkey mind more than I could before. But has it made me happier? In this worthwhile, skeptical take on the meditation boom on NYTimes.com, Tony Schwartz, author of the excellent Power of Full Engagementreflects on his years of meditating and says:

Building the capacity to quiet the mind has undeniable value at a time when our attention is under siege, and distraction has become our steady state. Meditation – in the right doses — is also valuable as a means to relax the body, quiet the emotions and refresh one’s energy. There is growing evidence that meditation has some health benefits. What I haven’t seen is much evidence that meditating leads people to behave better, improves their relationships or makes them happier.

It’s a fair point.

All in all, I found Harris’s book super provocative and I highly recommend it. Below the fold are a couple other interesting paragraphs from Harris.

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What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

russbook1. How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts. An engaging summary and analysis of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith’s Wealth of Nations is more popular but Theory of Moral Sentiments is arguably just as profound. Russ quotes extensively from the original text and adds color on what Smith was expressing about human nature. If you struggle with old fashioned writing, as I do, this account is a great alternative or supplement to the original work.

Russ quotes a Venetian proverb: “The sea gets deeper as you go further into it.” And then adds, “The more you know, the more you realize how much there is to know. You really don’t have to know everything. Admitting ignorance can be bliss.”

In the conclusion, I enjoyed the distinction between the warm world of intimate family and friends and the harsh and cold world of commerce with strangers.

As F.A. Hayek pointed out in The Fatal Conceit, a modern person has to inhabit two worlds at the same time — a world that is intimate and a world that is distant, a world that is held together by prices and monetary incentives. Hayek argued that we have an urge to take the norms and culture of our intimate family life and try to extend them into our less-intimate commercial life…Hayek thought that extending the norms of the family to society at large would put us on the road to tyranny.

2. Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less by Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao. Chock full of management tips and tricks, informed by real academic research. Some useful observations about how to scale something that works as well. I enjoy reading Bob’s blog and following him on Twitter.

3. Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Self-Promotion by David Zweig. The people who make the world go round you who you haven’t heard of. Zweig does a nice job with the storytelling of unsung heroes: the structural engineers of office buildings, not the architects; the wayfinders at airports who design the signage that tells you where baggage claim and rental cars are; ghostwriters who help the rich and famous write memoirs. Zweig makes a case that pursuing work you excel at that does not lead to public accolades can actually be more satisfying than achieving success that results in celebrity.

4. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips. There were some amazing paragraphs in the first chapter, but then I got totally lost as it descended into riffs on psychotherapy. Sample graph that originally intrigued me:

There is always what will turn out to be the life we led, and the life that accompanied it, the parallel life (or lives) that never actually happened, that we lived in our minds, the wished-for life (or lives): the risks untaken and the opportunities avoided or unprovided. We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason – and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason – they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. Indeed, our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.

5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Some fun lines certainly about corporate office life, and I know Ferris is talented, but I couldn’t get into this novel. Some winning paragraphs nonetheless:

We believed that downturns had been rendered obsolete by the ingenious technology of the new economy. We thought ourselves immune from things like plant closings in Iowa and Nebraska, where remote Americans struggled against falling-in roofs and credit card debt. We watched these blue-collar workers being interviewed on TV. For the length of the segment, it was impossible not to feel the sadness and anxiety they must have felt for themselves and their families. But soon we moved on to weather and sports and by the time we thought about them again, it was a different plant in a different city, and the state was offering dislocated worker programs, readjustment and retraining services, and skills workshops. They’d be fine. Thank god we didn’t have to worry about a misfortune like that. We were corporate citizens, buttressed by advanced degrees and padded by corporate fat. We were above the fickle market forces of overproduction and mismanaged inventory.

 And:

When someone quit, we couldn’t believe it. “I’m becoming a rafting instructor on the Colorado River,” they said. “I’m touring college towns with my garage band.” We were dumbfounded. It was like they lived on a different planet. Where had they found the derring-do? What would they do about car payments? We got together for going-away drinks on their final day and tried to hide our envy while reminding ourselves that we still had the freedom and luxury to shop indiscriminately. Invariably Tom would get drunk and berate the departing with inappropriate toasts. Invariably Marcia would find hair bands on the jukebox and subject us to their saccharine ballads while recalling the halcyon days of George Washington High. Invariably Janine would silently sip her cranberry juice, looking mournful and motherly, and Jim Jackers would crack dull, tasteless jokes, and Joe would still be at the office, working. “‘Every ship is a romantic object,’” Tom would blather, “‘except that we sail in.’” Concluding, he would stand and lift his glass. “So good luck to you,” he toasted, finishing off his martini, “and fuck you for leaving, you prick.”

Book Review: Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson

71AYbGJCoZL._SL1499_I loved Phil Jackson’s latest memoir, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, written with Hugh Delehanty. It’s full of interesting stories from his time coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, amusing and at times inspiring riffs on his Zen spirituality beliefs, and smart advice on how to coach a bunch of individual talents to work together as a team.

Jackson is one of the winningest coaches ever. And probably the most spiritually inclined. I found plenty of insights on teamwork, leadership, and meditation that are broadly applicable. That said, if you aren’t interested in basketball, it’ll be a slog. There are many love letters to the triangle offense and blow-by-blows of seasons which will interest only those with an above-average interest in the game.

Here are some of the lessons and a couple direct quotes:

  • “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrounding final authority.”
  • He didn’t call a time out when an opposing team went on a 6-0 run. He wanted his players to figure out a solution themselves — not bail them out.
  • Mix up practice routines by introducing novelty in a long season. He had the Bulls practice in silence once; another team they scrimmaged with the lights out. He broke the team into a stronger squad and a weaker squad and then didn’t call any fouls on the weaker squad during a scrimmage.
  • The Knicks coach, when Jackson was a player, wanted bench players to be actively engaged in the game so they were prepared mentally. He’d give them several minutes’ warning before putting them in the game so they could focus in.
  • Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
  • Practices for new NBA players would start with the basics, including footwork, dribbling, passing. Even at the professional level, re-visiting the basics was necessary. Most experts understand simple things deeply.
  • “At that time most coaches subscribed to the Knute Rockne theory of mental training. They tried to get their players revved up for the game with win-one-for-the-Gipper-style pep talks. That approach may work if you’re a linebacker. But what I discovered playing for the Knicks is that when I got too excited mentally, it had a negative effect on my ability to stay focused under pressure. So I did the opposite. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.”
  • On road trips, he selected a book for each player to read. He assigned Michael Jordan Song of Solomon.
  • Jackson orchestrated a meeting between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan during a Lakers’ trip to Chicago, with the hope that Michael could help Kobe understand the value of selfless play. After shaking hands, the first words out of Kobe’s mouth to Jordan were “You know I can kick your ass one on one.”

What I’ve Been Reading

Books. More books.

1. The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health by John Durant. A good introduction to all things paleo. I’m largely convinced that bad carbs are bad for you, and I’m trying to move to a more meat-heavy diet.

2. Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection by Ethan Zuckerman. Ethan is a longtime deep thinker on issues of the internet, and in his first book, he provides his usual astute analysis of what it means to live in the digital age. I enjoyed his emphasis on globalization and how that’s shaping our identities.

He makes some sobering observations about Americans’ lack of interest in international news. More broadly, he emphasizes that for all the talk of globalization, many trends still end up being local. Americans mostly fly to places within 900 miles of their origin point; Europeans mostly fly within Europe; Japanese within Japan; and so on. “The infrastructure of air travel is global, but the flow is local.” That applies to many things, Zuckerman argues. I lost focus in the second half of the book — there’s not one clear thesis that drives the book — but the early chapters were worthwhile reading.

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3. One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak. Hilarious. Just hilarious. One of the more entertaining collection of stories I’ve read — some as short as a few sentences long, some as long as several pages. You may not have heard of Novak, but you probably know his work from The Office and The Mindy Project (a very funny show). He’s a smart guy and the seriousness of some of the points he makes can catch you off guard amidst all the ha ha ha.

4. Terrorist by John Updike. A highly enjoyable novel that came out after 9/11, full of Updikean one-liners, with a plot that moves right along. While serious Updike watchers I don’t rank this among his very best novels, it’s hard to go wrong when you can enjoy paragraphs like:

“She has left undone the two top buttons of her paint-smeared man’s work shirt, so he sees the tops of her breasts bounce. This woman has a lot of yes in her.”

Or:

“Loving parents; a happy though not quite conventional marriage; a wonderful only child; intellectually interesting, physically untaxing work checking out books and looking up subjects on the Internet: the world has conspired to make her soft and overweight, insulated against the passion and danger that crackle wherever people truly rub against one other.”

Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

61UbQXxc-iLAfter posting an excerpt of John Williams’ novel Stoner, I knew I had to read the entirety of the book itself. I did, and it totally delivered on my high expectations.

The protagonist, named Stoner, is an unglamorous professor at a small university in rural America. The story focuses on his life, his family, his petty academic disputes, his affair, his love of language, his career ambitions (or lack thereof). Nothing crazy happens. It is simply the story of a reasonably straightforward life as lived by one particular man. He accumulates quite a bit of wisdom along the way — wisdom that is shared on nearly every page with beautiful writing.

Is Stoner’s life a failure? Perhaps. He wrestles with those questions near the end of his life. They are some of the most moving scenes of the novel, and provoked quite a bit of reflection on my part. Sadness is the emotion I felt more than anything as I neared the finish of the book.

Here’s the NewYorker.com’s review titled “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” Below are my favorite excerpts from the book (all direct quotes).



He became aware of loneliness. Sometimes, in his attic room at night, he would look up from a book he was reading and gaze in the dark corners of his room, where the lamplight flickered against the shadows.

Once there was a brief-lived demonstration against one of the professors, an old and bearded teacher of Germanic languages, who had been born in Munich and who as a youth had attended the University of Berlin. But when the professor met the angry and flushed little group of students, blinked in bewilderment, and held out his thin, shaking hands to them, they disbanded in sullen confusion.

She had been taught to look forward to some betterment of that condition, but the betterment had never been very precisely specified. She had gone into her marriage to Horace Bostwick with that dissatisfaction so habitual within her that it was a part of her person; and as the years went on, the dissatisfaction and bitterness increased, so general and pervasive that no specific remedy might assuage them.

he spent his wedding night apart from his wife, his long body curled stiffly and sleeplessly on a small sheet. Her body was lax and wanton in its naked sprawl, and it shone like pale gold. William came nearer the bed. She was fast asleep, but in a trick of the light her slightly opened mouth seemed to shape the soundless words of passion and love. He stood looking at her for a long time. He felt a distant pity and reluctant friendship and familiar respect; and he felt also a weary sadness, for he knew that no longer could the sight of her bring upon him the agony of desire that he had once known, and knew that he would never again be moved as he had once been moved by her presence. The sadness lessened, and he covered her gently, turned out the light, and got in bed beside her.

They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother. That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

“Lust and learning,” Katherine once said. “That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” And it seemed to Stoner that that was exactly true, that that was one of the things he had learned.

For their life together that summer was not all love-making and talk. They learned to be together without speaking, and they got the habit of repose; Stoner brought books to Katherine’s apartment and left them, until finally they had to install an extra bookcase for them. In the days they spent together Stoner found himself returning to the studies he had all but abandoned; and Katherine continued to work on the book that was to be her dissertation. For hours at a time she would sit at the tiny desk against the wall, her head bent down in intense concentration over books and papers, her slender pale neck curving and flowing out of the dark blue robe she habitually wore; Stoner sprawled in the chair or lay on the bed in like concentration. Sometimes they would lift their eyes from their studies, smile at each other, and return to their reading; sometimes Stoner would look up from his book and let his gaze rest upon the graceful curve of Katherine’s back and upon the slender neck where a tendril of hair always fell. Then a slow, easy desire would come over him like a calm, and he would rise and stand behind her and let his arms rest lightly on her shoulders. She would straighten and let her head go back against his chest, and his hands would go forward into the loose robe and gently touch her breasts. Then they would make love, and lie quietly for a while, and return to their studies, as if their love and learning were one process.

He had a glimpse of a figure that flitted through smoking-room anecdotes, and through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into his middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself, awkwardly and apishly reaching for the youth he could not have, a fatuous, garishly got-up clown at whom the world laughed out of discomfort, pity, and contempt.

They told themselves and each other that they were closer than they ever had been; and to their surprise, they realized that it was true, that the words they spoke to comfort themselves were more than consolatory. They made a closeness possible and a commitment inevitable.

…the old tender sensuality of knowing each other well and with the new intense passion of loss.

But William Stoner knew of the world in a way that few of his younger colleagues could understand. Deep in him, beneath his memory, was the knowledge of hardship and hunger and endurance and pain. Though he seldom thought of his early years on the Booneville farm, there was always near his consciousness the blood knowledge of his inheritance, given him by forefathers whose lives were obscure and hard and stoical and whose common ethic was to present to an oppressive world faces that were expressionless and hard and bleak.

He could not think of himself as old. Sometimes, in the morning when he shaved, he looked at his image in the glass and felt no identity with the face that stared back at him in surprise, the eyes clear in a grotesque mask; it was as if he wore, for an obscure reason, an outrageous disguise, as if he could, if he wished, strip away the bushy white eyebrows, the rumpled white hair, the flesh that sagged around the sharp bones, the deep lines that pretended age.

Sometimes Edith came into the room and sat on the bed beside him and they talked. They talked of trivial things—of people they knew casually, of a new building going up on the campus, of an old one torn down; but what they said did not seem to matter. A new tranquillity had come between them. It was a quietness that was like the beginning of love; and almost without thinking, Stoner knew why it had come. They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other, and they were rapt in a regard of what their life together might have been. Almost without regret he looked at her now; in the soft light of late afternoon her face seemed young and unlined. If I had been stronger, he thought; if I had known more; if I could have understood.

Gordon smiled and nodded and made a joke; but Stoner knew that in that instant Gordon Finch had withdrawn from him in such a way that he could never return. He felt a keen regret that he had spoken so of Dave Masters, the defiant boy they both had loved, whose ghost had held them, all these years, in a friendship whose depth they had never quite realized.

Dispassionately, reasonably, he contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living that … He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.” And he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else? What did you expect? he asked.

There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.

Book Review: Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff

51A5HB0xY6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Some months ago, I was driving, listening to the audiobook of Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff, a collection of short stories. I got home and pulled into the parking space for my apartment. It was nighttime and quiet — all the neighbors were asleep. I turned off the engine but kept the key in the ignition so the battery would power the audio system in the car. I switched off the headlights. I sat in my car, engulfed in darkness, and took in the rich voice the narrator until the story came to an end. They is. They is. They is.

The story, “Bullet in the Brain,” which ends that way, is one of the best in the collection. It’s funny and tender, and in how the message is delivered, quite innovative I thought. Your life flashes before your eyes–Wolff transforms this hackneyed thought into something original.

Another favorite is “Down to Bone,” about a son tending to his mother on her deathbed. He darts out for a couple hours to tidy up the agreement with the funeral home. When he returns, the mother has so deteriorated that she thinks he is her father. “Daddy,” she says. “It’s all right,” the son says. “I’m here.” Realizing that “he no longer knew how to be a son, but he still knew how to be a father,” he tells her: “Everything’s fine, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be fine.” She whispers back, “Daddy…You’re here.”

Tobias Wolff is one of the living giants of American literature. Here’s my review of Old School. Here’s one of my favorite parts of This Boy’s Life. Here’s my rave of In Pharaoh’s Army. Here’s a quote of his about how everything comes to an end from a list of some other favorite lines of books. Here’s how Wolff has complimented George Saunders

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I like short story collections in audiobook format. If you’re not digging a story, you skip to the next. In a normal book, if you listen to it as audio, and you lose interest, it’s hard to swap out to a new one. The big downside to audiobooks is you can’t underline or take notes. For Our Story Begins, I bought a paperback edition so I could do that, after I had listened to it.

He Was Himself. And He Knew What He Had Been.

61UbQXxc-iLThe other weekend, I was eating cottage cheese wrapped in toasted tortillas (my go-to snack), and casually flipping through the New York Times magazine. I came upon an article that took me in by surprise. Afterwards I contemplatively stared into space and had one of those “What does it all mean?” moments. Maybe I was in a dark mood when I read it.

In any event, it’s a short and simple piece. The writer, Steve Almond, extolls his favorite book ever: Stoner by John Williams.

I bought the book, of course, but in the meantime, Almond’s summary is as follows.

First, take your inner life seriously: “Stoner argues that we are measured ultimately by our capacity to face the truth of who we are in private moments, not by the burnishing of our public selves.”

Second, you’re probably a rather ordinary and flawed human being — just like the protagonist William Stoner:

William Stoner is, in many ways, a dubious leading man, introverted and passive. He fails even to protect his daughter from the deranged whims of his troubled wife. The story of his life is not a neat crescendo of industry and triumph, but something more akin to our own lives: a muddle of desires and inhibitions and compromises.

And if you think you’re really special, get real:

Put your wit — or your craft projects or your rants or your pranks — on public display.

Otherwise, you wind up like poor Stoner: a footnote in the great human story.

But aren’t nearly all of us footnotes in the end? Don’t the dreams we harbor eventually give way to the actuality of our lives?

Stoner’s creator seems to argue that self-knowledge is the highest form of knowledge, especially when the actuality of our lives isn’t anything special (as is the case for 99.9% of us):

Soon enough, fate confounds him. His marriage devolves into a domestic horror. His daughter falls into despair. A senseless feud undermines his career. He suffers no delusions about his place in the world. He recognizes that others find him absurd and that his intellectual contributions to his arcane field are at best minor. Over and over again, Stoner is forced to confront his own weakness, his limitations as a son and father and husband and scholar. And yet he refuses to turn away.

As Stoner lies dying, his creator observes: “There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

How many of us can say the same of ourselves?

He was himself. And he knew what he had been.

Book Review: Floating City by Sudhir Venkatesh

For those of us for whom “vice” equals sending text messages while driving over the speed limit on a freeway, there’s a natural curiosity about the dark side of society — curiosity about what happens after hours, in seedy neighborhoods, among those whose livelihoods depend on breaking the law. Hookers. Drug dealers. Loan shark frauds. The curiosity begins with complete ignorance about the practical realities. For example, if I wanted to buy cocaine in San Francisco, I have no idea where I’d even start. I don’t want to, but I’m still curious about the process and the people. Who controls a given block? Who are the pimps and how do they recruit the hookers? Where and how do the bosses keep their cash?

This curiosity partially explains why so many of us are glued to TV shows like The Wire — it opens up a side of urban American life that’s as foreign as Beijing to someone like me. And yet, despite several of these shows on the air, it was still a total shock to find out a couple weeks ago — via an FBI affidavit — that just a few miles away, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is serious organized crime going on, with state politicians trafficking guns across the border, gang leaders ordering hits on enemies down the block, briefcases of cash being delivered to drug kingpins in dark alleyways, and other allegations pulled straight out of Hollywood bang-bang-shoot-em-up central casting. This stuff is happening right here, right now, just across the way. And I am utterly ignorant of all of it.

51crPRZL9JLA few years ago, a University of Chicago sociologist named Sudhir Venkatesh made waves by integrating himself into the Chicago gang scene. Now, in his latest book called Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy, he integrates himself into New York’s sex trade. He meets people in the ecosystem, somehow earns their trust, follows them around, and writes about what he sees.

It’s an interesting book, and I had a couple broad impressions. First, there’s a fluid connection between the underground economy and the above-board economy in a given city–the hookers who sleep with Goldman Sachs managers; the hotel maids cleaning the semen-stained beds who owe their immigration status to a Yale finance graduate who runs an immigration smuggling ring; the drug dealers who cut deals with cops in order to make sure the Wall Street trader is hyped up enough to want to order the full menu from the prostitute; and so on. This overground/underground relationship is best understood in network terms, with distributed nodes and a constantly shifting structure. A second big picture impression was about the nature of global cities like New York, where the desperately poor interact with the exceptionally wealthy in such varied off-the-books ways. These mega diverse American cities play host to a recent immigrant’s quest for the American dream, a quest that oftentimes is financed by an “alternative economic path” that should be framed, Venkatesh reminds us, in more complex terms than just by the laws they transgress.

Venkatesh writes that “good sociology is always a mixture of close focus and long shot. You dial in and pull back, dial in and pull back, a delicate dance over the data gaps.” The book’s highlights come more in the form of colorful nuggets (“dial in”) than scintillating sociological conclusions (“pull back”). It may seem surprising, for example, that after spending so much time with prostitutes Venkatesh failed to discuss the question of whether prostitution should be legalized in the U.S. But I, for one, am glad he didn’t. Isn’t it more interesting to find out that hotel bellmen and taxi hailers get kickbacks in the form of free sex with the prostitutes to whom they refer a lot business?

Venkatesh himself is definitely part of the book. Plenty of sentences begin with “I.” Other reviewers have criticized this aspect of the narrative. Perhaps I’m more interested than most in the internal machinations of an academic sociologist spending his days surrounded by hookers and drug dealers and trying to write a book through it all and, surprise surprise, whose own marriage is falling apart in the process — so I didn’t mind the authorial interjections. It does add a dark tone to the book. But it makes the author’s own sympathy for his subjects feel authentic. And that sympathy is contagious. I came away feeling more understanding of the need for many of the people in the book to hustle their way to a living–to create a better life than the impoverished environment they were born into.

(Thanks to Aaron Hurst for sending the book to me.)