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Reading Roundup, October

Admittedly not feeling super forgiving of the mediocre books I’ve read by authors I love, which seems to be a theme of my recent literary adventures. I would say there’s a theme to the books I’ve opened and closed recently: belonging. Being better. How the pieces of our lives fit together, and how we do. How we fail one another, how we grow stronger collectively. More recently I’ve taken a break from this theme and am reading other stuff, but an update is long overdue and it’s time to catch up to myself.

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg | 51jktcrrhrl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is one of my favorite books of the last ten years. He set the bar pretty high for himself by providing a pretty incredibly detailed account of how people form (and reform) habits. Smarter Faster Better lacks any ah-ha substance whatsoever. There are some interesting anecdotes, but ultimately they are common sense. The New York Times review of this book (Duhigg also writes for the NYT) mirrors my exact repertoire of complaints: the stories are OK, but they are largely singular in nature and not universally applicable. There are some thought-provoking comments that might be explored in depth to create something interesting… if Duhigg and Adam Grant could get together and write a book about how being helpful to others makes a person more productive, that’d be a good start. Turns out being smarter, faster and better is a combination of focus, considering multiple outcomes and having an in-depth understanding of immediate and existential failure. This book read like a mildly interesting Malcolm Gladwell novel, and I don’t think that says a lot. Here’s hoping his next book is more similar to his debut.

The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb | 51nmstnctml-_sy344_bo1204203200_This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last 6 months. This collection of short essays (are they essays? I’m not sure) is a really beautiful but brief history of Enlightenment philosophy. I’m an idiot for not reading the precursor to this first, but I’m looking forward to it. This collection has a surprising amount of information considering its brief length; you get the sense you are gaining a unique though broad sense of each Enlightenment thinker without too much time commitment. Obviously there is a limit to what you can gain on each personality from this book, but it’s probably the most engaging overview of philosophers I’ve ever come across. The author is funny and well-researched. If nothing else, this is a great start for anyone interested in philosophy. I imagine the only disappointment is that further research would render much lamer writers than this guy. Brief Economist review here.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age by Sherry Turkle | 41ixpnqcjel-_sy344_bo1204203200_Turkle, a professor and affiliate of the MIT Media Lab (an entity I, by the way, admit to worshipping with the fanfare of a pop music fan) is brilliant, if redundant. She opens this book as someone would open a manifesto, and it’s weirder than it is engaging. Many of the same themes explored in her previous book, Alone Together, are here, though expressed with deeper cynicism and more interviews with random people (especially students of varying ages). Alone Together had more of a focus on robotics and AI; this book does not, but it has more of a collective sense of dissatisfaction at the lack of interest people have in connecting with one another in the real world. I mostly agree with this woman; I think people are becoming less apt at person-to-person communication; that our ability to connect in real life is degrading over time, and we develop this handicap at an earlier age. Sadly many of her observations, interviews and anecdotes are ordinary and unsurprising. As a whole, people are increasingly avoidant of solitude and self-reflection in a world where there are countless distractions and illusions of company. The book is overall hopeful, I guess, if you consider the amount of dissent she covers and the way people are realizing that in some ways, the reliance on technology and the mirage of companionship are becoming larger problems. She knows better than anyone that technology has done more to improve the world than take away from it; that said, we are losing something in ourselves, or bypassing the formation of it in the first place, and that is comfort in our own skin, our ability to read people and rely on evolutionary tools to live our lives. NY Times review here.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger | 51r-egdn4sl-_sx331_bo1204203200_This book was an impulse purchase, and was not what I expected it to be at all. The author has an interesting backstory; the author co-directed Restrepo. The book is almost entirely about military service, reintegration and PTSD. There is a lot of evolutionary psychology. The message is significant considering the current political climate in the US, and there is a broader theme: I’m going to copy and paste one of multiple reviews:

‘Mr. Junger’s premise is simple: Modern civilization may be swell, giving us unimaginable autonomy and material bounty. But it has also deprived us of the psychologically invaluable sense of community and interdependence that we hominids enjoyed for millions of years. It is only during moments of great adversity that we come together and enjoy that kind of fellowship — which may explain why, paradoxically, we thrive during those moments. (In the six months after Sept. 11, Mr. Junger writes, the murder rate in New York dropped by 40 percent, and the suicide rate by 20 percent.)

War, too, for all of its brutality and ugliness, satisfies some of our deepest evolutionary yearnings for connectedness. Platoons are like tribes. They give soldiers a chance to demonstrate their valor and loyalty, to work cooperatively, to show utter selflessness. Is it any wonder that so many of them say they miss the action when they come home?’

I think this idea could pave the way for more information, but Junger sticks primarily to combat as an example. I’d be interested to read about how people who experience different kinds of adversity seek one another outside of his primary example; that is what I had originally been expecting. The book doesn’t necessarily come to any conclusions other than there being a huge disconnect between people, in the US and across the world. Even so, this is a quick read, I think I finished it in two hours on an airplane and it was worth the $10 or whatever. If anything, it made me more curious about the subject area, and satisfied nothing, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Grit by Angela Duckworth | 51endezutkl-_sx329_bo1204203200_I was marginally amused by this book, though I only skimmed the ‘how to’ section for people trying to grow and foster more. It’s not immediately clear to me as a whole whether or not grit is something people can create, or some people are born with a sense of defiance and determination and some aren’t. I’m not any more convinced it is possible after reading this book, but that may be because grit is one of the things I possess in the excess. None of the anecdotes in this book convince me that grit is something that can be taught; I haven’t watched her famous TED Talk, but I may at some point. Grit is not a be-all, end-all; this feature of some of our personalities is more closely tied to how hard we are willing to try (and often fail). How much you want something and how hard you are willing to work to get it is ultimately what this is; past that, I’m not sure this book says much of anything. Some of her work with kids and the strategies for motivating people via their locus of control is interesting. She’s an interesting and thoughtful author and person in general, but I probably could’ve saved myself the hours I spent reading her book by watching her TED Talk. That’d be the suggested beginning of this road; and to be honest, for people who possess a lot of natural grit, I can’t imagine this book is enlightening or revealing at all. NY Times review here.

Our Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers | 22369552This book is truly terrible. I don’t even have sufficient words to describe how much the quality of Eggers’ work has plummetted over the years; there is nothing so much as slightly resembling his first handful of books. Eggers used to be one of my favorite authors, I now dread reading his books in the same way I dreaded attending Catholic mass when I was a kid: barraged with a bunch of sanctimonius crap I don’t believe, I have little choice but to sit there and think of other things. I am going to stick with Eggers and read his next book, which is coincidentally about Alaska (though has also received mixed reviews) and dream of a future where his work is as exciting and passionate as it used to be. There’s an in-depth account of disappointment in the NY Times; initially I assumed that after over four years of living in Libertarian land Alaska, my views had simply diverged from those I might’ve held prior, but I don’t think that’s the case. This book is just not good.

Books in Progress:

SPQR by Mary Beard | Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel | Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

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Art & Culture / Book Reviews / Life in Alaska

an ode to heirloom tomatoes

Long ago, in a land far, far away, there existed tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes, and did not taste like packing peanuts. This exotic and faraway land, referred to as a ‘Superfund Site,’ the ‘armpit of America,’ ‘Mafialand,’ one addressed by its many many exits, smokestacks, Sopranos and cargo containers (thanks, New York) is New Jersey. doritoAnd all across this highway-laden state, there reside Italians and Eastern Europeans who grow a shitload of delicious vegetables. And so, New Jerseyans, beyond sharing questionable fashion tastes, road rage and terrible accents, share a deep love and respect for vegetables. Mostly tomatoes.

The fact that I now reside nearly 5,000 miles northwest, in Alaska, should say one or two things about the sum of my feelings for New Jersey. As with anyone, though, there are things I deeply miss about my home (and my childhood): and my top 5 includes tomatoes. Let me tell you, the tomatoes in Alaska are roughly equivalent to soggy cotton balls. My heart breaks repeatedly at the grocery store when I am confronted with the sad reality of my tomato options in the north. Truth be told, there’s a reason people sing the praises of caribou steaks and sockeye salmon and halibut and Kachemak Bay oysters and Kodiak scallops and side-stripe shrimp in Alaska: it’s damn good. It’s wild, and fresh, and delicious. I have spent hundreds of hard earned dollars on shellfish this summer, and I am not even close to sorry. In particular, the Kachemak mussels I ate on the 29th of July at The Little Mermaid in Homer, steeped in coconut milk and kaffir lime leaves provided me with a foodgasm and an epiphany: I can now buy kaffir lime leaves here. I immediately, upon returning to Anchorage, bought these ridiculously potent leaves at New Sagaya and made a giant pot of tom kha gai: the first time in the four years I have lived here that I have been able to make this soup with real Southeast Asian ingredients (bonus: they now sell whole galangal roots too).

The fruit and vegetables of Alaska are garbage. Or, mostly garbage. (Do you like rhubarb? You can pick lots of “delicious” rhubarb up here. Rhubarb makes me want to barf, so I will pass. We also have a lot of berries and mushrooms; they grow in the woods, which is why they taste good.) I’m not convinced lifelong Alaskans would know a real tomato if they ate one. They’d probably think it was an overripe mango. Do you know how much an avocado that tastes like an avocado costs? Anywhere between $3 and $6. For one avocado. But, at least you can (sometimes) find an avocado that tastes like itself. Tomatoes, not so much. I’m not here to shit-talk Alaskans, because I met a freak of nature recently who preferred Atlantic Salmon, causing a friend and me to guess later amongst ourselves that there truly is some brain damage causing element in the water of the Northeast; what I will say is I’m a shellfish– er, selfish, entitled person who wants to eat sockeye salmon AND tomatoes for dinner… and for both of them to taste delicious. Perhaps I should move to Vancouver.

I’ve put off reading this book. I put it off because I imagined it would be a sad monologue about the further loss of history and the industrialization of our food system and chemical flavorings taking over the world. It is, but it’s not sad. It’s not negative. There’s a lot of hope. The only sadness I felt swept over me when I hit the Appendix (seriously, this book has to end?)

This is a abbreviated version of Michael Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma, with a lot of biochemistry. Pollan talks about foraging for truffles and pork and so forth; The Dorito Effect’s author speaks my language. He’s all about chicken and tomatoes. And I loved both books; Pollan’s because it was so complete, it was such a full story, a complete experience, and this one because there’s so much information about how in attempting to strip our food down to nutrients, suck them out and then inject them back into food, we fail. We fail in many ways. And a lot of these food books focus on different things: Pollan about finding ‘real’ food, food from nature; Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) about industrialization and workers’ rights; Peter Singer about the way animals suffer in industrial agriculture; Dorito Effect is awesome because it’s different. I’m unsure it’s something I’ve seen concentrated in one book before. Ultimately this book ends much like Omnivore’s Dilemma does: with people coming together to eat a real meal. With real food. Food that tastes like food.

This book did not get an awesome review in the New York Times; I fail to agree. I think this guy’s writing is hilarious. The book could have been longer. And I do NOT think paying $400 for ripe tomatoes for the sauce for the pasta in one course of the final meal constitutes a conclusion that “this is possible for everyone.” The reality is that it’s not. Yes, there are many restaurants riding the wave based on many, many more consumers demanding real food (thank your local hipster; these people are increasing demand for food that doesn’t taste like crap); authentic fruit and vegetables are increasingly easy to find, but he is the first one to admit that it’s not cheap. It’s much easier to find pastured chicken and beef than it was ten years ago, and people are taking to DIY agriculture at amazing speeds, no thanks to the government regulation and farm subsidies. Alas, the problem remains: America is a quantity country, not a quality one. We are entirely committed to industrializing, streamlining and increasing yield. The government assists by paying for everything to be turned into corn. It sucks.
Slowly but surely, things are changing. Resistance to industrial agriculture is stronger and more prevalent than ever before. And maybe I’m biased. Maybe this guy’s rampant love for tomatoes just turns me on. I don’t really know, but I loved this book. And in a world where I feel I am doomed to be surrounded by food idiots, it was intensely pleasurable to read about this guy’s quest for authentic food, if not peppered with jealousy. Someday, somewhere in my future, I will eat another good tomato. Continue reading

Art & Culture / Now / Society

Reflections: Blastfest & Roadburn Festival(s), 2016

I open many of these posts with a universal confession of intense procrastination. I finished my MBA about 6 weeks ago and have been ruminating over how to spend the free time I now (again) possess, having spent June-March solely focused on finishing a painfully boring and tedious MBA program. So this weekend, amidst the interchanging spring sun-and-rain cycles of the Alaskan Interior, I will at least finish a number of blog posts.

First, some thoughts on two large metalfests I (finally) had the opportunity to attend in 2016: Blastfest, in Norway, and the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Netherlands. I’m going to start with Roadburn.

Roadburn-2016-OfficalArtwork1Roadburn has been growing in size annually; sadly the first year I purchased tickets, which I believe was 2014 (or maybe 2013), I couldn’t attend due to my job at the time: and I subsequently missed Year of No Light (which I caught later in San Francisco, minus their frontman, which was an understandable detriment to their set); Hexvessel (when they were not the large main-stage band they are now); and Inter Arma (a band that, to this point, still eludes me). I decided to go this year to cross it off my list… and there was a decent lineup, including a number of Icelandic bm bands (Misþyrming; Naðra; NYIÞ; Úlfmessa). To that point, linking to Kim Kelly’s post from Iceland’s first black metal festival.

I went primarily for Hexvessel (+ their set with Arktau Eos), Oraansi Pazuzu and Of the Wand and the Moon. Green Carnation also played Light of Day, Day of Darkness in its entirety (though we had seen that at Blastfest in February), and Neurosis was an understandable draw, though less so due to the fact that I’ve seen them a number of times. Converge also performed full albums Jane Doe and Blood Moon. Between Converge and Neurosis, the nostalgia was running high for me, having come of age in the Northeast hardcore scene.

This isn’t really a review of the bands themselves. If I wanted to obligatorily post reviews of shit, I’d still have a metal webzine. Some primary reflections on Roadburn: I won’t be going again. 2016 was my first and last time. The venue(s) were oversold, which means we stood in line forever for Oranssi Pazuzu on the first day, which really pissed me off. I had already missed half a set of a band I had been there specifically to see. The venues cannot handle the number of ticket holders for this festival, so they either need to better distribute these bands to appropriately sized stages or sell fewer tickets. Band-wise, I admit I am excited to see Icelandic bands on the map (finally); I felt Hexvessel had no umph on the main stage, after having seen them perform incredibly in small and intimate venues (the ultimate performance being on a cold September night in Desolation National Forest after the entire Stella Natura festival was crushed by the weather). They compensated to some degree during their set with Arktau Eos, but there is a clear division of their style between Dawnbearer and anything afterward. I wish they had saved “Invocation Summoning” for their second stage performance, because it didn’t jive with their cosmic-forest mysticism main stage performance or any of their new material.

The main stage sets were incredible. I was enamored by Converge, not because I ever cared to see them (even in the 90s, when I was a kid and they were pillars of the hardcore scene), but because there was such incredible respect for them all these years later. Neurosis was ridiculously good, and again I was wowed by their European following. The last day of Roadburn, we showed up to see Green Carnation’s incredible performance (their frontman, who looks like a logging truck driver, looks exactly like my ex boyfriend and for that reason I do a double-take every time I see him). I am beyond grateful to have seen this incredible set twice in one year. I will admit I think bands playing entire albums is tour-april-2016-sheerly idiotic, but with theme-driven albums like Light of Day it seems appropriate. I’ll pass on too much verbiage about the shitty bands, but Diamanda Galas didn’t let anyone come into the venue or leave (even to use the restroom) during her set and I am pretty sure that was not a good marketing tactic. I was mostly trying to get out to save my ears any more aural torture: I do not enjoy the sounds of large cats in labor.

We left after Green Carnation and headed to Belgium to see Saturnus with The Vision Bleak and John Haughm. At the risk of sounding like the biggest douche on earth, I’m going to go ahead and say I’d take the shittiest Agalloch material any day over any of Haughm’s solo stuff, though my opinion of him is clouded by the fact that I have seen him legitimately blow off admiring fans and roll his eyes directly at them. We had taken a bus with 30 scheduled stops to see Saturnus, we did not care about seeing Haughm. Saturnus was incredible– a band we will probably never catch in the US– and The Vision Bleak was also awesome. Saturnus is supposedly releasing a new album… right. I’ll believe it when I see it.

All in all, Roadburn was cramped and seething with drunk idiots from day one. While there were some good bands, I wouldn’t put up with the annoyance of (a) staying in the next town over because all of Tilburg is sold out and (b) waiting in an endless line to get into a venue due to occupancy/fire code issues again. For the complete opposite of what Roadburn was management-wise, I will continue to Blastfest, in Bergen, Norway… which was honestly one of the best festivals I’ve ever attended.

We mostly (and initially) bought downloadtickets to Blastfest for In the Woods… I hesitantly say I was also going for DHG, though I had been burned by that plan before when they were scheduled to play at MDF and then couldn’t get visas. The lineup for 2016 was ridiculous: Arcturus. Ihsahn. Gorgoroth. Solefald. In Vain. Green Carnation. Vulture Industries. A bunch of decent bm bands: Khold. 1349. Einherjer. It was all-Norwegian, this year, which had its good and bad sides, but a lot of things were done right with Blastfest: they stuck with the schedule. There was no drunken dickhole bullshit. I think the decency police they had there who repeatedly gave a few guys shit for taking off their shirts in the pit were a bit over the top, but I had very few complaints other than the cost of beer (which is a problem with Norway, not Blastfest) and the fact that on the first day, they changed the schedule and we didn’t realize (there were no booklets or fliers with the schedule) and we had a momentary crisis where we thought we missed Vulture Industries.

A quick word on Vulture Industries, too: HOLY SHIT! They were unbelievable. They had more energy than anyone and everyone else at this festival. They were ridiculous. Their frontman is a total freak and I was blown away by their performance. Recap of the prime attractions (to me) at Blastfest. Keep in mind, sacrifices must be made when there are multiple stages, and when you’re traveling with an equally informed metal junkie, compromises must also sometimes be made. But not many.

Vulture Industries. Ridiculously amazing. Better than I expected (and I had high expectations). So much energy. Incredible frontman.
Virus. Zzzz. Virus is better background music than live music. Also they were all sitting down and I couldn’t see jack shit. Virus is incredibly talented; I’d opt to listen to them while doing something else versus standing behind 100 7′ Norwegians staring at the top of their stage backdrop.
Dødheimsgard (DHG). I’ve read a lot of reviews that are unfavorable to DHG in terms of their Blastfest performance; I admit it was extremely strange, but I find their frontman extremely interesting (and somewhat hilarious on stage). I loved their performance but that is probably attributable to the years I’ve spent waiting to see them. 12052664_1062020133865227_9126308807309971476_oThe band has blown through a lot of members so maybe some lapses in timing/cohesiveness are to be expected.
Taake. I only stuck around for Taake because I didn’t want to lose my spot for In the Woods… I hadn’t realized they had been touring the US but I guess I wouldn’t have cared anyway. Neutral. They were OK. They had the most black metal getup, at least. Stefan took a bad ass photo of Hoest’s face that gives his stage presence full justice.
In the Woods… Another band that did not get enough credit for their performance. They hadn’t played in 15 years!! They were awesome. They played a new song or two (they haven’t released a new album in almost 20 years); it’s difficult to feel one way or another, but it sounded OK. Their other material was as good as you can expect when a band hasn’t played for a decade and a half. Truly, they were excellent.
Gorgoroth. Don’t care a ton about Gorgoroth. Hoest (photo up, right) from Taake, was their frontman for this set. They’re talented, they’ve capitalized a bit too much on shock value in the past but I can’t take a lot away from them. Their stage, quite frankly, was tame compared to what I had expected; they had a coffin and some skulls and a few naked woman rigged to crosses. I will say Hoest is a great frontman for Gorgoroth.
Solefald. Solefald was also excellent. They had a guy come out and paint a picture of a horse head with their logo in it during their set and I actually thought it was pretty cool. I actually thought he was going to fuck it up if he kept painting, but he ended up painting the logo into it. Their frontman’s voice is awesome (and also found in Age of Silence).
Manes. I put Manes in the same category as Virus: better background music than live music due to the atmospheric elements. Manes combines a lot of different styles and for that reason they cross a lot of genre lines. I’m typically bored by bands like this live, but much like Virus, there’s no denying their talent.
Arcturus. Arcturus was good and bad. Vortex was not feeling like standing up, apparently, and sat on a stool looking cranky for the majority of the set– which had absolutely no bearing on him belting out perfectly pitched vocals for the entirety of the performance. The variety of their set was the best part; their setlist spanned a lot of albums. Arcturus is the most incredible band in the entire world to me. There is no close second. I would watch Vortex sing in a porta-potty and be pretty pleased, so I am obviously the wrong person to be saying shit (pun) about their performance. The fact that he can plop down (again, with the fecal references) on a stool and belt out a perfect vocal set is testament to his incredible voice. I will probably never hate on Arcturus. If they slaughtered all the puppies in the world, I’d probably still go see them live. And like them. Sorry not sorry.
1349. Neutral. Once again stuck in the VIP section with no choice but to watch this entire set. I feel the same way about 1349 I feel about Taake: they’re good, but not unique.
Ihsahn. Ihsahn is always good. He is a complete fanatic, a total perfectionist, probably a major pain in the ass to spend any lengthy period of time with and definitely to perform with. I wish he still had Einar Solberg (Leprous) to do the jazz parts (or better, the guy from Shining to actually perform the jazz parts? Why does this never happen?) He’s reliably good, his set is always perfect and there was no need for a meltdown about production or sound or guitar tuning this time, so that’s good. I have seen him completely freak on stage about his guitar, and everything went smoothly. His performance was incredible and I imagine he is a good filter for people who are not actually metal snobs– I feel like you have to be a certain degree of hard-core metalhead to love Ihsahn. His music is not for n00bs.
In Vain. I think In Vain counts as one of my friend’s compromises; I was definitely stoked to see these guys. They played on the smallest stage and they were awesome. They are super melodic and probably not largely in-line genrewise with most of the rest of the lineup, but they were excellent. They have two vocalists and a ton of stage presence. They don’t have a ton of material but definitely brought it on stage. I could’ve watched them happily for much longer than their set.
Ancient. <insert vomit face emoji> Ancient is, admittedly, ancient. He is the crustiest, oldest senior citizen looking metalhead ever and his set was ridiculous. Ridiculous in a completely off the wall, over the top way. I would like to NOT see that again. The extent to which he was decked out in spikes was absurd and completely amusing to me; I really only wanted to stick around to get photos. While I completely understand that people respect him due to longevity… no.
Khold. I like Khold though I admit they are not anything special. They are catchy. Yes, it very much sounds like they employ the same riff over and over. Even still, they had a solid set and I was happy to see them.
Einherjer. See “1349,” though Einherjer is a bit more diverse than 1349.
Red Harvest. See “Einherjer.”
Green Carnation. Green Carnation was amazing. As I said, I really am not a fan of bands playing entire albums, I think it’s a kitschy and stupid practice that only works for prog bands. Thankfully Green Carnation qualifies. They were incredible.
Abbath. I spent the first few songs begging my friend to be ready to leave during Abbath, having had enough of standing all day and not being into the commercial BS of Abbath, and then he played “Tyrants” and I totally freaked and was sold on staying. I’m curious about what the stipulations of the whole Abbath roadshow are, if he is allowed to play any and all Immortal material or not; I could care less about his solo shit, but I was pleased to see some Immortal songs in the setlist.

And that concludes another half-assed Shapeshifter Blog review All in all, as much as I won’t be wasting my valuable vacation time attending Roadburn, I’d love to go back to Blastfest… thus far not overwhelmingly impressed with the 2017 lineup D E L U G E and Peste Noire are the only two worth flying all the way to Norway from Alaska for at this time (Dying Fetus? Napalm Death? Really? Ugh). TBD. In the meantime, I will very shortly be suffering through the indignity and swampy stink of Baltimore at MDF. Stay tuned. Continue reading

Art & Culture / Book Reviews / Life in Alaska / Society / Work

What Belongs to You

I was going to wait to write this until I finished Hideous Gnosis: A Black Metal Theory Symposium but I’m taking so f’n long to read it (and I just began The Work of the Dead, which is way way way better), so hasty (as usual) review of two books I read en route to/from Blastfest in Norway (another item for which I may produce a characteristically lazy, half-assed review).

I imagined this blog to end up being a lot more than book reviews and photos of random places in Alaska; that I haven’t made it much more than that is marginally disappointing. I imagine once I complete my MBA at the end of March, I will have a bit more time, at the very least to read more; Blastfest (and my upcoming April trip to Roadburn) has given me a sort of nostalgia for writing about metal and music; sadly since I’ve relocated to Alaska I am woefully behind where I once was in terms of having my finger on everything that is happening in my vein(s) of metal. I also don’t have time to commit to reviewing metal full-time; being a contributing member of the metal media is far in the past.

In any case, two very different books:

What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell | 51wusoxTdqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I don’t know that I loved this story for what it is, but the author’s careening style was very much to my liking. The story is loosely about a Midwestern teacher at an American school in Sofia, Bulgaria, and begins with an encounter with a male prostitute, Mitko, in the seemingly dingy bathroom of the National Palace of Culture (irony!).  The story is not so much about anything that happens in the story (the narrator moves on, in a normal relationship with a guy from Lisbon, after catching syphilis from the prostitute and grappling with the lack of antibiotics in Bulgaria; turns out that problem is way worse for Mitko who has no access to any health services and no money). This somewhat short novel ends very little closure (is there any closure in life other than death?) but the chapters weave through years of the narrator deep-diving into his own past, and subsequently putting the Mitko into perspective through the lens of his own struggle. What’s unique about this novel is the way in which the narrator is acutely aware of the way his childhood experiences have placed him where he is, and have contributed to the way he feels for Mitko: both the desire he allows himself to feel and the pity he feels for the situation of this younger man, who seems to face his own situation with a kind of pragmatism we infrequently associate with a shitty socioeconomic situation in the West. I would say more, but The Economist‘s review is killer, though I didn’t like this novel as much as their reviewer did. There are so many questions, so many items that could be expanded upon– that the author left it to the reader to fill in doesn’t take everything away from it, but it could’ve been a lot more complete in its exploration of the situation (a point that is also made at the end of the review):

‘Ultimately, this is a story about chances and the unequal possibilities for escape for those emerging from different forms of wreckage. The Westerner feels regret, but shows startlingly little awareness of his privilege; Mitko is simply the canvas on which he projects his need.’

Originals by Adam Grant | downloadNext! The awesome Adam Grant‘s Originals. I freakin’ love this guy; I want to go to Wharton simply to commandeer some of his time. If he ever sets foot in Alaska, I hope I hear about it. Originals is nowhere near as awesome or useful as Give and Take; this new book is largely ‘duh’ stuff professed by a slew of other businesspeople: take risks, don’t fear failure, turn your enemies’ opinions around, don’t become set in your ways. The point of his book is as follows:

‘I want to debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk taking and persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realize. In every domain, from business and politics to science and art, the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment. As they question traditions and challenge the status quo, they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. We view them as self-starters, but their efforts are often fueled and sometimes forced by others. And as much as they seem to crave risk, they really prefer to avoid it.’

Instead of focusing on the kinds of people who qualify as “Originals,” the book is about the fact that everyone can be one; and those who are known as such are not immune to struggle or self-doubt. He draws (eventually) on Kahneman and Tversy and other behavioral economists and psychologists and refers to the dipshit quick decisions people make about risk and reward. He predictably speaks of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos and other business icons making dicey (and stupid, and amazing) decisions. He speaks about entrepreneurs. About ‘idiosyncrasy credits’: the latitude to deviate from the group’s expectations and why it’s important to build those credits, so you can not only think but also act outside the box.

This reads like a Malcolm Gladwell book to some degree and I will be the first to admit a lot of these business books are very much the same. I read them because I am boring and I like positive reinforcement. Also, I love Adam Grant and a lot of his ideas are not intuitive at first pass (especially in reference to Give and Take). The best anecdote in this entire book is about The Lion King and Hamlet. His book is not just about business, but the formation of character (I hate this word now because so many stupid articles have overused it and molested the concept) and the building blocks of becoming one of these “Originals.” He even takes a tab at a concept of a few other books I’ve posted up in here: defensive pessimism, and the way people structure their own lives:

‘When psychologist Dan McAdams and his colleagues asked adults to tell their life stories and plotted their emotional trajectories over time, they discovered two different desirable patterns. Some people had consistently pleasant experiences: they were content throughout the major periods of their lives. The people who had been recognized for making original contributions to their communities shared many more stories that started negatively but surged upward: they struggled early and triumphed only later. Despite being confronted with more negative events, they reported greater satisfaction with their lives and a stronger sense of purpose. Instead of merely enjoying good fortune all along, they endured the battle of turning bad things good— and judged it as a more rewarding route to a life well lived. Originality brings more bumps in the road, yet it leaves us with more happiness and a greater sense of meaning. “Proper revolutions are not cataclysmic explosions,” Popovic observes. “They are long, controlled burns.”’

The characters in his anecdotes (the ones you don’t read about everywhere else, like Steve Jobs) are interesting and energetic: Srdja Popovic among them. The book ends with a brief recap of some political uprisings in a number of countries and then an “Actions for Impact” list I completely skipped, but may be useful for… business students… stodgy corporate people… I don’t know. Anyone who wants to move a little further out to a fringe. All in all, these books are tiresome and boring for a lot of people, but I love this guy’s work, his ideas, and anyone who cites the brilliant Daniel Kahneman is typically on the same page as I. NY Times review here (haven’t read this view). Continue reading

Art & Culture / Friends / Now / Society

Heavy shit.

I’ve bitten my tongue on this for some time, but it’s time for another semi-personal post in a blog that is largely impersonal.  After many years of writing about my own life, friends, struggle, whatever (and blogging about metal), I decided to turn all of that inward and create something not synonymous with the intimate intricacies of being me.  I moved up the career ladder; I moved away, I decided to keep my own stuff to myself and focus on the best things in life: books. body-shaming

Sadly, it seems somewhere about ten years ago, I made a mistake: I lost a lot of weight– a bit more than 60 lbs in a few months–and I was encouraged to register for the National Weight Control Registry. I had not yet fully fostered the immense skepticism for government agencies I now have, I had not submitted to the sham of the medical-industrial complex of the United States, and I stupidly thought at least some of the things I did– the sheer mechanics of what happened– might someday benefit someone.

60 lbs!

If you don’t know me (or maybe if you do), you may be thinking, “wow! That’s amazing!”

Are you wondering what I looked like before? Wondering how much better my life got after losing all that weight? Wishing you had a before and after photo?

You might be. It’s not uncommon.

After nearly a decade of remaining within 20lbs of my ideal weight (165… to be clear, I started at 209 or so, came down to 138, then finally settled at a weight where I wouldn’t get sick all the time or pass out), I still have the immense misfortune of seeing blibs and blabs of my dark past with weight loss. I still have the incredible annoyance of having to tolerate comments about gaining or losing, inquiring as to how I did it, and even recently, seeing this horrendously incorrect and out of context interview in an insurance flier from Nebraska...WTF???!

I overindulged in food that helped me pack on the pounds?! Where did that even come from?!

To be fair, I was somewhere between 160-200 throughout all of college. I went from size probably 13, to size 20, to 16, then down to size 4-6, and have finally managed to settle on size 8-10. The size, by the way, I still am today, at the high end of my range, probably around 180 or so right now (my weight is, for the time being, a casualty of my job change, spending a year on airplanes, getting an MBA, a lot of cocktail parties and, to be honest, having a lot of fun).

As a person who loses a lot of weight, you hear a lot of shit. You may even at one point or another have the immense disappointment of dating someone who tells you you’ve “gained a few pounds lately” (where you subsequently send said someone packing, because what the hell?) In your early days of rapidly losing weight, due primarily to stress and a chronic stomach infection that sends you to the floor, sleeping next to the nearest toilet or (preferably) garbage can, you may even encounter people who exclaim your endless beauty and make comments about what a whale you used to be; how they never knew that such an attractive person was under there, and you will begin to wonder– to really wonder– if you were really so hideous all these years you actually liked how you looked in the mirror. You will be so confused by how your ‘friends’ comment on your newly materialized sexiness that you will wonder what is wrong with you. You will look at old photos of yourself smiling with newfound horror, realizing that while you were happy, having fun, getting laid, going on dates, other people were thinking you were a fat piece of crap.  You will delete years and years of photos of yourself with your friends, mortified by the past you thought you accurately remembered.  And a decade later, when someone makes an innocent comment about how thin you used to be, you will feel immense bitterness and resentment in the entire experience of losing weight, and wish it had never happened. You never did it on purpose anyway. Did you? I didn’t. “If I hadn’t lost all this weight,” you may think to yourself, “at least the people who keep me around would do so because they genuinely like me.”

I’m not even lying. I’m not lying about myself, because those thoughts do actually occur to me. And after all of these experiences, if I’ve learned anything, the people who are truly my friends– my people– are the ones who never noticed I gained or lost any weight, because I was more than that to them.

Weight loss is extremely challenging, most of all for those who are actively trying. And I can never claim to be one of those people– to anyone who has ever really tried hard to lose weight, I’m sorry human biology has not managed to keep the pace with our food system and sedentary way of life and industrial agriculture and city planning. Less than 5% of people who lose weight manage to keep it off for however many years (find the statistics yourself, this isn’t a newspaper). I never had a food issue; quite honestly I never considered myself much of an eater. For me, I got sick, my hair was falling out, I was nauseous every day, my skin was waxy and I looked closer to a skeleton than a living, breathing human being. And, due to the miracle of mass media, I was told over and over how fantastic I looked. The experience still haunts me. The extreme distortion of the reality I believed and what apparently everyone else saw is truly harrowing. For my entire adolescence and much of my adult life, I had never encountered a man who ever said anything negative about my weight, even when I was heavier. Only now, when my benchmark was set so much lower… when there was the reality of me being thinner at some point in time… have I ever encountered that bullshit. It’s almost as if those people realized I could do it (cue motivational “you can do it!”), I could really be the person they wanted to see… I could get back there if I wanted to!

No way. Really? Thank you. I had no idea.

The most unfortunate part of my weight loss experience was that I lost something. I lost more than 60 lbs; I, for a period of years, lost the part of me that actually liked who I was. I never thought there was anything wrong with me. I had to RECOVER from losing weight. And obviously that recovery has not culminated with me feeling less bitter about this, nearly a decade later. This sounds weak as hell, right? Someone whining about the compliments doled out like Diet Red Bull when s/he drops weight. The real whining is about how little people mean until they conform to this apparently very stringent ideal of beauty; that without making some narrow claim about sexism, we live in a sad time and place where what you look like is immensely valuable and everything else falls by the wayside. For most of my young adulthood, I felt I had largely escaped the time-honored tradition of body hatred, only to find myself at the white hot epicenter after losing weight. I developed a disgust in the bottomless judgment of people that I will probably never shake.

So, at the risk of saying any more, I hope if you ever encounter someone who has lost that much weight, you don’t ask how or why. You don’t say anything. I hope you have the wherewithal to treat said person with some sense of respect and dignity by finding the perfect neutral balance between morbid curiosity and stoked exclamation, because chances are that person would rather be approached neutrally than like some circus freak, some strong person who overcame something tremendous (or was someone “tremendous”) and lived to tell the tale. That person, at 100 lbs or 150 lbs or 200 lbs or 500 lbs is the same goddamn person. Just do everyone a favor and shut your mouth.

I’m closing this with this awesome clip from Eve Ensler from America the Beautiful.

The end. Continue reading

Art & Culture / Book Reviews

on sex & sperm whales

Two older books that have been collecting dust on my shelf…

redqueen The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley | A few chapters of this book can be skimmed if you read a lot in this subject area (for me, “The Power of Parasites,” and “The Intellectual Chess Game”), though there are anecdotes and blips of research scattered throughout the chapters you may find your eyes caught up on. Some of the theories in this book are interesting. Some I disagree with. Some seem like they’re presented after evidence to the contrary. Some is common knowledge. I’m not sure what I found most valuable in this book, the anecdotal stuff about animals or the author’s ideas about humans. There are a few things I completely disagree with (women never seek out sex for the sake of sex) that seem to have been presented as fact without any source material. Overall I thought this was a very long but interesting book. It’s pretty comprehensive (disagreeing with some of the material doesn’t make it less so). As someone fascinated by how people make buying decisions, the subject matter of this book obviously appealed to me; even for someone not particularly interested in sex and evolution, it’s a good book to skim for new information. NY Times Review here.

in-the-heart-of-the-sea-book-coverIn the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick | I think this is the first time in this blog I’ve found such a good review that even my pathetic 5-10 sentence review is completely worthless (I don’t write full reviews because why the hell would I? All of these books already have a bazillion reviews, and the more I write about books I read the less time I have to read new ones). OMG, this NY Times review is awesome. And the book was excellent. I looooove maritime tales, and obviously the one that inspired Moby Dick (one of my favorite books of all time) is well worth the read. Philbrick is an incredibly talented writer and super passionate about this time in history (and Nantucket history in general). I spent most of the time reading this book wondering why the hell it took me so long to take it off my bookshelf (I bought this at Powell’s in Portland a year and a half ago). This is an absolutely amazing read. Unfortunately it seems the movie they made for it turned out like crap, though that’s only based on the reviews. Continue reading