Favorites Places, Different Time

Studying history can be a delightful exercise in disciplined imagination. It requires us to summon forth in our minds – critically, with data and evidence – what happened in a different time in a different place. More than assembling sources and crafting arguments, fully immersed historical study is transcendent. It whisks us away while we stay at home.

I took such a trip to one of my favorite places when I read John Kasson’s 1978 history monograph, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. I don’t know how many years ago, probably decades, that I first encountered this slim and well-written study. It is a smartly crafted work that cast a long shadow in the study of popular culture. Kasson’s writing is accessible and scholarly, good with details and theory. He is a reliable and caring guide.

Coney Island, for the uninitiated, was the nation’s first mass amusement area. A Brooklyn beach-side resort in the 1800s, Coney Island grew rapidly in the latter quarter of that century. Accessible and affordable, Coney Island sat at the intersection of New York City’s massive population growth, the rise of the middle and working classes with disposable income, and the creation of mass production entertainment. It offered opportunity for socialization, pleasure and wonder within a short train ride of the city’s apartments and tenements. It was and remains to this day a special place, close to the city, of the city, and apart from the city.

Dreamland

Kasson situates Coney Island’s development within the broader historical context of the New York City’s Central Park, created after the Civil War, and the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago, one of the most important cultural events of the latter half of the century. He explains what trends the entrepreneurs in Coney Island followed and where they established their own paths. Sensitive to issues of race, ethnicity and gender, Kasson recounts how Coney Island represented an alternative cultural space for its millions of visitors.

As one of those regular visitors – I’ve riding the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel annually for decades – the book truly comes to life when it goes into detail describing the ambitious amusement parks built in the years before the first World War. Steeplechase Park, Luna Park and Dreamland, each in their own way, created immersive alternative realities for day-tripping New Yorkers. Fantastic architecture, cutting-edge technologies, and shows designed to amuse, entertain and amaze shaped these extraordinary spaces. The photos alone can transport me.

When casting about for a read in these challenging times, consider dipping into well-written history. And if you pick up a copy of Kasson’s Amusing the Million, I’m sure that you’ll find it engaging.

David Potash

Questlove & Creativity

Questlove is a genius. I’ve been a fan for decades – and reading his latest book, Creative Quest, has made me even more enthusiastic. He is an amazing artist.

Probably best known as the drummer and leader of the Roots, the band on the NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Questlove is a musician, arranger, DJ, composer, author, producer (music, theater and more), writer, critic, foodie, teacher and all-round creative force. I first heard him DJ in the early 2000s in clubs and was hooked – and I’ve been regularly looking for events where he performs ever since. The breadth of music that he pulled together in his shows was always impressive and exciting. Creative Quest explains how and why – and quite a bit about his thinking, work habits, and creative processes.

Written as much as a discussion as a traditional book (and I imagine that it would be a great on audio), Creative Quest is driven by Questlove’s interest in creativity. He wonders if he is truly creative – and the narrative explores different kinds of creative processes. It’s a lesson book and an autobiography, as Questlove explains how he and other artists wrestle with questions of borrowing, originality, dry spells, failure and partnership. He makes suggestions and also assigns tasks. For example:

  • Begin each day by believing the opposite of everything you believe.
  • Think of two artists you know, who you consider to be very different, and imagine what project they would make if they collaborated.
  • When you’re having trouble thinking of new ideas, go to one your old ideas and rework it.
  • Imagine creating an exhibition of all the things that inspire you, and imagine how you would arrange the works in the show.

Giving the book a unique flavor is the breadth of Questlove’s experiences and wisdom. Influences range from J. Dilla to Joseph Brodsky, from Bjork to young chefs looking to make a mark, and many, many others. He has an ability to pull creative people into his orbit and that makes this a very interesting book.

I don’t know if this will make readers more creative, but it will make you think. And I don’t know – it just might help with your creative processes, too.

David Potash

Making Stuff

On the recommendation of a bookstore staffer, I picked up Joshua Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World. I know – a book about factories? I was skeptical but she was persuasive. Turns out that she was right. It’s a surprisingly good read, presenting a host of historical changes in new light. Behemoth is well-written, accessible, and not dumb.

Freeman is a distinguished professor of history at Queens College, CUNY. He has serious history chops. His aim here, though, is not to overwhelm the reader with footnotes and in-the-weeds references and sourcing. The pace is swift, the prose is clear, and driving the book is a clear narrative tone that calls attention to something that many of us have missed: the importance of the big factory in the development of modern life. Freeman pulls from economics, anthropology, politics and history to explain the growth and key role the super-large factories have played.

Freeman begins with New England and the textile mills in the early 1800s, then moves to the large steel mills of the latter 1800s. Ford and the creation of the big automobile manufacturing facilities is next, and Freeman ties them elegantly to the mega-factories of the Soviet Union. He explores mass production and mass consumption, closing with a look at the massive factories in China and Vietnam. Foxconn City is an appropriate focus of attention and a good way to end the study.

Perhaps one of the most important takeaways from the book is a heightened appreciation of economic and technical change – particularly when it comes to making stuff. Material goods are central to the way that we live. How they come into being is fascinating on so many levels. Freeman does a fine job teasing out that question, providing historical answers across decades and borders.

Behemoth would be a fun book to teach, especially in an interdisciplinary course.

David Potash

Safety and Feeling Safe

In September in New York City, I spent time at the Museum of Broken Windows. An eight-day “pop-up” event in the Village, close to NYU, the Museum of Broken Windows was organized by the New York Civil Liberties Union as a critique to the broken windows theory of policing. The concept – that crime was more likely to happen in an environment that looked untended – was part of the early 1980s zeitgeist. It was in the popular media and in politicians’ rhetoric. It aligned with the “law and order” emphasis of President Reagan. It also resonated with those fearful from urban crime and resenting the major urban disinvestments of the 1970s. In other words, just about everyone bought into it.

The show was packed when I attended. The crowd, mostly young people, was focused and noisy. There content was more images than text, more art than explanation.

The point of the exhibit was to showcase the ineffectiveness of broken window policing, emphasizing that it criminalizes those of color and less means. The show referenced a major report by the New York City Police Department on “quality of life” crimes and policing, which proved that arrests for these minor infractions does not actually reduce crime. Incomplete and passionate, the museum was about energizing and raising awareness. But of what? The issue is not just about policing. Much more is going on with this dynamic.

Mulling this over in the past few weeks, I’ve been wondering: why did the theory of broken windows become so popular? What is it about stoking up fears that is so effective? I realized – probably belatedly – that as long as I’ve been alive, there have always been a drumbeat of fears, threats and crises being pressed by leaders and the media. We have been, supposedly, under continuous threat since forever. In my 55 years, it’s been the Soviet Union, the communists, then urban crime, then crack, then terrorists and more terrorists. And that’s just the high level threats.  Greater access to information, through the media and the internet, has not just been about more information. It is, in great part, also about more threats and threats on top of those threats.

The world is a scary place. We all know that. However, some threats spur more action than others – often without research or deep consideration. When threats align with interests and what we, as a people, want to believe, then there is change. We take action, often quickly, to calm ourselves and assert our power. Collectively would be doing better if we had more judgment and prudence when it comes to what frightens us and why.

It’s an opportune moment for all us to take a harder look at what we are hearing and seeing as threats. Let’s stay prudent and not live scared. A November resolution?

David Potash

More Exciting Than Fiction

One of the most entertaining history books I have read in ages, Ben McIntyre’s Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Love, Espionage, and Betrayal beggars belief. It’s too exciting to be true. But it is – it really happened. McIntyre is a thoughtful and careful writer. It is not at all surprising that the book is being made into a movie (again) and that Tom Hanks is a producer. The story leaps from the page.

Agent Zigzag is about Eddie Chapman, an English crook, spy, rake, and hero. Born in rough circumstances with little love or structure at home, Eddie ran with a fast crowd. Smart but with little appetite for school, he was in and out of trouble throughout his teens. A short stint in the military was not to his liking. By his twenties, Eddie had done jail time and made friends with other criminals keen on robbery. They innovated, using gelignite to explode safes, and Eddie had plenty of money to spend on clothes, trips, fast cars and women. Women fell for Eddie and he professed deep love and affection for more than a few (and more than one at the same time, too).

Eventually recaptured and imprisoned in Jersey, a Channel Island, Chapman was doing time for his crimes when World War II broke out. Jersey was captured by the Germans. They did not know what to make of this criminal. Chapman was an avid reader, had schooled himself in many of the classics, and was also good with languages – eventually fluent in French with good skills in German. Chapman wanted out of jail and sensed an opportunity. Faking anger at the British for imprisoning him, Chapman talked the Germans into using him as a spy. After many months of training, tests, and more training, he parachuted back to England with a mission of sabotage.

Chapman immediately turned himself over to the British military and offered to spy against the Germans. After more tests, more training and enough subterfuge for several movies, the British and Chapman faked the destruction of an aircraft factory – supposedly blown up by Chapman. Camouflage and clues were enough to fool the Germans. Chapman made his way back to occupied mainland Europe and was received as a hero by his German handlers. The Germans gave him more money and he was even awarded an Iron Cross. He faced incredible risks – and seemed to thrive on the challenge.

Chapman did more pseudo-espionage for the Germans, in Norway and Portugal, all the while feeding information to the British. He also started a relationship with a women who was part of the Norwegian resistance (while engaged to a different woman in England). His life during the war was one of ongoing risk and derring-do – with the occasionally felony on the side. Throughout it all, Chapman charmed people of all nationalities. He was amoral and patriotic, fearless and engaging.

British intelligence cut Chapman loose towards the end of 1944. He was too much of a risk. In post-war years Eddie consorted with people from all walks of like – including criminals – and even befriended his old German spy handler. Several times, Chapman tried to share his story. Full accounts were squashed by the British government, though fictional versions appeared in print and on the screen. The 1966 movie Triple Cross was based on Chapman’s exploits. Eddie eventually died in 1997.

I couldn’t put down Agent Zigzag – it’s as good, if not better, than any potboiler at the bookstore. Truth sometimes is much more entertaining than fiction.

David Potash

Remodeling the Happiness Store

Tony Hsieh is the charismatic founder of Zappos, the online shoe and commerce platform. In 2010, he authored Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose. It is part memoir, part business history, and part philosophical treatise. Hsieh famously wrote it in a few fevered weeks. The book was an immediate best-seller. Hsieh, who had recently sold Zappos to Amazon, was widely admired as a business guru and entrepreneurial genius. He made hundreds of millions and was still a young man, only in his 30s. The book is forth-right, funny, and unusually candid in what worked and what did not in the rise of Zappos.

Zappos, seven years ago, was widely recognized as a superb place to work. Hsieh’s book helps to explain how he understood organizational culture as brand and how he went about building a unique culture. “Create fun and some weirdness” Zapponians stated. I visited the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas a few years ago. It was fascinating – from entry-way to HR to training to communication. The folks who worked there very much believed in the system, which placed customer service and human relations at the very center of the business enterprise. Happiness, Hsieh argued, can create great business culture and profits.

In late 2013, Hsieh announced that he was going to replace the traditional organizational structure at Zappos with a holacracy. There is no pyramid structure in a holacracy. Instead, teams (known as circles) make decisions, with the aim of making an organization flatter, more responsive, and more effective. It is not about happiness or oddness. Rather, it empowers these informed circles of workers with pursuing the company’s mission. Many at Zappos tried it and then rebelled. Hsieh has remained committed to the holacracy despite high employee turnover (a third of all those formally happy workers left). Zappos has left the list of best places to work. In fact, the business press has been fairly consistent in its criticism. The jury may still be out on the long-term future of the holacracy and Zappos, but signs are not promising. We can all be confident that few new business leaders will be rushing to recreate their own new holacracies.

Recently I took a look at Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness to gain some insight into the company, Hsieh and the story. Why was he so successful with Zappos in its early days and not today? Admittedly, by most business measures – income, wealth and prestige – Hsieh will always be considered extremely successful. But I see the longer arc of Zappos today as much a cautionary as an exemplary tale.

Hsieh is thoughtful, reflective, curious, and keen on grounding his work with meaning. He is an entrepreneur who wants to make money and to make a difference. He cares. Hsieh is talented and an unusually gifted promoter. He was also able to create, borrow, build and sell businesses multiple times, and to do so as the tech boom was reshaping the business landscape. Comfortable with risk, Hsieh invested (bet?) all of his money on his businesses at various times. He learned from poker, he wrote, as well from his errors.

Looking at the story with the benefit of hindsight, Hsieh was able to bring together a couple of characteristics at just the right time and in the right place. Putting customer service at the center of the business always makes sense. However, I believe that it will only fuel fast organizational growth when other factors are at play. There are plenty of customer focused organizations, like my local dry cleaner, that are not raking in revenue. What happened with Zappos was its focus and rise in a particular environment: the speedy transformation of retail to on-line shopping. Hsieh also brought great insight and curiosity to the table, enabling him to create a company and a company culture that stood out. This is no small feat.

But the strengths of organizational building are not the same for organizational transformation. I think that the many ways in which organizational culture takes hold and shapes people, decisions, and actions are often under appreciated. When we try to make people behave differently, though, we come to appreciate just how powerful culture can be and how it limits change. It is always much easier to create culture anew than it is to change an established culture. This, in a nutshell, is what Hsieh has had difficulty realizing. A holacracy might or might not be an effective strategy for an online retail business. It might nor might not be a good system for any number of businesses. However, it will always be painful to try to change an organization to a new way of thinking.

Some organizations are created with an ongoing change mentality. However, I cannot think of any that have a change mentality and put their employees first.

I believe that the strengths that Hsieh brought to business creation – comfort with risk, innovation, thinking out of the box, eagerness to change – are not skills that help with changing organizational culture. He has vision, ambition and drive, exactly the skills needed to start a business and take it to the next level. Hsieh is interested in passion, in being real, and in finding a higher purpose.

My key takeaway from Zappos is not about organizational culture, or change, or finding happiness at work. Instead, it is all about the importance of situational leadership.

David Potash

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

I remember Wonder Woman when it showed up on television in the 1970s. Lynda Carter was cute but the series did not really resonate with me. I found it just a bit odd, kind of old-fashioned. I had no idea just how odd – or fascinating.

Jill Lepore, in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, explains the origins of the comic book and provides many good reasons for its strangeness. Her book has sold millions for very good reason. Sure, there’s sex, intrigue, drama, secrets and the excitement of comic books. The content is extraordinarily interesting. Lepore has done much more than report it, though. She tells a tale, raises questions, and gives us a narrative of talent and contradiction. It is really engaging popular cultural history at its best.

The story of Wonder Woman is actually the history of William Moulton Marston and his extended family. Marston was a polymath, a talented and gifted man with massive psychological issues. A mother’s boy who graduated from Harvard in 1915, paid his way through while writing screenplays, Marston also earned a law degree and a doctorate psychology. He invented the lie detector test (asking a subject questions while examining their systolic blood pressure), and bounced around Hollywood for years. He was a failure in higher education and, in many ways, harnessing his abilities for financial gain and stability. What saved him were the women he was able to bring into his life. He married to Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a hardworking, smart and highly competent woman in her own right. Olive Byrne, another smart and talented woman, was also a part of the family. Marston fathered children with both women, who maintained an elaborate fiction. Women were central to his home and professional life.

Lepore draws out the idealist circles in which Marston and his circle moved. Margaret Sanger was Olive Byrne’s aunt. John Reed was a friend at Harvard. Free love, feminism, women’s rights, psychology and science were recurring themes in the Marston milieu. All factored prominently in the creation of Wonder Woman, a product of the World War II environment. The comic strip Wonder Woman was immediately popular. Marston, sadly, contracted polio and died at the young age of 53. After the war and without his drive, Wonder Woman faded from the popular consciousness, only to be looked at anew in the 1970s with the rise of women’s liberation.

Woven throughout this complex history are idiosyncrasies, kinks, and strange coincidences – from Olive’s bracelets to Marston’s fascination with bondage. He did not acknowledge it but anyone reading Wonder Woman comics did. She and other women were constantly being chained, gagged, bound or otherwise constrained. It’s a strange narrative for a mother’s boy.

Beyond the anecdotes, what The Secret History of Wonder Woman does very well is highlight the many connections of intellectual and cultural change and production. Few successful things happen in a vacuum. Smarts always makes a difference. And sometimes it helps to be kind of odd, too.

David Potash

Surprised Stranger in a Strange Land

One of my favorite movie scenes is from the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps. Our hero, Richard Hannay (ably played by a dashing Robert Donat), is fleeing from police and spies. He darts into an auditorium, where he is mistaken for the featured speaker and led to the dais. Hundreds of eyes are upon him and the crowd grows restless. Without knowing the topic or the audience, Hannay launches into an impassioned speech, stringing together platitudes and general observations. He senses what the crowd wants and they are charmed. Hannay wins their support, just as he is whisked away by the police.

I thought of Hannay-Donat often while reading Rachel Dewoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing. It is a very entertaining book, well-told, with a most improbable story line. Dewoskin plays a role – American woman in Beijing – in her daily life and on television. She is committed to the role, but at the same time she knows that she is living a performance.

foreign-babes-in-beijing

Dewoskin is the daughter of a well-known American sinologist. She spent much of her childhood traveling in China, and after graduating from college, decided to take a job in Beijing working for an American public relations firm. She knew little about PR, but at age twenty-one, she wanted to see something new. China in the early 1990s, just as it was opening up new economic opportunities to the west, was an ideal opportunity for an American with Chinese language skills. Dewoskin started work, found a place to live, and began to explore and keep a journal.

She describes her day-to-day work existence with engaged bemusement and humor, particularly as she worked diligently in trying to figure things out. China can be a terrifically difficult culture to navigate, and at that period, she was a pioneer. Very little made sense. Every interaction, especially with friends and colleagues, was influenced by culture and protocol. Only through the benefit of time did she realize her errors and false assumptions. The language posed constant challenges. She notes often that she was never quite sure she understood what others were saying. Adding to it, just about everyone can be a bit of a fool in their early 20s.

Propelling an interesting journey into the absurd, a man she met at a party encouraged Dewoskin to audition for a role on Chinese television. Dewoskin had acted in college so thought of it as a bit of lark. Much to her surprise, she was cast as a lead in the soap opera “Foreign Babes in Beijing.” Playing the role of Jiexi, a sexy American who is able to snare a Chinese man, Dewoskin became a star and an unwitting vehicle by which Chinese culture worked through issues of western women. The soap was a multi-year smash. Overall viewership was more than 600 million.

After several years of acting, making friends and growing up, her adventures invariable come to an end. Dewoskin made her way back to the United States. Several years later, her notebooks became the source of this book. She is now a writer.

Dewoskin does not make grand sweeping arguments in Foreign Babes. Nor does she try to prove points about Chinese culture. Instead, she describes and recounts with a keen appreciation of people and detail. She is smart and thoughtful.  The result is a very interesting account of an intelligent and resourceful woman doing something unexpected in a foreign world that she struggles to understand. It’s an apt description of many immigrant stories – only this one is told from a different perspective.

David Potash

Serendipity, Fiction, and a Home Away

A friend in publishing told me that every book finds its audience.

If so, the journey taken by Laura McBride‘s We Are All Called To Rise to me is worthy of sharing.

ZappotopiaIt has been a full summer of work. In need of a vacation, Las Vegas emerged as a surprising choice. It is not expensive to fly there and lodgings are affordable. So despite the 100+ heat, we set off to the Nevada desert in August. It turned out to be a successful trip – and not because the heat is dry.

Away from the casinos and the Strip, Las Vegas can be unexpectedly surprising. Zappos, the internet shoe and clothing company, has its headquarters in the former Las Vegas City Hall. It is a wildly successful company with a  particular culture. They give “factory” tours in Vegas, explaining the Zappos story. Zappos knows a great deal about customer service. In fact, they describe themselves as a customer service company who happens to sell shoes.Container Park Visit them and you will bear witness to the power of a vision fully implemented. Zappos culture is impressive to contemplate. After taking the tour, I was wondering: “How did this end up here?”

A few blocks away is the Downtown Project. The brainchild of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, the Project is an outsize attempt to revitalize a neglected part of the city. Hsieh purchased cut-rate property and hand-picked vendors and firms to energize a 60-acre tract. It features restaurants, shops, new companies, and public art. Fueled by optimism, technology and caffeine, the jury remains out as to its sustainability three years on.

Container Park is at the heart of the Downtown Project. An attractive small outdoor shopping center made of shipping containers, it has good food, cold drink, and effective air conditioners. Walking around in daylight without a purpose in daylight makes little sense. Scurrying on the shady sides of the street, aided by apps and a smart phone, led to iced coffee and barbecue. Replenished, I looked at the outdoor playground, the public art and the heat rising of the concrete, and again wondered, “Why here?”

Nearby in the project is a small bookstore – The Writers Block. Talking with the owners, who received backing from Hsieh, I learned that it is the only independent bookstore in Nevada focusing on new books. It is an attractive and Writers Blockthoughtfully curated bookstore. It also had a familiar urban feel. It turned out that the The Writers Block is the creation of the forces who managed the Superhero Supply Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I used to live in Brooklyn. I knew Superhero Supply well. For profit stores with a not-for-profit and not terribly secret back-half, the Writers Block and Superhero Supply mix retail with space and support for writers, especially children. It is an intriguing concept originally promoted by Dave Eggers. The Writers Block opened less than a year ago. Like the larger Downtown Project, it is still very much in start-up phase.

So there I was, in a new and different but still somewhat familiar space, thousands of miles away from home, trying to make sense of a downtown that wasn’t fully realized in a city keen on constantly reinventing itself for tourists. There seemed only one reasonable course of action: ask for a good book to help me understand Las Vegas.

I expected nonfiction. Instead, they recommended, McBride’s We Are All Called To Rise. McBride teaches English at the College of Southern Nevada. She is known in the community and had done a reading at The Writers Block. It is her debut novel. Told that it liked by the critics and is selling well, I bought the book.We Are All Called to Rise

We Are All Called To Rise is not about Las Vegas, but it is grounded in the lives of those who live and work in Las Vegas. McBride tells several distinct and related, stories in the book, weaving together a narrative about loss, family, and making meaning. Sentimental but still hard-headed, it is an impressive work of fiction. She is particularly strong on survivors and the impact of trauma. McBride cares about her characters. It is an excellent read.

May your next read find its way to you with an equally interesting journey. I give thanks – to vacations, to company tours, to online shoe shopping, to urban spaces, to independent bookstores, and to the power of coincidence. Many of these resonate in McBride’s world, too.

David Potash

Her Sister’s Keeper

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a recent novel from Karen Joy Fowler, is an endearing disruptive read. Narrated in the first person by Rosemarie Cook, an inveterate talked who starts in the middle and loops with little regard for chronology’s strictures, the book engages and challenges. Good novels worm their way into how we think about people and the world – and We Are Completely Beside Ourselves does a wonderful job of it. Fowler is a very talented author.We are all completely besides ourselves

Fowler does not so much have a plot as a concept, and it could be something of a surprise for those not paying close attention. A traditional nuclear family (father, mother, son, daughter) raises an orphaned baby chimpanzee as one of their own as a psychology experiment. The chimp, Fern, is the same age as the younger daughter, Rosemarie.  The experiment ends after five years – the chimpanzee is suddenly sent to a “farm” – and the family suffers trauma and disintegrates over time.

Rosemarie, who has a terrific voice and a real way with words, tells us this story. Irreverent and deeply moral, Rosemarie’s coming of age is more than a journey to adulthood; it is about what it means to be fully human. Those interested in literary analysis will find numerous thoughtful references. Themes of doubling and twinning themes are woven throughout. Fowler’s skill unfolds these questions with a light, yet penetrating touch.

Well worth your time – and I would be surprised if you would want to visit the monkey cage at the zoo after reading it. When it comes to our ethical responsibilities to animals, no easy answers are possible. Some things, though, are simply wrong.

David Potash