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

Baudelairian Commute

Monday's Chicago clouds

 

The clouds were beautiful Monday morning driving to work. Raking sunlight infused color into a sky that opened broadly. As I sat in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, I took this photo and thought of Baudelaire’s poem The Stranger –

Tell me, enigmatical man, whom do you love best, your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?

I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

Your friends?

Now you use a word whose meaning I have never known.

Your country?

I do not know in what latitude it lies.

Beauty?

I could indeed love her, Goddess and Immortal

Gold?

I hate it as you hate God.

Then, what do you love, extraordinary stranger?

I love the clouds… the clouds that pass… up there… up there… the wonderful clouds!

(Louise Varese translation)

My introduction to the poem came through  Ulrich Baer’s Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. More than a hundred and fifty years on, it’s a poem that can still seduce and shock. Baer, NYU professor and talented literary critic, uses it as a leaping off point to interrogate key issues of modernity. Questions of freedom and alienation may seem relevant when trapped in stop and go traffic. My thoughts, thought, were about attentiveness, our engagement and awareness of our surroundings. We live in distracting times and there is always another image, another experience, just a click away.

Conscious of this, I clicked a photo myself, wondering if others were looking and considering the wonderful clouds.

David Potash

Fame in Familiar Flavors

Bat Masterson used to be famous. A gunfighter, lawman, buffalo hunter, pugilist, gambler, boxing promoter, and newspaper columnist, Masterson was a man’s man from the Wild West who lived the latter half of his life on Broadway in New York City. He killed several men, was involved in countless brawls and lawsuits, and lived a life worthy of fiction. One of his younger New York friends, Damon Runyan, thought so – he created the character “Sky Masterson” thinking of Bat. Sky would later achieve a different kind of fame as the lead in the musical Guys and Dolls.  Theodore Roosevelt was equally enchanted. When President, Roosevelt arranged for a federal sinecure for Masterson.Bat Masterson

Robert K. DeArment is probably the world’s expert on Bat Masterson. His latest work, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masteron’s New York City Years, chronicles Masterson’s life but focuses on his time on the Great White Way. Masterson’s New York City was very much Runyon’s: a small district around Times Square filled with types. Masterson did have exploits, but were they worthy of our collective attention? His prose was nothing special; nor were his opinions, causes, or arguments. He was not a leader and he left no exceptional mark on his environs. He was a friend and a colleague to many and a dangerous enemy to a few.

Thinking of Bat Masterson brings to mind other celebrities famous for being famous, a category now enshrined in popular culture. We often think that the rise of the fake celebrity is a recent phenomena driven by the internet and social media. In reality, it is a part of modern life and has been for decades.  We regularly think about, read about, and write about popular figures whose actual claim to fame is, at best, tenuous. Our fascination with fame is as much about us, the public, as it is about the object of our attention, the celebrity.

Those famous for being famous often share similar traits. They actively seek to maintain their celebrity. That kind of fame does not just happen – it requires ongoing work. And if you doubt me, consult with Kathy Griffin. Also, these kinds of celebrities tend to embody characteristics that are taken to an extreme. Masterson’s hyper-masculinity stands as a provocative counterpoint to the hyper-femininity of the Spice Girls or the Kardashians.

As for Masterson, DeArment’s volume provides more than I would ever care to know about the man in print. I will hold judgement about meeting Masterson in person – I think that he would have been a heck of an interesting fellow to meet at the bar.

David Potash

Skeuomorphs – Much More Than Clicks and Faux Paneling

My son, an avid Kickstarter, recently received a brilliant new piece of technology, the Pebble watch. Internet and Bluetooth ready, this wristwatch  customizes with a slew of apps, with more on the way, and talks with your smartphone. It looks pretty cool, too.Pebble Watch

How does the watch tell time?  A variety of ways and traditionally with two hands and a dial.

When objects consciously reference other objects or design, it’s called a skeuomorph. It is most common today when new technology includes older technological features, most likely to make the change more comfortable. Pay close attention and you’ll find skeuomorphs all around – and they have been with us for a long time.Ford Country Squire

Check out the Ford Country Squire, the classic suburban station wagon. Built first as a “woodie” with wood sides, the car retained stick on wood paneling for decades. Horrendous and wonderful – but mostly horrific if you were assigned the far back on a road trip.

The real rise in skeuomorph design came with the digital world. We don’t recognize bytes and code. Skeuomorphs are the bridge to analog and authenticity. They are the backwards-looking matrix that allows for digital notepads, turntables, building blocks and calendars. Look on your desktop for digital wood and digital leather. Smartphones click like a mechanical camera when taking a photo. Apple was famous for its skeuomorphic designs.

Ironic use of skeuomorphism is common and can be effective with the right touch. I sometimes have my smartphone ring, not beep, chime or gong, and it often leads to smiles. It is a way to have our new technology cake and eat it, too. The difficulty comes into play when skeuomorphic design is neither ironic nor thoughtful. Skeuomorphism can be lazy. Why should a computer screen look like a typewritten page on a yellow legal pad?

Evaluation of skeuomorphic design has to acknowledge intent. If the desire is for authenticity, failure is certain. “Authentic reproductions” always fall short and ring false.  If a design deceives with integrity, it stands a fighting chance of success.

And fake wood paneling is always in bad taste.

David Potash

This Bud’s For Bud – Buddenbrooks It Ain’t

Tabloids satisfy our curiosity of the famous while delighting in their miseries. The fall of the wealthy, after all, is often sad and sweet. Consider the story of the Busch family. Bitter Brew chronicles 150 years of family lore and the brewery they used to control, Anheuser-Busch. It is a tale of egos and excess spanning more than a hundred and fifty years. The author William Knoedelseder pays attention to the business but his heart is in the personalities, drama, and scandals. Not hard to figure out why – the family history is chock full of philandering, emotionally bruising conflict, excessive consumption, and deeply flawed people sitting atop an extraordinarily profitable enterprise.Bitter Brew

One of many St. Louis breweries operated by German immigrants, Anheuser Busch stood out in the years after the Civil War thanks to the leadership of Adolphus Busch. Married to the daughter of Eberhard Anheuser, a wealthy manufacturer, Adolphus was the first to pasteurize beer, to ship beer in refrigerated railroad cars, and to build an integrated distribution network. Adolphus created new beers, too, including Budweiser, a premium beer with national marketing behind it. The quintessential American success story, Adolphus was a benevolent potentate in St. Louis, famous for his extravagant lifestyle. He threw massive parties, lived in a castle, and died just before anti-German sentiment swept through America as World War I erupted.

A solid heir, Augustus A., weathered the war and Prohibition. His son, August II, led the brewery through the Great Depression and World War II, as well as multiple marriages and innumerable mistresses. His first son from his first wife, Augustus III, was born in 1937.  August II married again, to a beautiful 22-year-old Swiss blonde who would provide more children and a measure of stability. Passionate about his brewery, his pleasure and the trappings of the role, August II had all the traits of a Bourbon king.

Girls, cars, and guns were always present and often trouble. At age twelve August III took several rifle shots at some neighborhood girls. He favored fast cars and pretty girls, just like his father, and he, too, had multiple marriages. The battles between the two men over the years for control of the brewery is reminiscent of  a Jacobean drama done as a television miniseries. There was no easy transfer of power. It was ugly and mean, with threats and lies.  After several attempts August III gained control of the board and forced his father out. Deposed CEO’s are often given severance packages. August II’s face-saving gift was control of the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team.

History repeated itself with August IV, a playboy drawn to weapons and women. August IV was bad news for many around him. A pretty young woman bartender died after accepting a ride in his Corvette. No charges were pressed, even though August IV left the scene of the accident and claimed that he could not remember what had happened. He spent much of his time partying and bedding countless women, eventually marrying as his role at the company solidified. The marriage did not last. Through all his mistresses and misadventures, family money and connections kept him protected – or minimized the damage. Later in life another girl died under mysterious circumstances at his home.

The apparent reason for the takeover of the business by a Brazilian conglomerate was August IV’s lack of attention and substance abuse problems. Knoedelseder paints a picture that the family’s longstanding interest in personal gratification and horrible interpersonal dynamics made it inevitable. He does not argue the point, though. Clever advertising and good fortune can only take a company so far. Infidelity, mistrust and greed compromise the best strategic plans.

Knoedelseder’s sharply drawn portraits are based on serious research. The narrative is tight and the tone carries just the right mix of objective reporting and lurid fact. Missing from the history, though, is message and meaning. No catharsis emerges from the fall of a family without greatness or heroism. Like bottle of Bud, the Busch family lacks substance and taste.

David Potash

With A Little Wine, Please

For me to write about Eric LeMay’s Immortal Milk, Adventures in Cheese, a snack was essential. I rustled about in the fridge. There was a little bit of waxy gouda left from a stop at Whole Foods. It was fine, but not really enough to warrant much prose. The havarti had gone bad, but tucked behind some pepperoni was a chunk of super sharp cheddar. A bit pedestrian, perhaps, for it was not organic and from New Zealand. I limit my Whole Foods silly cheeses. The cheddar still had a bite that enthused me.

Enthusiasm is the correct sentiment, too, for rarely have I read a short book about anything that is so completely run through with enthusiasm. LeMay does not babble and he does not go on and on and on. He does, though, incisively and with great humor, walk us through a series of adventures in and with cheeses. Fromage in all its variations is a passion that he and his wife share. They celebrate cheese and cheese making. They are humbled and exalted, and all for immortal milk, cheese.

The couple visits cheese makers, cheese fairs, cheese mongers and the cheese obsessed. Cheesophilics, I believe they are called. They taste aromatic cheeses and cheeses that make them gag. They learn a bit along the way, but this is not a didactic book. The goal is simply about enjoying and learning more about the endlessly complex world of cheese.

How does one recommend such a book? If you only read one book about dairy products . . . .  Looking for something out of the ordinary about food? . . .  Have I got a cheese book for you!

The book is worthy of a hearty recommended, too, and not just for the cheese. It is very much about love and care. LeMay conveys curiosity and good will in a manner that just makes you know that he is earnest without being a bore, a good man to share a drink and a piece of cheese. He’s also very adroit with language.

Come to think of it, it’s been some time since I’ve shopped at Murray’s. They always had a good suggestion or two.  Enjoy.

David Potash

Deep In The Heart Of . . . . What?

The argument in Gail Collins‘ new book, As Texas Goes . . . How The Lone Star State Hijacked The American Agenda , is neatly captured in the Appendix. Collins reprints a biannual report by the Legislative Study Group of the Texas House of Representatives. Titled “Texas on the Brink,” the report in Harper’s Index style tabulates Texas’s ranking on a host of state by state measures. Key indicators include:

  • Texas in 2nd highest in the US in terms of public school enrollment, 38th on expenditures per student, and 50th in terms of percent of the population 25 or older with a high school diploma.
  • Texas is ranked 43rd in terms of graduation rate.
  • Among all 50 states, Texas is number one in terms of percentage of uninsured children (highest), percent of population uninsured (highest), amount of emissions of carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, toxic chemicals released into water, and hazard waste generated.

In fact, a ton is wrong with Texas.

Collins, in her acerbic but jokey style, eviscerates the Texas miracle in this book. She pokes holes in Texas myths, Texas decision-making, Texas culture and Texas politics. It all has a sharp tone, which can grate, but her points are difficult to refute. The Lone Star State is driven by cultural myths that simply do not align with geographic, demographic, economic, or political reality. The state is a mess and doesn’t even know it.

The kicker is Texas’s over-size impact on what happens to the rest of the United States. Blame it on leadership, the Texas committee that recommends textbooks for children,  or the durability of the cowboy and Wild West – Texas generates strong feelings in a way that Ohio cannot. And this would not interest Collins, save for the eerily power of Texas in defining America.

Reading Collins is a bit like sour candy. Tangy, tasty, and liable to leaving you feeling a tad ill if you have too much. Even though she’s funny and right, As Texas Goes  is a bit much for one sitting.

 

Pussy Riot and Brittni Colleps – women in trouble/troubling women

A week ago Friday in Moscow, Russia, three women in their 20s were convicted of “hooliganism” and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. The all-girl members of the impromptu punk band “Pussy Riot” received world-wide attention after being arrested for an anti-Putin performance on the steps of an Orthodox church. Pussy Riot’s supposed primary victim, the Russian Orthodox Church, approved the prosecution of the women but asked the state for leniency. The female sentencing judge ignored the plea, calling the women a danger to society.

On the other side of the world in Fort Worth, Texas, another young woman was found guilty Friday of a serious crime. Brittni Nicole Colleps, a married 28-year-old mother of three and former high school English teacher, will be serving five years in jail for having “improper relationships” with five of her former students. She had sex with some of her students. Colleps’ defense did not contest that sexual activity took place between the teacher and the young men. Instead, her attorneys argued that the students, each of whom was 18 or older at the time of the encounters, were willing participants. Ms. Colleps’ sexual partners tried to keep their activity quiet because they “didn’t want her to get in trouble.” Discretion was unavoidable as Texas prosecutors never even considered a plea bargain. They wanted a jury to serve as “the moral conscience of the community.”

Brittni Colleps should not be teaching. Pussy Riot – now often called a punk art collective – are not good musicians. The consistency in jail time and the inconsistency in responses to those sentences is telling.

Pussy Riot’s ordeal has been a world-wide cause célèbre, with civil rights organizations, politicians and pop stars rising to the band’s defense. The paper of record, The New York Times, considered Pussy Riot’s sentencing front-page news. Those that support the prosecution assert that the women committed a premeditated crime against the church and Russian morality. The state, championing this view, has pursued justice by aligned itself every more closely with the Russian national church. Those who oppose the trial and conviction see it as a case of free speech being muzzled. Pussy Riot are media darlings, even in the tabloids.

Ms. Colleps ordeal is also a global media event with salacious details feeding the frenzy. She had sex with multiple men and one escapade was captured on a cell phone. The video was shown to her jury, adding to the scandal. The Texas prosecutors’ arguments are a defense of the community’s values. District Attorney Elizabeth Beach described Ms. Colleps’ actions as “completely disgusting.” Ms. Colleps’ lawyers, however, described the charges as an unconstitutional intrusion of the state into the sex lives of adults. The students, they argued, were of the age of consent. The jury convicted quickly. Ms. Colleps’ sexual behavior is her crime. Do not expect, however, for Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch to rush to Brittni Colleps’ aid. They and other organizations have been mute, as has the non-tabloid press. The New York Times has published nothing about her.

It is relatively easy for Americans to scoff at Russia’s ham-handed attempts at controlling speech and behavior. The female punk band, whose members look like and act like rebels, fit a recognizable stereotype. Further, Pussy Riot needed to be convicted in order to fulfill that role. Any number of musicians – female or not – can perform protest songs and never be noticed. After all, most musical protests are harmless. Pussy Riot’s conviction affirms a convenient way of understanding human rights, that freedoms are hard to come by outside of our shores. We are able to judge from afar while affirming our own sense of righteousness.

On the other hand, Colleps will gather little sympathy, even though the proportionality of crime to punishment may strike many as dubious. Her sin is more serious than breaking a law that was passed to protect children because her sexual behavior is incompatible with acceptable norms for teacher, mother and wife. In fact, Colleps’ transgression dishonored multiple communities – her home, her school, and, by proxy through her husband who is in the service, the military. Her sexual partners may have thought leniency proper, but framing that defense demands a radical re-casting of her sins into something different. “Free sexuality” does not carry the same currency as “free speech.” She will be punished severely.

Deeply held concerns about changing values and mores are more often than not played through our responses to the crimes of women and their perceived status as criminals. While the actions of Pussy Riot – playing music – and Brittni Colleps – having sex with adult men – may not in and of themselves be characterized as criminal, the context of their actions were judged to be dangerous to their communities. Pussy Riot’s music was a public affront to state and church; Brittni Colleps sexual behavior was an affront to community values for teachers. But in both situations, it is less about who has been put at risk and more about the political gains that are accrued from their prosecutions.

Pussy Riot helps to explain Russia – and it also helps to explain the way that many in the west rush to support a particular concept of free speech. Brittni Colleps can tell us a great deal about America’s concern about sexuality, public schools, and the fascination with the prurient. And both situations are extremely informative about the power of the prosecution to indict, convict and define.

Toxoplasmosis – Nearer and Dearer Than You May Think

Your brain. Your brain on toxoplasms. Eeeeek!

This month’s The Atlantic features a fascinating article – How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy. It highlights the work of a biologist at Charles University in Prague, Jaroslav Flegr, who has been studying parasites.  What has sparked Flegr’s interest is a particular one-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii.  It’s nickname is T.gondii and it’s an effective little bugger. People who host the parasite have toxoplasmosis. Other warm-blooded animals have it, too. It can be very damaging to fetuses, but its impact on adults is only starting to be understood.

T. Gondii has a fascinating life-cycle. It can only reproduce while in cats. It exists in cat feces, and is then picked up through a variety of means, by other animals. When in the host it moves to the brain, creates tiny cysts, and affects the host’s behavior in a variety of ways – many of which are being discovered by Flegr. The underlying assumption that the changes in the host’s behavior, from an evolutionary point of view, are all geared towards the T. gondii getting back into the cat where the parasite can reproduce. Infected rats move more slowly, for example, possibly so that they are easier to be eaten by a feline.

When a person is infected the usual signs are a slight flu and then, supposedly, the parasite sits dormant. Flegr has found, however, that infected people display statistically significant differences, especially when sex is taken into account. Men are more likely to be introverted, fearful and disinclined to follow rules while women present as more outgoing, trusting, and concerned about their appearance. Infected people have slower reaction times, are over-represented in schizophrenia, and are more likely to be in car accidents. Unbelievable weird, isn’t it?

Hard analysis of the science is beyond the article’s scope – we don’t really know if Flegr is correct or not. The early indicators are that he is on to something and it will be thrashed out in laboratories and journals for years to come. What resonates with me is that it highlights the extraordinarily complex interplay that make up evolution, evolutionary biology, and brain development.

Humans are, much more than we realize, open systems. Even more to the point, the interplay between what we conceptualize as the “self” and the “exterior” is extraordinarily fluid. Our internal systems do not simply react to external factors; they can change because of those factors. The systems themselves can transform as studies on neural plasticity reveal.

2500 years ago Heraclitus wrote that you cannot step into the same river twice. The observation holds true today – and it is not the river that is different. You, too, may also be different.