Tool of the trade

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This is an L.C. Smith and Corona Company Standard Typewriter in the collection of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.  It is a training model for children:  instead of letters printed on the keys, illustrations of animals correspond with rings children wore on their fingers that would correspond to the position or deck of the keys they were typing.

Except for the key rings and the animals, this is the exact model of a typewriter I have owned since I bought it in the early 1990s.  The Standard typewriter was built in the 1930s so it was at least 50 years old when I bought it.  It took me some time to realize what terrific shape it was (and continues to be) in.  But it was an antique, a museum piece, even then.

ernesthemingwayI bought this typewriter to write during a summer traveling overseas.  It was not the most practical purchase, since a notebook would have been far better and lighter.  The typewriter weighed at least 10 pounds and didn’t come with its case.  But buying the typewriter was quite possibly the most romantic thing I have ever done.  As I recall, I was smitten with an image of Ernest Hemingway  hammering away at his desk.  (I learned only later, reading A Moveable Feast during that trip, that he wrote his first drafts with a pencil.)

It cost $50 when I found it at the Vallejo Typewriter Company on Tennessee Street in my home town.  As you might imagine, the company no longer exists.   In 1993, it still sold and repaired machines of all kinds.  It was locally famous for displaying in its window the typewriter used by Burt Lancaster as he played Robert Stroud in the 1962 film The Bird Man of Alcatraz.  I have no idea how the owners came to own that typewriter and, unfortunately, what became of it since the store shut down.

My typewriter was manual (and, as a result, less heavy than an electric typwriter) so it didn’t require power as I crossed borders with varying voltages and electrical outlets.  It’s all-metal construction was painted and well-oiled so it was virtually waterproof.  It was almost indestructable, even what I initially thought were its delicate parts.  It had an evocative odor — the good, clean smell of a well-maintained machine.  It is hard to come by that sensation today even in a museum of industry.

I learned to type on a typewriter in a junior high school classroom in the mid-1980s.  Although they were electric, I fail to remember the model.   For a time as a child I enjoyed banging out short stories and scripts on my grandmother’s IBM Selectric.  The Selectric used a special innovation called a typeball instead of individual letter hammers for each keystroke.  The typeball would rapidly rotate based on the key to imprint the letter on paper.  The ball could be swapped out for different typefaces.  For my proud Italian grandmother, it somehow fit that she used an italic typeface for all her letters.

None of that prepared me for a manual typewriter.  By 1993 I had been working on computer keyboards for at least five years.  It took a week just to build the hand and wrist strength necessary to hit the keys hard enough and with enough follow-through to type.  Even after weeks on the road I would find the tips of my fingers insensible if I typed too long.

But carpal tunnel or repetitive motion stress was never a problem.  Unlike the flat modern computer keyboard, the keyboard on the Standard was large and steeply terraced with well-spaced keys.  Hitting all the keys required constant movement with the hands raised and moving all over the keyboard.  There was no resting position but as a result no particular load or stress on the hands or wrists.

I immediately learned that unlike my Apple computer at the time or even the Selectric, which had a correcting ribbon, everything I typed on the Standard was permanent and irremediable.  This fact dramatically, if not instantly, affected my writing.  Typing on the Standard required more forethought and planning as I wrote.   I had to choose words and compose sentences, even whole paragraphs, in my head before I started typing.  Prone as I was at the time to random digressions, the Standard actually helped me maintain intent and focus.  It improved my spelling and composition.

It was also insanely loud.  Once I got going, the physical, even violent nature of typing became apparent.  My friends could hear me working outside the building and down the street.  Nobody particularly complained as I recall and I encountered only mild curiousity.  More eccentric things I’m sure have been seen on the streets and in the hostels across Europe.  Nonetheless, I do remember somebody calling to me on the street in Milan as I hoofed the typewriter on my ruck: “Hey!  Whatta you-a doin’ with that a-writin’ machine?”

Things we love only become romantic when they are obsolete.  Although I still have that typewriter, I’ve never used it since that trip in 1993.  It was outmoded 30 years before I bought it.  But it made me a better writer.  Even as a mass-produced item its old world engineering made it a work of art — maybe something worth seeing in a museum.

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Belief from the inside out

The Pulitzer Prize awarded last month to Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink, an outsider’s meditation on The Holy Qur’an with the help of a learned Islamic scholar, signals a subtle but seismic shift in our intellectual world.  It joins other unmistakable indications that mostly secular Western thinkers now realize they have allowed the belief of a billion people to be defined by a clique and that the popular understanding of Islam has been warped and obverted to the point that the exception has replaced the rule.

I imagine especially for Muslims it is as if everyone thought they were doctors because a friend had a rash, or physicists because they’d seen a car accident.  While they understand something from the inside out, everyone else seems to be just peering in from the outside.

I was reminded of this when listening to an interview on San Francisco public radio recently. The host of The Forum on KQED, Michael Krasny, was interviewing Qamar Adamjee, curator of a new exhibition of Islamic Art at the Asian Art Museum.  (The relevant portion begins at about the 13:00 minute mark.)  Krasny does not so much ask a question as state the cultural and human destruction wrought by the Taliban and the Islamic State.  As she struggles to express herself, Adamjee’s response is telling.  Those who attack art are doing so for political, not religious, reasons, she says. “It’s easy to pick on religion, it’s easy to pick on the other,” which of course cuts in two directions. She changes the subject: “[The exhibit] allows us to see Islamic culture as a much broader thing than the undifferentiated monolithic mass that comes across to us today.”  What she is trying to say is: I want to talk about art and Islamic culture.  This art has nothing to do with violence.

The larger point, perhaps missed in a discussion of art, is that the art and culture and belief of Muslims are what is really important.  That is a difficult thing to say while a coalition of nations is trying to destroy the Islamic State.  But as this recent NPR story by Tom Gjelten also argues, understanding that larger point is also essential to defeat our enemies and to make friends as well.

Carla Power’s Pulitzer may be a landmark of that dawning realization but it is not the only example.  Another can be found in Garry Wills’ recent essay, “My Koran Problem” in The New York Review of Books in which he admits that only very recently had he read The Holy Qur’an.  This is an extraordinary confession.  How could a public intellectual and powerful liberal polemic of such range, virtuosity and experience go so long without understanding one of human civilization’s great texts?  “It was ridiculous that I would remain completely ignorant of what a quarter of the world’s people not only believe in but live by (in different ways),” he writes. Beginning sometime after 2003, he continues to struggle with this text “unaided”.  Surely Wills could find somebody willing to help him?

On a smaller scale but in more sympathetic vein, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy recently wrote about a visit to the Masjid Muhammad, “The Nation’s Mosque” located in northeast Washington, D.C.  “If you see nothing suspicious, maybe that’s normal,” his article was headlined.  At the mosque he met the imam, a retired U.S. Air Force Master Sergeant.  A member of the mosque is a retired U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major.  “We should be America’s allies in the fight against extremism,” another member of the mosque told Milloy.  Muslims are by far the greatest victims of terrorism around the world.  “Instead, we’re on the defensive, always being asked to respond to somebody’s claim that Islam promotes violence.”  Again, in Milloy we hear somebody trying to change the subject, to focus on what’s important, which is what is normal.

How did so many overlook this pacific ordinariness, this everydayness, this normality that we all can recognize?  Wills writes that he has spent most of his career studying Christian and Jewish theology.  Herein is the heart of the problem.  I discovered myself how self-limiting one’s own provincial interests can be.  Even well-intentioned attempts to learn more lead to a contained circle of works, all cross-referencing each other, each self-delimiting any knowledge beyond the circle.  It takes an extraordinary mind or experience to force oneself out and beyond.  I am the grateful beneficiary of such an extraordinary experience and extraordinary minds when it comes to Islam. 

Wills struggles from this insulating defect, unfortunately comparing the Qur’an to The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, as if the holy text were an operational manual for our enemies.  This is exactly wrong.  Studying and understanding The Holy Qur’an and Islamic thought is how we understand and know our friends.  Western secularists don’t understand what Muslims really believe and how their belief animates their lives.  What is normal is important because it is what we have in common to defend against intolerance and barbarism.

But like Wills, we have to start at the beginning.  At the beginning is the realization Wills alludes to: that understanding Islam on its own terms is more important than its present political context.  When a billion people believe some thing, we have a duty to understand that from the inside out.

If Carla Power’s book suffers a flaw, like any other similar book written by a secular Westerner, it is that she addresses the belief from the outside.  But she is studying the Qur’an, which as any Muslim understands is the place to start to understand Islam.   There are several excellent guides (in English) to the Qur’an, including Introduction to the Qur’an by M.A. Draz and The Story of the Qur’an by Ingrid Mattson.  These both benefit from the authors being Muslim.  Additionally, several translations of The Holy Qur’an (also in English) can be found online.  I am less familiar with the Sunnah and the Hadith, the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and a major source of Islamic theology and moral philosophy, but translations are also available online.

Like Wills, I admit that these ancient texts are indeed challenging to read unaided and barring a community college or divinity school course most of us must avail ourselves to what we can find in the public domain.  To understand what Muslims really believe we have to break out of the confining circle of Western scholarship and read what Muslims write about themselves.  Fortunately several books do this and don’t require the assistance of a scholar.  The journey is rewarding from the first step.

the_road_to_mecca_book_coverThe gift of a friend, Muhammad Asad’s The Road to Mecca (1947) is a good place to start.  The book is at once a philosophic meditation, spiritual quest, and ripping adventure yarn in the old Islamic tradition.  Asad was an Austrian convert from Judaism who began his career as a journalist in the Near East.  His adventures, which included advising King Saud and the nascent government of Pakistan, rival or exceed those of T.H. Lawrence, Robert Burton and Gertrude Bell.  Asad very nearly died of thirst while lost in the desert and was interned as an enemy alien by British authorities even though his entire family perished in the Holocaust.  His greatest contribution was a defining contemporary translation, The Message of the Qur’an (1980), into English.

The story of Asad’s conversion is moving.  He has returned to interwar Berlin from his latest journalistic exploits in the Near East and he is riding the Berlin U-Bahn with his wife.  They note the devastated expressions of their fellow citizens, the deep unhappiness of their lives etched on their faces.  There they decide to convert to a system of belief that appeared so much more humane and logical than what they had been raised in.

Who Speaks for Islam (2008) is a misleading title since this book, produced by Gallup and written by Dahlia Mogahed and John L. Esposito, is a very literal survey of what Muslims around the world think about belief, politics, and culture.  It is a study of a complex and plural community, but many clear common threads show through: the central importance of family, the rejection of political violence, the concerns about the erosion of traditional cultural norms, the necessity of belief guiding political choices and personal behavior.  These findings are not particularly dramatic and indeed could be mistaken for similar surveys in Europe and the United States.  But they are critical to understanding the community on its own terms rather than those forced on it by barbarians and xenophobes.

Memories of Muhammad (2008) by Omid Safi, is a kaleidoscopic examination of the legacy of the founder of Islam.  Safi argues it is impossible to understand the belief without understanding the man who promulgated it – much as Protestant Christians closely examine the life of Jesus Christ, he notes – in addition to how Muslims remember and honor the Prophet around the world.  In the clearest way I have read, Safi illuminates the history of Islam, the Sunni-Shia schism, Sufi mysticism, and even contemporary politics.  Born to Iranian parents in Florida, he displays in his home a devotional portrait of the prophet popular in Persian-speaking countries but considered taboo elsewhere – demonstrating the plural and dynamic nature of the community.

Safi by necessity acknowledges contemporary challenges – here he writes against the conventional orthodoxies of the “clash of civilizations” as well as Muslim Occidentalism – but significantly argues that the best way to combat religious strife is to argue for the alternative.  Like Adamjee, he wants to change the subject to what’s really important:  what real people believe and what belief means to them.  And by doing so, he is convinced that it is necessary to talk about and gain a better understanding of Islam and what Muslims believe, which is what the rest of us are just now coming around to.

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Why I Love Comic Strips

This comic strip, a Sunday installment of Peanuts by Charles Schulz, ranks as my favorite above all others.  I can’t explain why.  Maybe it’s the incredibly loaded conversations that don’t seem to go anywhere or resolve themselves.  Maybe it’s the idea of children speaking like Talmudic scholars.  Or maybe it’s the uncomfortable truth that, when you play competitive sports, especially as a child, indeed you feel you were born to suffer.

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Milan Kundera wrote that the modern novel exists because no other form of art can do what what the novel does.  I keep that in mind as I think particularly about this Peanuts strip.  I can’t explain why I find it so funny and appealing just as I can’t imagine any other type of art form or expression being able to do what Schulz did here.

Like the comic book, the comic strip is a peculiarly American art form.  It is related to the single panel editorial cartoon that has been used to lampoon public life for centuries and it has a cousin in the full-panel illustrated narratives common in Europe such as Tintin and Asterix.  A hybrid of the comic strip and the narrative cartoon gave rise to the graphic novel and graphic memoir.  With the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize to Art Speigelman’s Maus the latter appears to have achieved mainstream respectability. Comic strips by contrast are still considered not quite serious business.

Berkeley Breathed, creator of Bloom County, explains in a footnote to one of his Sunday strips in the recently produced anthology of his work that the real advantage to the comic strip is timing.  Unlike a panel cartoon, which has the punchline right there, or a narrative cartoon, which theoretically has no ending, the panel comic allows the artist to tee up the joke and punch it hard while the pictures reinforce or contrast to the gag.  It’s hard to think of anything else like that, with the possible exception of certain stand-up comedy.

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Brethead always denied a certain level of political engagement but it’s not hard to see below his frenetic satire a certain point of view.  Nonetheless, he’s more an anarchist than Garry Trudeau, for his early pot-smoking days, ever was.  I remember being amazed at Breathed’s focus on political process as a source of comedy: the inevitable futility of caucuses, political parties, platforms, and selecting candidates.  Nobody had ever done that before that I could remember.

And even though this is a single panel, the narrative flow of the strip is left to right, just as if it had four panels, paying off with the punchline on the right.  Losing in politics feels EXACTLY like this.

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Peanuts had a peculiar effect on me as a child.  They suggested both a much broader intellectual world than anything I had experienced while at the same time placed children at the center of that world.  I mimicked Peanuts that way, not knowing any better that most children don’t talk or think this way while I expected both children and adults to be as cerebral as Linus often was.  It was a strange way to grow up.

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The question of whether comic strips are themselves “art” seems to have come down to a public debate held by Schulz, then late in his career, and the upstart Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes, during the early 1990s.  Watterson claimed that a comic strip could be art (and in his hands it clearly was) but that could be polluted by commercialization.  Schulz, who practically invented licensed merchandising, demurred.  It’s hard to imagine a world without Peanuts products just as much as it is to imagine it filled with Hobbes stuffed tigers.

While much of Peanuts merchandise is crass and upbeat, contrary to the initial intent of the strip, this more expansive view of the cartoon universe also gave us the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” television special as well as the gorgeous visuals of Snoopy’s hallucinatory flight across No Man’s Land in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”.  I wonder if Watterson had stayed in the game longer and kept the control over his creations he ultimately won, if he wouldn’t have contributed something equivalent or greater.  But he left the field too soon to tell.

I still love Calvin and Hobbes and have since I was a young.  I can’t explain its enduring appeal over all that time any better than I can explain the appeal of the Peanuts theological strip.  Calvin and Hobbes remains very, very funny and even some of Watterson’s more politically weighted strips still hold up.  But I think I recognized Calvin in myself as I had an extremely vivid imagination and creative inner life when I was young and the dour Peanuts gang (with the exception of Snoopy, of course) simply didn’t mirror that.

I remember the day when that explosive youthful inner life – the kind that sees toys and playthings as part of their own complete world – died to make way for adult concerns.  I’ve realized since that Calvin and Hobbes is a kind of written record of that pre-adolescent land of make-believe.  Alternative reality is reality of a child’s imagination.  Watterson started this with Hobbes always appearing as a stuffed tiger when he and Calvin weren’t alone.  But he developed this idea as the strip evolved: the higher the verisimilitude of Calvin’s inner life – that is, the higher the contrast between his “cartoon” existence and the “reality” of his imagination – the funnier it became.   As I watched my son stuff a small plastic velociraptor into the back of his Lego helicopter, I knew Watterson somehow found the mainline back to that unrestricted creative universe of the child’s mind.

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If Calvin and Hobbes captures the child’s experience, its opposite may be Garry Trudeau’s estimable Doonesbury.  Produced almost as long as Peanuts (and aside from a few magazine covers and a spin-off musical, sharing Watterson’s aversion to merchandizing), it has chronicled three generations of friends who lived together in a college commune in the 1970s.  Trudeau has always been overtly political.  Infamously, when editorial cartoonists protested his award of the Pulitzer Prize for (panel) editorial cartooning, once assured it could not be revoked he joined the protest.

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Most recently Trudeau has won deserved plaudits for documenting the struggles of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  He sent his first character, B.D., to Fallujah where he lost his leg in an ambush.  A member of B.D.’s company, a young soldier named Leo, suffered traumatic brain injury in a roadside bomb.  Later, Trudeau introduced a young female soldier who was the victim of command rape.  As I have written elsewhere, I can think of nothing else that examines these extremes of human experience with more grace and wit and humor.

But Trudeau didn’t start there.  B.D. was a Vietnam veteran and in this famously liberal strip the only conservative.  But when Saigon fell in 1975, Trudeau captured with extraordinary poignancy the grief not just of the veteran but also the entire nation.

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Trudeau has done something else with the recent wars that I’ve not seen anywhere else: lampoon the self-regarding professional international calamity personalities, the latter-day incarnation of the White Man’s Burden.  Sean Penn comes to mind, but so does the disgraced Greg Mortensen, author of “Three Cups of Tea”.  Trudeau’s splenetic adventures of the Red Rascal, a fictional alter ego of a low-achieving former CIA intern, sends up the noble braggadocio of an entire class of celebrity philanthropists.  I only really understood this when I saw the inside cover of Red Rascal’s War, a collection of stories about the preening hero, which features him rappelling from a Blackhawk helicopter carrying…three cups of tea. If there’s anything that needs comedic sending up, it’s the self-important and inflated rhetoric that infests these international endeavors.

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I’m ignoring some of the classics of the genre, including Pogo (which I came to appreciate as an adult) and its predecessors such as Lil’ Abner and Little Nemo in Slumberland.  Or, for that matter, strips like For Better or For Worse, Boondocks, and Cathy.  My point does not exclude them, because I’ve selected here the strips that speak to my particular experience.  It’s a testament to the endurance of the art that so many other strips thrive and, undoubtedly, speak to others, serving the purpose that no others do.

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Joan Didion, Californian

thelastlovesongJoan Didion seized my attention early, before I wrote for myself.  Assigned “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in high school, I read with amazement her cool, detached descriptions of things I recognized growing up in California.  I graduated quickly to “The White Album” and it was there she was the first to suggest my life had literary merit: her description of my hometown as being some place she passed through, from the North Bay to the East Bay, because there was no place there to return a rental car as she suffered an emotional breakdown.    This implied to me, at age 18, everything and more than I wanted to know about growing up.

Her acute sensitivity to detail connected directly with the skeptical eye of the adolescent.  I admired her method of careful observation, finding revealed truth in the everyday that we adults take for granted, unchanging, and immutable.  But her method as it appealed to me when I was young marked me: the often passive but meticulous attention to the obvious or overlooked that other people in their haste or misdirection miss is useful (and lacking) in adulthood.  “Didionesque” became both a description and a model to emulate for my friends and me in our writing.

Her sensibility as a Californian and Westerner also endured.  After reading the great American writers of the South and the East (which from our perspective took in everything east of the Rockies), it was always pleasurable to return and read something that reflected my own surroundings and upbringing.   (For example, only a Northern Californian can truly appreciate her revelation that Huey Newton was “a Kaiser,” that is, a member of the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization.  Who knew that the Black Panthers had a group medical plan?)

Only later did it occur to me that Didion’s public acclaim but lack of establishment laurels – she never won a Pulitzer Prize – suggested that her voice and regionalism could seem alien, even bizarre, to anyone not raised in my home state.  I am no doubt proved right in my intuition that Didion’s late memoir about the death and illness of her husband John Gregory Dunne and Quintana Roo, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” was her first to win a National Book Award.  In her straightforward, literal and full-disclosure accounting of the trauma and dislocation of that year, it is her least Didionesque book.

The new biography of Didion, “The Last Love Song” by Tracy Daughtery, is haunted by death from the last pages.   We know, if we know Joan Didion, how the story ends.  But the most powerful and quietly devastating real-life manifestation of Didion’s flattening fear of catastrophe comes about half-way through the book, accounted for and tossed away.  Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, hired a young girl from Central America to look after their daughter.  The girl had a baby, who was then raised in the Dunnes’ house, which was kept obsessively clean to protect their own daughter.  When the mother and baby returned home to visit relatives, the infant’s unpracticed immune system collapsed, she contracted a fever, and died.

Didion feared not just the prospect of immediate disaster – the fatal illness, the heart attack, the life changed in the instant – but would have recognized the crushing, tragic irony of protecting a child so well that it kills her.  That this story is simply mentioned in passing in the first comprehensive biography of Joan Didion is just one of its many flaws but by no means its least.  (Like others, I’ve been annoyed by the author’s attempt to mimic Didion’s fictional style.)  Still, it’s important to note that we now have a fully developed narrative of Didion’s life to better understand her influences and her impact on American culture.

Death stalked Didion as the mysterious stranger killed acquaintances, friends, and loved ones as he closes in on those closest to her: her daughter and husband.  She is surrounded by horror which more than accounts for her desiccated dread.  Her niece was murdered, her agent died in his 50s, leukemia killed her sister-in-law, suicide claimed her brother-in-law, and some of the Manson victims she numbered among her friends.  Indeed, given how many people died in her life it is strange to realize that her memoir of her upbringing, “Where I Was From,” was written after her mother died around the turn of the millennium.

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Joan Didion, Malibu 1976.  Photo bi/via Nancy Ellison.

That memoir achieved a pinnacle in a theme she has explored since the 1960s.  “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote at the beginning of “The White Album”.  This may seem like overstatement until we recognize that we understand our own experience, history and public life through a series of stories rather than the longer, infinitely more voluminous series of details and events of our actual experience.  Storytelling saturates every aspect of adult consciousness, from the explanations we tell our children to the 30-second spots on television.  Storytelling is so pervasive that we mistake it for reality because there is no other, easily graspable way to communicate our experience.  But narrative, or story-telling, is not the same thing as experience.  Narrative is not reality: it is a way of picking out the most important and relevant details of our life and finding a common sentient thread to string through them in a way that makes sense.  Without this organizing principle, our lives would be incoherent.

For non-writers, and even for many writers, there is something spooky and slippery about narrative.  Some stories work themselves at a deep, almost subconscious level – the endurance of the gothic and Grimm fairy tales goes far to explain this and so does the “heroic journey”.  But what makes a “good” or “compelling” story is not something easily taught and takes some time for even professionals to learn.  Any newspaper cub reporter can tell you what it’s like to finally come up with a “great story” in a budget meeting, but she might be hard-pressed to explain why beyond a series of compelling elements lacking elsewhere.

Nonetheless the self-critical writer recognizes at some point that narrative can distort reality beyond recognition.  Didion’s dry, scathing views of San Francisco hippies, or young marrying couples in Las Vegas, or even those running the California aquaduct and Los Angeles freeway system, would not recognize themselves in her reporting.  They tell themselves different stories.  A good story can lead to the narrative version of sample bias, where we mistake the compelling exception for the rule.  And I’ve always worried that the drive for the “good story” means we may miss the profundity in the mundane.  Didion hammers at this, most tragically, in her reporting on the Central Park Jogger case: what makes the story of a lone, white, “attractive” victim so much more compelling than any of the other 3,254 reported cases of rape in New York City in 1989?  To the tabloid journalist – indeed, all of New York, it seemed at the time – the answer is obvious, beyond explanation.  But Didion shifted that spotlight to expose the even darker corners of New York – as well as our own bias and indifference – in one of her best essays.

Didion never goes so far as to explain explicitly what she means by story-telling or narrative.  At the beginning of “The White Album” she uses some peculiar analogies:  “The princess is caged in the consulate.  The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea.  The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which”.  That can seem unintelligible to even the most sophisticated reader.

This question is the foundation for virtually all of her future reporting, from presidential races and the Central Park Jogger to her own background in “Where I Was From”.  But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as Daughtery meticulously accounts, the narratives of public life irremediably fractured.  She no longer could recognize or understand events – her account of the five-year-old girl found clinging to a fence on Interstate 5 is one searing example – as she had traditionally.  These commonly accepted narratives, she wrote, were replaced by the sheer insanity of Vietnam, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and almost inevitably, the Manson murders.

Narrative had a particular relevance to Didion’s writing about politics, which she turned to in the 1980s and 1990s.  As I began to work in politics I found this writing less and less compelling, but her idea that narrative drives politics remains one of the most useful and penetrating critiques as it is practiced today.  Nevertheless I found Didion’s flat, skeptical ear when turned to the professional vocabulary of politics – always in quotes: “trade-offs” and “programs” and “policy” and “play” – could be easily turned to any other profession.   (Indeed, I can imply the same cynicism very easily with  Daughtery’s writing about the Dunne-Didion health crises which he unhelpfully leaves unexplained in layman’s terms: “hemodynamically significant lesion,” and “angioplasty,” and “congential defect of the aortic valve” and “radio-frequency ablation of the atrial-ventricular node”.)

Instead of revealing systemic cynicism, she has exposed the technical vocabulary of a committed if exotic profession.  It wouldn’t have made sense for her to explain it, since the exclusionary vocabulary was the point.  But what she found to be exclusive I found to be a specialist’s way to describe the work I did.  All professions are this way.  Perhaps she was yearning for a purer, amateur politics as reflective of the kind of fundamental American innocence we all seek in our political life.  But that doesn’t make her insight particularly extraordinary.

But in the beginning and the end, Joan Didion is a Californian.  It’s hard to overstate, as a native Californian, how much she writes for and about California and Californians.  The state’s uniqueness – climatological, social, cultural – has been plumbed for generations. But Didion was raised in its heart and writes about this state of mind from within.  She was born in Sacramento to fourth-generation Californians who can track their lineage back to and through the Donner Party that perished in the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1847.  Indeed, both Didion and Daughtery use this oft-told warning fable of hubris, tragedy and anthropophagia as a sort of talisman, the root of all fatal human folly.

But for the later arrivals – which includes most of the state and me – the settler narrative does not resound as profoundly as Didion’s depiction of an Eden whose compact with the snake in the garden includes the hot winds, the fires, the droughts and earthquakes, and a culture that seems unhinged, prone to murder.  Californians understand what it means to bear the Santa Ana, to watch the incinerated oak leaves fall from the sky, to dive under school desks when the building begins to shake.  The cults and random madness seem to be less immediate concerns.

Unlike observers from elsewhere, who write about these phenomena as freakish, exotic events, Didion wrote about them for what they were: permanent features of the landscape, an inescapable part of life in the garden.

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The Power of Babel

Tower of Babel, woodcut, M.C. Escher, 1928. Via Wikipedia.

For most of the last nine months I have had the extraordinary benefit of intensive foreign language training.  I had resources, faculty, structure and time all to my benefit: online and computer resources, a diverse faculty from many countries to learn different accents and idioms, day-long small group classroom work and and intensive one-on-one training.  That I speak a new foreign language at all I owe to my instructors.  But the undeniable fact that I am not native, or even fluent, I can blame only on myself.

I can’t blame everything entirely on myself, but rather, on mysterious components of myself that seem to be beyond my conscious control.  I found that the most difficult, most unfathomable, most unpredictable aspects of my training came entirely from the cubic foot of space inside my head.

Your brain is not your friend

Perhaps the most astounding and frustrating aspect of language training was the involuntary reaction my brain had to responding to this new input.  In short, I found myself inadvertently speaking or substituting prior languages I had learned for the new language I was trying to learn.  This could be as vague as mispronouncing homonyms or cognates or as physical as substituting the word with the rudimentary sign language I learned 15 years ago.  It seemed, then, that my brain was resisting the “overwrite” my previous non-native languages, or confused anything “non-native” in my head.  I was not alone.  For anyone with previous language instruction, however old it was, the brain had a tendency to reach back and substitute old French, say, or Italian, for the new language.

This goes quite against everything I had heard or thought about new language acquisition, at least when I was much younger.  Knowing a foreign language helps acquire new foreign languages.  Indeed, the friends and family who speak many languages find it considerably easier — or they at least learn more successfully — to acquire more.  And for myself this is true as far as it goes: my prior language provided a context for understanding structure and grammar, recognizing cognates, memorizing words and verb tables, and so on.

It goes without saying that I never contended with the active opposition of my own brain to absorb a new language.

Immersion is a myth

This may be the result of being a native anglophone in a world that increasingly uses English as a common second language.  I benefited from intense, immersion-like training  during which my colleagues spoke nothing but the foreign language for hours.  This helped, as far as it goes.  Because once we left class, we were back in our native language environment.  I feel like there is a switch in my brain that toggles between “native” and “foreign” languages and it is thrown one way or another depending on my environment.  When the switch is off, I’m not learning.

It’s certainly easier to learn when the switch is always on “foreign” and indeed the gold standard is simply living, learning and speaking in the country you expect to travel to.  But now that I am abroad again, I see how difficult it is to achieve a totally immersive environment.  English is used everywhere, on the radio, on billboards, in magazines, songs and movies.  Every time I recognize a new word in English, that switch in my head gets flipped back from “foreign” to “native”.

There is no substitute for long, hard work…

In the end, unless you are innately gifted, acquiring a new language takes long hours of concentrated effort.  It is a methodical and slow process.  There is nothing quick or simple about it, and those language schools that promise acquisition in six weeks strike me as fraudulent.   I never could see progress from week to week.  Day to day was worse — fall-backs and regressions more than outnumbered the minor triumphs.  That’s because real progress comes over months.  For example, one day, about three months into my training, I realized I could recognize all the individual words in a foreign language broadcast.  That helped my verbal acquisition (not to mention confidence) immeasurably, but I had to work a long time to get there.

…except using your language in a real context every day

That said, there is nothing like using your new language in real-life context every day.  Real life forces you to do things you never trained for in the classroom.  It is virtually impossible to explain the difference, particularly to those slogging through the middle part of their language training, but using your language in a real context is both liberating and more challenging than the classroom.  That is as it should be.

People are forgiving

One of my favorite stories about foreign language acquisition involves Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  His wife’s family is Chinese and he made a concerted effort to learn Mandarin.  He deployed his new language before a Chinese audience in Beijing in 2014.  The reaction of the audience struck me — they were delighted that he made the effort.  More importantly, when he persisted in speaking Chinese, the interviewer and the audience adapted and eagerly helped him where he struggled.  The interviewer kept the questions simple.  The audience shouted out words to Zuckerberg when he got stuck, urging him on.  The audience was clearly deeply flattered (and entertained) that he completed the 30-minute interview in Mandarin.

I hope this story provides some solace to my colleagues who learned Mandarin.  But I’ve found that, again, real life mirrors this story.  When you learn a new language and are struggling to use it, people recognize the effort and try to help.  People are forgiving.  In the end, the real goal is not a perfect, grammatically correct, fluently pronounced sentence but understanding.  Understanding always involves at least two people and in my experience most people want to understand and will help you reach that ultimate goal.

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What matters most

Via Grist magazine.

A recent opinion article by Roger Cohen about a book and polling data demonstrating a gulf in transatlantic public opinion struck me as a windy but representative example of the unnecessary polarization in our political debate.  We find more visceral examples of this bifurcated outrage over varying reactions among different communities to a crime or horror.  I’m thinking particularly of the challenges and charges involving the Black Lives Matter campaign.  On one side its advocates express shock that others appear to demonstrate more concern for the death of an animal than young black men killed by law enforcement in this country.  On another side are detractors (and there are many) complaining that a white son slain by police doesn’t receive the same level of outrage as those spotlighted by the movement.

It is a common trope to accuse others of bias or indifference to attract supporters.  But snark aside, these critiques pose the very reasonable question why these different communities of concern and interest exist, why they do care more about some issues than others.  The carpers cited above illuminate an aspect of politics we don’t consider that much: why do we believe different things?  Why don’t we all think the same way?

This is a substantial issue.  I first really confronted it after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and other targets in Paris.  I was profoundly unsettled and upset by that attack, as were many people.  But after the initial wave of revulsion, I asked myself why this particular act of terrorism should move me so much when compared to the almost daily acts of terrorism that plague other countries.

This was not a matter of self-justification.  When I thought about Charlie Hebdo, I realized that the attack on a beacon of free expression affected me and those I care about deeply.  I write and many of my friends write or contribute to the creative arts.  The idea that they could die violently because of something they wrote, thought, or created horrifies me.  More specifically, if Charlie Hebdo could be targeted, so could they and so could I.  This is Voltaire in small writ: the attack killed people who do what I do.

My initial query stands:  why do we feel differently about these things?  Why are some more concerned about attacks on Christians, say, or Shias, or Mexicans, or women, or children?  Why should my concern about Charlie Hebdo deny others similar feelings about different issues?  When we array the various concerns and issues that face modern society, it really does seem petty to criticize those who are focused on HIV/AIDS, gay rights, the unborn, exploited children, Palestinians, antisemitism, trafficking, puppy mills, asylees and refugees, drug abuse, detainees, economic inequality and so on.

But that is the essence of the subjective political experience and the moral plurality of a diverse, democratic society.  There are more than enough problems we face to go around.  It is the measure of a strong civil society that we have enough people and resources and passion to focus on all of them at the same time.  While political activists want everyone to agree with them, imagine a country that believed all the same things at the same time.  That’s both hard to conjure yet manifest in political reality.  Nevertheless, legitimate debate in the arena arbitrates among different interests to determine, collectively, our political priorities and their solutions.  Selective choice and moral judgments are fundamental to politics and political progress.  Together, we have to determine what is more important than another.

What the partisans in some of the arguments I noted above may miss in their pain or outrage is that they need each other to be effective.  It is hard for me to imagine a family of a slain son begrudging the attention afforded other families in similar circumstances.  But in attacking that attention they unnecessarily divide two communities with the same interest and same goal: ending police violence.  It’s the same with the snark over animal rights activists.  That denies the profound and limitless human ability for empathy which all political campaigns must harness to succeed.  Imagine if they worked together.

More broadly, these differences in opinion and concern are minor when cast in relief against the sea of public opinion and the plurality of political society that gird our public life.  We are big enough, we are strong enough, we are rich enough, we are resourceful and creative enough, and we are different enough to solve all the rending problems that face us.

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What LEGO Taught Me

Benny’s Spaceship, Spaceship, SPACESHIP!

For my birthday my wife bought me the LEGO kit Benny’s Spaceship.  For anyone who’s seen The Lego Movie you’ll get the joke. It’s the outrageous monster outer space cruiser the little blue 1980s LEGO astronaut with the busted helmet finally can unleash his manic creative energy to build in a fit of frenzied, 9-to-14-year-old glee near the end of the movie.  Watching that moment in the movie, and holding the box, I felt the rekindling of that same mania, dull and dormant since it last animated me 30 years ago.

It was then when I realized I had essentially failed that younger version of myself.  Because if I had been true to my 12-year-old ambition, I would be working at LEGO right now or I would have worked on The Lego Movie.  Or, at least, I would have visited Legoland somewhere in the world.

But I had Benny’s Spaceship and I found the visceral pleasure of assembling it did not fade with age.  At the same time I happily watched a switch flip in the mind of my four-year-old son.  What had been a jumble of abstract multi-colored DUPLO blocks now took solid form in his mind.  He began to assemble cars, airplanes, helicopters out of the pure form.  And then, inspired by his favorite television show, he began to “transform” them.  Snapping a few pieces into different positions, he turned his vehicles into robots.

It took me years to do something like that.  I received my first LEGO kit, a train set, from Japanese friends when I was about five years old.  From then on, LEGO was, with the possible exception of plastique models, my favorite things to play with growing up.  I rarely bought blocks for their own sake and always built the pre-designed kits, but they eventually became something else entirely – ships, planes, submarines, spacecraft, battlefields, the whole populated physiography of a boy’s imagination.  Considering how expensive the kits were (and continue to be) they are probably the most cost-efficient toy on the market.  You can make them into almost anything you want.

At the risk of putting down the pure joy of childhood creativity with the needle of an adult’s hindsight, it’s been interesting to see how the same processes I cultivated on the floor of my bedroom as a child evolved into grown-up habits and skills.

Lord Business and Master Builders Need Each Other

The Lego Movie sets up a rigid dichotomy between the instruction-following if happy-go-lucky automatons and the rebellious, anarchic Master Builders.  But any organization needs both to succeed; indeed any person needs both creativity and attention to detail in order to function in modern life.  It may surprise my friends and family to find me poring over a LEGO instruction manual (or any manual for that matter).  Following instructions and conforming to rules are not my strength, but even as a pre-teen I would regularly do so in order to get the product shown on the box.  That attention to detail – an ability to focus and work precisely, behaviors not engrained in my character – may have been all I needed to get through school and my first few jobs.

But once I completed the kit I could break it down and use the new pieces to build other things.  I could build almost anything I could imagine or – a different notion entirely – a model of something else.   I had a whole fleet’s-worth of space-faring warships of my own design, but I found these to be less difficult to build because the problem set was more flexible – it could be whatever I wanted it to be.  On the other hand, trying to build a scale model of some real (or pre-existing) object was a much greater challenge.  Because the greater the fidelity, the greater the achievement – and with the blocky, finite resolution of the LEGO bricks, that was quite a challenge.

Creativity Is More Necessary – and Harder to Understand – Than You Think

I recently found a book published by LEGO diving into the design of it Architecture series which explores this concept in some detail.  Replicating the  Eiffel Tower, the White House or the Taj Mahal to high fidelity at 1/25th scale in a place like Legoland is impressive but, given the size, relatively easily done — and especially so after seeing how The LEGO Movie was designed.  But what about at a scale that will fit in a box on a shelf?  The Architecture book explores the engineers’ iterative process to find the right design, scale and parts to faithfully replicate these icons.  I went through a similar process as a child and tried to do the same thing as I started building again as an adult – replicating the ships from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” say, and seeing if my children could recognize them when I finished.

LEGO Architecture – The Visual Guide

This was (and is) a significant life lesson in engineering and problem-solving.  Engineers like to say that their job is about what can be – that is, solving real-world problems in real time for real people.  The situation, tools, and equipment will always be inadequate but your goal is to get the best outcome and improve for the next time.  I learned almost too late that creativity is a tremendous part of the sheer physical aspect of getting things made, fixed and done.  Without creativity, the greatest achievements in science, technology and engineering would have never left the chalkboards of theory.  I have applied a creative, half-now-is-better-whole-later approach to problem-solving most of my life.

But creativity has a curious double edge.  I tried once again to model the venerable Enterprise from Star Trek – introducing my children to yet another commercial franchise – and I was as disappointed with my effort now as I was as a boy.  I instantly recalled a good friend who was a LEGO prodigy.  I remember his uncanny ability to assemble the Enterprise on virtually any scale — as an inch-long model or a foot-long version — with incredible fidelity.  When I was younger I was jealous and confused by his ability – as I was by those who could do other creative things “better” than me.  They could draw, sing, play music, and paint better than I could.  I didn’t understand what this “better” was – why, in a group of people, one object would necessarily be valued more than another.  I was confronting a fundamental question of aesthetic philosophy that I would never be able answer but one that fundamentally separates an art from kitsch.

Play is Mindfulness

Rifling my hand through the bricks I felt like I was back on my bike again.  Thirty years had passed but very little had changed.  I remembered their proportions, how pieces fit together, recognized their limitations, delighted to find new blocks and tools.  There was something intensely familiar and calming about the focus on what I was building.  And unlike work or writing, I didn’t feel any tension when my focus was broken by distractions, such as when my son would triumphantly display his latest LEGO transformer creation.  Happily we could enjoy this activity together.

Today we call this a mindful activity, also at the risk of killing off the pure notion of play.  It is interesting that I don’t feel my mind wander, I don’t use the time to think about other things, I don’t worry (usually) about other things I have to do.  But when I am building, I am focused and happy.  I am usually  pleased with the “good-enough” outcome I produce.  I can play with my children.   It is a finite activity that I can start and complete within an hour or so.

I have boxes of my old LEGO bricks piled in the basement.  I hesitate to bring them into the mix.  They are decades old, undoubtedly creased, worn, and dirty.   I like the shiny new bricks and the new parts and gears that came with Benny’s Spaceship.  I suppose I worry most about the memories they will evoke and the fact that they are, in fact, children’s playthings.  I shouldn’t be embarrassed by that and I’m probably half-justifying the sheer pleasure and enjoyment I have “playing” – which doesn’t quite capture what I’m doing – with them by writing about how LEGO affected my development as an adult.  I guess I just don’t want to think about them never being a part of me.

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Benny’s Spaceship, assembled.

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