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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in BTRIPP's LiveJournal:

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Saturday, February 10th, 2018
1:54 pm
Interesting article ...

Especially notable:
A private library is not an ego-boosting appendage ... The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.

Sounds like as good an excuse as any!

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Sunday, January 28th, 2018
2:58 pm
Writing your truth ...
This is one of those books that was sitting around in my to-be-read piles for years (I got it via one of the B&N after-Xmas on-line clearance sales), I'm guessing since '06 or '07, and it only got into the actual reading pipeline last fall. I see that there's a “revised” edition of this out, which, oddly, only followed this one by three years ('08 vs '05), but via a different publisher … needless to say, I have no idea what the difference between the two might be. I'm using links out to the listing for the copy that I have, however, so there's no confusion.

Anyway, Jeff Davis' The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing is the type of thing, that were it not so good, might well be subject to ridicule on these pages, as it is, on the surface at least, a pretty “out there” combination of Yoga and Writing (hence the odd formulation of the title). However, I find that there are over a dozen of my little bookmarks in this from my read-through, and that's usually a sign that I was very much into what the book was presenting.

Helpfully, the author is pretty much open on the whole philosophical underpinnings of the book, and starts out the introduction with defining its premise:
Yoga's philosophical principles and myriad skillful tools (upaya) can help you as a creative writer deepen your writing practice, become more versatile in your writing process, and enrich your writing style.
Davis appears to come to this professionally from the writing side (both as a writer and a writing teacher in numerous settings), with Yoga being a passion/avocation/devotion of his (he has photos of him in assorted unpleasant-looking contortions illustrating an appendix) … he does have a reality of the state of most writers, reassuring us that “if your day's most physical act has been to walk to the corner shop for a coffee and a bagel” … “being able to twist your imagination with a flexible spirit is more important for authentic writing than being able to secure your foot behind your head”. Whew, that's a relief!

The book's structured as 24 chapters unevenly distributed across four sections, which are themed to a “Journey”: Making a Few Preparations, Setting Out, Facing Emotional Crags, and Looking Back & Looking Forward, and are somewhat distinguished by varying tones, as appropriate to each. Much of this, as one might expect, shifts back and forth between Yogic material and Writing advice. Since the closest that I come to being a “Yogi” is likely to be a fondness for "pic-a-nic baskets", most of what drew my attention here was on the writer side of the fence, for example, this little gem:
If developing a regular schedule is new to you, even if you've been writing for years, you might use this simple formula: 3-60-15. Write three times a week for sixty minutes each session for fifteen days (that is, three days a week for five weeks). Or this formula: 7-60-15. Seven days a week for sixty minutes for fifteen days. The fifteen days is a marker to see if this changed habit will stay; it provides a reachable end.
He follows up with with broader guidelines, and notes of how some of his students reported that using this discipline “changed their lives”. Now, I don't want to give the impression that this flips back and forth between the Yogic and the Writing, as the various poses/practices he suggests are targeted to particular writing challenges. One of the few that didn't elicit a “that ain't gonna happen” response from me was one that was for a piece of writing “that needs expansion”, and is described as “Hold Your Breath to Make Space”, which starts with sitting in a chair, and then lying on the floor (in Savāsana - “Corpse Pose”), and working on expanding the volume of your breath, that you then imagine “literally opening up” the segment of writing you're trying to enlarge on. OK, it seems there's a bit of jump there, but hey.

So, forgive me if I seem to be ignoring the āsanas, but this really is a book for writers to use Yoga as a tool, and not a book for Yogis to improve their writing, and the material for writers is solid, and of value even if you don't throw a single mudra. An example of this is his persona/dummy/ventriloquist model for obtaining “mentors” that are only present in their words: “A remote mentor is a writer still living, yet who advises a writer solely via the mentor's texts. A dead mentor is the same, of course, just dead.”, which he notes allows one to exist in a virtual sat-sanga (“community of like-spirited individuals”), which means you never need be alone as a writer. He offers up an exercise:
      When you've found such a mentor, find a passage – fifty words, a hundred words, may suffice. Then read and heed – slowly – the syllables, the twists in syntax, the edgy wit or bawdy humor, or the saturnine gravitas that drums through the paragraphs. Let the passage wash over and in you. Then begin to record, word by word, this passage. Notice how your body feels as you handwrite these sentences' rhythms. Your inner ear cannot help but tune in … {to} … the cadences, the images, the twists, the tones.
The author goes on to detail how to apply and expand this exercise, over several very interesting (but a bit to dense to cherry-pick quotes for here) pages. Further on, he dips into advanced writing seminar stuff, looking at parallelism, antithesis, and then offering this juicy bit:
      Sometimes we write with such fury or reverie, disgust or jubilation, that our voice beckons us to repeat phrases and clauses. In such writing, our writing bodies and voice may need the shapes of anaphora or epistrophe. … anaphora, the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginnings of successive clauses or sentences. … Epistrophe … the repetition of the same word or group of words at the ends of successive clauses or sentences …
This (of course) then dovetails into a discussion of the breath, the biology of breath, and then into Prānāyāma, and eventually back to stuff like iambic word patterns and rhyme schemes – with a smattering of examples, some bordering on snark, such as:
Although writers like Emily Dickinson and Robert Creeley seem content with tight breaths, some writers – like Walt Whitman, Faulkner, and Norman Mailer – seem to inhale to a count of ninety (I think Mailer inhales once a page and Faulkner once every two pages).
… and finally into additional Yogic breath work.

Another topic that gets its own chapter is that of First Drafts … frequently a major point of neurosis among writers. Any writer who produces a lot of copy knows that it's better to get words on the page and then spend as much as 3x the time it took writing it to edit it into something presentable … and the author starts out this charming chunk of text with a very wise admonition:
Permit yourself to write crap. Pull out the leftovers, worn-out drafts from ten years ago, if reworking them gives your imagination something palpable to sink its teeth into. Even if what you start to write sounds as if you've been writing the same thing for years, write it. … If you insist on drafting only when you feel each word must be recherché to avoid your words tasting like a rechauffé, then you might actually starve your muse. You'll have time later to clean up the mess – the excess, the overwriting, the creative indulgences, the melodrama – that you made. For now, enjoy the trek. Drafting, like cooking, can be messy.
Interestingly, this gastronomic-themed passage leads into a section describing how various writers have used darkness and/or blindfolds to generate their first drafts, which then gets around to the idea of writing from one's “third eye”, which ends up in another exercise (done seated) that involves energy channels, breath, the physical eyes, and a number of interior elements. Heck, this one I might try.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when I have a lot of little bookmarks in a volume, there are many which, when returning to the book, I have no idea what I was indicating (some days I wish I were one of those people who scrawls notes in books … but no), and most of the middle parts of this suffer from this lapse. Most so far have been pointing to passages I found enticing, but next was a “factoid” that I found fascinating (albeit somewhat stretching credulity – its prime source seems to be a newagey “research center”):
… the heartbeat's waves can be graphed on a machine called and ECG … its charge apparently is so strong that an ECG placed within three feet of you can measure your heart's waves and energy field without being directly hooked up to your physical body. That is, your charged heart casts off energy around you. Literally. You body inhabits that field. Literally.
Of course, some of these point to snippets that stood out as particularly arch, such as the note in a discussion of satire that warns that “Many readers, especially of the self-important sort, just don't get irony, wit, and satire.”, along with some rather painful examples where this miscommunication went badly.

There is so much excellent information in The Journey from the Center to the Page that I fear that I'm giving it short shrift in just highlighting the writing bits I was enthused about. As noted, most of the Yoga parts were sort of a moot point for me, although were interesting enough to read about, but there's also a whole lot of “autobiographical” material here that lent a richer matrix for the rest. At the end there's an appendix where Davis demonstrates poses mentioned in the exercises, arranged with reference to the chapters in which they appear. Also, and this was one of the things that I found very useful, there's an appendix of well over a hundred “key terms” which is primarily the Yoga vocabulary, but with a smattering of scientific and linguistic terms (“beta waves” and “syntax” as examples) … quite a handy list to have available.

Again, I don't know what's different with the (slightly) newer version than the one I have (aside from being listed with a bit longer page count), but this is available new for as little as six bucks (including shipping) from the new/used guys. It appears that the 2008 edition is still in print, so you might be able to find this at your local brick-and-mortar as well.

This surprised me in being a really superb book for writing skills (the author must teach fabulous classes) given the Yoga theme, and it should be something that every writer ought to consider for their “writing” bookshelf.

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Wednesday, January 17th, 2018
4:50 pm
bleh ...
I'm having a really horrible week, and I fear that it's only a preview of how the next few months are going to be. There was a paragraph in a book I'm currently reading that really stood out to me (reiterating a bit of the stuff I featured in my review of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning):
"Frankl's observations of his fellow Auschwitz prisoners led him to conclude that in order to have the will to live we must have a sense of meaning, which itself comes from retaining some clear hope for the future."
Obviously, at this point, I have NO "hope for the future", only a variously intense dread of what's coming ... which is truly sapping my "will to live". Heck, I've been getting nearly biblical with the mid-part of Matthew 26:39 figuring significantly in my inner dialog.

Sucks. To. Be. Me.
Saturday, January 13th, 2018
9:26 pm
Still here ...
But nobody wants to hear about how dark it is ...
Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018
5:38 pm
Check boxes ... you know you want 'em ...
So, it's that time of year again ... when the folks over on LibraryThing.com ask if others have read any of the same stuff they just got done with in the past year. This was a lesser-reading year for me (only 50 books), but here they are:

Collapse )

Now, wasn't that fun?

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Sunday, December 31st, 2017
10:56 pm
What should be and what not ...
I thought I was done with having to “pad” orders to get up to free shipping minimums when I signed up for Amazon's “Prime” service, but since their creating the “add-on” category of products (which require a minimum order total to be able to get), I find myself digging through the Dover Thrift Editions listings again looking for just the right fit, price-wise, to nudge the total to where it needs to be. Obviously, this is not the set-up for an overly enthusiastic purchase decision on a particular book, but, as I have noted many times previously, the Dover books give me a chance to fill in gaps from my English Major, and that's the case with picking up a copy of William Butler Yeats' "Easter 1916" and Other Poems.

Now, I'd certainly read some Yeats in college, but he was fixed in my head more due to his involvement in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (including his famed conflict with the notorious Aleister Crowley) than his poetry. Not that this is misplaced, Yeats himself is quoted as saying that magick was “the most important pursuit of my life … the mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write” – and I, frankly, expected this to come out more clearly in his writings than I found it to be. As is often the case of the Dover books, this volume includes a fascinating introductory essay which reports that he spent thirty years pursuing Maud Gonne, whose own metaphysical interests significantly influenced him, and led to a far more mature level of writing in his later years. As is also almost always the case with Dover books, the main body of this one is a reprint of some long-since out of copyright publication (from 1922), which itself was collected from a couple previous volumes of Yeats' writings from 1919 and 1921 (and, as he lived to 1939, these would possibly have been produced with his input).

Of course, the bulk of this is poetry, which, despite the thousands of pieces that I churned out back in the day, I find very hard to write about in a “broad strokes” manner, making it difficult for me to provide some overview of these (and I doubt that anybody has much interest of me getting into the minutia of particular poems). So, I'm going to be passing along bits and pieces that I found interesting and maybe making a few comments on those. I was disappointed that I only found that I'd stuck in two of my little bookmarks here, and these both are in one long (going on for seven pages) poem. This is further complicated that said poem, The Phases of the Moon, is one of his “conversation” pieces, where two or more characters are tossing sections back and forth, leading to the near-certainty of confusion if simply quoted here as is.

To start with, however, I'm going to be dropping in what is probably his most famous piece, The Second Coming from his 1921 collection:
The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Now, that was sort of what I was hoping much of this collection was going to be about … but, no. While there is mystical/spiritual stuff strewn through, much of this is fairly mundane, dealing with relationships and daily activities.

There is, however, that other theme that Yeats is famous for, being one of the voices of the Irish movement for independence from Britain. The introductory essay here notes of the second collection from which poems were selected: “It was composed in the shadow of the Easter Uprising of 1916, released in the latter days of the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) and read during the Irish Civil War (1922-23) and eventual establishment of the Irish Free State (1922)”. The intro essay suggests that Yeats, “a Protestant-born Anglo-Irish aristocrat”, had not been particularly supportive of the cause in its early years, but eventually found himself “strenuously devoted” to “Irish cultural and political nationalism”, which caused his work to take up a more activist stance. Here is the last stanza (of four) of the titular Easter 1916 poem:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.   
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part   
To murmur name upon name,   
As a mother names her child   
When sleep at last has come   
On limbs that had run wild.   
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;   
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith   
For all that is done and said.   
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;   
And what if excess of love   
Bewildered them till they died?   
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride   
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.
As noted up top, I only had two of my bookmarks in here to point me to “the good stuff”, and both are in the long piece The Phases of the Moon. Again, these were things that I found most appealing (and, frankly, a lot of the poems here were “meh” at best to my ear), so this probably does nothing for conveying the overall tone of this collection, but I'm not going to type up something I didn't care for:
Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,
The full and the moon’s dark and all the crescents,
Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty
The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in:
For there’s no human life at the full or the dark.
From the first crescent to the half, the dream
But summons to adventure and the man
Is always happy like a bird or a beast;
But while the moon is rounding towards the full
He follows whatever whim’s most difficult
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred
As with the cat-o’-nine-tails of the mind,
His body moulded from within his body
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then
Athenae takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the heroes’ crescent is the twelfth.
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.
The thirteenth moon but sets the soul at war
In its own being, and when that war’s begun
There is no muscle in the arm; and after
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon
The soul begins to tremble into stillness
To die into the labyrinth of itself.
and …
And after that the crumbling of the moon.
The soul remembering its loneliness
Shudders in many cradles; all is changed,
It would be the World’s servant, and as it serves,
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult
Among tasks not impossible, it takes
Upon the body and upon the soul
The coarseness of the drudge.
Anyway, there's a taste of what's in here. Frankly, I'm surprised that I didn't run into more of his writing when in college, but the turn of the last century wasn't much in my curriculum, so his was likely among those which only got touched on via the massive main English Major texts.

"Easter 1916" and Other Poems, being a Dover Thrift book, is likely to not be sitting on the shelf at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor, as its cover price is a mere three bucks (hence having nearly no margin for the retailer), but it's a handy thing to have on your wish list at the on-line book behemoths (where it's even at a discount at the moment), for fine tuning order totals. I'm not particularly enthused about this collection, but I'm glad to have “loaded it into my brain”, so that if the topic of Yeats comes up I'll be less vague than I would have been prior to reading it.

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Saturday, December 30th, 2017
11:42 pm
Falling out ...
So, maybe it's “just me”, but this seems to be an example of how fickle the serendipity of the dollar store can be. I allow the “just me” option, because I really don't do a lot of “due diligence” when eyeballing a book there before it goes into the cart. Is it non-fiction? Check. Is it a subject that I have an interest in? Check. Does it look like a reasonable read (i.e., not 600 pages or in some itsy tiny font)? Check. Is the physical copy in good shape? Check. … That's pretty much it for how deep I get into analyzing a dollar store book purchase.

And, sometimes I get surprised.

When I picked up Jesse Schenker's All or Nothing: One Chef's Appetite for the Extreme, I assumed it to be another memoir of a life in the culinary arts. The dust cover flaps were heavy on the author's achievements in the restaurant field, James Beard, Zagat, Forbes, New York, and Iron Chef all get referenced. Sure, his problems with drugs and the law are mentioned, but the sense was more “talented Chef overcomes youthful challenges to become trendy restaurateur”, which is also the tone of the back cover quotes. However, out of a 260-page book, about 150 of those are pretty much Schenker's “drug journal”, reminding me of an extended “drunkalogue” that one might hear at an AA meeting (in fact, this book fits neatly into AA's “Big Book”'s “Our stories disclose in a general way what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now.”). While a passion for the kitchen does weave its way through the main part of the book (approximately chapters 2-11 out of 16), the main take-away here is a harrowing tale of substance abuse, eventually redeemed by cooking skills.

Given that the early growth of his culinary experience runs in parallel with the less-addled times of his drug experiences, the book is pretty much half and half, which is confusing to an extent. If one takes the bio from his web site, one could walk away with no sense of the depths that he ended up hitting, and yet this book is plainly plugged on the same page (and elsewhere with a YouTube video that featured pictures of Schenker that really should have been in the book to help envision the version of him that's featured through most of its pages) … pushing out a story very different than that of the star chef.

{Arrgh … I had 2200 words written and the netbook went into some sort of spasm during which it managed to lose 2/3rds of my brilliant blitherings the review at the above point (despite the wordprocessor supposedly saving progress every 10 minutes) … I'm now attempting to pick up mid-stream three weeks later, all of which really sucks. Technology … can't live with it, can't eat it instead of cereal in the mornings!}

If one just picked up Schenker's book and flipped to the table of contents, one might assume it was primarily about cooking, as the sixteen chapters each have a culinary term as a title (and each chapter starts with a definition of the associated term). However, none of these have more than passing connection with the contents of the chapter (well, with a few exceptions, the first chapter is Mise en Place, which is the term for setting up a kitchen workstation). The book starts out at his restaurant Recette, as he's getting the staff ready for a 27-course tasting menu, and makes the segue to his back story with his getting ready to check on how a sauce is coming, pulling a tasting spoon out of a pocket:
      There had been a spoon in my back pocket for as long as I could remember, but the spoon's intended use had changed so completely that even I was caught off guard at times. Once I had carried a spoon to cook drugs on the streets of Florida, and now it was there to prepare haute cuisine for Manhattan's foodie elite. …
He starts the telling very early, with how, at age one, he had to be locked into his room at night to keep him from getting out and falling down a steep stairway right outside his room … in the mornings his mom would find him asleep on top of some furniture, where he'd spent most of the night stripping the wallpaper off the walls … he notes “I've never felt comfortable in my own skin and have always needed an outlet for uneasiness.” He soon found one outlet, although the timing seems iffy to me – he claims that at age four he became fascinated with cooking, and especially that of his great-grandmother, “Nana Mae”, who died when he was eight, so I guess the things he reports doing with her must have happened. He reports:
      For me, being in the kitchen was like taking a Xanax. I finally had an outlet for all of the emotions that were too uncomfortable for me to really feel. I had never known what to do with those feelings. In the kitchen I had a sense of freedom and space and, most important, order and clarity. It was the only time the restlessness within me subsided.
Schenker grew up in Florida, but every summer his family headed back north, and he and his sister spent June at the house of his aunt and uncle (and cousins) in New Paltz, NY. This was ideal for him, as he could be in constant motion, keeping up with his older cousins … who also introduced him to his other passion – drugs – with his first experience with marijuana at age twelve:
… as soon as I stopped coughing, it felt as though a part of myself had suddenly been lifted away. Ever since I was a baby peeling wallpaper from the walls of my room, I had never been able to get rid of that twitchy, anxious part of me. The big wool blanket that I'd been carrying around my whole life like a fucking disease suddenly lifted, and that feeling trumped any escape I'd previously found through acting out, clowning around, or even cooking.
… I was changed forever and there was no turning back.
Upon his return to Florida, his behavior changed, and while he was still way more interested in culinary arts than most kids his age, he also became a great fan of pot, and began hanging out with others who shared the latter interest. Run the calendar ahead a couple of years and he's discovered girls and found that it's a lot easier to stay supplied with weed if you're selling it, plus he “never felt so popular or important” as when kids looking to score clamored around him in the hallways at school. As one might expect, this sort of notoriety tends to spread, and he soon (at age 14) had his first arrest:“… I felt a sort of perverse excitement about being arrested … All I could think was, Wow. This is fucking cool.. He, as at this point was usual, manged to talk his parents into fighting for him, and they ended up sending him to a hippie psychologist that he actually liked, and who warned his family that he probably needed long-term rehab – warnings that they ignored. Soon after he was caught with marijuana in school, and managed to avoid getting expelled, just serving a one-week suspension during which he and his family went on a ski trip to Aspen … teaching him the lesson that he could get away with anything.

By freshman year in high school he was “young, full of nervous energy, with no respect for boundaries and a lot of extra time on {his} hands” and he “filled the void with pot, cooking, music, and sex”, and soon had another drug bust on his record – resulting in only being sentenced to 50 hours of community service, which his father managed to make go away before he'd clocked even an hour. Despite having no consequences from his actions, Schenker eventually hits that scary point in the addict's life – when his substance of choice stops working for him … this is a classic description (when he and his girlfriend are passing a bong back and forth in the bathroom at a party):
… this time something wasn't right. Finally it hit me. I was high, but I still felt the anxiety. The emptiness and anxiety were back; they were there even while I was smoking. This had never happened before. It struck me that pot was no longer enough to fill the gaping hole inside me.
He wastes no time in looking for a replacement, digging through the medicine cabinet, starting with various cold medicines but moving up to the Oxycodone that had been prescribed for his sister following dental surgery. He notes: “Nothing relieves emptiness like opiates.”, and obtaining these becomes his new obsession. In eleventh grade he starts attending a technical school which has a Culinary Arts Program, and he takes to the material immediately, and soon was cooking at an area restaurant, but he “could feel the pull in two directions, between the serenity of the kitchen and the euphoria of the drugs”. While he was a natural in the kitchen, and moved up to better restaurants, that environment provided him with access to people with access to drugs, and he moved to Percocet, Darvocet, and OxyContin, and was physically addicted by 17. He dropped out of the academic part of school (opting for a GED), while continuing with the cooking classes. He kept getting better positions at fancier restaurants, but the drugs started to make him (and his kitchen pals) a less reliable employee … so one of his buddies and he decided that a long trip to Europe would be a good idea, and connived the travel costs from their parents. They flew into London, but soon moved to Amsterdam because they figured the drugs would be easier to get there … eventually he talks his way into getting pain killers from a local doctor and “the rest of the trip was a drug-filled orgy of food, booze, sex, and of course pills” – although he did pick up a lot of culinary ideas on the way.

When he returns, he moves to Tallahassee, and soon hooks up with a methadone clinic, which eventually boots him out after a random urine test showed he was dabbling in other drugs … he notes: “Heroin gets all the notoriety when it comes to withdrawal, but kicking methadone is actually much worse.” He finds a “pain clinic” that provides him with something for the withdrawal, but he's needing more, and tries to work a deal for drugs that ends up with him being arrested as a opiate dealer – despite his not having any. His father (and therapist) steps in again and gets him into a rehab facility. He, of course, finds a way to get drugs there, using his food budget to buy them (and being lucky that the urine tests of the day didn't show OxyContin), and running a side-hustle of cooking for other folks in order to eat. He moves from rehab to a halfway house, and is able to get a job cooking again, and then convinces his parents to rent an apartment for him. The new job first exposes him to a guy who's dealing in cocaine, which Schenker uses, and eventually to another employee who hooks him up with heroin; he describes his first fix: “Pushing the plunger into that single vein was perhaps the most gratifying experience of my entire life to that point. … There was no going back from here.”

He starts stealing to support his addiction, goes through a number of drug centers, always just playing the game to get by, and ends up getting into another halfway house that lets him work, and he's back in a kitchen, but he bails on both to crash with a friend, and remarkably gets yet another job, savoring his time cooking “despite being completely drowned in drugs”. However, this doesn't last, and he ends up “running” for a dealer, who he eventually rips off for a whole safe full of drugs. Amazingly, in all this time he keeps getting hired to cook, although most of these gigs don't last long for obvious reasons. He keeps getting in deeper and deeper, discovers crack, starts posing as a male prostitute (although he only reports stealing from the Johns), and can't even keep a job at a deli. He and his buddies move to following around dealers to rip them off (while not getting killed). The sordid stories continue for pages and pages and pages, and he eventually hits bottom, there's a warrant out for his arrest, and when a cop picks him up in a horrendous area of Fort Lauderdale, he ends up smiling in the back of the car saying “I'm going to get my life back.” He spends three months in county jail before getting transferred to a jail-based rehab program where he starts to get the AA/NA message: “… I was dry and sober for the longest time since I was twelve years old, and something was different. I had been beaten down so low that I knew the only way was up from here, and I was finally willing to do whatever it took to get there.”

He discovers that there is a “kitchen detail” and he gets on the midnight to 5am shift, and he starts to organize the processes there. This makes that part of his rehab … although hardly gourmet … passable for him, and after another six months he's transferred to a work release center, which was still very rigidly confined. He was all of 21 at this time. After a couple of months his parents came to visit, after four months, he'd earned the ability to go get a job … which, of course, he got immediately, and after a while he gets offered a position of sous chef at another property the owners were opening. His passion for cuisine began to accelerate, and he writes: “Without drugs to spend my paychecks on, I bought cookbooks instead, devouring at least ten new cookbooks each week.” Soon after, he moves out of the halfway house and gets a small apartment in Miami.

His sister moves to New York, and his parents set up a celebratory dinner, which Schenker pleads with them to be at Gordon Ramsay's eponymous restaurant there. He is totally blown away by the menu, and on the way out, he button-holes the manager to say he's a chef from Miami and he'd love to work there … and the manager tells him to send an email to him, that he'd forward to Ramsay. Schenker doesn't expect much, but as he's just about to board his flight back to Florida, he gets a call offering him a “stage” (a sort of trial run) … he goes back to Florida, explains he's going to need to take some time off, and is back in New York a couple of days later. This (after 70% of the book) is where the culinary story starts.

If it seems remarkably lucky that he got that call back, after one day (and voluntarily staying until 1am cleaning), he's hired. What follows is a look into what happens in a restaurant kitchen of that caliber, highlighted by Chef Ramsay being the demanding perfectionist with every bit of the “charm” he exhibits on TV. Schenker stayed (despite the pressure, and sometimes outright harassment) for quite a while, but the idea of moving out to his own place was gelling in his mind. He began “staging” in other restaurants, and goes into detail about several of these, and the techniques he picked up at them. He and two other chefs were talking about options, and they ended up with the idea of doing an after-hours dinner service at a bakery location where they hung out and sometimes cooked … and this became Recette, initially being a one-night-a-week event, but soon expanded, as the management at Ramsay's restaurant essentially forced his resignation there. Recette presented a particular challenge, as the space operated as a bakery until 5pm, and they had to spend the time to clean the place up, convert over to culinary cooking, and switch to a fine dining setting … every night.

A gal he'd been close to in eighth grade also re-entered the picture, both as his girlfriend and something of a manager for the non-cooking parts of the Recette operation. He was also doing a fairly strenuous program of private dining, both for events and as a “private chef” for a (wealthy) guy in New Jersey … a drive he'd make with all the food. Schenker details some mind-numbing schedules and points out that his attending AA/NA meetings tailed off to nothing … always a bad sign:
      Of course, recovery requires rigorous honesty, not only with other people but also with yourself. As I slid down the slippery slope of addiction once again – this time to work instead of drugs – I stopped being honest with myself. Instead of accepting that I was powerless and relinquishing control, I feverishly grabbed the reins and drove myself further and further away from the peace I had finally found.
Obviously, the situation with the original Recette wasn't scalable, and he began thinking of a free-standing restaurant. He pulled in his dad as a business partner, who hooked him up with an old friend who was a venture capitalist, and got his New Jersey client financially involved as well, and soon had the money to get a place. He goes into a lot of detail of getting ready to open a new restaurant, still called Recette, and it was a success as soon as it opened. He keeps dipping into perceptions about his recovery, and the chaos of the restaurant. There's a long section about the process of getting reviewed by the New York Times, and the excitement of the resulting star rating (and rave).

More family stuff follows, engagement, wedding, pregnancy, his mother's cancer, his grandfather passing, etc.; the industry kudos as well, nominations for James Beard awards, Iron Chef, etc. He also has some health issues (getting sent to a diet doctor), which escalated to what seems like outright hypochondria. His internist finally sends him to a shrink who prescribes an antidepressant, that he's, understandably, hesitant to get on: “I worried that Celexa would lead to a stronger pill, and then a stronger one, and then a stronger one, and then an even stronger one after that.” He does start taking it, with good results, and his wife points him back to AA, along with working with various therapists.

He eventually finds “a dream” space in a restaurant that was about to go under, and he and his backers manage to get it, and he opens his second (much larger) place, The Gander, right as his wife is having their third child. And, the book pretty much just ends there (admittedly, that's in April 2014, and the book came out that September, so it is arguably “up to the moment”). As I indicated above, this is pretty much two books, the descent into a drug-fueled Hell, and his exploding onto the New York restaurant scene. While the latter is only about 30% of the book, there is plenty of “food porn” (although, sadly no pictures) to enjoy in the telling for those looking for the kitchen memoir material.

All or Nothing has only been out about 3 years at this writing, so I guess I really lucked out in getting a copy of the hardcover at the dollar store. It's still in print (both in the original and a paperback edition that came out mid-2015), and the on-line big boys presently have both at deep discounts (72% and 58% off respectively) … however, if you want to go lower, the new/used guys have new copies of the hardcover for under five bucks delivered. Which, of course, means that if this sounds like something you might enjoy, you don't have much of an excuse for not picking up a copy.

While I wasn't expecting this to be the book that it was, it does touch on two of my interest areas, addiction/recovery and restaurants/cuisine, so I found it fascinating on a number of levels (if it not being a particularly comfortable read at numerous points). You might find it similarly engaging.

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Thursday, December 14th, 2017
10:11 pm
“Brent Cross Blues”
Once again the “Almighty Algorithm” over at LibraryThing.com's “Early Reviewer” program matched me with a very odd book. Of course, I have something to do with this, as it was one of the books I put in requests for a few months back, but it's always such a crap shoot on that, as the publishers typically toss up a perfunctory paragraph or two describing the book, and one will generally go with those to determine what to raise one's hand on as being willing to get a copy to review. If you'll indulge me in a bit of a gripe, the LTER primarily offers fiction, which I have been notably avoiding for the past decade or so, and the pickings for non-fiction can be quite slim, so my gauge for what I'll request is not too finely calibrated, being something along the lines of “oh, that sounds reasonably interesting, I guess”, which does leave me open to getting books that I might not typically pick up in a retail environment.

It would be easy to assume that the main attraction I had towards Anthony McGowan's The Art of Failing: Notes from the Underdog would be that particular “art”, with which I've had way too much experience, however, the description provided was evocative, asks if I've been “rubbish at life”, and even name-checks Morrissey, so I was hooked. What would have been more useful would have been to clue me in to just how, English this book is (yes, “rubbish” in that context could have been a hint), because that's the number one take-away I had on it … not that this is a bad thing, per se, but it's not just a wry diary composed by an English writer, it is a series of personal scenarios absolutely steeped in English culture (which, oddly, sort of put me off a slight bit). The author has a dozen or so books out, but mainly in the youth market (some of which sound like they're actually surrealist gay porn, like The Bare Bum Gang and the Holy Grail … but I digress), with the current title apparently being a bit of a new voice for him.

Anyway, I have about a half dozen of my little bookmarks in this, pointing to the places I thought were particularly arch, and I'm probably going to be leaning on these heavily, as there's not much of a “story arc” here, except as a “year in the life” sense. The book is set up in four parts, Autumn, Winter, Spring, & Summer, and is composed of little essays/scenes that range from just a title (“There Isn't A Pool”), to as much as five pages in length. My OCD was certainly triggered by the first entry being September 5 of one (not specified, but since this just came out in October 2017, I'm guessing it's 2015) year, and the last entry is September 13 of the next … and while most days have copy, there are quite a few that don't (I talked myself out of counting them), so it's not quite the obsessive journal/diary of that time that it might have been.

This jumps right into a continuity, with the opening paragraph giving both some of the key players, and a sense of what tone the book tends to:
      A limp dappling of autumn sunshine persuaded me that I should walk Mrs McG down to the underground station, efficiently combining this act of conjugal kindness with Monty's urgent need for a morning constitutional. The surging horror of the early commute was over, leaving just the aimless milling of the stragglers and idlers. They reminded me of those defective spermatozoa one reads about, destined never to meet with a comely egg, thrashing in circles, or slumped, broken, at the side of the fallopian tube, or blindly swimming the wrong way through murky uterine seas.
A good deal of the text wanders around like this, which, one might suppose, could be a fairly accurate detailing of what is actually bubbling up in McGowan's head when he sits down to extrude words to page. A couple of paragraphs later in this section (“Bum Ball” – it's a bit too convoluted to explain here) he uses a word that is simultaneously huge, charming, and an interesting alternative to “yuppification”, which I just had to share … in his description of “the embourgeoisification of my part of North London”. You're welcome. Oh, another note I should get in here is about the cover graphic. One of the repeated settings of the book is the British Library, where he goes to write. And, while one is not supposed to bring food to the desks in the reading rooms, the author likes to sneak in a banana for a mid-morning snack, and he had discovered a certain level of amusement with using a marker to add some text to the banana – in the early going here there's an embarrassing scenario played out via this, which (no doubt after much editorial/promotional discussion) is how the title ends up written across a piece of fruit on the cover.

Run the calendar ahead to December 28, with the author visiting his childhood home town:
… Leeds has always been brittle, superficial, vain; less friendly than the other great northern cities. The kind of place where you can get your head kicked in for spilling a pint or looking at another lad's bird. We didn't invent football hooliganism, but we raised it to a kind of Platonic perfection, back in the late 1970s, bringing to it the clarity of line, the mastery of form and colour, of early Renaissance art. Everything that came after was mere decadence and decay.
McGowan goes on (visiting a drinking establishment dating from 1715, Whitelocks) into reminiscing about his youth, which I figured was worth sharing (especially the first and last sentences):
      The patterns in the faded flock wallpaper, every stain in the carpet, even the ancient nicotine shadows on the ceiling were the ghosts of my old friends from teenage drinking days. And though I thought I saw them among the heavy coats of the crowd by the bar, I was looking for a version of the way we were then. Now we wouldn't recognize each other, or what we've become. Nothing to do but dilute my beer with the tears of nostalgia and loss.
Perhaps it's my own refined sense of failure that caused these sorts of bits to particularly grasp my attention, but that does seem to be the case. Given my near-endless job search (seriously, people, it's been 9.5 years at this point!), the following reflection had to be noted … from January 7:
      Few things are as depressing as job applications. You feel the despair and desolation wash over you like Bangladeshi flood waters. And then you realize that the only people qualified to give you a reference are retired, dead or hate you.

And then you hit send with relief but no hope, like a drunk urinating in a bus shelter.
The last bit of that being the title of the section (of which I opted to spare you the middle ten lines). The next piece I'd tagged had to do with the author's 50th birthday party. I have to admit that the attraction of this probably hinged on one word (being something of a vocabulary junkie, I obsess over words that sound great, but I don't know), plus a neat bit of composition surrounding it (from January 20):
      But there's always sadness to parties, isn't there? The party begins to die from the moment it is born. And when it's gone, it's gone forever. That party will never come back.
      Rosie made Mojitos. It was kind of cute seeing a twelve-year-old girl professionally mashing up the lime and rum. She was the hit of the party. I moved from group to group, trying to be attentive, trying to give everyone that flensed sliver of my soul. But I couldn't summon up the panache and vigour. I didn't have a meaningful conversation, or even a humorous exchange, all evening, and my speech narrowly missed the mark.
{This term, in a more defined setting, also appears in the section from July 8.}

There are various sub-themes (or scenarios) that repeatedly come up, including his doing classes at various schools' creative writing programs, shopping excursions with Mrs McG, book industry events, adventures while walking Monty, and encounters with his “dwarf doppelgänger” who he names (although never actually meets) Heimlich. Many of these get set up with intros like “It being a while since I've enjoyed one of my clothes-shop humiliations ...” or “My bad luck with jumpers continues ...” (another of those British context things – that section would be quite more depressing if it was from an American “first responder” setting). I wish I could efficiently communicate how funny (to me, at least) much of this is. Unfortunately, the parts that had me (literally) LOL'ing tended to crop up in sentence fragments that were hilarious in context, but the background text necessary to make those funny here would take more blockquoting than I think either of us want to deal with. However, I'm going to put in a couple of paragraphs to give you a last-line payoff that I thought was excellent (yeah, “your mileage may vary”, and all … oh, and it's part of “Three Annoying Things”, hence the numbered paragraphs):
      2. I've had some new photos done to replace the absurd one that's on the internet, and which makes anyone who books me on the basis that I might look like it weep or guffaw. The new photos are excellent, except for the fact that they look like me. Or at least a Dorian Gray-like portrait of my soul. So there, staring out with filmy eyes is a narrow-lipped, dissolute, shabby roué, on the lookout for a countess to fleece.
      3. Nobody liked the pan-fried mackerel I made the family for dinner. They didn't like it because it wasn't very nice. And there, glistening unwanted in the pan, grey stripes on paler grey, exuding a vague aroma of failure and helplessness, it looked even more like me than the photos.
The following is another bit that I'm guessing snagged me with enticing multisyllabicisms, but it deals with him meeting a lady at a party. I'm snipping this from several paragraphs to give the flow of what I found most interesting … but it gives the main part of “generational connection”, a topic I've recently been contemplating via making the acquaintance of a couple of gals who are two and three years my junior (and hence “get” most of my now-ancient pop culture references).
June 16. Went to a little drinks party for the Faber Academy tutors. It was fine, although none of the other tutors had the faintest idea of who I was. I'm used to that – there's a fundamental asymmetry at work. Most children's writers read adult books, but few adult writers (unless compelled by their reproductive mishaps) go the other way. So I swallowed down my ego, with as much beer as was necessary.
      One sweet moment was provided by finding out that one of the tutors was exactly the same age as me. It was deeply strange and rather wonderful. She's from Cornwall and I'm generic northern, but we had precisely the same frame of reference. …
      It all made me think how much texture, how much richness, you lose, when you're just a few years apart in age. …
      It also generated a very slight erotic energy – one based not at all on physical attraction, but purely on the fact that we were epistemologically conterminous. …
I think by now you're getting the gist of the book, but I wanted to leave you with another bit of the funny to further the impression that this provided me with more LOL moments that any other few dozen volumes I've read of late. This one's from September 1's “God Bless You, Plucky Norway”, which deals with the author getting an unexpected royalty check for his sales in said country:
      The windfall meant I could thicken the children's gruel with lard, while I feasted on Scandy delicacies – Ryveta and some kind of disgusting raw fish, apparently “cured”, although if it was cured, how come it was still dead, eh?
Badum tish!

As you've no doubt sussed out at this point The Art of Failing was a quite interesting read, especially for a vocabulary geek, full of wry observations, a window into the Brits on a level equal to the Graham Norton Show, and some really delightful composition. That said, it is a bit strange, being sort of a collection of near-daily observations cranked out over just a few days beyond a year, with no unifying theme or specific point to it all. As noted, this just came out a couple of months back, so it's no doubt obtainable in the brick-and-mortars, which could be your number one option for this, as the on-line big boys aren't presently knocking anything off of the (very reasonable) cover price. While this might not be an “all & sundry” recommendation, it is well worth the reading – if nothing else I found out about a near-endless stream of ephemera regarding English to-go food items and their accouterments (wooden forks for curry on chips?), and you're likely to similarly expand your world by reading this.

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Monday, December 4th, 2017
11:49 am
“And I guess I just don't know …”
I'd thrown in this Dover Thrift Edition of Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater at some point in the past few years to nudge the total of an Amazon order up towards either free shipping, or the point where one can get “add on” products (with a $3 cover price, it's a great way to both do this and get some “classic” I'd missed previously). This had sat around for a while, but it was mentioned a number of times in a book I'd recently reviewed, so it seemed like a good time to throw it into the “currently reading” mix.

To be frank, I expected something more. That book on dreams made this sound practically psychedelic, which it hardly is, and copy like that in the introductory essay (which introduces De Quincey as “one of the great prose stylists of the English language, and a singular and interesting figure in the British literary milieu of the early nineteenth century”) sets it up to be something far more substantial than it struck me to be. It is also fairly short, at 70 pages, and was initially published in London Magazine in September and October of 1821. The introductory essay additionally notes that this reprint of the original release is considered the “best edition”, as De Quincey's expansions and revisions (such as an 1856 version that is three times the length of this) did nothing positive for the literary value of the piece.

As it is, the book is in two parts, the first consisting of “To the Reader” and “Preliminary Confessions”, and the second having “The Pleasures of Opium”, “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, and “The Pains of Opium”. The introductory essay notes that De Quincey was generally (although this hardly seems the case in most of the book, where his descriptions seem to be of some solid form) taking laudanum, “a tincture of opium commonly used and legally available in early nineteenth-century England”, which the author echoes in the first chapter, when he's discussing the availability: “Three respectable London druggists, in widely remote quarters of London, from whom I happened lately to be purchasing small quantities of opium, assured me, that the number of amateur opium-eaters (as I may term them) was, at this time, immense ...”.

A bit of biographical background might be useful here … the author appears to have been a sickly child, and had health issues which initially led him to taking opium to reduce pain. He was born into an aristocratic family, but not one with great wealth. He seems to have been quite taken with the class thing, and certainly had impressive surroundings (when not penniless). He is reported to have been a bit of a prodigy at languages, having been an expert at Greek by age 15. He also was rather aimless, having a hard time staying at any school long enough to actually graduate, and spent a lot of time searching out the famed writers (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Charles Lamb) of the day. When he did have money (he got an inheritance at age 21), he tended to fritter it away, and repeatedly ended up totally destitute (which seems to be the main reality of this book), only attaining financial stability in his 60's.

While I have a couple of my little bookmarks in this, there weren't many “must use” passages that came up as I read it … and, honestly, my general take-away was that he was whiny, unfocused on anything other than his fix (oh, and this one girl), and constantly complaining. It's hardly an “autobiography” in the sense that it brings any linearity to his telling, and while there is a general arc of his life, with the writing coming from (it would appear from what I could tease out of the introduction, the book, and assorted biographical materials) ages 19-36 (although I'm not sure when he initially finished this, that would be his age at its serialized publication). The fact that this is (at least nominally) a “drug journal”, brings with it the predictable downsides of the genre – the writer is on drugs while trying to write (despite the famous quote mis-attributed to Ernest Hemingway) – leading to a certain degree of haziness in the product.

Anyway, I'm going to dip into this to grab some bits to use that I hope will at least give my readers a sense of De Quincey's book. The “Preliminary Confessions” section starts off with a bit of his history, how he was much smarter than any of his professors, and his attempt at sneaking away from Oxford in the middle of the night (he gets away, but not without issues). Oh, one thing I should mention about the writing … it is fairly small type, tightly set, which goes on and on and on, with a paragraph break every three pages or so … making the flow of the narrative just a fire-hose. At one point he gets some money from his family and goes on a hike through Wales, occasionally trading letter-writing for shelter. This, like most of his plans, falls apart, and he eventually finds himself in London. Here is a little of his description of his state there:
And now began the latter and fiercer stage of my long-sufferings; without using a disproportionate expression I might say, of my agony. For I now suffered, for upwards of sixteen weeks, the physical anguish of hunger in various degrees of intensity; but as bitter, perhaps, as ever any human being can have suffered who has survived it.
Really, this is pretty much the tone of most of the book. For a time he seems to be “squatting” in a house, with a young girl, it's cold, they have no food, but it's shelter. He eventually finds some of his aristocratic contacts, and at least gets fed on occasion. He loses track of his “Ann” (he never got a last name), who he was infatuated with. I won't burden you with the text dealing with that, but it, like most of this, goes on and on.

Part II begins with a section which is pretty much just the author showing off his knowledge of Greek drama, myth, and footnotes set in Greek that “the scholar will know”. He starts “The Pleasures of Opium” section with a recalling of his first encounter with the drug:
By accident I met a college acquaintance who recommended opium. Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it was I had of manna or of Ambrosia, but no further: how unmeaning a sound was it at that time! what solemn chords does it now strike upon my heart! what heart-quaking vibrations of sad and happy remembrances! Reverting for a moment to these, I feel a mystic importance attached to the minutest circumstances connected with the place and the time, and the man (if man he was) that first laid open to me the Paradise of Opium-eaters. It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London. My road homewards led through Oxford-street and near “the stately Pantheon,” (as Mr. Wordsworth has obligingly called it) I saw a druggist's shop. This druggist – unconscious minister of celestial pleasures! – as if in sympathy with the rainy Sunday, looked dull and stupid, just as any mortal druggist might be expected to look of a Sunday: and, when I asked him for the tincture of opium, he gave it to me as any other man might do: and furthermore, out of my shilling, returned me what seemed to be real copper halfpence, taken out of a real wooden drawer. Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity, he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of an immortal druggist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.
OK … so, he then gets into discussing other reports of opium, comparisons with it and alcohol, goes on about “the Turk” as a source of opium, and how other cultures view it, spins back off into his aristocratic friends and their relationships to alcohol and drugs, and into places for experiencing drugs, such as the theater, orchestra, or opera house (and where it's worth it to pay more for better seating).
Thus I have shown that opium does not, of necessity, produce inactivity or torpor, but that, on the contrary, it has often led me into markets and theaters. Yet, in candour, I will admit that markets and theaters are not the appropriate haunts of the opium-eater, when in the divinest state incident to his enjoyment.
So, we next move to “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”, which, I must confess is so much of a blither that I can't find a coherent bit to excerpt for your illumination. There are pages that go along just fine, and then swerve off into sub-references that would, unfortunately, take paragraphs to put in a reasonable context (the whole tale of “the Malay” who comes unannounced to his house is particularly bizarre, as well as the “painting” parts). So, I will spare you.

I do, however, have a bookmark in “The Pains of Opium” section … this, however, is not that, but something that might more plainly illustrate this point in the book:
… This was now lying locked up, as by frost, like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct; and, instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations, and a life of labor dedicated to the exaltation of human nature in that way in which God had best fitted me to promote so great an object, it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations that were never to support a superstructure, – of the grief and ruin of the architect. In this state of imbecility, I had, for amusement, turned my attention to political economy; my understanding, which formerly had been as active and restless as a hyena, could not, I suppose (so long as I lived at all) sink into utter lethargy; and political economy offers this advantage to a person in my state, that though it is eminently an organic science (no part, that is to say, but what acts on the whole, as the whole again re-acts on each part), yet the several parts may be detached and contemplated singly. Great as was the prostration of my powers at this time, yet I could not forget my knowledge; and my understanding had been for too many years intimate with severe thinkers, with logic, and the great masters of knowledge, no to be aware of the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists. …
What I had marked was a discussion of his “re-awakening to a state of eye generally incident to childhood”, which while fascinatingly expounding “four facts” on the topic (and, perhaps, being the most useful part of the book), runs a solid two pages. which doesn't seem to have much chance of abbreviation. The rest of the section sort of drifts off, with a couple of additional brief sections (from 1818 and 1819) tacked on at the end.

Needless to say, while Confessions of an English Opium Eater had its charms (both as a historical window to its time, and some rather entertaining writing), it wasn't exactly a pleasant read. Of course, as a Dover Thrift Edition, the cover price on this is a mere three bucks, so you're not going to be out-of-pocket much to give it a go.

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Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
11:00 pm
“… as long as there's a sucker …”
This one almost didn't make it into my cart up at the dollar store … a mix of it being a paperback (hardcovers survive the after-market so much better), having a near-hideous cover, and being touted as being the book on which a movie that I'd never heard of was based. Given that Robert W. Greene's The Sting Man: Inside Abscam was a quite interesting read, I'm glad that it got past my resistance. Since reading the book, I dug into the stuff around it, and discovered that American Hustle looks like a movie I should check out at some point (it has quite an impressive cast). It's also notable that this book originally came out way back in 1981, and was only resurrected by Penguin Books in 2013 when the movie premiered.

The main character here, Mel Weinberg (doubtful to ever be confused with Christian Bale, who plays him in the movie!), was a life-long criminal (a con artist into all sorts of scams across the globe in the 70's), who ended up being the engine that drove the Abscam investigation, which broke in February 1980.

One interesting thing is that this book came out as quickly as it did … Greene did 237 interviews with Weinberg in less than a year, plus had access to both government files and confiscated material in evidence, as well as the hours of videotape that were key to the prosecutions. The author, who died in 2008, was a well-established investigative journalist, who had even worked for the New York City Anti-Crime Committee in the early 50's. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, he spent most of his career at Long Island's Newsday, where he built up quite a resume of impactful reports. Anybody who grows up in a major urban center suspects this, but it's also something of a hope … hard-boiled newspaper guys having a real connection with devoted denizens of the criminal underworld. In the Preface (one of the few places where Greene injects himself into the telling), there's this little gem to get things going:
I like Mel Weinberg. He is different. But, in many ways, he is more honest than many of the people that I know. And when he lies, he does it with verve.
Oh, one more thing to note … I only have one of my little bookmarks in here, and that in the introductory chapter at a point where all the subjects of Abscam are listed … so I'm going to be winging this with impressions from the reading, but there are so many amazing stories in here that I'm sure you'll be getting numerous random blockquotes foisted on you.

The book starts out with Weinberg's arrival to testify in court in August 1980 … it allows Greene to sketch out some basics (as Weinberg's waiting to be called in and mulling things over) of the main character's career, some of the key players on the FBI side, and a general arc of how things got to this point (including the listing of various politicians either indicted or implicated). This also is where the broad strokes are set in place regarding Weinberg:
Mel Weinberg does not look like the smooth, prototypical con man. He is squat, resembling a gray-bearded fireplug; a few strands of carefully arranged brown hair tenuously bridge his bald pate. He speaks with a gravelly voice in the rich accents of his native Bronx and he talks the slang of the underworld.

Weinberg was the difference. He had run every con game in the business for more than thirty-five years and had been arrested only once. He was a master of the sine qua non of the confidence world: the plausible story. He could talk his way into and out of any situation. He knew how to stall, cajole, inveigle and entice.
One thing to note about the book is that it uses some interesting format elements to bring in assorted bits of information. There are “SCENE” sections in the regular flow of the text that present a “snapshot” of a particular moment, which might be otherwise a bit of a non-sequitur, there are sections set in a different type which appear to be excerpts from the author's interviews (not just with Weinberg, there are some with FBI agents and other figures) which are broken out as “TAPE ONE” through eighteen, and then there are back-and-forth transcriptions from evidence tapes (both audio and video, I'm assuming) which just show up at appropriate points in the narrative. These all make for a richer read, if somewhat choppy at times.

I really liked that about the first third of the book covered Weinberg's delinquent youth through his growth into a high-grossing con man. Perhaps most charming of the early stories deal with glass – his dad had a small-time glass factory, that was always on the verge of bankruptcy. Weinberg had gotten into a deal with the local Glazier Union, where he'd go around at night, and bust out windows (with metal bolts shot with a slingshot from a moving car) at stores, etc. that had been installed by non-union workers. This little scam evolved into a various permutations, including stealing newly installed glass from construction sites – in one case talking his way out of being busted in the act so efficiently that he had the cops helping him load the sheets (that were the “wrong glass” that his boss insisted he fix “on his own time”, in the middle of the evening) onto his truck. He had another scam where he'd install a lesser glass (“demiglass”, that was polished on only one side) instead of what the clients paid for … his con here was to have had a bunch of stickers printed with “made in” and various countries identified – he'd match the country with the buyer's ethnicity and say something like “this is supposed to be the best glass there is”, and showing them where it was (supposedly) imported from – he claims that he never once had to replace it (while pocketing the difference). These cons eventually worked their way up the foodchain, and he was working with crooked (glass) insurance companies … the money from that went into investing into several legitimate businesses, including one where some of the partners were relatives of a major Mob figure. At one point, these partners decided they wanted Weinberg's part of the business:
“The mob plays for keeps,” Weinberg explained. “Smart con men stay on the good side of those fellas. If they want you to step away from something, you step away. Tomorrow's always another day; you keep on livin', and you can always go to them for a favor.”
The various permutations on the glass swindle eventually fell apart (although not until he'd played out a scenario with a cousin who was causing problems which involved a very large “enforcer” that Weinberg shot with blanks, got his cousin to come up with cash to pay folks to “make the body disappear”, and subsequently more money for “protection”), and he had to move into new ventures.

Weinberg always had at least one lady on the side, and in 1970 he met Diane, who was English, and had culture and taste that he found “impossible to define and imitate”, but he figured “if he couldn't be it, he'd own it” and convinced her to be his mistress. She must have liked him, as she took him back to England to meet her parents … on which trip his new career opened up. While there, he met an unnamed con man who “specialized in front-end schemes” where businesses looking for loans (but not able to get any legitimate banks to help), would find the con man, who'd offer to put through a loan application for a fee, depending on the size of the loan. This fee was supposed to cover research and reporting on the business and transfers with the banks. Weinberg ended up with a whole directory of fake banks in various locations around the world, which were usually just names and numbers – which would all go to a “bank” in some less-regulated country that wouldn't have more than a few thousand dollars of “deposits”, but would have a “Telex” (this was in a far different tech environment) and a person there to respond. The con was to stall as long as possible (a Weinberg specialty) before “the bank” responded with a letter regretfully declining the loan. There was another level of this, where the mark would be sold fake CDs, saying his company had X amount of funds on deposit with the fake bank, for a fee of 5-15% of the face value. This ended up putting the mark in the position of committing bank fraud, as he could take those CDs and use them to get local loans … in that earlier tech world, the local banks would typically just Telex the issuing “bank”, and be told that the mark, indeed, had that much on deposit there. Weinberg saw this as “a scheme of sheer beauty”, and jumped into it with enthusiasm.

So, “Swiss Bank Associates” was born, with “offices” in New York, London, and Zurich – the latter two being there not only for cachet, but that two top-tier hotels in those locations had a policy of taking messages for anybody, assuming that a guest had simply not as yet checked in. This worked like a charm, and Weinberg started clearing a quarter million a year (in 1970's dollars), after a lot of “business costs” to keep up appearances. He also didn't pay any taxes, as there wasn't any “there” there … the only physical presence was a phone line in the apartment he had set up for Diane, and he “kept all his records in his head”.

Eventually, this scam grew, and Weinberg aimed to be “the biggest”, with a permanent office, and “franchised agents” (con men in various ports of call) feeding business in. The name changed to London Investors … setting it up had cost him $70k, but he made that back in the first month. Aside from on-site staff, there were also paid-off cops working as limo drivers (to bring marks in from the airport or their NYC offices), and bugged limos and conference rooms. At this point the book runs through lots of “scenes” with fascinating looks at the array of scams he was running around the world.

One thing that seems a little odd is that, over the years, Weinberg had been acting as an occasional tip source for the FBI … which almost got him in trouble at one point … he was involved in a scam with the aging owner of a casino hotel in St. Martin, which ended up, through some convoluted turns, in Weinberg's name. A few days after the transfer, he gets a call from famed Mob figure Meyer Lansky, who informed him that he no longer owned the hotel, and he would be sending associates down to complete the deal … which involved Weinberg handing over the papers to an “obvious hoodlum”, who ripped them up and threw them on the floor. As in previous situations, Weinberg decided that living was the best option in some situations.

London Investors came to an abrupt halt in 1977 when one mark opted to be aggressive (being enraged at not getting his loan), and took the entire matter to the FBI and local prosecutors which led to Weinberg's one conviction (and a 3-year sentence). Because “Lady Diane” was a co-defendant in this, he didn't really fight the case, opting instead to get a deal where she was totally off the hook, with him pleading guilty (he insists that he could have beat the charges on his own). An interesting side-lite to this is in one of the “tapes”, which notes that he never sent stuff via the post office (using package courier services by the airlines), specifically to avoid mail-fraud charges!

The next chapter starts with profiling some of the FBI agents who were key parts of Abscam, and a case they were working on while Weinberg was in jail … they realized that the particulars of the investigation and Weinberg's skill set were a very good match, and both his previous tipsterism and his deal to save Diane appealed to the agents, so they reached out to him. Needless to say, he was very eager to help. The scam he was going to be developing in that case involved a phantom Arab, which eventually became Abdul of Weinberg's new Abdul Enterprises, and eventually the Ab in Abscam.

In March 1978, he was meeting with the FBI team, trying to come up with a theme for the sting:
… OPEC and oil still dominated the headlines and Weinberg's hint of ties with Arab investors over the past few months had brought the hustlers swarming. Weinberg suggested the idea of naming a specific Arab … he decided to use the name of the aging Arab millionaire he had befriended a year or so before … The original theme, quickly approved by {the FBI agents}, fleshed out over the following few months …
      The emphasis sometimes changed, but the basic version of the sting had Weinberg acting as the American agent of his old pal, millionaire Arab businessman Kambir Abdul Rahman … According to the scenario, Abdul, who supposedly resided in one of the Arab Emirates, when he wasn't living in Switzerland, Beirut or Cannes, was related to Arab royalty.
      Some targets of the scam were told that Abdul's money could not be loaned out at interest because of Islamic laws against usury. As a result, these marks were told, Abdul needed an unlimited supply of bogus certificates of deposit from offshore banks or forged certificates from legitimate banks. These certificates would be given by Abdul to his Moslem banks and he would then be able to withdraw cash equal to the face amount of the certificates and quickly invest the cash at interest elsewhere.
      Other targets were merely told that Abdul wanted to invest as much of his millions in the U.S. as possible because he felt it was only a matter of time before he would have to flee the wrath of his ripped-off citizenry. This version was used more often as the scam progressed and Weinberg promoted his friend Abdul to the ruling rank of Emir.
Between Weinberg and the FBI, they created a fairly air-tight background for “Abdul”, including depositing a million dollars in a Chase account, with an executive there who was privy to the scam, and would vouch for the wealth of the Arab, should targets get into deep due diligence (which many did). There were also letters from the State Department (ginned up by Weinberg – not sure if the FBI agents would have gotten involved with that) attesting to Abdul Enterprises working for the “Emir”.

One fallout from Abscam was the change in a lot of regulations for investigations of the kind … working with Weinberg was certainly a “grey area” in the law, although carefully keeping their toes on the “just legal” side of the line.
… like all great swindles, Abscam was an illusion built on careful attention to details, subtle presell and the target's own greed.
… Weinberg was widely known in the business as a crook and swindler. If he pretended to be anything else, he would raise suspicion. … He created the impression that he was hugely paid by Abdul and didn't want to do anything so outrageously crooked or disloyal that he would lose his cushy job. On the other hand, he let it be known, he was a crook at heart and wasn't averse to jacking up the price of something that he was purchasing for Abdul and splitting the difference privately either with the seller or the agent who set up the deal. The Arab, he said, would never notice an odd million here or there.
Honestly, the scam, as it grew, got too convoluted to really follow in the reading, and it's certainly not being condensed here. Suffice it to say, it went from a few specific corruption cases to a much wider net of public figures. One of these holds a fairly pivotal role, Camden, N.J. Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who became a close confidant and partner-in-crime with Weinberg … although never knowing that Weinberg was working with the FBI the whole time. Errichetti was one of those politicians who knows everyone and has his fingers into everything … in the transcription from Tape Eleven, Weinberg describes him:
He always looks relaxed, but his mind's goin' a mile a minute. He's got deals goin' all over the place and he's always lookin' for a new one.
Through him, the investigation got into the casinos, the unions, and dozens of corrupt governments all across New Jersey and surrounding areas. His contacts (and contacts of contacts) were key to getting in front of the Congressmen that ended up going to jail. As noted above, there were various twists on “the story” (they even set up another “Emir” to work a parallel and connected probe down in Florida), but the tale of Abdul wanting to come to the U.S. was central to most of the high-level work … as Weinberg and the FBI team would be presenting opportunities for personal and district gain if things were made easy for the “Emir” to get established in the U.S. As things progressed, the meetings were shifted (at the insistence of the FBI) to a townhouse in Georgetown they had set up for recording, etc. While this had a certain panache as the “Emir's” local pied-à-terre, Weinberg worried that somebody checking background might find that it had been being used by the Feds for a while in another investigation.

Anyway, lots and lots of crooked politicians, etc., took the bait, got videotaped accepting large payoffs, and ended up going to trial. Which brings us back to the start of the book. I don't even want to get into the complexities of the trials, but Weinberg's presence was a complicating element, as he was always what the defense attorneys focused on – although he took this as a personal challenge. There is also a nagging sub-theme (that never gets fully fleshed out) about the Newark FBI office which was constantly trying to sabotage the investigation – but the implication that they were affiliated with one or more of the targets (if not outright crooked on their own), is pretty clear.

As noted up top, The Sting Man initially came out way back in 1981 (and you can still get “good” used copies of that hardcover for about five and a half bucks delivered), but was re-released as a paperback in 2013 to support the movie. Oddly, this does appear to be out-of-print except for the ebook version, but you can get “like new” copies from the new/used guys for under five bucks delivered. I found this surprisingly engaging, and quite enjoyed the way the book was broken up with the assorted elements noted above. If you have an interest in crime, corruption, and the dank inner workings of a professional con, you should consider checking this out!

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Wednesday, November 29th, 2017
11:50 am
Everybody's looking for something ...
Sometime I think my epitaph might end up being “they were all odd books”, as often as I start off noting that the title being reviewed “was an odd one”, but this is certainly well among the ranks of the odd books. I picked up Andrew Burstein's Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud at the dollar store, which could be considered the natural habitat of “odd” books, ones that didn't manage to get traction via the retail channels. Frankly, from the title, I'd expected this to be more woo-woo than it ended up being. I suppose that, had I checked out the author's bio before getting into it, I would have been less off-base, as he's a history professor with a dozen books out (primarily about Thomas Jefferson and other Revolutionary-era figures), as well as presence in various media. Interestingly, this book had been offered in the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program back when it was coming out in May 2013, and for some reason I'd not requested it then.

In contrast to one of my on-going gripes, the subtitle here is closer to what the book is about than what the title might imply. This could be due to the author's son coming up with the title (and most of the chapter titles), as a more descriptive title would have been “Dreams In Early America”. Burstein does go into a bit of a defining in the Preface:
      Let me underscore that this book, while an emotional history, is not an “interpretation of dreams” sort of book. Dream-interpretation guides have been disseminated across centuries and across cultures. Their chief value is as cultural artifacts. Modern neuroscience has determined that the symbolic character of dreaming, so central to past analysis, has been overdrawn. This includes the work of Freud, whose sexualization of dream symbols is now widely discredited. Yet dream researchers around the world are asking more questions than ever before about the meaning of our dreams. Influenced by their writings, I engage repeatedly with imagery, labyrinthian stagecraft, and identifiable feelings exposed in dreams. We may not understand them fully, but to any historian, impulses matter.

      This book is about Americans who lived from the late colonial era to the opening of the twentieth century. Its cutoff date is the arrival of modern psychoanalysis with the publication of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. I say with confidence that you cannot understand the twentieth century's fascination with psychology unless you first understand prior generations and their fascination with dreams. We know how our American ancestors communicated across distance. We have a pretty good sense of how the modern world became modern. We tend to be less sensitive to the subtler changes taking place across time and space in the moral imagination and in face-to-face communication. As a product of culture, dreams offer new clues to the boundaries within which emotions were allowed to be revealed and recorded.
The book's eight chapters (plus Epilogue) are set out across three Parts, which are chronological divisions, “To 1800”, “1801 – 1860”, and “1861 – 1900”. The chapters themselves have titles like “From a Lofty Scaffold, John Adams Spies an Elephant”, which don't represent themes, but pull particular images from a random story in each chapter (they don't even seem to be targeting famous names, as three of the eight didn't ring a bell for me). The book pretty much starts out with Revolutionary figure Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, despite being a scientist, wrote down many of his dreams. Indeed, it appears that writing to one's friends and relatives notes that included the content of one's dreams seemed to be a fairly common thing at the time. Unfortunately, I only have a handful of my little bookmarks in here, which means that few among the multitude of stories particularly stood out. Certainly, it's interesting in the opening chapters to read about dreams (an personal situations they revealed) of notables such as John Adams, but few of these appeared essential towards understanding the book as a whole.

The subject of dreams appears to have been widely integrated across colonial society. Not only did Dr. Rush lecture on the subject, and dreams were topics of letters, but they also appeared in popular booklets and even newspapers, where readers would send in reports of their dreams (and get them published). Burstein further notes that the Philadelphia Magazine (edited in 1775-6 by the great Thomas Paine) included articles which “addressed the dream state”. There were additionally those who were attempting to create a national mythos via “epic poetry”, which often used dreams as set-ups for the “visionary strains” of “an empire of imagination”. A popular genre in the late 1700's was the “dream book”, in which angel dreams were a frequent theme.
Why did so many early Americans dream of guiding angels and dead relatives, receiving glimpses of heaven from their keen, all-knowing nocturnal visitors? Think of the regular church-bell ringing as funerals took place in every community. This was their world: burying children, burying neighbors.
Needless to say, the bloodshed of the Revolution didn't do anything to lessen the frequency of funerary activity. The author goes into the various permutations of these books, and has the following (where I did have a bookmark) which I thought was very interesting in terms of putting this all in classical context:
      Nary a one of the dream guides of this era failed to highlight Artemidorus, the Roman dream master from the second century A.D., who lived in what is today western Turkey. The greatest of ancient interpreters to have had his teachings preserved, Artemidorus saw nocturnal vision as lighting the way to the future. Greek temples as early as the seventh century B.C. show dream therapy being practiced, and Artemidorus famously placed all dreams into one of two categories, as either oneroi, the future-directed, or enhypnia, the mundane and meaningless. Consistent with the eighteenth-century medicalized association of anxiety dreams with obvious biological processes, he dismissed dreams that taught nothing or simply went over the day's events – dreams that did not predict – as deriving “from an irrational desire and extraordinary fear, or from a surfeit or lack of food.” And he added “People who live an upright, moral life do not have enhypnia or any other irrational fantasies …, for their minds are not muddled by fears or expectations.” Instead of wasting their time on bad dreams, they allow their souls to wander into the place of oracles.
As well as dipping back into the Greco-Roman world, there are some digressions here into Native American use of dreams, both as direct reports, and the records of missionaries. This then leads at a look at some Afro-Carribean dream work, which leads back to Dr. Rush, who was “an early and vehement opponent of slavery” and “used the dream formula in putting forward his view in opposition” to it.

Again, the bulk of the book is what Burstein dug up in his research, organized in a general chronological flow, yet grouped together to illustrate certain themes. Unfortunately, it's beyond what I'm able to bring to this page to create a sensible set of highlights (such as long-time president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, “kept a diary in which he occasionally noted the dreams others told to him that he found especially curious” – with numerous examples). He gets into some of the developing religious groups such as the Shakers and the Quakers, and how dreams manifested in those and numerous other organizations of enthusiasts of “the all-important subject of vital religion”. This then sort of morphs into a look at the Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, etc.), who were widely read in America (Byron appears to have been a favorite of Abraham Lincoln). Playing off of this, at one point the author notes:
Citizens in the early years of the republic, rather than stigmatize themselves, limited themselves to acceptable scenarios in dreams that they narrated. They wrote down dreams that they could nearly understand. As the nineteenth century proceeded, the necessity of doing that diminished. Workaday people marveled as the poets captured the wild beauty of dreams and artfully imagined the outer limits of what a dream can say.
The book moves on to some American authors, such as Washington Irving, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and (oddly) tales of several mid-level political figures whose dreams managed to survive in a form that Burstein could discover a century or more later. There are a number of rambling looks at people who were “noted dreamers” (as I suppose one would put it), and how dreams wove through their experiences … some of which are presented as pages of excerpts from diary entries. The second part of the book ends with a brief name-check of Walt Whitman, who “assimilated the song of nation into the song of self”, standing in for the general “nostalgic or utopian visions” of the mid 1800s.

The last section deals with dreams of the latter half of the 1800s, which means, of course, the Civil War. The topic of dreams seems to have been all over the board, from dreams pressing the stances of both sides of the abolitionist cause, then the war, to dreams involving Lincoln, among many other political and military figures. Needless to say, a large percentage of these were “invented dreams” put out for their propaganda value. Still,
In their letters and diaries, enlisted men, wives and sweethearts, families caught between the warring sides, and hapless prisoners enduring miserable conditions all contributed errant dreams to the emotion-packed literature of the day.
This listing of voices pretty much defines what's in a good deal of the last Part of the book. In between narratives of forlorn dreamers, there's a couple of digressions into thing such as music in dreams. The Civil War material leads up, as one might expect, to the dreaming of the title character, with a good amount about what Lincoln thought about dreams, and a few of his own (including the prophetic one). The post-war period again returns to authors (who, I'd guess, make for good source material, being in the habit of writing things down), with Louisa May Alcott (and her hero, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was still keeping “a reliable journal in the postbellum years”), and Mark Twain – who is the subject of a chapter's title. Twain's well-documented career gets several pages, before serving as a pivot point to William James and the Society for Psychical Research, for which dreams were just one of a number of ways of reaching other realities. The author notes:
More or less from the day the Civil War ended, both published and unpublished dream reports took on an increasingly sensational character. It was not by chance: they were meant to be deliberately shocking.
Much of what follows this revelation sound quite like what one might find blaring from the covers of check-out line racks at the grocery store. Needless to say, the newspapers of the day used these sorts of dream reports as ways to build circulation, involving contests to find a “Champion Dreamer”, etc., … “Dreams made good copy.” However:
The final two decades of the nineteenth century have been dubbed the “golden age” of memory studies, when the fast-developing discipline of pschology turned to the nature of memory and related pathologies. … Thus, a movement was under way in the study of the human will and the nature of introspection, even before Freud and his younger associate Carl Jung burst onto the scene.
In the Epilogue (titled “Were They Like Us?”) Burstein attempts to pull together many of the threads and metadata run through the rest of the book. Frankly, I think I'd recommend folks to read this first, as it puts a context around everything else that goes before, and it would make quite an interesting free-standing essay. Although I have half of my little bookmarks in this section, none of them point to “pithy” quotes to drop in here, just places where the author's arguments appear to be particularly solid, given the preceding material.

Lincoln Dreamt He Died appears to be out of print in the hardcover edition that I have, but seems to be available as either a paperback or an e-book. The new/used guys have the hardcover for a few bucks (new), which, with shipping, is still less than what the paperback is going for. While I rather liked the over-all thrust of this book (and the Epilogue), I must admit that reading lots and lots and lots of ordinary people's dreams got to be a bit of a drag. However, I'm a cranky cynic, and if you're more open to that sort of thing, you probably would find this a perfectly engaging read.

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Sunday, November 26th, 2017
4:31 pm
On such a timeless flight …
In internet security, there's a form of hacking called a “brute force attack”, where vast numbers of permutations of characters are thrown at a log-in, assuming that sooner or later the password will be entered. The number one take-away I had from this book reminds me of that. The author dedicates this to the “400,000 men and women” who made the Apollo program happen. That's one heck of a lot of people working towards one goal.

I found Craig Nelson's Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon up at the dollar store, and as it was a nice hardcover on a subject that I was generally interested in (tech/space), it ended up in my cart … and in my to-be-read piles for quite a while. While I do have an interest in the space program (what kid who grew up in the 60's doesn't?), it's not exactly one of my passions, and, to be honest, this is really more than I needed to know about the Apollo program. When I got around to doing this review, I had sort of anticipated having a bunch of my little bookmarks in it to point me to what I thought were specifically notable passages … unfortunately, I seem to only have dropped in four, and all of those in one section … so, I'll be doing some “tap dancing” here to pull out enough to give you at least a broad-stroke look at the book.

While Nelson dedicates the book to those involved in the whole endeavor, the book's core is the story of Apollo 11, the mission that brought the first human beings to the Moon (and safely back to Earth – something that was not necessarily a given). Structured in three parts (which are not specifically defined), the narrative is a bit meandering … while it gets where it needs to go (the Moon, eh?), it doesn't exactly take an overly linear path to get there. It starts with the Saturn V launch vehicle being moved out of the over-50-stories-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, and towards the launch pad. Needless to say, the book would be briefer than its 400 pages if the story started there and just progressed through the mission.

One gets the sense of how much research went into this in the sheer mass of detail involved in descriptions of everything – and how many hours of interviews (both archival from NASA and other sources, as well as ones done specifically for this project) provided the constant flow of insights about who was doing what, thinking what, saying what, etc. While these elements make the book a rich and vivid read, they also make it a bit hard to encapsulate here. At some points one gets the sense that all four hundred thousand people involved are going to get name-checked, and so it's also a bit challenging to sort through the key personnel. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that there may be quotes from three different figures in a single paragraph, meaning that a particularly notable turn of phrase encountered in the reading might actually be the reminiscences of multiple voices (such as in the descriptions of the sound of the ready-for-launch rocket).

Here, however, is one bit that directly addresses the complexity of the hardware, and how risky the entire venture was:
The missile had six million parts, which meant that, under NASA's rigorous target of 99.9 percent reliability, six thousand of its elements statistically might fail.
At one point “something was leaking, somewhere” in the week before the launch, and they had to figure out what, where (once located – the sub-system would have taken the better part of a week to swap out), and how it could be fixed … Nelson reports that “one tech very carefully tightened a nut to see if that would fix the problem … and it did”, enabling the pad crew to resume their 1,700-page launch control plan! There are also a large number of surprising details, such as that the early programs' capsules were capable of doing landings on land as well in the water, but they were designed for emergency escape from the Florida launch pads, and were iffy on their targeting (and NASA didn't want to be planning a landing in “White Sands and ending up in Albuquerque”).

From here the book takes a look at the predecessor programs, both of the Air Force (before NASA, an civilian agency, was formed), NASA's Mercury and Gemini programs, and von Braun's German work. There are some stories of both how the Nazi scientists got over to the American lines at the end of WW2, and how some of them were quite the characters (and several being not as politically “reformed” as NASA's public relations would have people believe at the time). Speaking of the P.R., the book notes that the very most hated activity for the Apollo 11 astronauts, Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong, were not hours spent in assorted simulators, but the press conferences that they were required to participate in. Nelson says that the agency, while nominally “transparent”, had a significant anti-press bias (despite having inked an exclusive deal with Life magazine) – but for a generally unsuspected reality: “other reasons for institutional secrecy were NASA's fears of revealing to Congress and taxpayers just how risky its missions actually were”. Some transcripts of these media events are included, and the divergence from what the press was looking for (“how do you feel about X?”) and how these engineers and test pilots responded (Armstrong answered a question about what he'd take with him if he could take anything, and he responded “more fuel”) is telling.

Again, there's massive amounts of detail here, and a flow that swerves between looking at the technology, its place in historical development, the astronauts themselves, both those on the Apollo 11 mission and those around them, over-views of their backgrounds and family lives, and a certain look at the culture of the less-than-swinging 60's. Some politics drifts through, as the project to reach the Moon was put forth by Kennedy, shepherded through by Johnson, and came to pass under Nixon.

There also are lots of fascinating data bits, which are sort of hard to extract from context here, from the number of hours of training the various astronauts spent in readying for the flight, how those broke down between simulators and other “experiential” locations (various points in the southwest to experience working in craters, etc.), and the like. An interesting digression is into the history of simulators, which date back to the very infancy of flight, in 1910, with the first “VR” version coming in 1929 when the Link Piano and Organ Company adapted organ bellows to work as the pneumatics for simulating pitch, roll, and yaw. The same company designed the first trainer for Project Mercury.

One quote (and there are chunks of this which are reports from a half a dozen key non-astronaut figures in a row) describes the astronauts as being “over-trained”, and it goes into a good bit on how the stress played out on them and their families … this is a sample:
In time, Armstrong's, Aldrin's, and Collins' training grew unbearable. Aldrin got so overworked that, while commuting one day in a T-38 jet, he had to double-check the compass to remember whether he was on his way to Florida or Houston.
Of course, it didn't help that most people involved didn't really expect the mission to outright succeed … there were so many essential points in the process where things could go very badly wrong (as had been the history of our unmanned Moon probes previously), that there were contingencies for aborting all along the way, and, for the worse case scenario, writer William Safire famously had developed a speech for Nixon to give in the event that the astronauts were lost.

To give an example of how the telling gets convoluted, early on in the book Nelson starts plugging in mission times, with “T minus 5.25 hours” appearing with nearly 300 pages yet to go. This time stamp is from their wake-up call on the day of the launch, but the narrative goes into a listing of many of the items that were going out with them, some jokes the astronauts made about thing things they could have done (sprinkling gold dust on some of the rocks – ensuring that they'd be back to the Moon sooner than later), and then going off into a description of the intricacies of their spacesuits, and how they differed from previous versions. This then leads to the process of getting them into the capsule and ready for launch. The remainder of Part I walks the reader through the rest of the countdown and to the actual launch.

Part II is fascinating, and worth picking up Rocket Men on its own … I'm pretty sure that it's not the first time that the material's been covered, but I think it's the first time I've seen it. This set of chapters largely looks at the cold war context of the space race, and has details on how von Braun rose through the Nazi hierarchy to get to head their rocket program, how his team mainly got to the American lines at the end of the war, and how they got settled in various small towns in the U.S., which became primary hubs for NASA's development programs. What is amazing here is all the info on the Russian space program, how they picked up the remaining rocket scientists from Germany, and had them working with the existing designers in the U.S.S.R., the arc of the Soviet space program (and political issues – one of the main excuses given for the construction of the Berlin Wall was to stem the tide of high-value individuals fleeing to the west), and how many disasters and near-disasters they had (but never admitted to until after Soviet Union collapsed). One chapter is a walk-through from the launch of Mercury-Redstone 2 (with a chimpanzee, “Ham”, on January 31, 1961), on to Yuri Gagarin's successful manned flight a couple of months later, to Kennedy's somewhat panicked response, and buying into a “Manhattan Project” style program to catch up and go beyond the Russian's achievements (which was quoted as having only a 50/50 chance of success), with the disastrous Bay of Pigs as a background, a whole lot about U.S. politics around “selling” the space program including the actions of JFK, LBJ, and RFK, among many others in the Congress.

Run the clock forward to 1962, and the Cuban missile crisis, which led eventually more communications between the Kennedy administration and members of Khrushchev's hierarchy, which eventually resulted in Kennedy's address to the United Nations on September 20, 1963, in which he proposed a joint mission to the Moon with the U.S. and U.S.S.R. both bringing their expertise to the project. This was rejected by the House of Representative three weeks later (despite a note here of Khrushchev's son saying that his father had been open to the deal). Two months after the speech, Kennedy was dead, and Johnson (who was very involved in the space program, due to the main HQ for it all being in Texas) in control. Jim Webb, the head of NASA, along with Johnson, used Kennedy's death to enshrine the space race in popular culture (by October 1964, 77 percent of voters were in favor of the massive project), and to leverage congressional support. Also in October 1964, the Soviet Central Committee removed Khrushchev from power, altering the entire international dynamic of the previous few years.

The last chapter in this part starts out with the Apollo 1 accident (on February 21, 1967, a fire erupted in the cabin during a test, killing all three astronauts), and the renewal of the chase between the two superpowers, with each moving ahead and then falling behind (a similar disaster happened in the Russian program four months later, when Soyuz 1 failed and crashed to Earth from orbit). It's noted that “NASA history would now be divided into two distinct periods: Before and After the Fire.”, as it “led to an across-the-board overhaul of NASA and its subcontractors”. This was, evidently, needed, as it's detailed how neither North American (the Command Module), nor Grumman (the Lunar Module) were making trouble-free deliveries. Still, NASA went ahead with the Apollo 8 mission (which was the first manned orbit of the Moon, although the Soviet Zond 5 had orbited the Moon with “a collection of bacteria, seeds, plants, flies, worms, and turtles” – all of which were incinerated when the capsule reach 23,432° F when returning to Earth), which appears to have succeeded more on luck than anything else. Oh, there are also some “special” descriptions of what vomiting in a space capsule is like, as well as the scatalogical inefficiencies of some of the other systems on board, plus how the famed “blue marble” shot almost didn't get taken.

The last part of the book starts off with time stamp “GET 00:01:00” (and I can't figure out what “GET” means, and I spent a chunk of time Googling it, but it's evidently after launch, as “T” is before launch), and walks through most of the mission, interspersed with background info and assorted digressions (such as the 20-point checklist for the procedure to urinate – which, if you're interested, gets dumped “overboard”, creating a unique type of “space junk” out there). The details of how the astronauts worked in the capsule are quite engaging. This is the section where I had my little bookmarks, but most of them seem to be pointing to “factoids” such as the fuel mix needed to fire the engines in space (where, in the absence of oxygen, they'd have to self-ignite), or that the computers (each module had a “17.5-pound Raytheon” computer) on board had a whopping (not) memory of 36K each (roughly a million times less than a low-end desktop PC at this writing). Another thing that gets tossed out there (when backgrounding stuff about the Moon) is:
Though a quarter of Earth's diameter and an eightieth of its mass, the Moon is so large – of 150 moons in the solar system, ours is the largest in relation to its host – that many believe it should be properly considered a planet, and that together we form a double-planet system.
Another thing that “I did not know” is that there was a procedure failure when moving into the Lunar Module, and instead of going to a vacuum in the connecting tunnel, there was still air in there, and when the modules separated, that “puff of air” contributed to navigation errors that led to the Moon landing being five miles off target (and having some tense time looking for a flat place to set down – they landed with less than 30 seconds left before Houston would have instituted an abort).

So, at GET 102:45:58, Neil Armstrong radios “The Eagle has landed.”, and the rest is history. Well, not for the book, of course … there's a look at what's happening back on Earth, both at NASA and with the astronauts' families, plus, of course, a detailed review of what it was like for the first two men to walk on the Moon to get through their mission. An interesting detail is: “Aldrin, meanwhile, had to remember not to lock the cabin door after exiting Eagle, since the designers had neglected including a handle on the outside.” … oops! Because of the first Moon walk being televised, there were something like six hundred million (with some estimates running up to a billion) people around the globe (something that figured into a particularly excellent Doctor Who episode) watching it live.

There were a number of risky actions still to come, a successful launch of the cabin portion of the Lunar Module (which was “considered the most perilous moment of their voyage”), a successful docking with the Command Module (involving some fancy flying by Michael Collins), a successful “Trans Earth Injection” (where the computer fires the engines at the right time and right angle to get the Command Module back to Earth, rather than randomly out into space), and successfully doing a re-entry that would let them splash down in the general area of where the Navy was waiting for them.

The final chapters of the book address the changes that the Apollo 11 mission made in science, the view of space exploration, and even international politics (and how, in the disappointing American decision to not expand exploratory missions in favor of the Earth-orbit shuttle program, other nations such as China and India have moved forward with their own projects).

Rocket Men is a lot to take in, and I've sort of skimmed the surface here, focusing on the stuff that mainly interested me (hey, it's my review), and skipping over the rest (political, social, family, etc.). It is an amazing book for the level of detail brought to the reader, and I highly recommend it to anybody with any interest in the space program, the cold war, (recent) American history, or related topics (I've enjoyed some of Nelson's previous books, so it's an easy thumbs-up).

There appears to have been a newer version than this 2009 hardcover released, but both of the hardcovers seem to be out of print, with just a paperback edition (plus e-books, etc.) currently out there … however the new/used guys on the online big boys' sites have copies of this hardcover that will only set you back five or six bucks … and I encourage you to check it out!

Visit the BTRIPP home page!

Monday, November 13th, 2017
11:08 pm
... and you've got me wanting you
I'm having a bit of a quandary as to how to approach this one. First of all, I have to admit it's been almost 3 months since I read it (long story), so it's not particularly “fresh” in my mind, although I do have maybe a dozen of my little bookmarks in it pointing to stuff I found of particular interest. Flipping through it, I'm realizing that if I tried to give it an in-depth look, we'd be having to negotiate a 10,000 word review, but as it has a virtual “fire hose” of information, I'd feel like I'd be skimming if I didn't delve into some of the details. Oh, well, here goes an attempt to reach a middle ground on it.

Dr. Robert H. Lustig's The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains is a fascinating, if not fun, book … and came into my hands via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program. I am very torn here between outright enthusiasm about much of the depth of information, and the buzzkill (somewhat literally) of its author's attitudes and crusades. My first qualms come, as they often do, with the title/subtitle … I, frankly, expected a quite different book than what this ended up being, something along the lines of a marketing tell-all about “hacking” our minds and “corporate takeovers” of our bodies. Nope. Not even close. While Lustig rails against “Big Sugar” and other societal bogeymen, very little info here verges into the practical tell-all territory of, say, Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying, or similar marketing books, which is what the front of this would have suggested to me, were I walking past it in a bookstore.

The author has been in a long battle with sugar and fats (and obesity and resultant disease), with a number of publications out on the subject (most notably, apparently, his Fat Chance which is name-checked on the cover). One can hardly fault his background … he did his undergrad work at M.I.T., got his M.D. at Cornell, has a law degree, is a pediatric endocrinologist specializing in childhood obesity & neuroendocrinology, and “has authored 120 peer-reviewed articles and 70 reviews” … and his medical training is certainly key in the parts of this that I found most valuable. However, there were various “red flags” for me here, not least of which is that he's based out of the University of California, San Francisco, which, while not Berkeley, is unarguably the “ground zero” region for loony-tunes public policy advocates, and one has to wonder if his particular crusades would find far less support in more politically/philosophically moderate settings.

Anyway, in the broadest of broad strokes, the book is about brain chemistry, the body's reaction and processing of various substances, how these systems have parallels in other behavior, and how those behaviors are encouraged by those making money on them. Oh, and how pretty much anything that we're evolutionary hard-wired to want to consume is bad for us.

Despite the above, there is a certain measure of humor in the book, with self-depreciating asides counterbalancing the occasional jabs at certain groups and individuals. And, ultimately, the core of the book is philosophical, with two sets of paralleled related concepts: pleasure and happiness, and reward and contentment.
… because pleasure and happiness, for all their apparent similarity, are separate phenomena, and in their extreme function as opposites. In fact, pleasure is the slippery slope to tolerance and addiction, while happiness is the key to long life. But, if we don't understand what's actually happening to our brains, we become prey to industries that capitalize on our addictions in the name of selling happiness.

Reward and contentment are both positive emotions, highly valued by humans, and both reasons for initiative and personal betterment. It's hard to be happy if you derive no pleasure for your efforts – but this is exactly what is seen in the various forms of addiction. Conversely, if you are perennially discontent, as is so often seen in patients with clinical depression, you may lose the impetus to better your social position in life, and it's virtually impossible to derive reward for your efforts. Reward and contentment rely on the presence of the other. Nonetheless, they are decidedly different phenomena. Yet both have been slowly and mysteriously vanishing from our global ethos as the prevalence of addiction and depression continue to climb.
While the above may seem like an extensive quote, he follows this with two pages of contrasting reward and contentment … which is awesome stuff, but I guess you'll have to pick up the book to get into those. And, mind you, I've not even gotten out of the introduction at this point.

He notes that most of the work in this area has been done on animal models (and can you compare “depression” in a rat with depression in a human?), and that “most human studies … are correlative, not causative … you can only say that two things are related to each other” (following up this with a page of details regarding brain scans, blood tests, neurochemicals, etc.). He also notes that:
… the connecting of our moods and emotions to rational public policy is complex, nuanced, and indirect. People can't be told what to do. As a New Yorker, I admit that if someone tells me to jump, my first two words in response are not “How high?”
In the first chapter here, he primarily looks at the idea of happiness (in relation to pleasure), from word roots and historical contexts, on through global polling and even genetic factors. He says that the book is about our culture not distinguishing between the related reward and contentment, even at the biochemical level, noting that this becomes “the basis for many of today's most successful marketing strategies”, and drives “the six biggest industries which sell us various hedonistic substances (tobacco, alcohol, food) and behavioral triggers (guns, cars, energy)”.

The second chapter is about cause and effect … “You see declining school performance. I see inefficient brain mitochondria. … You see drugs of abuse. I see presynaptic transporters of postsynaptic receptors. … “, etc. Pre- what, post- what? Yes, the science stuff … he goes on to say “we're gong to need a very short (I promise) course in neuroscience”. Now, here's where it gets frustrating for me, I really enjoy this part of the book, but it's an amazing rush of info, and I'm guessing putting much of any of the details here will just be confusing (let alone taking up way too much space), so I'm going to try to cherry-pick some items that will help make later stuff make sense. These various experiences have their roots in brain chemistry …
The reward pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter dopamine to communicate between the neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the dopamine receptors of the nucleus accumbens (NA) to generate the feelings of motivation that attend reward and learning.

The contentment pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter serotonin to communicate between neurons of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) and multiple sites throughout the cerebral cortex, where the brain interprets impulses as “good” or “bad”.

The stress-fear-memory pathway consists of four areas. The amygdala, or your “stress” center, is in communication with the hypothalmus (at the base of the brain), which controls the stress hormone cortisol. The hipocampus or your “memory” center interprets memories as both good and bad. … The fourth area is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) … that inhibits behaviors that put you at risk. …
If you think that's a lot, those are actually just the describing labels for graphics of the brain … the actual copy related to these is much more rambling (it describes the vagus nerve – shut down by the hypothalmus in times of stress – as “the vegging, chillaxing nerve”) and detailed. Speaking of detailed, there is a lot of fascinating stuff in here of receptor sites, molecules that bind to those, how these get processed, and sent on to trigger other things … but there are lots of these, so if you like this stuff as much as I do, you're going to have to pick up a copy of the book. Since these three pathways come into play a lot in the book, I guess I'm going to throw in the following as well:
      These three pathways generate virtually all human emotion, and in particular those of reward and contentment. The motivation for reward is experienced when the dopamine signal reaches the NA. A host of different stimuli (power, gambling, shopping, internet, substances) generate signals of reward, but that internal feeling of reward is pretty much the same whatever the trigger. This is also why virtually any stimulus that generates reward, when taken to the extreme, can also lead to addiction. …
      Conversely, while experiencing happiness is predicated upon sending the serotonin signal, the actual interpretation of that signal isn't as simple. It also depends on the receptor that is receiving that signal, which changes how you experience it. …
Speaking of receptors, there's one that's found in many of these brain pathways, the CB1 receptor, which is geared to connect with anandamide, an endogenous brain compound, which is similar enough to marijuana's psychoactive component, THC, that either works to alleviate anxiety, heighten mood, increase social functioning, and makes us want to eat (cf. “the munchies”). There was a drug developed a decade ago called rimonabant, which was leveraging the latter of those effects to be a quite successful anti-obesity drug. Users lost a lot of weight, largely due to no longer getting any pleasure from eating. Unfortunately, “they derived no pleasure from anything”, and 21% of those on the prescription developed clinical depression, with many committing suicide. Lustig says this “clearly demonstrates that the biochemistry drives the behavior – and the emotions”, and suggests “that reward-seeking behavior is a double-edged sword”, with benefits to the species, but not necessarily to the individual (a section on love/lust follows, which I'm skipping due to the complexity, as it involves “two different neurotransmitters … two different brain areas of residence … two different targets of action … two different sets of receptors, and two different regulatory systems … each influences the other”).

This brings us to Part II (of V), only 15% through the book. Obviously, my concern with running 10,000 words up top was right on the money if I keep up this way. There are a few things in this part that I found quite engaging, that I want to get in here, but the latter 3 parts I think I can skim over a bit, as they're more “social” and thereby lend themselves to paraphrasing more than the chemistry does.

The title to Chapter 3 is “Desire and Dopamine, Pleasure and Opioids”, which would make a nice combo of album names for the right band. He starts this out noting that “regardless of the species, the motivation to attain reward (eat, fight, mate) remains virtually intact and unchanged throughout evolution” and points out the role of cash in our culture “because money buys prestige and power and sex and big toys”. And all forms of reward have the danger of manifesting addiction (as he notes, “one reward is never enough”, or as the great Tom Lehrer put it: “More, more, I'm still not satisfied!”).

I wish I could stick some of the chemistry graphics from this in here (that's both iffy on “fair use”, and impractical working from an ARC, as the images in here are low-res versions of what I assume to be in the final published edition), because they're fascinating, such as the four steps of “dopamine synthesis and metabolism” and “synthesis and metabolism of serotonin”, which feature juicy descriptions such as “The amino acid tyrosine is acted on by the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase and receives a hydroxyl group to form L-DOPA” (you see the difficulty with paraphrasing here) … plus one that I think I'll end up at least walking through here in a bit.

The next chapter, 4 - “Killing Jiminy: Stress, Fear, and Cortisol”, deals pretty much with the words there, but with a lot of details on stuff like the “cascade” of chemicals that lead to cortisol, and the dance of the amygdala and the PFC (prefrontal cortex) in behavior. An interesting point brought up here is that, with repeated chemical assault, neurons with specific receptors can be killed off and they don't grow back. Chapter 5, “The Descent into Hades” picks up on this:
There's a price to pay for reward. It used to be measured in dollars, pounds, or yen, but now it's measured in neurons. As the monetary price of reward fell, the physiological price of reward skyrocketed.
This deals with the way reward drops with repetition, and how this can lead to outright addiction, he notes: “If the post-synaptic neurons are only damaged but still alive, your dopamine receptors can regenerate over time.” … but if you don't stop the behavior, the neurochemical process can “snowball”, with reactions all up and down the pathway getting critical. Of course (and this is most clearly illustrated in heroin users), timing the cessation of behavior is key, because otherwise there will be withdrawal, as the body tries to deal with the sudden change of chemistry, and going back after a time (to one's previous “normal” dose) can manifest as an overdose, being more than the now-less-tolerant systems can handle. He lists the 11 criteria (in a somewhat more discursive mode than this list currently defining addictive disorders), and then discusses a number of different examples, and the brain chemistry behind them, including one fellow (illustrating “addiction transfer”) who goes from being hooked on cigarettes, to alcohol, and then sugar (and “wanting to tear his eyes out” when he tried to kick that addiction). This leads into a look at John Pemberton, the Atlanta pharmacist that invented Coca-Cola, who had become addicted to morphine following the Civil War and “developed his sacred formula {as part of} a long-standing attempt to wean himself off his addiction”. He spent 21 years searching for an opium-free painkiller, and:
Ultimately, he developed a concoction that included cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. Four separate hedonic substances, four somewhat weaker dopamine/reward drugs, to take the place of one very strong one.
I'd love to type up the paragraph here where he walks down the list from heroin to sugar (on three levels of access), but while it's charming, it's a bit long (but fingers grandma as a reliable sugar “dealer”), so you'll have to pick up a copy. There is this, however, that plays into the later chapters:
Everyone has become a willing consumer of the two lowest common denominators. Sugar and caffeine are diet staples for much of the world today. Coffee is the second most important commodity (behind petroleum), and sugar is fourth.
Which brings us to Chapter 6, “The Purification of Addiction”, which starts out with a very interesting overview of the history of “hedonic substances” – noting that “prior to the eighteenth century, virtually every stimulus that generated reward was hard to come by”, and aside from behaviors such as gambling and prostitution, there was pretty much only sugar and alcohol to be had. He walks through assorted historic notes: the Yamnaya people were trading cannabis 10,000 years ago, the Sumerians first referenced opium in 5,000 bce, the first mention of wine is in 4,000 bce, and the first mention of a commercial brewery in Egypt in 3,500 bce … and the first description of addiction is in China around 1,000 ce.

The next bits in here are pretty much sociological and economic. There is a 67% use rate of alcohol in the adult U.S. population, with nearly a quarter of those being “binge drinkers”. Lustig notes that the profit margin for “Big Pharma” is 18%, but contrasts that with the processed food industry (big users of sugar) at a whopping 45%. He points out that “virtually all humans have a sweet tooth … it's inscribed into our DNA”, and implies that this is evolutionary “because there are no foodstuffs on the planet that are both sweet and acutely poisonous”. Sugar “was a condiment” up until WW2, when the drive to create new-better-faster overtook the food supply, and really started to get into everything in 1975, with the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup. The two types of dietary sugar, glucose and fructose, have interesting differences. On one hand, Lustig describes fructose as “vestigial”, being that “there is no biochemical reaction that requires it”, yet glucose is essential, and “if you don't consume it, your liver makes it”. They also differ in how they impact the brain (in scans), with glucose activating “consciousness and movement” areas, and fructose lighting up the reward pathway “and several sites in the stress-fear-memory pathway”. The rest of this chapter delves into particulars about sugar, and controversies of making an essential food item an “addictive substance”.

This brings us to Part III of the book, looking at “contentment”, with its first chapter (#7), being the rather straight-forwardly titled “Contentment and Serotonin”. This first looks at what drugs “evidenced the greatest societal impact” … Lustig claims it to be Prozac, citing the figures that between 16-18% of Americans are likely to suffer major depressive disorder, “and that any given moment 6 to 8 percent of the people you know are affected”. He says “psychiatric drugs are truly a miracle of Western Civilization”, yet modern psychopharmacology arose from a “serendipitous finding” involving a tuberculosis drug that vastly improved the moods of those taking it. When Prozac (the first in the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – SSRIs – currently the #3 most prescribed class of drugs) came out in 1986, its prescriptions exploded, largely because it was effective for both “retarded” (would kill myself if I had the energy) and “agitated” (anxious, irritable, sleepless, and miserable) depression. One of the effects of this was “in-patient psychiatric facilities closed faster than Blockbuster Video … there weren't enough depressed people in the hospitals to keep them open”. While currently “more people under the age of sixty-five take antidepressants than any other medication”“there's no biomarker for depression, no blood test that your doctor can administer”, and the diagnosis of depression is based on a questionnaire that scores subjective responses – perhaps being the reason so many end up on these drugs. Most of the rest of this chapter looks at the brain chemistry of serotonin, but there was one factoid I thought I'd pass along … while dopamine has only five different receptors (with two of those handling most of the traffic), serotonin has at least fourteen, making “it very difficult to piece together what is happening in any specific brain area”. One of the main take-aways from this is: “the quest for happiness begins and ends with optimization of your serotonin neurotransmission” (throw in 42, and you've pretty much got all the big questions answered).

OK, so next is probably the most “fun” chapter here, #8 – “Picking the Lock to Nirvana”, which deals with hallucinogens. There is another graphic here that I wish I could reproduce – it shows the chemical structures of serotonin, psilocybin (“shrooms”), LSD (“acid”), mescaline (“peyote”), and MDMA (“ecstasy”), all of which have extremely similar forms. In the caption Lustig notes:
The tryptamine derivatives psilocybin and LSD can bind to both the serotonin-2a receptor (the mystical experience) and the serotonin-1a receptor (contentment). The phenylethlamine compound mescaline binds only to the serotonin-2a receptor. MDMA or ecstasy … not only binds to the serotonin-2a receptor, it binds to the dopamine receptor as well.
Much of this chapter involves the research in this area, the political responses (sub-section “The Feds Raid the Party”), but also looks at the resurgence of hallucinogens in a number of fields, especially in hospice situations, where they can be much less isolating than heavy doses of opiates (and, in an a study that I encountered elsewhere, the use of ketamine to treat depression) … and at some more of the chemistry. He describes a 1997 study which was looking at specific reactions of different brain areas to hallucinogens, starting with the visual cortex, Lustig reports: Injection of radio-labeled psilocybin lights up the visual cortex like a Christmas tree.”

He closes this chapter with a bit of a warning, which, I suppose, speaks to the overall thesis of the book:
      We are our biochemistry, whether we like it or not. And our biochemistry can be manipulated. Sometimes naturally and sometimes artificially. Sometimes by ourselves but sometimes by others. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.
Next up is Ch. 9, “What You Eat in Private You Wear in Public”, which deals with food and brain chemistry. This looks at how you get serotonin from tryptophan – “the basic ingredient to inner contentment”. There's the better part of a page here walking the reader through the chemistry, with one take-away being that only about 1% of the tryptophan ends up as serotonin in the brain eliciting the comment “It's no wonder we're unhappy.”. He discusses the relationship between serotonin and sleep, and notes that our consumption of large amounts of sugar and caffeine doesn't help. As one would guess from the chapter's title, he goes into a lot of types of food, which leads him to introducing “metabolic syndrome”, a number of chronic metabolic diseases:
… heart disease, hypertension, blood lipid problems such as hypertriglyceridemia, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, chronic kidney disease, polycystic ovarian disease, cancer, and dementia …
He uses metabolic syndrome as a bit of a catch-all, from suggesting that well-marbled beef comes from cows with it (that just got butchered before getting sick from it), to pretty much “what ails ya”. This then moves into looking at gut bacteria, and omega-3 fatty acids (noting that the best source of these is in algae – we typically get it secondhand from fish), including lots of details that I'm sparing you.

Did I mention that there are 19 chapters, each addressing a different topic (in considerable, and sometimes quite technical, detail)? We're up to Chapter 10, “Self-Inflicted Misery: The Dopamine-Cortisol-Serotonin Connection”, which could be called “Stress, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Brain Chemistry” featuring MDMA, LSD, the functions of the DRN (dorsal raphe nucleus), a quote from George Bernard Shaw, references to the Dalai Lama and Scarface, and insomnia, depression, & suicide. Lustig charts out the chemistry involved in depression, addiction, and unhappiness (which “hovers at 43 percent of all Americans … {who are} on the same spectrum as those who are clinically depressed, they're just not as severe”), while suggesting that we might have less “free will” than we suppose (“Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free.”), leading us into the next Part, IV – “Slaves to the Machine: How Did We Get Hacked?”

In the last two Parts, things get somewhat murky, as the book moves from chemistry into sociology (to pick one descriptor of several that could apply). I'm opting to deal with Part IV as a continuum, something that aligns with Lustig's note about these five chapters saying that he'll demonstrate:
… how the confusion between these two terms {reward and contentment} in the name of “progress” has inflicted personal, economic, historic, cultural, and health / health care detriments to individuals and to society in general. Moreover, this confusion continues to be stoked by industry and government in order to preserve and sustain persistent economic growth at the expense of the populace.
He starts off with the Declaration of Independence's “happiness”, first noting the decline in the mean American life span over recent years, going into a lot of demographic data, and breaking that down by race, and making other assertions along those lines (and throwing in an Eagles lyric quote to liven things up). From the Declaration, he visits Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason, from whom was borrowed the “happiness” bit, which got replaced by “property” in the Constitution (cf. the 5th Amendment) … dopamine trumping serotonin. Pivoting on a quote by Aristotle, he then looks at drugs, both legal and not, with a survey of how strong narcotics, prior to 2000, were primarily available just in intravenous form, but in recent years there has been a growth in oral forms, and doctors prescribing them. This is partly due to a 2001 change in Joint Commission (certification organization) standards that required hospitals to add “pain” as a vital sign, with state boards punishing doctors for inadequately addressing pain. Of course, that's one side of the coin … Lustig notes that in states that have legalized pot, the use of SSRIs have declined inversely proportional to the increase in marijuana use.

Next he gets into contrasting happiness (the surveys of which peaked in the 1950's, with figures being pretty much steady since 1972) with money. Oddly, studies show that one's level of happiness is not directly tied to one's money, but “how well you are doing relative to everyone else”, and that seems to be true across all settings. This leads to a look at global figures and how the GDP of countries don't predict happiness. The U.S. is #13 on a list of “happiest countries”, with a number of European socialist countries in the top 5, implying that in an artificially “leveled” population, there's less reason to be unhappy with one's position within society. Back in the U.S., a study showed that “contentment demonstrated a logarithmic relationship with income until a maximum of US$75,000 … after that, the relationship disappeared” with more income above that hardly moving the needle – “reward is not contentment, and that increasing reward does not translate into happiness”.

From here he gets into a chapter about individual vs. corporate rights, featuring various historical elements, and a list of what he sees as particularly pernicious, laying most of the blame at the feet of the Supreme Court, and more specifically Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in a series of decisions in the late 70's. He notes that “… we're all now living in … Powellville. All dopamine all the time with a soupçon of cortisol thrown in to stir the pot.”. Much of this approaches “rant” territory with Lustig launching salvos at various industries, parts of government, and assorted politicians … and outright stating that the manipulation of the brain chemistry from the first parts of the book is both intentional and based on substantial research.

The next chapter gets edgier … “naming names” of corporations the author feels need calling out. These include Coca-Cola, and McDonald's, as well as a handful of media pushing sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. From there he turns to the whole erectile dysfunction industry, which stands in for the more general use of “fear” in marketing, and raising the question of what separates “marketing” from “propaganda”, and introduces (to me, at least) the term neuromarketing, which is based on facial coding and other analyses of subjects being exposed to marketing materials. Next to get roasted are smartphones, with issues raised from accidents while texting, to anxiety issues related to gaming, to the medium being used as a vehicle for “bullying”. This then slides into a look at Facebook, which strangely segues into the economics of the stock market, “elastic” vs. “inelastic” price gauging of products, and this in relation to “hedonic stimuli” such as alcohol, gambling, and, of course, sugar (which Lustig claims “wastes $1.8 trillion in health care spending”). The last chapter of this part is called “The Death Spiral”, and is a less-than-cheery look at disease, health care, insurance, and Social Security (described, accurately, as a “legal Ponzi scheme”). The main take-away here is basically that we're screwed – on several fronts.

The last part of the book is “Out of Our Minds – in Search of the 4 C's”, which are (to not leave you hanging): “Connect”, “Contribute”, “Cope”, and (oddly) “Cook”, and, as you might suspect, these are also the topics covered in the last four chapters. Here the author attempts to chart a way out of the “corporate takeover of our bodies and brains” of the subtitle. This starts with reviewing the serotonin material (with focus on “-1a” receptor) preceding, dips back into the hallucinogen studies (with the “-2a” receptor), and then drifts into religion. Here he goes into a quick run-through of various experiments on believers and non-believers, even to folks in 12-step programs, and comes up with the concept that “it's the social engagement or emotional bonding that correlates with contentment”. This then moves into a look at how our social structures may have evolved, the benefits of “performing acts of compassion”, how contact with others can effect us (à la one study that suggested “obesity can be transmitted within social groups”), how much of the brain gets involved with processing feelings of rejection, and why “social media” doesn't quite stack up as “social” interactions as far a brain chemistry is concerned.

The next chapter, “Contribute”, deals with value exchanges – primarily money, of course. One interesting study cited had a group of lottery winners, compared with a control group, compared to a group of accident victims, both of the non-control groups had “spikes” (positive and negative) of happiness in the short term, “but over the next several months each group's level of subjective happiness returned to baseline levels”. This leads into a discussion of food (with the interesting data point that the U.S. spends 6.7% of the GDP on food, vs. both the French and Japanese who spend more than twice that, at 14% … noting that we buy lots of subsidized foodstuffs). He then introduces some work on materialism and sense of well-being, including the suggestion that there's an inverse correlation between these (which he backs up with a Ben Franklin quote). Next comes a look at work situations, “altruism vs. spite” (involving interpersonal games and related brain activity), messing with behavior by dosing with citalopram (an SSRI that increases serotonin), the psychology of Chinese depending on whether the lived north or south of the Yangtze, a pitch for volunteering (which “improved depression, life satisfaction, and well-being, as well as … a 22 percent reduction in risk for death”), and some brain chemistry related to donating money vs. having similar amounts put in play via taxation.

In “Cope” the topics of sleep, mindfulness, and exercise are considered, in relation of the concept of “adaptive or maladaptive” stress. Much of this has to do with nurturing the prefrontal cortex (which needs all three of those), but “unfortunately, our environment has claimed our PFC as collateral damage”. The sections dealing with sleep are a bit “naggy”, with all sorts of studies about sleep deprivation (which costs the U.S. economy $83 billion a year), plus dictates about how you should sleep (turn off the TV – he must not have hyperactive squirrels running around in his head that need to be distracted some nights!). He moves from nagging about the TV to nagging about “screens” in general, and then runs this into a rant about multitasking. This gets contrasted with meditation, which he not only recommends but touches on a couple of practices, and notes that regular meditators “have clear differences in brain structure”, although he does admit that there's no clear answer regarding if it's people with those brain differences who choose to meditate, or if meditation causes these changes. He mentions some mindfulness programs, and uses these to segue into the exercise topic via a study that used mindfulness training as an add-on for one group of obese subjects. This then goes into the differences between “visceral” and “subcutaneous” fat, the former being “the driver of the diseases of metabolic syndrome and depression”. Remarkably, there are studies indicating that mindfulness meditation can decrease this fat, and other studies showing the effects of exercise between pairs of twins. He, of course, suggests that exercise is likely to improve mood, and could be boosted in combination with meditation.

Finally, we end up at “Cook”, which seems to be an odd spin on this, except that he's framed this in contrast to “toxic food” (that stuff that's being sold to us – especially sugar). He has a bunch of statistics here, one of the more telling is that the American Heart Association's recommendations for sugar consumption for children is just 3-4 teaspoons per day, when the actual consumption is 22 teaspoons per day (for adults, it's 9 and 19.5 … unless you're not Caucasian, with those demographic groups consuming a quarter to a half more). What makes this a difficult subject on a personal level is that only about 51% of the sugar we consume is in forms (desserts, etc.) that we'd recognize as sugar – the other 49% is essentially invisible, added into almost everything to provide end-user appeal: bulk, coloring, flavor, moisture, and preservative functions. However, some of his figures look pretty iffy from where I'm sitting (for instance: “sugared beverages alone account for 180,000 deaths per year worldwide” … uh, OK). The remainder of the chapter is a pretty rough attack on all things sugar (especially those nefarious folks who constitute “Big Sugar”), and recommendation that sugar be subject to the same sort of governmental assault as was levied at tobacco over the past half century or so.

Anyway, I really didn't expect (or want) this to go as long as it has (nearly 6,000 words!), but there is so much info in The Hacking of the American Mind, that I really felt like I wasn't doing it justice to do a non-orbital fly-by and call it “reviewed”. Of course, the science of this probably attracts me more than most, so you've had to suffer through some of that, but I assure you, I only skimmed the surface. While I don't agree with the author's Big Government solution to Big Sugar, the non-political parts are very interesting, and this would likely be a good read for anybody interested in what goes on in their brain, or what goes into their mouths. This just came out a couple of months back, so should be available a the surviving brick-and-mortar book stores, and the online guys currently are knocking nearly 40% off the price … so you might consider getting your hands on a copy.

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Wednesday, November 8th, 2017
9:51 pm
Bye-bye old happy place ...
WGN TV has a Facebook post about the major reworking of Wrigley Field ... my old seats (I was a weekend, then weekend/night, season ticket holder from '86-'96) are still there in this shot (click for a bigger image), but I'm guessing that's the last I'll see of them. They were awesome seats, as they were up a foot or two from the aisle, and right by the stairs down to the washroom. When I first got them, they were $5 each ... it looks like this past year they ran $40-$60 depending on the day.

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Monday, November 6th, 2017
5:17 pm
It's like there's a "kick me" sign ...
So ...

I "never" buy scratch-off lottery tickets.

Obviously, that's an over-statement, but if the radio buttons were "never" and "infrequently" on the bottom end of a five option scale, I'd end up hitting the "never" response. It is less frequently than annually. I do, however, buy a single "quick pick" for each of the big multi-state games twice a week, because, if one is going to win something, one might as well be in the mix for being able to win something substantial (and the minimum prizes on those are tens of millions). Recently one of them (I believe "the Mega") raised their single-play from $1 to $2 (with a raise of the minimum prize) to match the other's ("PowerBall") cost. This resulted in my having to adapt my scant cash availability from $6/week to $8/week, with my playing costs going from $3 to $4 twice a week (I could, of course, play $2 four times, but it's hard enough to get myself organized to get to a lottery vendor twice a week).

Aside from this increasing my scandalous gambling habit from $312.00/year to $416.00/year (which is not "unfelt" in my budget, as I could renew ten domains for that increase), it has created a cash-matching issue. I almost never carry any significant amount of cash, trying to limit myself to $10/week, so it's not like I'd be "peeling off bills" in any given situation, and I have developed a very good sense of when I've had three singles available to play the lottery. I would, typically, avoid using the lottery vending machines, as they don't give change and are very touchy about the "freshness" of bills that they'd recognize, so if I just had a five, I'd want to go to a 7-11 or the like where I could get change. With the bump up to four bucks, that leaves the temptation to put $5 into the machine, get my main tickets, and throw a buck towards a scratch-off ... especially if I was on my way between places and having one of those vending machines being my best bet for getting my tickets.

This is what happened the end of last week. I had a buck still left in the machine, and picked the "Holiday Cash" scratch off. Now, mind you, the MAXIMUM one can win on this is two hundred bucks, so my expectations weren't high ... in fact, my expectations were that I'd find no match and be kicking myself for wasting a buck (the psychological process of scratch-off cards does not work for me, as opposed to the "keeping open the probability envelope" function of buying a Mega/PB ticket). But, to my surprise, there were three $2.00 amounts, meaning I'd "doubled my money" on it. Whooooo.

Until it hit me.

One of my every-day top-of-mind desires is to "win the lottery" (thinking, of course, of something involving a LOT of zeros to the left of the decimal point), and here was the Universe providing me with a whopping $2.00 win. This is NOT the sort of thing my brain needs. Nothing quite like ending up a buck ahead making one feel suicidal.

Sucks. To. Be. Me.


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Wednesday, November 1st, 2017
11:14 am
Seasonal depression?
I've been sad the past week.

Not that this is unusual, I exist in a "I'd prefer to be dead" funk most of the time.

However, this was something new ... not good, but a new form of bad.

I've been bummed about the Circus.

This is the time of year that I'd be scraping up money (being that I've been broke for a goddamn decade) to take The Girls to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ... for the Friday morning show the day after Thanksgiving ... something we've done every year since they were very small.

This year, I just got done with a couple of freelance projects (and an opinion panel) and had the cash ... but there's no more Circus.

Which makes me sad.

There are not a whole lot of things in my life that don't make me feel like a sack of shit, and being able to take my daughters to the circus, and buy them some treats and souvenirs, was one of those few things that made me feel like I wasn't an anchor dragging their existences down.

Of course, at ages 21 and 17, they've not been particularly gung-ho about the circus for a while, so I don't think it's much of a loss from their side of the equation ... but it's really crushing my emotions.

Sucks. To. Be. Me.

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Tuesday, October 31st, 2017
6:32 pm
Challenging ourselves to be better ...
This was an easy decision when I saw it on the shelf at the dollar store this summer, as I've been a fan of its author for quite some time, and was very interested to see what he had to say in book length (as opposed to his Twitter or Facebook posts that I typically see). So, Allen West's Guardian of the Republic: An American Ronin's Journey to Faith, Family and Freedom got into my shopping cart, without much preconceptions (or data) about the book (as is often the case with dollar store finds).

If you don't know Allen West, he's currently a conservative commentator, but was formerly a one-term Congressman from Florida, after having served 22 years in the army. You might guess that this book was more of a biography, but only the first quarter is really focused on his story, with the rest being his “philosophy” in assorted areas (albeit in the context of his experiences). The book is broken up into five Parts, “My Conservative Roots”, “Conservative Principles”, “Conservatism in the Black Community”, “The Future of the American Republic”, and “Conclusion”. The middle three (each having 3-4 chapters) seem to be almost free-standing looks at their subjects. Obviously, the subtitle's reference to being an “American Ronin” begs some explanation, and he sets this up in the Prologue (although he doesn't really carry it forward much as a theme):
… rather than offer a conventional autobiography, I'd like to share with you my philosophical beliefs and the reasons why I love this country and why I shall fight wholeheartedly and fearlessly for the future of our republic.
      My story actually has its roots centuries ago in Japan.
      I've always been drawn to the warrior spirit and the code of the samurai. But it is the ethos of the ronin that truly resonates with me.
      During Japan's feudal period, from the late 1100s to the late 1800s, a samurai who lost his lord or master, either through the master's death or the samurai's loss of favor, was known as a ronin. …
He goes on to explain that these samurai were supposed to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, and the ones (the ronin) who did not were shunned. However, there must have been enough of them to have regulations regarding their status, as they were allowed to be armed, and be employed as bodyguards, etc. He frames having lost his father in his mid-20's as “losing his master”, and he “pledged an oath” to continue in the nation's service:
      And just like the ronin, I have remained an outsider, hewing to the code by which I was raised.
      My parents, my earthly masters, had brought me up as a conservative in every sense. They encouraged and championed my commitment to conservative values. Now I stood alone. I soon experienced the ronin's sense of undesirability, humiliation, and shame. I was treated as persona non grata not only by those who didn't share my views but also by some in my own African-American community.
      Because I refused to succumb and live my life according to other people's code, I was cast out. …
Although I'm jumping ahead a bit here, what probably resonated with him in the concept of the ronin is that he left the military through less-than-voluntary means (here's an article from just a few months after the fact). As any number of Leftists will harp on and on about, he ended up being put through Article 15 proceedings, which most of the MSM seems to want people to think is the equivalent of the Nuremberg trails. West discusses this over a couple of pages, and I'm going to just grab bits to give you the broad strokes:
In August 2003 we received intelligence reports that a particular Iraqi policeman had been providing information to the enemy, leading to an increase in ambushes on our patrols. We needed to detain the policeman for questioning because we believed something was about to happen. … The policeman had been stonewalling our interrogators, and we needed results. So I made the decision to put additional pressure on him with a psychological intimidation tactic. … He cried out to Allah and provided several names of individuals who intended to do harm to me and my unit. Afterwards there were no further attacks … {he immediately reports the incident, and takes responsibility} … During the hearing my defense attorney … asked if I would do it all again. Without hesitation I responded, “If it is about the lives and safety of my men, I would walk through hell with a gasoline can.” … Ultimately, as a result of the hearing, I received an Article 15, a nonjudicial punishment similar to a traffic ticket. I was fined five thousand dollars, given an honorable discharge, and retired with full rank and benefits. … I had lived up to the parting words {his father} shared back in October 1983 as I prepared to depart for Fort Sill: “Most of all, take care of your men.”
Anyway, the first chapter, “Early Lessons” takes a look at his family, their history, his youth, life growing up in Atlanta, school issues, and his move towards the military (both his parents worked in defense jobs) with University of Tennessee's ROTC program. Much of this is quite charming, but nothing stood out to quote here. Next is “Shaping Operations”, which appears to be a technical term:
      In military vernacular there are two types of operations: decisive and shaping. Before any decisive operation, there must be a shaping operation to set the conditions for the final attack and to ensure victory is achieved and objectives are met.
      My military career was the shaping operation that made me the man I am today.
This is primarily the story of his moving towards his long military career, with a lot of details of units, assignments, training, officers, etc., but also has some pieces about figures (like Colonel Chamberlain from the Civil War battle of Little Round Top, or the vets who ran the JROTC program at his high school) that he holds as exemplars. This moves into chapter three, “My Warrior's Code”, which is a bit more philosophical look at the military (and politics), with special honor given to a particular mentor:
Character is simply defined as doing what is right when no one is watching. … Courage, competence, commitment, conviction, and character were the fundamental principles of leadership I learned from a man who, had he been born centuries before in Japan, truly would have been a samurai master – “Steel 6,” Colonel Denny R. Lewis. … These principles form my personal warrior's code and combine with honor and integrity to shape my personality. I often wonder what Capitol Hill would look like if more elected officials possessed the same code. … I believe that we've come to a point in America where our elected officials possess no code whatsoever.
Oddly, for something that functions as an autobiography, this first part (at about 1/3rd of the page count) is pretty much it for a walk-through on West's life. The next part (also about 1/3rd of the book) is a review of just what he tells you it is – Conservative Principles – and is a fascinating read. At a point between the military and congress, West spent some time teaching history, and this comes out in a big way here. I've read a lot of political stuff over the years, and the “Philosophical Foundations” chapter is one of the clearest and most convincing expositions of the underlying philosophical stances of the popular options out there, from the concept of the “social contract” to an in-depth discussion of the differences of world-view of systems that evolved from Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There's a look at the transition from Charles II to James II in England, and the eventual framing of the English Bill of Rights, and how that shifted the landscape of concepts of government. This then moves into the chapter “Governing Principles”, which starts out with Jefferson and Madison. This is not all philosophy, as West takes a number of broadsides at the sort of tax-and-spend behemoth that we're suffering these days, with quotes from such thinkers as Frédéric Bastiat, Ayn Rand, and Alexis de Tocqueville, whose warnings of just the sort of things that the Alinsky-inspired crowd have saddled the nation with over the past few decades. Of course, the blame for much of this falls to John Maynard Keynes, ignoring the cautions of Alexander Hamilton that the growth of government … would subvert the very foundation, the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America. Thomas Jefferson would have likewise been aghast at what the so-called “progressive” Left has made of our system: “To compel a man to furnish the funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” West runs through what he refers to as “governing principles” of the Founders, and how they're being erased before our eyes:
      If we are to live up to the governing principles our founders established, then we have a mighty responsibility to preserve the power of the individual citizen. We must resist government's constant fearmongering and exploitation of our sympathies, which cause us to gradually and imperceptibly surrender individual sovereignty and liberty, drip by drip.
West starts out the “Pillars of Conservative Thought” chapter with an arch quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” (this paired with a doozy from Nancy Pelosi) … the chapter is something of a rant about how corrupted things have become vs. ideals. This leads into “Conflicting Philosophies of Governance”, which is something of the previous “Principles” evolved into their modern manifestations, or, as West clarifies:
… during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. So in this chapter, it's time for a revolutionary act: to define truthfully what {Obama's} “fundamental transformation of America” means. … If we're fundamentally transforming America, it must mean we're moving toward the opposite of limited government, fiscal responsibility, individual sovereignty, free markets, strong national defense, and traditional values.
This leads back to Locke and Rousseau, with a few nods to Ronald Reagan. West connects the dots between Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, and even reprints eight of the ten planks of The Communist Manifesto to show how each has been pressed to service by “progressive” regimes administrations since the early 1900's. I marked several pages in a row here, but there's so much that needs to be conveyed, that I can't really cherry-pick bits to put in here. This section is one of those that I really wish could be required reading in schools – if, of course, schools weren't the first things the Left sought to take over.

The next section looks at “Conservatism in the Black Community”, which to most people sounds like a joke, although West is very clear about how conservative his upbringing in Atlanta, GA had been. Needless to say, this is very personal to him, which can be inferred by the title of the first chapter in it, “The Soul of Our Souls”, and he has a pretty good definition here: “Conservatism in the black community was not so much about political inclinations as it was a way of life that we called 'old school.'” He sets the conflict here as the philosophies of Booker T. Washington (“self-reliance and economic independence”), vs. W.E.B. Du Bois (advocating “black protest, militancy, and pride”) … “Compare Booker T. Washington, the consummate conservative, with W.E.B. Du Bois, the radical leftist, and you can see the origins of the current conflict in our community.” Obviously, West is supporting a return to the vision of Washington, and goes into a lot of painful detail of how black communities have decayed with ever-increasing governmental intrusion. Next is “The Big Lie and the Twenty-First-Century Economic Plantation” which takes head-on “the people who promoted the big lie that government will solve your problems”. He ticks through a list of big government programs that probably sounded real good to liberals, but were disasters for the very people that they were intended to help. I wish more people came to the same conclusions that West has here:
I believe these programs were never meant to rectify problems but to increase dependency on government, all for political gain. Through the Great Society, the government created this economic plantation where the only real “benefits”are the electoral votes keeping the subsistence providers in power.
He goes through a litany of statistical decline, from fatherless homes to prison population percentage, calling it a “social Armageddon” “Yet the so-called black leaders, nearly all of them Democrats, refuse to identify the true cause of these horrible statistics.”

Chapter 10 is “The Hunt for Black Conservatives”, and this isn't about seeking out them, but the pattern of attacks on them. He leads off with a story that ran about him on a satire blog, that makes up an entire interview that supposedly happened between West and a CNN reporter. Despite nothing being true in it, leftist media picked it up and ran it as real, and neither CNN nor the reporter ever bothered to deny the piece. West points out that this is straight out of the Alinksy playbook, and asks the very reasonable question: “Why is it that any philosophy in the black community that differs from the established liberal canon is viciously attacked?” He goes into the character assassination campaigns that the Left has waged against a long list (he has several dozen cited) of black conservatives … and offers the following as a very plausible reason this happens: “The Left must destroy black conservatives because it cannot afford to have freethinking, independent-minded black Americans. If we begin to pull away from the dependency society … the Left loses.”

West then takes another turn, looking forward in “The Future of the American Republic” … the first chapter of which is “Republic or Democracy”, in which he has a fairly concise framing of the question, which also casts shadows on the American educational system (in that most people have no clue):
If there is to be a future for our nation, it means understanding America is a republic, not a democracy. The future of the American republic depends first and foremost on ensuring the citizenry and the voting electorate understand the basic framework of this grand experiment.
He goes on to discuss how many more college courses favor Marx over Jefferson, cites several founding fathers specifically warning about “democracy” (vs. a constitutional republic), and lists numerous really horrible governments that have come to power “democratically” (mainly in the Arab world) in recent decades. He charts out how things went downhill, and especially points to the 17th Amendment, which changed the method of seating senators from being appointed by state legislators/governors to direct election (where pandering to the mob seems to be the norm).

Next is “The Dilemma for the American Republic”, which leads off with this choice bit: “it's not just that we are abdicating the freedom, we're doing so without a clear understanding of the issues or the unintended consequences of our surrender.” He paints a very grim picture of how things are, and how they have been going, and suggests that America is primed for a “third party”. He sets out the philosophical conflict as being between those working for an “opportunity society” and those hell-bent on driving us deeper into a “dependency society”. While he doesn't specify what a possible third party would look like, he notes the Republican Party has been fading into the “Democrat Lite” Party, and has a quite biting description of the Democrats:
Today the Democratic Party has drifted so far to the left it has lost touch with the fundamental values of our constitutional republic. The Democrats have truly embraced modern-day progressive socialism, and I would challenge anyone to show me where that model has ever been successful anywhere in the world.
West walks the reader through disastrous Democrat-driven legislation and government programs, the decay of once-thriving cities like Detroit and Chicago after lifetimes of Democratic control, and describes how “the dependency society confuses privileges with rights and sells everything as a right”. On a more politics-in-general mode, he notes:
Through microtargeting and divisive segmentation, the political machine figures out what buttons to push to maintain power. And voters fall for it over and over again. They reward the impostors and charlatans.
In the final chapter, “Servant Leadership Versus Self-Service”, he starts out contrasting recent vile Democratic administrations with the character of the Founders and fellow Americans of their era, featuring a choice quote from Samuel Adams: “If ever a time should come when vain and aspiring men shall possess the highest seats of Government, our country will stand in need of its experienced patriots to prevent its ruin.” … needless to say, West sees himself as such a patriot, and this then leads to a return to the samurai/ronin imagery, where he details the elements of Bushido (warrior code). While I'm sure that Mr. West can't be accused of wanting America to become some echo of medieval Japan, he certainly is advocating a significant shift from the direction the country's been going over the past 50-100 years. He closes the chapter with a famous quote from Reagan, about “if we lose freedom here”, which is the ultimate thrust of his thesis.

Guardian of the Republic is still in print (it's only 3.5 years old, so I guess I lucked out at finding a dollar store copy), although there's not been a paperback edition of it as yet. The online big boys do presently have it at a substantial discount (over half off) which probably bests the brick-and-mortar guys … and you can get “like new” copies from the new/used vendors for about a quarter of cover price (including shipping). As I alluded to above, there are parts of this (most of the non-autobiography stuff) that I really wish everybody would read … but I realize that West's Tea-Party-influenced type of conservatism rubs a lot of people the wrong way (although I'm certainly in the cheering section). It is quite an edifying look at the state of the nation, however, so you probably should consider giving it a go!

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Sunday, October 29th, 2017
12:46 pm
I want a name when I lose ...
I had quite a battle with myself, standing in front of the dollar store shelf, wondering if I should toss this into the cart. Had it been a hardcover, it wouldn't have been a question, but this wasn't a hardcover, heck, it wasn't even a trade paperback, but a mass-market paperback – something that I've not read many of since swearing off fiction. However, I recognized the author from the band Steely Dan, and it certainly looked interesting, so into the shopping cart it went.

While autobiographies are hardly one of my more enthusiastically-embraced genres, there is a certain voyeuristic itch that's scratched by getting to peek into the lives of assorted figures with whom I've developed some familiarity. While I was certainly appreciative of Steely Dan's music, and had a couple of their albums, I was never a big fan, but was at least able to put Donald Fagen's name into the right context.

His book, Eminent Hipsters is one of those projects that I suspect involved the publisher prodding for material, as the biographical reminiscences only run 85 pages, with the rest of the book being a journal he was keeping during a 2012 tour with The Dukes of September Rhythm Review, which featured him, Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) and Boz Scaggs (of the Steve Miller Band & solo work). The book is relatively recent, having initially come out in 2013 (the introduction is dated to January of that year), with the paperback being issued in late 2014. What's odd here is that there's a significant gap, from 1969 to 2012, in the material … which not only represents a huge jump age-wise (from college to age 64), but skips over all the “rock star” elements (which one would guess would be the stuff that Steely Dan fans would be looking for in a book by Fagen). As such, this comes across as pretty much two books, one about things that influenced him in his first 21 years, and, I suppose, made him who he is, and then a look at his senior existence, on the road (and dealing with “Acute Tour Disorder”).

I wish I'd be able to give you a coherent overview of what's in the first part of the book, but chapter by chapter it's pretty much a fire hose of name checks, some I recognize, but most (being that Fagen's tastes run to jazz) I don't have a clue about. However, the chapters do have themes that they stick fairly close to, so I'll try to present at least the broad strokes. This starts in “Boswell's Version”, where he notes that his cousin Barbara (“…a knockout, gorgeous and curvy, a great dancer, and hip too. Hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village, she had no trouble getting to know the major players …”) would play hot albums for the kids, and his mom (who was “…a fine swing singer who from the age of five through her teen years worked with a trio in a hotel in the Catskills …”) was “a connoisseur of what jazz people refer to as 'phrasing'”, and among these faves of hers were the Boswell Sisters, who had, according to Fagen, “created a body of work rivaling that of Duke Ellington”. Mind you, in the two paragraphs separating “phrasing” from “Ellington” in the text, he's name checked a dozen performers, ranging from those he notes to be “now forgotten” to such mega-stars as Frank Sinatra. The Boswells, and especially Connie, serve as a central element in this chapter that allows the author to paint a complicated portrait of popular music in the 20's, 30's, and some aspects reaching into the 50's.

The next chapter is “Henry Mancini's Anomie Deluxe”, which starts out with one of the more traumatic events in Fagen's life – his father deciding to move the family to a pre-fab sprawling suburb in New Jersey when he was about 8. The descriptions of “Squaresville” eventually settle into what was on TV, including Blake Edwards' memorable Peter Gunn, whose still-cool-today theme by Henri Mancini spoke to the youngster.
Mancini didn't have to look far to find the appropriate sound to enhance Edwards's vision of anomie deluxe. At the time West Coast jazz (essentially, white bop) was being offered to college kids as part of the same package that included the Beats, open-toed sandals and psychoanalysis.
Mancini was cranking out scores for the show, and its spin-offs, putting out albums of material which “sold in the zillions”. This lets the author drift down memory lane for things that drove him to learn more about jazz, and riff on pop cultural factors, and the shift from the music of previous decades to new generations, and how Mancini's music keeps re-surfacing in surprising contexts.

The next chapter takes a abrupt turn in focus, with “The Cortico-Thalamic Pause: Growing Up Sci-Fi” looking at the author's reading preferences (if not obsessions), the cultural elements leading to these works, as well as that of the time in general:
Contrary to all the popular depictions of the fifties as a time when teens danced on the counters of a thousand pastel-dappled soda shops to the sounds of twangy guitars, the decade was, in fact, characterized by a nail-biting paranoia.
And, speaking of “general”, Fagen gets into a whole section dealing with General Semantics, which has the seed concepts that sci-fi author A.E. van Vogt spun out into a plot element of “the Cortico-Thalamic Pause” in his book The World of Null-A. The chapter moves into Fagen's first experience with San Francisco, and whips back into literature, tracing the weirdness surrounding the creation of Dianetics.

This then leads to “I Was a Spy for Jean Shepherd” … a radio personality he was introduced to by his “weird uncle Dave”. Shepherd also wrote, and is immortalized as the source of the material (in his book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash) of the endlessly broadcast film A Christmas Story. This lets Fagen get into radio issues, comedy performers (Lenny Bruce, etc.), and what does or doesn't work in broadcast vs. live. The key piece here is that Shepherd would “… get his listeners – the 'night people,' the 'gang' - to help him pull goofy public pranks on the unwitting squares that populated most of Manhattan.” and would read stories sent in by listeners, his “spies”. Needless to say, one that Fagen had sent in was read on the air, leading Fagen to claim: “My life as an independent consciousness had begun.”

Next comes “In the Clubs”, where the author tells of his experiences going up to New York City to listen to jazz, etc. It seems odd that this started when he was in his very early teens (in the early years of the 1960s). This chapter is truly amazing … but so jam-packed with details of clubs, musicians, genres, playing styles, characters, and more, that I have no way to even begin to give you samples. Guess you'll have to get the book, eh? This is followed by a very brief (4 pages) chapter on a particular favorite of the author – an all-night jazz DJ by the name of Mort Fega – which is titled “Uncle Mort”. Another 4-page chapter comes next, “A Talk with Ennio Morricone”, which is a reprint of an interview Fagen had done for Premier magazine with the guy who did the scores for (among others) the “classic” Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns. Even briefer (clocking in at 3 pages) is “Exit the Genius”, a free-standing tribute to Ray Charles wherein he claims that: “When Ray Charles died in 2004, we came to the end of American culture as we had known it.” Next comes the slightly longer “The Devil and Ike Turner”, which is a fascinating look at the man, in a context that makes him look like a Delta Blues version of Faust (no, really).

The last chapter of the reminiscence part of the book is “Class of '69” which is a recalling of Fagen's years at Bard College. This was, somewhat notably, in the same general area of the planet as where Dr. Timothy Leary was running his center. The chapter starts out with the basic college stuff, questions about direction (he didn't think he was good enough at music, so initially was an English major), all sorts of heartache and/or sex and obsession, and experiments with drugs. Then he stumbles over (his Steely Dan partner) Walter Becker, and it's suddenly pretty much all about the music. There are some interesting names checked here, including a point where they had classmate Chevy Chase (yes, that one) playing drums for an band they put together for an event. The last story in this part is based on another name-check, that of G. Gordon Liddy, who led a raid on the house Fagen was living in off-campus, leading to fifty kids getting thrown in jail … they eventually get let out, but Fagen decides to boycott graduation in 1969 over what he sees as the college's involvement in enabling the raid.

Then, suddenly, it's 2012. Nice segue.

The first couple of paragraphs of “With the Dukes of September”, he backgrounds the genesis of this project, from the 1980 shooting of John Lennon, to his The Nightfly album (and panic attacks and paranoia), to getting pulled into an event series that produced The New York Rock and Soul Review, which was the predecessor of the act he's touring with. What's most notable about this whole journal is what a cranky old guy he's turned into – not helped by the much-lower tour budget that this group has vs. what he'd been used to with Steely Dan. He bitches a lot about “the TV Babies” who don't recognize classic songs, etc. As to not posting the journal on-line:
Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record … (this goes on for quite a bit, and is a delightful, if long-ish rant)
Anyway, he bitches about reading, he bitches about hotels, he bitches about long bus rides (instead of flights), he bitches about pretty much everything (“The hippie stuff was fun for about five minutes and then, by late '67, the barbarism had set in.”). Of course, being an almost daily report, it is a fascinating look “behind the curtain” of a rock tour – if featuring a bunch of 60-something guys as the main players. City after city. Concert hall after concert hall. Hotel after hotel. And, everything that can be bitched about in each. Oh, and even some drugs (albeit mainly of the prescription variety).

There's a bunch of less pleasant stuff as well, like the suicide of Fagen's wife's son. Also, “ATD” – Acute Tour Disorder – which he spends four pages describing in detail in an appendix. Here's a little example of the tone of much of this, from the August 9 entry, following a show in Boston:
But after seven weeks out, ATD tends to trump joy. To boot, my right kidney's been bothering me a lot, probably because of some crystal gravel, tiny kidney stones that I sometimes get.
TMI, anyone? Frankly, a lot of the tour journal is like that – reminding me of some of my hand-written journals from places back when I was traveling – complaining about stuff because the irritations are the easiest data to access at the time.

As I didn't come to Eminent Hipsters as a big Steely Dan / Donald Fagen fan, I didn't have the reaction that a lot of reviewers had in being pissed off that he didn't address the stuff that most of them really wanted to read. It's an interesting enough book, and (were he less hostile to all things digital) would have been a great opportunity for him to have put together play lists of YouTube, etc., resources of the influences he mentions. With a close read, however, you might be able to pull this together for yourself and get quite a useful background in the sorts of music that he grew up on. I guess I need to note that his Steely Dan partner, Walter Becker, died in between my reading this, and getting around to writing the review. Obviously, that's not really here nor there in terms of my interface with the book, but a bunch of the back-and-forth with his representatives deal with it not being an "SD tour" (with the implication that they'd like him to agree to one), and that now appears to be a moot point. I guess Fagen will have to get used to the crappier hotels.

Anyway, as noted, this is a relatively recent release (the paperback came out just 3 years ago from the day I'm writing this), so there's a decent possibility of it still hanging around in the remaining brick-and-mortar book vendors. It appears that the hardcover is out of print at this point, but the new/used guys have it (for less than the paperback), if you're looking for something more substantial. The online big boys have this at a few bucks off of cover price, but the used options don't save you much (and used mass-market books tend to be a mess), so that might be your best bet should this sound like something you'd want to pick up. Again, I probably enjoyed this more because I'm not a particular fan of the author and his most notable band, and it might be an irritating tease if Steely Dan was one of your faves ... the “music history lessons” woven into the first part of the book are worth reading in any case.

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Thursday, October 26th, 2017
5:27 pm
"Don't start with an inhale."
I'm a bit late getting to this one – as it came to me via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, and we're supposed to get the review done within 3 months … this title having come from the May 2017 batch. Oops. Anyway, I was somewhat surprised to have “won” this, as I ticked the “request” box on it largely due to Daughter #2 being an aspiring actress, and I figured it would be something that might be beneficial to pass along to her, as I have done on some other books previously. I think it's fair to say that Beatrice Manley's Your Breath in Art: Acting From Within is something that I would have been highly unlikely to have picked up had it not been for this particular conjunction of elements, but I found it a pleasant read nonetheless.

As is usually the case with LTER selections, there wasn't a whole lot of info about the book provided up front, and I found it odd that a book was coming out “new” by an author who had passed back in 2002. As it turns out, this is a new edition of a book she'd published in 1997 as My Breath in Art, and is something of a 20th anniversary edition (although there is no editorial material in the book to indicate this beyond the data on the copyright page). What I had somewhat expected to be a manual of the author's acting technique (which, certainly, it is on some levels), turned out to be quite the melange … obviously it has the acting elements, but also almost a yoga treatise on the use and function of breath, a lot of humor, pop cultural references (circa the mid-90's), and war stories from both acting and teaching acting.

Being the lazy sot that I am, I was really hoping that there was going to be some grand unifying statement here that I could pass along to you without the effort of much processing on my end, but no … the following (the start of Ch.1), however, pulls together some of the essential threads of the book:
      Whenever our acting takes an unpredictable, magical turn, it is because, somehow, the breath has touched our intuition and come up with what had been hidden in our thoughts and emotions.
      The breath is both unconscious and conscious, involuntary and voluntary. The breath works in secret; even if we don't breathe it breathes. …
This, trailing the opening quote for the chapter, simply attributed to “Star Wars”: May the Force be with you. Chapter 1 is on “The Breath”, and she goes into expansive detail on concepts about breath, and suggestions of exercises to attempt to get a more significant awareness of it. A line that starts section four here grabbed my attention as one of those “teaching” things that seems to express a hard-won idea: “We will never know when the mind will grasp a concept and the body will master its technique.” … more esoterically (if in the theatrical arena) is this:
      The audience breathes in the images we carry on our breath. If we don't breathe the character into the body, neither we nor the audience will find the character convincing.
Speaking of esoteric, here's a bit from Chapter 2, “The Way of Words”: “Vowels and consonants have their special place on the tongue and at the lips and the teeth.” … this chapter is filled with extremely detailed minutia on how to present words, parts of words, and how they function in our speaking/breathing apparatus. She also gets into some cultural history, quoting authors, actors, and poets, and critiquing some famous actors' performances in particular roles.

Chapter 3, “Letting the Body Do It Also”, has numerous fascinating looks at how assorted actors manifested stage presence as well, with analysis of what's going on. This part, naturally, also relates to the breath, at one point noting:
Athletes talk about getting the mind out of the way so that something can take over. The athlete said: “I can't concentrate when I think.” The body has to be let alone to do whatever it does, its own way. …
Muscular tension anywhere in the body can spoil a performance.
The next chapter, entitled “Learning How to Learn” (which is also the name of a fascinating book by Idries Shah), begins with a long letter that she “wrote and never sent” to her students. This deals a lot with overcoming various blocks. There are quite a few choice bits here, including:
The desire to perform is very great but it is often mixed in with self-consciousness and embarrassment. A part of the body shrinks back from its own presence; there is a pulling away from the gesture as soon as it's made.
… and:
If we let the critic in us take over, it will eventually paralyze us. There is a place in the body, an actual place, that each person's critic inhabits and which smothers natural talent.
Aside from discussing these topics, she additionally sketches out some exercises to use for getting over these blocks and related physical and psychological stressors … and recommends a “lab coat attitude” where, like a scientist, the actor experiments with these, and “continues to make changes until the right formula is found”.

The next couple of chapters, “Technique” and “Doing Nothing”, are each under ten pages. The concept of technique here is a bit like the body skills learned to ride a bike, and her thrust is on having these skills as baked-in as that. The most direct part here is:
      Technique is nothing but redeeming natural behavior, getting rid of physical tensions, cleaning out emotional garbage. All this so that we can find our way back to simplicity. When we reclaim our innocence, the self without fear or exaggeration, we are talented and intuitive and imaginative and creative and integrated.
She returns to Star Wars references in expressing the concept of doing nothing: “… Obi Wan Kenobi tells Luke to use The Force; that now he must let go of his conscious self and act on instinct.” While there are exercises suggested, the essence here comes through, I think, in a few lines, like “Doing nothing lets the intangible happen.”, and “If simplicity makes us feel stupid, ambiguity can make us crazy: don't make something happen, let something happen. … And the ultimate in ambiguity: don't try, but don't try to not try ...” which she follows up with this gem:
“Ah,” says Maxwell Smart, “the old Zen game.”
While Chapters 5 and 6 are quite brief, Chapter 7, “The Acting Chapter”, takes up (as one might expect, I suppose) nearly 30% of the book. This is broken up into three parts, “Helpful Hints”, “28 Little Essays About Acting”, and “Thinking About the Script”. The first of these is sort of “nuts and bolts” of the acting craft, looking at auditions, rehearsals, and working with directors, with one rather odd topic of “The Nose”:
Notice how often people touch and scratch their noses. The habit is so strong that I've seen performers rub their noses impulsively in the middle of a scene. It's one thing to need to blow one's nose, it's another to grab at it because the nerve endings are screaming for attention.
The 28 essays are brief, ranging from a couple of lines to a couple of pages, and are all over the board as far as subject matter. Number 21, “No Tempo”, has a great bit part-way through it: “George Burns said he didn't go on the stage to wow them. He went on stage.”, which itself sounds a bit like a Zen teaching story … and number 28 is a generally useful “What to Do with Our Hands”, which has rather pointed stage-presence reasons to do or not do specific things with one's arms and hands – including this item: “Clint Eastwood said he took a lot of acting lessons to do nothing, to just stand there.” Part three begins with another interesting quote, this from Anthony Hopkins: … Once you've learned the part – and I try to learn the whole film as much as possible – you've got the whole recipe inside you so your mind can make unconscious decisions … . While most of the rest of the book is broken up into small, often paragraph-length, sections, this part is set up pretty much as one substantial essay about scripts, and relating to and working with them.

The last three chapters are back to being fairly brief. Chapter 8 on “Oral Reading” is a delight for the writer in me, with lots of poking around in the guts of the language, and quotes like: “If we observe the punctuation we needn't struggle with the material.”, which is followed by a passage from Edward Albee getting very detailed about the nature, and expression intended, in punctuation; and then discussed by Manley in relation to her experiences, including suggesting that in one of Samuel Beckett's plays “the author was acting the role on paper”, and that “When I followed his punctuation, I arrived at the emotions he intended.” She also discusses pacing and refining technique, comparing what athletes do (“working on that single flaw, over and over”) to what she feels actors ought to be doing, as it's what “separates the champions from the merely talented.”

Next is Chapter 9, “I Remember Fear”, which delves into various examples of working around one's fear, frequently expressed as elements of roles the author played. I liked this bit:
      There are no guarantees. The hardest thing in acting is to accept that we can't control or capture a performance, that we must find ways to let a performance alone, to let it be the words and gestures, the physical expression of thoughts. …
The last chapter, #10, is “Fame!” and is quite brief, just a few pages, and looks at fame from a philosophical stance, quoting a couple of well-known names, and closing with another George Burns quip:
… I don't try to be a hit. I don't sweat. I walk out there and take it easy. I find that if I take it easy, the audience takes it easy. If I sweat, they sweat. If we both sweat, we don't smell good. …
This is followed by an appendix of “Basic Exercises” (in 10 categories), which are fairly technical … for example (pardon my skipping the bits with the actual vowel patterns):
      The lip corners float up for the vowels in the first pattern. They float forward for the vowels in the second pattern. It makes a big difference in the sound when the lip corners move with the vowel. After you practice a while it will become automatic. Float up or forward. Don't muscle it.
I hope from the preceding you've gotten a sense of Your Breath in Art … as I said, it's quite a mix of stuff, and engaging all the way through. This new edition (from a new publisher) came out at the end of May, so it should be available either at or via the brick-and-mortar book stores that handle this sort of title … which you might as well go to for it, as the on-line behemoths are presently not knocking anything off the cover price. Again, I found this quite a fascinating and enjoyable read, and would recommend it to anyone who resonates with the above.

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Wednesday, October 25th, 2017
11:10 am
Watch out for that tree?
Ah, the dollar store … what oddities you present to me, staring out from your miscellaneous and always changing shelves! Paul Rosolie's Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon was sitting there, not even three years past its publication, and, while not being one of my key reading areas, looked interesting enough (heck, it has a quote from Jane Goodall on the cover, saying it's “An extraordinary book.”) to throw a buck at. This did, however, spend quite a while in the “to be read” stacks before I got to a place in my reading where I needed an escape into “uncharted tributaries”, and opted to add it into the current reading mix.

As is often the case when I sit down to crank out these reviews (and especially after a long gap – I wasn't writing for quite a bit, due to a variety of things, and have a backlog of over a dozen books to get to that I've finished at various times over the past four months), I find myself wishing that I had stuck in more of my little bookmarks. However, this being more of a “story” (if of a biographical bent, with Green over-tones), there were fewer cues to what I would subsequently think were the “important parts” to point back to. So, I'm going to be working off of the recalls I can pull to mind, and scanning through the book here.

I no doubt have mentioned in this space that I've traveled in South America, and the “type” of Mr. Rosolie is not unfamiliar to me … although I was never specifically doing environmental tourism, the locales (and enthusiasts) for that often intersect with the archaeological tourism that was my passion at a time … having encountered Green crusaders (usually complaining about something or another that tourists/locals/governments, etc. either were or were not doing that they fervently believed they should or shouldn't be) in various exotic settings.

I bring this up to explain that my reading of Mother of God was not without some amount of irritation at points … irritation that I'm guessing would not be engendered in others' experience of the book. One of my favorite societal quotes is from the late, great Johnny Carson, who said “It takes all types to fill the freeway.”, and I try to remember that when I start grumbling about “those people” (in whatever context that grumbling arises). This is not to say that the work that Mr. Rosolie and his ilk do is unimportant, he discusses his conservation mission on his web site, and has founded Tamandua Expeditions, which offers “wildlife research, conservation, and responsible volunteer/adventure travel”.

Anyway, Mr. Rosolie was a misfit in the New Jersey environment he grew up in …
As I got older my ambition began to boil and my fight with the education system intensified … Through middle school and freshman year of high school I broke all kinds of records for detentions and suspensions and made my way to each June feeling I had barely survived … As my grades dropped below the point of no return, and my total suspensions for the year hit double digits, my parents suggested I drop out and go to college.
This in his sophomore year in high school. He got his GED before the next school year began and (while he eventually ended up in college) spent all his time trying to find some Green organization that would take on an 18-year-old “untrained high school dropout”, preferably in “the most isolated and remote spot possible” (noting that “everything else was tourism”). Remarkably, he eventually heard from a researcher working in southeast Peru, who was needing assistants. He fibbed a bit, but got set up for spending his winter break down there, a two-day drive into the jungle from any civilization. He immediately took to it (even drinking the river water the first time it was offered) and claims to have soon been getting special treatment by the folks running the research station, and was sleeping out in a hammock in the jungle soon after his arrival (instead of what sufficed for “indoors” at the center).

Needless to say, he'd found his passion. Unfortunately, he has to get back to the States for college. He does start a web site and promotion program for the Las Piedras Station, in the “Madre de Dios” region (hence the book's title), which is successful enough to get him back there again (and again and again).

Now, I had a bit of an internal struggle at this point. The book is very much a “story”, with lots of characters, places, and scenarios, and I could either go into considerable detail, or just give you the broad strokes as I see them, plus highlights … and I'm opting for the latter. If you want the details, hey, go pick up a copy!

There is a lot of information here about the Amazon basin, its flora, fauna, geography, and the threats it is facing. The longer he stays, the more involved he gets, and seems to be always having to push himself to new personal challenges … of the type that tend to leave you dead – a situation that he only narrowly avoids at several points in the story. He still goes back to the U.S. for college, raising money and booking trips when there, allowing him to return to the Amazon. However, during one semester, a professor (who taught a course on “Ecology, Economics and Ethics”) challenges him to go on a trip to India. Aside from the academic value of this, and the opportunity to see elephants and tigers, he meets a young lady there, who is a significant side-track in the story. She's from India, and he decides she's his “soul mate” and proceeds to woo her from half a planet away. They eventually win her family's approval, get married, and she comes over to this side of the world (and into the jungle).

In the early chapters in the book, he copies some of his field notes on the wide array of animals he sees out in the jungle, but a not insignificant portion of the book deals with a few specific critters, including (if not especially) Anacondas. Big Anacondas. Real big ones … he describes a particular encounter with a monster snake:
This snake was as thick as a small cow, and easily twenty-five feet long. … I could see her watching us, sampling the air with a great black tongue, itself the size of any ordinary snake.
He also has notable experiences with jaguars and other forest creatures, but one of the oddest of his story involves a baby giant anteater, which he adopts (or vice-versa), and becomes his constant companion, sleeping with him in his hammock, and going into the jungle with him. There are pictures (so I guess it happened – web joke). However, at one point he gets a horrible tropical disease (I could have done without that picture – his face covered with neon green pustules), and has to be evacuated to civilization for medical attention … during which time the anteater disappears. However, much later in the book a female giant anteater (and her brood) shows up, and acts familiar, giving Rosolie hope that this was his friend, returned to the wild.

One of the “suicidal adventures” involves him going upriver to an “undiscovered” zone that the patriarch of a local family tells him of. He works his way up river, seeing more and more amazing sights (he notes an inverse ratio of the presence of man and the wealth of wildlife), has a risky near-encountered with an “uncontacted” native village, and eventually has to try to find his way back, still short of his destination. It turns out that there is a high iron content in many Amazon basin trees, which can mess with a compass, and he found he was hiking in large circles, and coming nowhere near where he was planning to get. He has a terrifying encounter with a jungle cat that was nose-to-hammock in the middle of the night, and has to try to survive a massive storm featuring hurricane-strength winds … this, on one hand, made the jungle a very dangerous place, and on the other, swelled the river extensively … which ended up saving him, as he was able to jump onto a huge tree that was being swept down the river, and ride it on a break-neck journey of many miles, until he had to head to shore before smashing into a logjam. He'd gotten far enough down river that he managed to encounter a boat, which took him to a jungle lodge, and thence to the relative safety of places he knew.

At one point he's chided by the head of the Las Piedras Station that “Sometime the bad guys win.”, and this was very nearly true for that center. His friends had lost control of it (having been on quite shaky financial ground all along), however, the group that had taken it over eventually found it a financial drain, and his friends were able to reclaim the facility. Unfortunately, they only got back 1,200 acres of the 27,000 acres they'd previously had – with the other owners looking to sell the rest at a hefty profit – possibly to logging interests.

Well, there you have it: adventure, animals, romance, skulduggery, and fighting the good fight. It's all in Mother of God, and I've only skimmed across the surface here (and I think I may have conflated different adventures into one narrative in the above). While I didn't love this book, it certainly had enough going on in it to keep my interest, and it may be something that you'd like as well.

As noted above, this is a relatively recent book (hardcover coming out in 2014, with the paperback following a year later), and both editions appear to still be in print. The on-line big boys actually have the hardcover going for less than the paperback, offering it for over half-off of cover price. The new/used guys have “very good” copies of the hardcover edition for half of that price (including shipping), which would be your best bet dollar-wise, if you can't find a copy still floating around the dollar stores. Unless environmentalism is one of your top interests, I don't think this one's a “buy it at retail” recommendation, but it's an interesting read if you do get your hands on a copy.

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