What I’ve been reading

First, a lot of articles about reading: e-reading versus paper reading, are people losing their ability to read long, involved texts? is reading dead? That kind of thing. Also, books. E-books, paper books, whatever. I’ve finally opened my four-volume Montaigne from the Limited Editions Club (1946) and begun The Satanic Verses to see what all the hoopla was about firsthand. Montaigne is sobering and delightful; Rushdie is funny and surreal. I recommend both to anyone looking for a cure to monotony or ennui. I also read a lot of Dr. Seuss with my daughter. She loves Horton the Elephant.

I’m also trying to write again. As anyone can see, I’ve only written six posts in the last year. Now that I’m no longer writing my monthly column, I have no writing obligations. That means no writing. Say what you will about obligations, they do keep you doing things. So I’m trying to revive this blog which has spent two years gathering dust. (I think I’ve said this before.)

I’ve changed the look and feel of the blog. I’ve gotten rid of all the sidebar links (half of them linked to dead pages anyway) and images. There is a search bar and an archive for those who wish to go back and read what I’ve written since March 2009, when I started this blog. Gone, too, is the header. Now it’s just good old-fashioned text. That’s what writing has always been about, right?

Lost In Migration

lost_in_migration-Recently I’ve been getting addicted to Lumosity’s brain-training games. They’re a lot of fun and some of them are positively maddening. I find I don’t score very well on math-based games or games that test memory. At least, I don’t score as well as I do on other games like pattern-recognition or concentration exercises. One game I really like is called Lost In Migration, in which you have to swipe the screen (I use my phone) in the direction the middle bird is facing. This sounds simple, but the faster you try to go the more difficult it becomes.

I feel a lot like that middle bird, always flying in a different direction than its flock members, which is perhaps why this game appeals to me. I’ve been lost in migration many times. And so, apparently, have most of my friends.

A certain kind of friendship.

It took me eight years in New York to begin to feel like I had a social network (to use a term that didn’t really exist then) of people called – loosely, then as now – friends. They were often people I worked with who more or less shared my interests and drank with me. That was the definition of “friend” in the late ’90s NYC I inhabited. There wasn’t much in the way of emotional support or secret-sharing, and social contact was pretty much limited to heated debates on the merits of Richard Hell’s post-Voidoids work or which Dylan bootlegs to even bother listening to. We were exactly like the record store guys in High Fidelity. But, hey, we were in our twenties!

When I left NY, I somehow thought it would stay the way I left it forever. But year after year all of my friends left, too. They moved to places like Amherst, Massachussetts; Cleveland, Ohio; Tampa, Florida and who knows where else. The only people I still know in NY are friends who came there after I left. The world I inhabited is gone.

Now the same thing is happening with my friends from Rome. It’s been 2 1/2 years since I moved  to Umbria and my social world has already been atomized. The birds have migrated once again to places like Dakar, Senegal; Brooklyn, NY; Los Angeles, California; Washington, D.C. A common mistake is to assume the migration process began with me and radiated outward. I just began noticing things in relation to myself, as most people tend to do. Now when I go back to Rome there are fewer and fewer people to see.

We’re all flying in different directions.

Shelley Segal – “Saved”

I just heard this song on a Freethought Radio podcast from a few weeks ago (I’m behind on my listening) and liked it immediately. I even like the lyrics, which remind me so much of the debates I have with theists.

Money quote:

You think it’s any of your business / what goes on between my thighs?

I look forward to hearing the rest of Shelley’s “An Atheist Album.”

The Christian Life

I love this song despite – or perhaps because of – its boozy Christian sentiment. It makes me feel like I just stumbled into an Oklahoma leather bar full of Jehovah’s Witnesses (or something). Here’s a lyric that makes me giggle every time:

Others find pleasure in things I despise / I like the Christian life.

The whole album is wonderful. Enjoy!

How to drive psychiatrists insane

This is a Super-8 film of the Velvet Underground’s first public appearance – at a psychiatrists’ convention in NYC, circa 1966. It’s also the best version of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” I’ve ever heard: fuzzed-out and ear-splitting.

Here’s what happened:

On January 13 1966, Warhol was invited to be the evening’s entertainment at the NY society for Clinical Psychiatry’s forty thir- annual dinner, held at Delmonico’s Hotel. Bursting into the room with a camera, as the Velvet Underground acoustically tortured the guests and Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick performed the ‘whip dance’ in the background, Rubin taunted the attending psychiatrists. Casting blinding lights in their faces, Rubin hurled derogatory questions at the esteemed members of the medical profession, including: ‘What does her vagina feel like? Is his penis big enough? Do you eat her out? As the horrified guests began to leave Rubin continued her interrogation: ‘Why are you getting embarrassed? You’re a psychiatrist; you’re not supposed to get embarrassed. The following day the NY Times reported on the event; their chosen headline, ‘Shock treatment for psychiatrists’, reveals the extent to which Rubin’s guerrilla tactics had inverted the sanctioned relationship between patient and doctor expert and amateur.

Best rock and roll band, ever.

Warning: this will hurt your eyes

This is an optical illusion – via Michael Shermer. Don’t stare at it for too long or you might begin to feel dizzy.

This radial sunburst illusion is known as the Asahi figure, and the researchers analyzed people’s eyes while they stared at it, and a number of other similar optical illusions. And just as if they were staring at an actual light source, their pupils contracted.

Keeping tradition alive

I’ve recently been digging into Twain’s Innocents Abroad. I carry it around on my phone’s Kindle app, so usually I read a few “locations” at a time while waiting in line in the supermarket or killing time somewhere. Today I came across a marvelous passage about the shiftless population of the Azores. It sums up what is the matter with so much “traditional” culture:

The good Catholic Portuguese crossed himself and prayed God to shield him from all blasphemous desire to know more than his father did before him. The climate is mild; they never have snow or ice, and I saw no chimneys in the town. The donkeys and the men, women, and children of a family all eat and sleep in the same room, and are unclean, are ravaged by vermin, and are truly happy. The people lie, and cheat the stranger, and are desperately ignorant, and have hardly any reverence for their dead. The latter trait shows how little better they are than the donkeys they eat and sleep with.

The only well-dressed Portuguese in the camp are the half a dozen well-to-do families, the Jesuit priests, and the soldiers of the little garrison. The wages of a laborer are twenty to twenty-four cents a day, and those of a good mechanic about twice as much. They count it in reis at a thousand to the dollar, and this makes them rich and contented. Fine grapes used to grow in the islands, and an excellent wine was made and exported. But a disease killed all the vines fifteen years ago, and since that time no wine has been made. The islands being wholly of volcanic origin, the soil is necessarily very rich. Nearly every foot of ground is under cultivation, and two or three crops a year of each article are produced, but nothing is exported except a few oranges—chiefly to England. Nobody comes here, and nobody goes away. News is a thing unknown in Fayal. A thirst for it is a passion equally unknown.

You know and I know that there are still many places like this in the world today (more or less). Now every time someone makes an argumentum ad antiquitatem I’m going to envision this desolate scene and humans sleeping in the same room as donkeys.

Jefferson to Adams

I want to share this wonderful little nugget I plucked from one of Thomas Jefferson’s letters to John Adams. I think you’ll see why when you read it.

“I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ, not with a view to controversy, for we are both too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection, but on the suggestions of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

(There is) life after CELTA

“My blog is dead. My social life has disappeared. I’m living with my aunt, taking cold showers and eating one square meal a day.

No, I haven’t gotten divorced – I’m doing CELTA.

CELTA, for those who don’t know, means Certificate for English Language Teaching to Adults. And it’s a lot of work.

Let me rephrase that. I’d been told it was a lot of work by friends who’d done it. I was told the same thing during my screening for the course. Work, shmork was my response. I’m not some bedwetter just out of college who wants to pay for a trip to Thailand with sporadic teaching jobs. I’m an adult; I know from work.

I must concede, however, that they were right. It is a lot of work. It’s so much work that I almost decided to skip this month’s column. Work’s been coming out of my ears for two weeks now. And I’m loving every minute of it.”

The above paragraphs were written nearly halfway through the CELTA course. I’ve now “graduated.” I hit a point during the third week when I thought I was going to jump out of a top-floor window (in Rome that’s about the fifth floor). Nothing seemed to be going right. I wasn’t sleeping, and no matter how much studying I did it just wasn’t enough. Now that moment seems a thousand years ago.

Reading over what I’d written – the only thing I’d managed to write besides lesson plans and assignments all month – it almost seems I was exaggerating. I wasn’t. CELTA really is a kind of black hole. You can’t do anything else while you’re doing it: no work, no love-life, no entertainment. I’d compare it to the first month with a newborn: it sucks you in totally.

Thankfully, I have a daughter. On weekends, the only time I was able to think of anything but Monday’s lesson plan or some knotty grammar problem was when I was with her. She, alas, was more demanding than the Cambridge curriculum. Thank evolution!

Now my last lesson is behind me and I’m back home in Umbria with my family. Our daughter has begun walking and I’ve turned a year older. Summer is over and we’re putting blankets on our bed at night. The same wars that were going on in August continue into October. The world hasn’t stopped turning, not even for a second.

As the spumante goes flat in the fridge, though, a friend’s balmy sagacity zips by like an advertisement on a fast-moving bus: “That wasn’t your last lesson, dear; it was your first.”