Palimpsest (September 18 – 24, 2022)

Things I read, heard and saw this week that inspired me.

“Best of: A Life-Changing Philosophy of Games.” The Ezra Klein Show. [podcast] 2022aug19.

A view of our quantified lives as point scoring games where the points shape our values and tell us what to want. This one touches a lot on the point scoring nature of social media and why Twitter's gamification of conversation warps our political and social discourse.

“Elaine Castillo : How to Read Now.” Between The Covers : Conversations with Writers in Fiction, Nonfiction & Poetry. [podcast] 2022sep18.

This is a huge conversation spanning almost three hours about reading, what reading is and how reading is always placed inside political space. This long episode has so many threads and so many insights packed in, it is like a microdose of many, many episodes in one. Always a pleasure to listen to brilliant readers talk about reading. This one is a pleasure and a challenge.

“The Office is Dying. It’s Time to Rethink How We Work.” The Ezra Klein Show. [podcast] 2022aug16.

Pandemic lockdown of 2020 gave us an unplanned experiment in new ways of working. The pressure cooker of necessity caused a hugely innovative period of adjustment and recalibration. As things settle toward the new normal, workers are left wanting to retain some of the benefits of flexible work from the online/hybrid experiment. Unfortunately, most work places learned the wrong lessons. Workers wanted the best of flexible work but are mostly now getting the worst. Rethinking how we work requires us to rethink why we work, starting with the office as a space. What is it actually for? This conversation touches on the trends of social atomization. What does it mean when work is the last place left for people to relate directly as human communities? There has to be a better way. Right?

What I’m Reading

  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. My wife is worried because now I want to make cheese in our kitchen.

What I’m Watching

  • The Sandman. We finished Season 1 this week. It was interesting to see how they reorganized the pieces of the original story to build toward narrative arc for Season 2. The last episode is basically bonus material that didn’t sit well inside the storyline for Season 1. As much as I enjoyed the build of the second half of the season, I enjoyed this last episode as an example of what the show might have been if told more as pastiche, which was my experience of the graphic novel.
  • The Patient. A psychologist is captured by his patient and locked in the basement for ongoing personal therapy sessions. I won’t say more because the pleasure of this show is letting each short (20ish minutes) episode deliver a quick gut punch. This series works in the way the best horror/thriller short story works. Keep it tight, compressed and deliver the gut punch right at the end. Also fun to see Steve Carrell play a serious role. It took me a while to get myself out of Office mode, looking for that Michael Scott smirk. Carrell grows into the role as the episodes progress.

Palimpsest (September 11 – 17, 2022)

Things I read, heard and saw this week that inspired me.

Hill, Joe. “Abraham’s Boys.” from 20th Century Ghosts. William Morrow. 2008.

Well-made story about the sons of Abraham Van Helsing growing up in the shadow of their father’s vampire-mania. There is a real question about whether this Van Helsing is the hero from Dracula or a demented monster in his own right or, possibly, both at once. The tension climbs as we get to know the brothers and the dynamics of older brother/younger brother. The mounting dread and awfulness builds wonderfully and ends with a satisfying crash. 

“His mother had already been weak and ill when the scandal drove their family from Amsterdam. They lived for a while in England, but word of the terrible thing their father had done (whatever it was — Max doubted he would ever know) followed them.”

Hill, Joe. “My Father’s Mask.” from 20th Century Ghosts. William Morrow. 2008.

This is a weird, erotic story that I don't know how to describe. It says something about the journey from adolescence into adulthood and there are games within games. This one strikes chords I don’t understand. It deserves several rereads to unpack.

“I couldn’t be angry at my parents for not letting me in on their plans in advance, because they probably hadn’t made plans in advance. It was very likely they had decided to go up to Big Cat Lake over lunch. My parents didn’t have plans. They had impulses and a thirteen-year-old son and they saw no reason to ever let the latter upset the former.”

Thompson, Derek. “Your Career is Just One-Eighth of Your Life.” Atlantic. September 2022.

A wry reflection on the terrible advice we give ourselves about how to build a satisfying career.

“Autobiography is not advice. Given how poorly most people understand themselves, it’s barely even autobiography.”

and this

“Telling young people who just graduated from college that a satisfying career is hopeless until we dismantle capitalism is about as helpful as telling somebody asking for directions to the bathroom that no true relief will visit humankind until death.”

“Name. Age. Detail.” This American Life. [podcast] Episode 777.

Obituaries for victims of mass shootings often collapse entire lives into a rote recitation of a few minor facts. This episode of This American Life offers a full story for each of the ten victims of the May 14 massacre at TOPS Market in Buffalo. This episode pays respect by offering a fuller picture of the lives that were lost and helps reclaim from the typical rhetoric a true sense of what was stolen on that day.

What I’m Reading

  • All the Names by Jose Saramago. I gave this 100 pages but reluctantly set it aside unfinished. Gorgeous writing but I couldn’t follow the story and couldn’t connect. Life is short. We don’t have to read everything all the way to the end.
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Just started but a strong read so far. Compelling non-fiction narrative full of anecdote and personal stories about food.

What I’m Watching

  • The Sandman. Still making our way through. It gets better and better and better. One episode to go. They take a lot of liberties with the original story which makes this its own thing.
  • Devil in Suburbia. I dipped into a few episodes of this true crime documentary. A bit like candy. Nothing compelling or sustaining but a quick sugar rush for the late evening brain.

Palimpsest (September 4 – 10, 2022)

Things I read, heard and saw this week that inspired me.

Cohen, Rich. “The Ballad of Downward Mobility.” Atlantic. August 2022.

“If America were a person, I’d hug them and say, ‘Sit down. You look exhausted.’”

The story of limitless prosperity has been America's favorite narrative. When the party's over, someone(s) get stuck with the check.

“How Do We Face Loss with Dignity?” The Ezra Klein Show. [podcast] 2022aug12.

“If we build a society run on self-interest, then we’re vulnerable to the fact that the self ends. And so you build a society unbelievably terrified of ending.”

Ezra Klein interviews author Mohsin Hamid. Their wide-ranging conversation covers a lot of interesting ground. Hamid talks about the concept of "whiteness" as being assumed a default condition and what it felt like for him as a Muslim-American to navigate sudden changes in how he moved through society after 9/11. The experience, in part, informs his novel The Last White Man which centers on Anders, a white man who wakes up to find he is no longer "white".

Comparison is made between the transformation of Anders in Hamid's novel and the transformation in Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Kafka's novel being a response to the sense of alienation that arose from industrialization, Hamid poses his novel as a response to the dominant technologies of our time, which are sorting technologies that lead us to think of our friends, family, entertainments and lives as acts of sorting (I like this; I don't like that) and how algorithms function behind the scenes not to serve us more of what we actually want but to make us want more of what's available.

They talk about Hamid's belief that future humans will look back on our fear of migration as a moral failing somewhat akin to slave-owning in the way that is warps moral codes and forces societies to shape themselves into prison states as a way to preserve arbitrary borders.

There is also a lovely discussion of what Toni Morrison offered Hamid as a mentor.

Most profound for me was the discussion of how fear of death is an organizing fact of American society and imagines ways to organize society with a more generous, less fearful experience of aging and death.

What I’m Reading

  • 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

What I’m Watching

  • American Horror Stories (Season 2)
  • The Sandman

Most Days It’s Dirt

Here’s a thing that helped me today:

“Songwriting’s a lot like being a miner. It’s solitary work. You’re alone in a dark cave, and you just chip away everyday and most days it’s dirt and sometimes it’s gold. But with songwriting you don’t always know.”

Jewel. “Jewel — You Were Meant for Me.” Song Exploder. 2020.12.02.