Writing

Review – Trail Fever

As an unabashed Michael Lewis fan and reader of most of his published work, I was surprised that I had never heard of his book on the 1996 elections, which I discovered after it was namechecked by Ezra Klein as a favorite book of his in a podcast interview with Lewis (recommended).

The book is written as a chronological diary as Lewis follows aspiring Republican candidates, and then the eventual nominees around the country to caucuses, conventions, and other campaign events. While at first blush this seemed like a lazy attempt to turn a series of musings into a published book, once I begin reading the format makes enough sense, given the relatively mundane day-to-day nature of a Presidential campaign, in which any scandals can consume a series of news cycles, “momentum” is mostly an illusion, and both the micro and macro aspects of the election process end up being lost to memory.

trail fever.jpgTrail Fever, by Michael Lewis (later republished as Losers: The Road to Everyplace but the White House (Knopf 1996)

In the book’s introduction, Lewis recounts the remarkably low stakes of the 1996 US Presidential Election due to the backdrop of the United States as a country “on autopilot:” steady (but not spectacular) economic growth, no major conflicts or international conflicts, and a relatively uneventful first term from President Clinton, despite attempts from his adversaries to expose malfeasance and scandals. In short, a comfortably numb state of affairs.

Lewis begins in the early stages of the Republican primary, introducing us to obscure characters whose names have been lost to history (Alan Keyes, Bob Dornan, Lamar Alexander, Phil Gramm), or individuals that elicit a “yeah, I think I know who that is” in 2019: Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and the eventual nominee, Bob Dole, who Lewis struggles to kindly portray (or portray at all) throughout the book.

Among this pool of uninspiring professional politicians is one candidate that stands above the rest in the eyes of the story-starved Lewis. On a whim (lore states that one of his factory-floor employees implored him to run), Maurice “Morry” Taylor, the millionaire CEO of the now-absorbed tire manufacturer Titan Tire, was met with the question that prods at the most ego-driven among us: “why not me?,” before putting his own name in the running to represent the 1996 Republican Party as an heir to his billionaire businessman predecessor, Ross Perot.

As opposed to most businesspeople-turned-politicians (and fiscal conservatives), Taylor’s preoccupation with “managing the government like a business” did not begin and end with balancing the Federal Budget. Employing a tactic revived by Trump in 2016 (though actually carrying it out, in Taylor’s case), Taylor funded his own campaign, and in the absence of “rented strangers” (Lewis’ term for the campaign staff that surrounds a candidate and President), spent more than $6 million of his own funds on a series of innovative (and questionably illegal) stunts to rally the vote: running $5,000 raffles in early-election districts, flooding potential supporters with free swag, and holding a rally of over 6,000 motorcyclists in a party organized for the Republican party.

Taylor’s irreverence and ingenuity hardly ended at his electioneering: Taylor’s ideas stood far apart from his Republican competitors, who he claimed were just as poisoned as Clinton’s Democrats and the broader two-party centrist system. Some of Taylor’s ideas were on the sensible, everyman side, such as implementing term limits (one) for all politicians, advocating for more States’ rights and a smaller government, simplifying the tax code, and removing money from politics. The ones that Lewis, and Taylor’s enthusiastic (but small) electorate tended to veer towards entertainingly implausible, including putting a 10-year moratorium on law schools (to prevent lawyers from entering the DC fray), closing all embassies around the world (“international business is done over the phone and fax”), and shutting down the Pentagon ( and turning it into a hotel for visiting Representatives and Senators, who would no longer be able to maintain a separate home away from their district.) Ironically, Taylor’s brutal and symbolic approach to cost-cutting the White House is reminiscent of the extreme cost-cutting currently underway in Mexico under newly-elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As the campaign drones on and the more entertaining candidates make way for the purposefully staid Dole vs the incumbent Clinton, the book loses much of its momentum, and Lewis palpably struggles to continue to create momentum all the way to the end of the election. At this point, Lewis introduces many then-readers to Senator John McCain of Arizona, then on the campaign trail for Dole. McCain, along with Taylor, come away as the other two figures unscathed by Lewis’ cynical and honest take on politics (an aside: Lewis’ recounting of McCain’s humility, open candor, and heroics as a POW for over 5 years only serve to further inflame Trump’s deplorable treatment of McCain in his final months.)

The 1996 election, and Lewis’ coverage, touch on certain issues that proved prescient and have turned front-and-center as Trump has risen to power, namely a visit to the Mexican border, where Lewis marvels at the mass of Mexican hopefuls doggedly risking it all to reach the US, as well as meeting incipient morals-based Evangelicals and their faith leaders in Colorado Springs.

Lewis grows increasingly frustrated with the minimal ideological space between the two candidates in an attempt to win over Centrists, and the broader two-party system in general. His most pronounced contempt is held for the “rented strangers” and pollsters, the career servants of the political class, who shape the opinions and image of the mainstream candidates to broaden their appeal to the largest possible population, muddying their appeal and held views beyond all recognition in the process.

Lewis comes away more or less disgusted with the entire political class (excluding McCain and a cameo from Green Party candidate Ralph Nader), and closes the book with a call to action for a reform of campaign finance and the broader influence of money in politics, a similar (and hopefully not altogether hopeless) call to action we’ve heard from Bernie Sanders and others over the past decade or so.

Given Lewis’ soft re-entry into politics writing this past year, the Fifth Risk (reviewed here), which essentially calls for sanity and basic competence in politics, it is incredibly entertaining to see a younger Lewis provide a much more unhinged and inflammatory take on politics, one where he vacillates between Republican and Democrat, Dole and Clinton, seemingly on a whim, ultimately casting his vote for Nader and his reputed $5,000 Presidential campaign. Given the massive, 24-person Democratic Party Primary, as well as Trump’s continued bloviating from the White House, one wishes that a less reformed Lewis might return for one more bite at the apple.

Review – River of Doubt

Aside from my partner, accompanying me on my trip to the Amazon was the fantastic book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. River of Doubt tells the story of Teddy Roosevelt’s discovery of the Rio da Duvida (later re-christened the Rio Roosevelt), a fateful adventure that proved nearly fatal for Roosevelt and almost certainly led to his early demise at the age of 58.

While headlines of cooperation and alliance between Trump and Brazilian President Bolsonaro seem to harken back to World War II, where Brazilian allegiance to the US led to it declaring war on the Axis, and sending ~28,000 troops into battle, Millard’s book tells the story of a lesser-known chapter of Brazilian-American diplomatic history.

river of doubt

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (Doubleday 2005)

Roosevelt’s Brazilian expedition was prompted by a combination of timely and chance circumstances. In the period leading up to the expedition, Roosevelt was undergoing a rare downswing in his long political career and post-Presidential life, following a election defeat suffered in 1912. Fascinatingly, Roosevelt’s 1912 election campaign was an attempt to secure a third term, four years after his second, as a member of the third-party Progressive Party (a party due for a revival?).

Wallowing in his defeat, Roosevelt accepted an invitation by an Argentinian intellectual salon, leading to his initial South American journey. Roosevelt’s acceptance was no doubt prompted by a desire to visit his son, Kermit, whose paternally-endowed zeal for adventure led him to work in Brazil as a bridge builder. Arriving in the northeastern city of Bahia along with his family to visit Kermit, Roosevelt was received by a Brazilian diplomatic party. No doubt seeking to kindle Roosevelt’s own infamous lust for life, a Brazilian diplomat made a passing comment that had untold consequences, offering Roosevelt the opportunity to discover an “unknown river,” to quite literally place it on the map. Roosevelt was immediately intrigued by this opportunity, a chance to another chapter to his legacy as an explorer and conqueror of the infamously treacherous and untamed Brazilian interior.

Millard draws on a wealth of source material to explain how the ill-fated group of adventures who accompanied Roosevelt came to be, including Roosevelt’s son Kermit, an old acquaintance, Priest, and Notre Dame professor named Father Zahm, two naturalists affiliated with the newly-established Museum of Natural History, and a Brazilian party of military officers and camaradas (support staff) led by one of the true heroes of Brazilian history (and previously unknown to me): Colonel Cândido Rondon.

Rondon was previously the leader of the Rondon Commission, an attempt to map and lay thousands of miles of telegraph line in the Brazilian interior (now the state of Mato Grosso and Pantanal region). During his Commission, Rondon came into contact with several previously uncontacted indigenous tribes, many of which, despite their vast skills as warriors and survivalists living of the region’s uninviting land, were otherwise technologically in the Stone Age. Rondon became widely known for his commitment for winning over these native tribes via peaceful and diplomatic means, refusing to retaliate or attack even in the face of the murder of his men or animals.

Rondon was fiercely committed to his cause, and saw the opportunity to join / lead Roosevelt’s expedition (exploring a river that he had initially discovered himself at the end of the deadly telegraph Commission) as a continuation of his life’s work: to open up the Brazilian interior (and its inhabitants) to the rest of Brazil. For his lifetime of service, bravery, and dedication to his cause the Indian Protection Service, which operates to this day as the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), as well as the christening of a ~90k square mile part of northern Brazil as Rondônia.

As the officially-titled Roosevelt–Rondon Scientific Expedition courses through the Brazilian highlands and into the Rio da Duvida, Millard provides a good deal of high-level scientific basis to better explain the region, including the geographic, geologic, biologic, and ecologic foundations that make the Amazon River unrivalled and so unique. Her explanations of the river, its thousands of tributaries, and the surrounding jungle region make for a fascinating and useful (if not terrifying) companion to my time in the Amazon. In addition, Millard incorporates firsthand accounts (journals, letters, lectures, published articles and books), as well as anthropological research and oral histories to provide insights into not only the Brazilian and American officers mindsets and retellings of their journey, but also the native tribes who came into contact with the Expedition, including the Pareci, the Nhambiquara, and the Cinta Larga tribes, the last of which’s consensus-based tribal decision making process led to the fateful survival of the Expedition (a fate not shared by many ensuing foreign explorers of the region at the hands of the justifiably suspecting Cinta Larga.)

The book is a fantastic read for anyone interested in Teddy Roosevelt, Brazil and the Amazon Rainforest/Jungle, and adventure in general. I look forward to following up my read of the River of Doubt with Millard’s other works, Destiny of the Republic, on the assassination of James Garfield), and Hero of the Empire, on Churchill’s exploits in the Boer War.

A Trip to the Amazon

Despite my long-held desire to visit and experience the vast diversity of the Brazilian land mass (nearly a continent in its own right), the Amazon has always felt out of reach – so wild, sprawling and alien that it felt necessary to relegate any visit to another point in my life altogether.

Even most Brazilians are ignorant to the Amazon and its massive rainforest, given its distance and remote location relative to the more populous and wealthy South and Southeast regions of Brazil. Given the option, those with the means to travel mostly prefer to venture out of the country to Europe (London, Paris) and the US (Orlando, Miami, NY) over a trip sure to include its share of discomforts and difficulties.

With my current year-and-a-half stint in Brazil coming to a close, I resolved to ensure that a trip to the Amazon was one of my final excursions, placing it above similarly vaunted destinations like Fernando de Noronha or the Pantanal as a can’t miss opportunity.

After resolving to visit the Amazon, the choices for the intrepid traveler only get more numerous from there. First, whether to begin in the more interesting city of Belem or the more remote, mouth-of-the-jungle city of Manaus. Once in the jungle itself, the decision becomes how one wants to experience it: whether via river cruise, a chance to see much of the Amazon River itself, but likely less of its encompassing jungle and the wildlife therein, or a stay at a single or series of jungle lodges, which have been erected everywhere from just outside of the major Amazonian cities to deep into the jungle, in both luxurious splendor and more “rustic” versions, at seemingly every price point. Even the duration of one’s stay was an open question, from a short trip offering a “taste” of the jungle and minimizing the Amazon’s less desirable aspects (heat, mosquitos, etc.), to an overstay which risks succumbing to one-to-many mosquito bites, sweaty and sleepless nights, or feelings and deprivation and isolation from civilization.

As a notorious over-researcher and -optimizer, I was fortunate that my girlfriend served as a crucial ultimate decision-maker after our shared researched into the wide range of options available. We ultimately landed on a six day, five night stay across two jungle lodges (spending one night in the jungle, which I imagined would be plenty for us) led by a private guide to lead, teach, and enable our adventure (hopefully without the need to provide protection).

We arrived in Manaus on a Saturday afternoon, with a half-day to spare before our next morning’s venture into the jungle. Consulting my handy guide books on the four-hour plane ride from São Paulo to Manaus, it became clear that my interests in our arrival city were mostly food-related – including:

  • The Amazon’s unique fruits, most of which are either too delicate or otherwise impractical to be transported too far from their origins, including the bacuri, sapoti, graviola, cupuaçu, etc. etc. etc., as well as tasting authentic açai, which is mostly eaten in highly sweetened and diluted forms throughout the country
  • The wide diversity of fish that call the Amazon River (and its many tributaries) its home, including the pirarucu, tambaqui, tucunaré and the infamous carnivorous piranha
  • Other culinary specialties of the region, such as the mouth-numbing tacacá soup

Other than seeking out foodstuffs, the other requisite destination of the Manaus leg of our trip was to the Teatro Amazonas, the ornate European-style opera house built at the height of the Amazon rubber boom almost entirely from materials imported from Europe (thankfully, excluding the beautiful lumber of Brazil, the country’s literal namesake). The beautiful opera house was most famously portrayed in the Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo as the inspiration for the eponymous main character’s own opera house even deeper into the Amazon. Despite the end of the rubber boom, and the departure of its European benefactors, the Theatre continues to host an annual month-long opera festival, as well as an assortment of other concerts throughout the year (most notably to me being the White Stripes’ 2005 performance there.)

Luckily, we were able to score tickets for a performance of the Italian Opera Maria Stuarda upon a our return from the jungle, which, with little in the way of fancy clothing and sure to be exhausted from our adventure, was going to be a unique experience.

After a meal of the giant tambaqui ribs (so large that they could be easily mistaken for pig or beef ribs, with a grilled barbeque flavor to boot), it was off to bed for an early morning pickup and the beginning of our Amazon adventure.

Compulsion, Intention, and “Digital Minimalism”

I’m a highly compulsive person.

For many, simply acknowledging compulsions and bad behavior is enough to compel change, to shame people out of their destructive practices. My paradox is that I’ve long been hyper aware of my compulsive tendencies. And while I’m vigilant enough to constrain my worst habits to function as an adult and working professional, rationalized exceptions or excuses have otherwise prevented me from making dramatic changes.

One of the earliest stories that my Mom loves to share was my toddler-aged devotion to my blanket. My birth blanket and I were inseparable for the first 3-4 -odd years of my life. I loved to compulsively caress its frilly edges and feel its softness. However, at some point I realized that my blanket served as a crutch, something that I wasn’t going to be able to keep in close-at-hand for the rest of my life. As my Mom recalls to this day, one morning I asked her to take away my blanket from me, seemingly aware of my own need to separate and thereby wean myself from this support object. Once I asked for it to be taken away, I no longer felt the desire pangs of my blanket, and my onetime attachment became relegated to a lifetime of teasing by my Mother.

AOL and AOL Instant Messenger were my first internet-based obsessions. Dial-up internet (and a single phone line) was the only thing preventing me from regular after-school contact with my friends. Once second phone lines and the internet in general became more ubiquitous, the stand-alone AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) software became my online home, and I chatted days and nights away with friends (most of which I saw regularly), crushes, and sometime-online-girlfriends (made official by the mutual inclusion of one’s initials or name into your AIM profile.) My first AIM screen name was methodboyz59 (ages 10-13?), followed by ezeh25 (13 -?).

College (2009-10) was the first time I chose to actively suspend my Facebook. After receiving access in 2006 (shortly after Facebook decided to open up access from non-.edu email addresses), I quickly became a faithful and regular Facebook user, religiously visiting and posting on my friends’ Walls, uploading and commenting on Photos, and mindlessly visiting the pages of friends and strangers alike. Once Facebook Chat and Status Update functionalities were added, my Facebook use became ubiquitous with being “online,” mixed in with a helping of email (before email conquered the world) and Google Reader (RIP.) “Deleting” my Facebook was hardly a statement back then – for me, it was much more so an acknowledgment of a particularly thorny semester to come, and the need to “buckle down” and avoid succumbing to the distraction and neverending information stream of Facebook that I knew I was unable to resist. I re- and de-activated my Facebook numerous times during the ensuing years, each time taking into consideration my lack of impulse control and the responsibilities in front of me.

Today, I’d probably consider myself to be a relatively “healthy” online consumer. To the utter confusion of Brazilian friends (among the most active social media users internationally), my social media habit is almost non-existent (outside of Linkedin, or “Li-kee-jin” as its known in Portuguese):

  • From 2015 (or so) onwards, I’ve been Facebook-less
  • After a longtime Twitter habit (/addiction?), I similarly deactivated my account in 2017, after initially removing the app from my smartphone 1-2 years prior
  • I’ve never had an Instagram (nor a “finsta” account)

All of this (presumably) adds up to a healthy digital existence, following the mainstream advice of the ever-multiplying array of psychologists, technologists, academics, luddites, charlatans, and well-intentioned friends that make up the growing class of digital “experts” and advisors seeking to help us regain our attention spans, relationships, lives. Litte/no social media, minimal “push” notifications on your phone, “silent” mode (versus the Pavlovian vibrate or ringer modes) would place me in the top quartile of “enlightened” cellphone users; hardly a powerless lab rat to the A-B tests, fake news, and general exploitation on offer by programmers, UX designers, and the broader attention merchant class. Right?

Embarrassingly and shamefully wrong. With the advent of the Screen Time app on iOS devices (iPhones/iPads), I’ve gained an embarrassing amount of insight on the level / extent to which my device addiction has taken over my life. The compiled stats from the last 7 days alone, which I’m not proud to share, are not pretty:

  • 38 hours of weekly device use (more than 5 hours per day!)
  • 1,086 compulsive “pickups” (155 per day), spurned by 1,083 notifications (again, 155 per day), an almost 1-to-1 pickup-to-notification correlation

An important addendum to these statistics is the exclusion of any laptop and desktop use (work-related or otherwise), adding another 5-10-odd hours per day to my ‘screen time’ quotient. Further, the past 7 days of smartphone usage is after the implementation of my ‘digital detox’ (more below), a cold turkey approach to cutting out some of my most pernicious and mindless habits – Youtube, Twitch, and Podcasts.

Trying to contextualize these data points within the context of my life seems nearly impossible to comprehend. For all intents and purposes, I’m a (middingly) productive adult able to dress and feed myself, hold human conversations, and maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, hardly one of the overweight, parents’ basement-dwelling losers at-once ridiculed and lauded by Trump for widely disseminating political memes and fake news. How can I spend so much time on my phone? How have I damaged my brain / attention span, my relationships, myself through this constant phone use? Can this be reversed, or am I resigned to a future of smartphone addiction?

I debated quite a bit as to whether to share these statistics – to bare my ‘digital’ self for broader judgment. As noted above, my human impulse is to deny my addiction outwardly, while very much recognizing my own compulsive behavior. Of course, it’s much easier to pass judgment on others, to share concern for the growing anxiety and suicide rates of young people, the susceptibility of non-digital natives to fake news, and the rising violence the misinformation has wrought around the world, than to acknowledge one’s own problems, one’s addiction.

The ultimate result of this cycle of connectivity, compulsion, and hyper-awareness is a well-documented and ever-present state of lingering anxiety: “a background hum of low-grade anxiety that permeates [one’s] daily life.” Minutes, hours pass with a constant awareness of unattended to messages, emails, even current events. Temporary and limiting solutions provide fleeting salves, rather than a sustainable solution.

 

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport

Seeking to try and put away my digital “blanket,” I picked up Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, a self-help book written for our (and my) current condition. Books, probably the most popular surviving “analog” format, have sought to capitalize on our current age of digital “coexistence,” and the need to seek out balance in our lives between the “analog” and “digital.” As if taking the first step in admitting my condition, these books at the very least are heartening in helping me recognize that my ‘condition’ is hardly a unique one, and is in fact of increasing occurrence.

digital minimalism

Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport (Portfolio Penguin 2019)

Beyond merely disconnecting (or breaking up) one with one’s phone, however, Newport’s book aims further, seeking to reclaim our personal intentions away from the mindlessly addictive scrolling, refreshing, and compulsive checking that leads to my more than 150 “pickups” per day and more than 5 hours of weekly usage. I’ve long found my most concerning phone-related issue to be around intention — how to avoid this mindless consumption of information at the expense of more enriching and purposeful pursuits. Beyond merely trying and be more aware and conscious of my habits, usage and consumption, my ultimate goal in “fixing” my relationship with my phone, and my digital life, is to actively try and implement steps to reverse these compulsions, to remove the film of ever-present anxiety and carry out actions with clear headed intention and focused intensity.

The appeal of reclaiming one’s time (5 hours a day!) from the mindless scrolling and compulsive checking that we unconsciously participate in on a minute-by-minute/hourly/daily basis is clear – how to wholly achieve this is an altogether different question. In his book, Newport provides a helpful compendium of the latest thinking on our digital addictions from contemporary thought leaders (Shelly Turkle, Tristan Harris, Matthew Crawford) while providing the example of more timeless thinkers (Thoreau, Aristotle, Franklin, Lincoln) as shining examples of the power of quiet contemplation, solitude, and a balance between connection and disconnection.

Newport helpfully provides implementable practices, both digital (stop clicking “like,” remove social media from one’s phone, setting one’s phone to do not disturb, etc.) and analog (leave your phone at home, take long walks, use “office hours” to purposefully check-in with friends and family, pursue craft and “leisure” activities), all of which add up to provide a reasonable collection of half-measures to regain some form of sanity and balance amidst the constant noise of our modern age. Ultimately, Newport cedes that any form of cold turkey or return to nativism is unrealistic – better to reclaim our autonomy over these devices and maximize their usefulness (and minimize their harmful features) rather than taking more drastic actions. Digital Minimalism (the book/object) serves as a physical totem of the need to “disconnect” – however, after reading his book I still feel like I have a ways to go in solving my own digital / smartphone addictions, and significantly more intention-setting to make.

 

My Digital Detox

One of the most helpful activities called for in the book’s first-third is dubbed a ‘digital detox,’ a Marie Kondo-esque attempt at decluttering the vast array of activities done on our phones in an attempt to ascertain our true “need” for these “tools,” rather than a mere “want.” Following a period of time (30 days is Newport’s suggestion), we’re told to revisit each individual “detoxed” activity to determine its necessity and potential re-adoption. As the reader is told, test subjects are oftentimes amazed to find that the gross majority of these applications are hardly missed, and removing the compulsion to check them serves to re-open minds and schedules.

For my digital detox, I identified the applications that collectively add up to my biggest time wasters, and have sought to cut them out of my daily routines altogether.

  1. Youtube
  2. Twitch
  3. Reddit
  4. Podcasts
  5. E-mail newsletters (habitually subscribed to and religiously consumed)
  6. Whatsapp / Groupme Groups

While I’ve found myself exhaling a bit easier doing away with these applications, each (sofar) has had a countervailing and mixed effect on my digital “well-being”:

Youtube / Twitch / Reddit: Without ready access to my three most-visited websites and sources of entertainment, I’ve found myself opting for more information consumption, namely via ESPN, NYTimes, and the Pocket app. The cumulative impact of this switch, while marginally beneficial, doesn’t feel altogether restorative, and oftentimes feels like I’m simply re-emphasizing one bad habit (mindlessly consuming content) for another (mindlessly reading articles).

Regarding NYTimes and a compulsive need for up-to-date information, I pasted a relevant quote from an article called Meditation in the Time of Disruption (The Ringer) that “rang” particularly true to me, citing meditation as a potential solution to our digital compulsions:

“[A] foundational claims is that our drive to forage for food has evolved into a drive to forage for information. New information produces rewards, so we come to seek it habitually, even if it interferes with whatever goal we have at hand. What emerges is a kind of frictionless state, where you end up spending 12 minutes looking for keys that are already in your hand or typing “nytimes.com” into your URL bar only to discover you are already on the website for The New York Times. In other words, we are, on some level, evolutionarily geared against meditation.”

While these sites were initially excluded from my detox as slightly less malicious versions of the aforementioned time-wasters, I believe the next step may be an end to mindless web browsing altogether, rather than a justification of some web usage over another.

Podcasts: While many may counter that podcasts, especially news- or educationally-focused ones, are in fact a good habit, rather than a harmful one, I’ve noticed a direct correlation between the last ten-year uptick in my podcast consumption and a significant reduction in the amount of time listening to, appreciating, and discovering music.

Unfortunately, I have come to see podcasts as little more than non-stationary television watching (daresay radio?), and the daily mix of podcasts consumed little more than “channel changing” from the constant refreshing of the Podcast app and seeking out of the latest Podcasts available.

My Podcast time has been replaced with a concerted combination of listening to more music (made embarrassingly easy by the Spotify app, truly the eighth Wonder of the World for a prepubescent version of myself patiently recording songs off of the radio and pirating tracks over dial-up internet), audiobooks (still working through the 48-hour long Grant biography by Chernow), and phone calls.

While I find myself missing a critical takes on the latest in sports, politics, and the world, I am reflecting on the fact that I most often absentmindedly and passively consume these podcasts, rather than seeking to engage with our challenge myself via the medium – part of Newport’s aforementioned turnkey lack-of-intention that our smartphones provide.

Going forward, I think I will continue to do without Podcasts, or choose to strategically reimplement a limited number of podcasts I find particularly valuable.

Email Newsletters: So far, this is where I’ve found myself feeling the most relieved, where I’ve found the most weight lifted from my day-to-day digital “responsibilities.” Over time, I had wittingly and unwittingly signed up for tens of email newsletters, whose ability to “push” themselves into my inbox make them little better than a app-pushed notification, and in fact require more of my time and concentration. While each individually is mostly well-intentioned (if not self-promotional), the cumulative effect is to create an avalanche of weekly email responsibility, a second job of parsing through the seemingly-relevant collection of advice, hyperlinks, articles, etc.

Unsubscribing all is an impulse I long resisted, even after multiple unplugged weekends and vacations where I’d return to hundreds of unread emails (very few of which dealing with direct correspondence), and a necessary morning (or full day) of work to catch up the unread onslaught. Of course, there’s a false sense of productivity that comes from working through emails carefully curated from smart people, but this “detox” has had an altogether positive impact, in that it’s forced me to rethink my relationship to these “obligations.”

I’ve rid myself of 95% of my newsletter / subscriptions (I’m ashamed to admit that several long-favorites remain, as do some professionally relevant missives [including the excellent newsletter from Anne Trubek, Notes from a Small Press]), and don’t plan on resubscribing anytime soon. Email continues to be a challenge for me, but doing away with imagined obligations, leaving only the real ones, has been a very positive start.

Messengers (iMessage / Whatsapp / Skype / Groupme): Living abroad for the better part of 1.5 years, messenger apps have become constant companions, necessary appendages that help keep me connected with family and friends and maintain important relationships (including to my patient and understanding significant other). Without these apps, my communication would be relegated to letter-writing (email or physical), and would result in a loss of intimacy that comes from an unexpected phone call or FaceTime. These apps have offered a great deal of support (in the form of who they’ve connected me with), and I would be hard pressed to do away with any of them.

However, the great irony that exists is that while these digital tools have enabled me to maintain my cherished and important relationships across the world, they end up being the applications I end up receiving the most notifications / pickups, and thereby spending most of my time on.  Further, the anxiety borne of “constant connectivity” is mostly led by these apps, which offer an accessible window into me at any given time.

One unfortunate admission is that any sense of moral superiority from not being on social media is quickly replaced by the similar effect of these messenger apps, which include their own versions of the dopamine-triggering notification, response, and “like” more famously attributed to their social media counterparts. Even disabling notifications for the majority of these groups (especially the more active one) evokes near-constant curiosity, and a desire to ‘catch-up’ in quieter moments. “Direct” messages, which do receive the same ‘de-notification’ treatment, are responded to immediately, and certainly not cast out of mind until having been responded to. In some ways, it feels like my compulsions and worst habits have compounded onto the messenger applications (though maybe they’ve always been there?)

My simultaneous appreciation and apprehension for the app’s side effects is difficult to deconstruct, and likely the necessary subject of further scrutiny and tweaking. On the other hand, I’m somewhat optimistic that my return back to the US, closer at hand to friends and family, will enable me to more purposefully separate myself from the daily ebbs-and-flows of text. On the other hand, being in an environment surrounding by new acquaintances and opportunities (more later) may prove even more harmful – fodder for future thought, and maybe some preventative action.

Conclusion

Even now, 2 weeks into my “digital detox,” I’ve yet to see a meaningful downtick in my smartphone usage, though one could potentially argue that my usage has been more “intentional:” more audiobooks, music, reading, and writing; less social media, Youtube, Twitch, and podcasts. Nonetheless, the Screen Time statistics from my last 7 days usage is altogether jarring, and in itself a call for action. I plan to continue to track my usage via a weekly-kept spreadsheet, and will try and maintain a mindful approach to my notifications, pickup, and usage time in general, with an eye towards a gradual reduction (what’s a reasonable amount of time?)

On the other hand, even the composition of this overlong missive (and yesterday’s) could be attributed to a more conscious attempt at reigning in my smartphone usage. So far, it seems like Newport’s gentle admonition, acknowledgment of our phone’s unimpeded place in our lives, and entreaty for “balance” has won out. Bathroom breaks, spare moments, and cab rides all seem to still be “phone moments,” though maybe more intentional ones.

Gravity’s Rainbow: With Less Bluster

The following is a brief collection of thoughts ~50 pages into Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a book I initially set out to read nearly a year ago.

As my time in Brazil begins to come to a close, I’m finding it time to return to old resolutions, goals, and objectives. Given an overabundance of free time and some amount of foolhardy ambition, I figured that now would be as good of a time as any to embark on the challenge of reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, one of several postmodern door stoppers known for its semi-intentional incomprehension and difficulty. Accompanying me for the experience is A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Context’s for Pynchon’s Novel, which has to date been an invaluable companion indeed.

50 pages in, and I have struggled to pick up a rhythm to reading the book and its accompanying companion.

To date, the process has mostly been as follows:

a) visit the companion for an initial overview of the ensuing “episode,” an oftentimes unconnected adventure taken by one of the main characters of the novel to-date

b) note the first reference made by the Companion to a word, phrase, or sentence in the book, and mentally file it away to revisit upon reading

c) dive into the novel itself, with a mind for the episode’s first passage referenced in the Companion

d) Read through the Companion text, annotating the book itself to its context while trying to connect the dots between the novel, the allusions made by the Companion, and my own understanding

e) Read until the culmination of the episode (marked by a line break), and revisit the Companion to restart at step A

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in WWII England in the area surrounding London, which is in the ongoing process of being bombarded with V-1 and V-2 German missiles. The missiles themselves, and the ongoing risk of falling victim to their seemingly-random fall across London, create a mortal and almost sardonic backdrop to the events taking place and the actions taken out by the main characters.

The protagonists to date are young US and British servicemen working in a Special Operations (known as the SOE), investigating the missiles across greater London.

The first character we are introduced to, Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice, is endowed with the  superhuman power to intercept and enter the dreams of others. Much of the book’s first 50 pages take place in these very dreams and images, and are reported back to “The Firm” – a secret British military organization charged with managing the “supernatural” and experimental pursuits of the Allied Forces.

Some of the characteristic elements of Pynchon’s writing are evident – the double- and triple-entendre names of his characters, as well as the acronyms of organizations (in this case, both real and imagined), that persist across his writings. Unlike some of Pynchon’s other books that I’ve read (Lot 49, Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge), the acronyms used so far seem to be a mix of the real and imagined, referencing companies, missions, and organizations of the Allied and Axis WWII forces.

The Companion helpfully peels back the curtain on the at-times inscrutable to reveal some of the meticulous research and preparation taken by Pynchon – his grasp of the London and greater London geography (numerous references to neighborhoods and nearby villages and towns are made), his revisiting of the Times of London daily newspaper for not only the daily wartime current events, but also seemingly asides to epochal shops, shows, and miscellany, and his knowledge of BBC Radio programming. All of the above seek to create a photo-realistic period piece – seeking to mimic the era’s styles, diction, and events.

Of course, given that this is Pynchon, the last thing I expect is a straight backed work of historical fiction, rather the novel’s effect is to blend the real and wildly imaginary into a ridiculously believable hodgepodge of satire-cum-conspiracy characteristic of so many of his other works.

Hopefully the rhythm will pick up and I will have more lucid reflections to come. Regardless, an enjoyable experience, and not quite yet a descent into madness.

19 in 2019

An idea that my girlfriend shared with me – 19 goals / aspirations for 2019 … better late then never, no?

(In no particular order)

1) Sit more in silence
2) Journal out my anxieties, evolving thoughts, and pending decisions
3) Don’t be a slave to email and news – use it as a tool, or not at all
4) Write more on the blog, creating “structured but flexible repetition” (per Patrick O’Shaughnessy)
5) Reach my blue belt (note: done), and keep going
6) Cook more, and work through cookbooks
7) Plan less, relish more
8) Be more open-hearted and understanding in all conversations
9) Keep emails and related correspondence as short as possible
10) Unplug before bedtime, and when waking up
11) Be more intentional – with actions, with time
12) Be less afraid of difficult conversations, and put them off as little as possible
13) Share ongoing feelings and anxeities more with others, especially loved ones – don’t shut them out
14) Don’t succumb to peer pressure – but also don’t avoid new and different people and experiences
15) Go to bed earlier
16) More spirituality, less cynicism and skepticism
17) Start more books, and quit more books
18) More, and longer walks
19) Take more pauses

Review – Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)

For the uninitiated, Jeff Tweedy is the lead singer of the band Wilco, as well as a musician, producer, poet, and songwriter. In my mind, he is one of our generation’s great artists.

Like others who have risen to the top of their respective professions, there’s a tendency in us “laymans” to want to understand the magic or secrets behind their success and prolific output, or in the case of Tweedy, his capacity for imagery and melody, and his ability to convey meaning from a series of chords/notes and words strung together. What books were read, routines established, and/or blood oaths taken to reach these heights?

Oftentimes, I think we find ourselves, as eager consumers and seekers of these types of secrets (daresay “hacks”), disappointed by how pedestrian or seemingly simple they seem, or wholly unattainable, either by virtue of god- or genetically-given talent or circumstances, usually combined with a smattering of serendipity and sheer luck.

Let's_Go_(So_We_Can_Get_Back)_book_coverLet’s Go (So We Can Get Back), by Jeff Tweedy (Dutton 2018)

Jeff Tweedy, the youngest child of gruff, blue collar alcoholic parents born in rural Illinois, certainly did not come from means, nor was placed on this Earth with any sort of prodigious talent. Over the series of his memoir, Tweedy speaks to his “superpower:” his passion for discovering music of all sorts, and where that openness and commitment has taken him: bands (and bandmates) formed and broken up and a continual sonic evolution via experimentation – new songs, structures, and genres.

With remarkable humility and honesty and a pervasive sense of gratitude, Tweedy takes on his journey starting in his formative years, eagerly absorbing the music recommendations of his older brothers, far-reaching radio stations, and all-knowing record store clerks, as well as a fellow classmate named Jay Farrar. Farrar would soon become his first bandmate and his eventual counterpart in the much-loved early-90s outfit Uncle Tupelo.

Tweedy’s journey is remarkable for just how unremarkable it is, including his battles with depression and painkiller addiction, his wife’s battle with cancer, his experience as a Dad of two boys, and his pervasive and unabated appreciation for music. Tweedy takes us along the ride through Wilco’s evolution from the shadow of Uncle Tupelo and Farrar to the shadow of British songwriter Billy Bragg, the addition of another Jay (Bennett), a volatile creative combination that led to (my opinion) their best album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (infamously chronicled in the documentary “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco”), up to the band’s current formation, responsible for the past few albums.

Throughout, Tweedy is remarkably frank about his personal and professional battles, creatively, emotionally, and physically, which makes for an interesting and engaging read. However, I think non-fans of Wilco/Tweedy will likely find little to draw on from this book – maybe not a surprise altogether, as very few “celebrity” memoirs stand on their own. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to any fan of any of Wilco’s albums (at the very least to read Tweedy’s plea for his fans of various generations/formations of Wilco to get along!)

On another note, this is one of the first books that I’ve listened to “cover-to-cover” in audiobook format. To anyone with any familiarity with Tweedy’s voice, I’d contend that audiobook is the far-and-away optimal “format” to consume this book. The production value is incredibly strong throughout, as Tweedy’s unmistakable dry and wit-laden candor comes through, and there are even some fun back-and-forth conversations with his wife and children, done in their own voices, that I don’t think would translate as well on the page.

For me, recommending an audiobook is a bit of a remarkable statement, as I’ve had mixed experiences with audiobooks in the past as a way to supplement my reading habits in the car, while walking, etc. Listening to other books, I’ve oftentimes found myself mentally zoning out, or getting lost among the characters speaking and broader narrative. I’ve had the most luck with memoirs like Tweedy’s (currently listening to Tara Westover’s Educated), or longer form history (more than 10 hours into Chernow’s Grant, a longer project.) On the other hand, listening to fiction has continued to elude me, as listening to the 166-person cast Lincoln in the Bardo audiobook (my review here) left me mostly lost, though one could argue a more straightforward, non-experimental book, like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (which I enjoyed on audiobook several years ago), might work better.

Eager to continue with the experimentation, and continuing to refine what works best for me.

Review – ATTENTION

Reading an author’s essay collection cover-to-cover, as opposed to picking-and-choosing essays of particular interest or jumping around, may seem like an overly rigid way of reading.

However, I’d argue that a book of essays, an author’s collected works, or even a collection of letters, when consumed as organized by the author and/or editor, provide a rare look inside the mind of a public figure or thinker, oftentimes much more revealing than even the most insightful biography.

The “payoff,” if there ever is one in reading, is not necessarily in the consumption of any one essay, but in the broader absorption of the interpretations of the varied topics and subsequent opinions of the author. Over the course of the book, it allows the reader to deepen their relationship with the author, better understand their influences, core ideas, and thought processes, especially useful in the case of fiction writers, who shroud these elements in the nooks of their finished works.

Attention by Joshua Cohen is a perfect example of one such collection – an assorted patchwork of essays, unfinished thoughts, digressions that represent an open notebook into his reading, travels, and mind.

attentionATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, by Joshua Cohen (Random House 2018)

The topics covered are wide-ranging and culled together with little more intention than the authors’ own interests. As a result, some topics resonated more than others with me, especially the ones that mirrored some of my own interests and background.

Some highlights include:

  • A letter to Ruth May Rivers, providing a beautiful introduction to a music performance recorded by the Lomax father and son combo for inclusion into the Library of Congress entitled (Boyd Rivers & Ruth May Rivers: Come Out the Wilderness – Youtube)
  • An analysis of Thomas Pynchon in the wake of his newest release, Bleeding Edge. Pynchon is clearly a strong influence of Cohen’s, and the reader benefits from sharing in Cohen’s reading and interpretation, akin to a $28.00 post-graduate course
  • Cohen’s review of a five-thousand, four-volume biography of Gustav Mahler, a descent into madness that anyone who has read a massive, meandering work of scholarship can no doubt relate to
  • Reviews of a series of books about our contemporary internet age (Jaron Lanier’s – which he uses data accumulated over the course of his review (earnings per word, time spent, etc)  as the medium to review these books on data’s growing influence on our lives (link)

True to the book’s subtitle, Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, many of these essays, even the best ones, have a similarly hasty, cobbled together nature to them, the works of a professional writer almost annoyed with his natural talent, seemingly preferring to do anything else but actually put pen to page.

One exception to this is a mid-book travelogue of a commissioned trip to one of the remote corners of the world, Azerbaijan, to learn about and meet the diaspora Jews of the region, known as “mountain jews” (truly proving the adage that Jews can be found anywhere.) Like many great travel writers, Cohen arrives in the country nearly spontaneously, with little more than a list of Azerbaijan Jewish towns and synagogues, and the name and number of a contact provided by an overly gregarious New Yorker met in a Brooklyn dacha (bathhouse).

The ensuing story, told in clear-eyed detail, is predictably hilarious, and captivating, despite minimal progress made in his goal and the vast chasm between Cohen’s intentions and the interlocutors he meets along the way – most tenuously Jewish, and nearly all seeking to profit from the interaction. This essay is the clearest indicator of Cohen’s massive ability as a writer, and would wholly recommend it to any curious parties (“Me, U, Baku, Quba” – Tablet Magazine).

Less successful are his attempts to play traditional essayist / columnist. In a series of essays at the beginning of the book, Cohen tries and tie together disparate concepts in a series of formulaic essays, using a concept relevant to the present day (or at least when the essays were published), and a follow-up series of seemingly unconnected, irrelevant, and under-examined topics, such as the Jewish history of US Socialism and the rise of Bernie Sanders, and the fall(s) of Atlantic City and Ringling Brothers Circus and national prominence of Trump (separate essays.)

A similar conceit was used in an essay published by Cohen in the September edition of the New Republic, “Israel’s Season of Discontent” (link) – there are some good ideas in there, but they seem almost besides the point of the article, which is written lesso to convince than to be consumed by avid readers.

It’s hard to find a review of a Joshua Cohen that holds back from marveling about Cohen’s intelligence, abilities, and talent, and I don’t plan to be the first. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to read this essay collection (less organized and cohesive than most), which provided something along the lines of a rotating kaleidoscope or funhouse mirror into the Cohen’s mind, rather than the popularly conceived “window.”

 

Review – Dreamland

A future classmate of mine recently asked me, based on my stated love of books, whether there was a single book that I’d recommend everyone read. Though of course it’s very much fresh in my mind, I believe that Dreamland is as good of a candidate as any nonfiction book in recent memory.

dreamlandDreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones (Bloomsbury 2015)

Dreamland presents a nuanced and well-researched story of the rise of the opioid epidemic in the United States, and the associated havoc that it has wreaked through US towns and cities, through a dual lens: the evolution of the heroin trade, funneled to the United States via Mexico, and the history of medically-sanctioned pain treatment, leading to the discovery and subsequent sales and marketing efforts of Purdue Pharma’s “blockbuster” drug: OxyContin.

Aside from onerous restrictions on medications at your local chain pharmacy, most who have yet to experience opioid addiction in their own lives see a minimal connection with the innocuously named Vicodin, Percocet, and the aforementioned Oxycotin and the insidious heroin. However, as clearly laid out by Quinones, the path from a medically sanctioned prescription for a common injury to a debilitating or life-ending addiction to heroin falls in a fairly straight line, from mostly sincere doctors (with a smattering of abusive/criminal cases) seeking to treat the pain of their patients, to Mexican peasants in search of a better life for themselves and their families back home importing their locally grown chiva (potent black tar heroin) to blighted American cities with an unestablished drug presence in the market. To satisfy their increasingly hungry customers, Quinones chronicles the savvy strategies to boost their drug trade, mirroring the optimization tactics of any normal corporate operation: from production, to logistics, to marketing and prospecting new clients (mostly outside of “pain clinics”), to steering clear of law enforcement.

Dreamland is a heartbreaking, infuriating, tragic, and gripping story masterfully told (and reported on) by Sam Quinones, a seasoned journalist and with twenty seven years’ worth of experience, including decades reporting on immigration issues on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Without Quinones‘ deft capacity for tying together disparate threads and humanizing his story through the stories of DEA and local police officers, scientists studying the link between opiates and addiction, former addicts and their surviving families, the story would be an ineffective tale of corporate malfeasance on the part of Purdue Pharmaceuticals. Instead, Quinones makes you question your stance towards addiction, and root for a revitalization of the communities and families that the “morphine molecule” has destroyed.

It is a beautiful book, and a worthy read for anyone even moderately curious about the massive opioid crisis taking place across the United States.

Review – God Is in the Crowd

One of the fundamental concepts I’ve long found important to my personal connection to Judaism is the Jewish propensity for self-criticism and -reflection — the tendency to look deeply inward, guided by long-held values and religious precepts. The desire to look critically upon oneself and one’s own community and leaders (quite literally one’s “tribe”) is an essential aspect of Judaism in my mind.

With no established global Jewish leader, Rabbis, prominent Jewish thinkers, and “ordinary” Jews take it upon themselves to diagnose and seek to improve Judaism, to help sustain it as a religion and tribe of people, and to keep it relevant and grounded in its core principles. In a global society that’s growing increasing areligious, the need to reaffirm the meaning and importance of Judaism is an important job, and a mantle that has been taken up by Jews around the world.

god_is_in_the_crowdGod Is in the Crowd: Twenty-First-Century Judaism, by Tal Keinan (Spigel & Grau 2018)

Tal Keinan is one of those individuals. Keinan is a US-born Israeli emigre who rose up the ranks of the Israeli Air Force (an extremely rare accomplishment for an ordinary Israeli, let alone a Jewish-American “outsider”), before transitioning to the private sector via a Harvard MBA, eventually becoming the founder of a global asset management firm (Clarity Capital), with offices in New York and Tel Aviv.

Given Keinan’s background as a Jew who has lived and participated in Jewish communities and non-profit leadership organizations in both Israel and the major center of Jewish diaspora today, the US, Keinan takes it upon himself to diagnose the various internecine conflicts currently taking place within 21st century Judaism, including:

  • Between diaspora Jews and Israelis over Israeli culpability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • Growing intermarriage and dissociation with Jewish life and traditions in the US, Israel, and around the world
  • The widening divide in Israel between three distinct camps:
    • The territorialists fighting to expand Israeli borders via the active expansion of its legally ordained land rights
    • The secularists, the generally moneyed, educated, and English-speaking population that is based in Tel Aviv and the surrounding suburbs
    • The theocrats, the ultra-Orthodox Jews who prioritize study and a maintenance of “traditional” values above all else

Keinan deftly demonstrates that these conflicts are unsustainable and represent a real threat to not only Judaism as it is currently recognized, but also the future of the state of Israel and its sustenance and sustainability as an autonomous global home for Jews.

Keinan’s ambition in this book is impressive, as the book itself manages to not only survey the varied and diverse issues stated above with a remarkable amount of clarity (sorry) and firsthand insights, but also offers some non-traditional solutions that would serve to improve these issues. Ideas include anointing a Israeli President voted on by Jews around the world to represent the interests of global Jewry (in concert with the Israeli-focused, parliamentary-elected Israeli Prime Minister), as well as an endowment fund paid for by Jews put towards the funding of summer camp experiences, post-high school service projects, and tuition for college education for all eligible Jewish children.

These solutions are ingeniously designed to provide “skin in the game” for Israeli and diaspora Jews alike by providing participation in the democratic process, as well as monetary commitment to the Jewish cause for participating parents, while simultaneously exposing young, impressionable Jews to their counterparts from different countries and levels of observance. Both of these initiatives would create crucial crosscultural connections, while binding them together via their common identity as Jews.

While the book relies a bit too much on concepts from his personal trade, financial markets (including a century-long “moving average” of Jewish thought), and at times delves too deeply into memoir and autobiography, losing the thread and not always additive to the broader book, it is a worthwhile and important read for Jews seeking solutions and ownership over our current state of affairs.