Liz: "Thank you for doing the dishes and bringing home all these library books! This is an embarrassment of riches! [Pause] And...I have you!"
Me: [Beat] "Just an embarrassment."
One thing my professors told me early in graduate school: You absolutely must condition yourself to fail. Constantly. For every small success I had in graduate school, I am certain I had at least a dozen failures: rejected articles, brutal conference reviews, unexpected flaws discovered in something I’d just spent days working on, etc.
These iterative failures are, at a very deep level, the essence of creating new knowledge, and are therefore inseparable from the job. If you can’t imagine going to bed at the end of nearly every day with a nagging feeling that you could have done better, academe is not for you.
Some Lesser-Known Truths About Academe
The very beginnings of both technologies, however, could be found at an institution that had been Einstein’s academic home since 1933: the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. The institute was the brainchild of its first director, Abraham Flexner. Intended to be a “paradise for scholars” with no students or administrative duties, it allowed its academic stars to fully concentrate on deep thoughts, as far removed as possible from everyday matters and practical applications. It was the embodiment of Flexner’s vision of the “unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge,” which would only show its use over many decades, if at all.
James Baldwin’s FBI file contains 1,884 pages of documents, collected from 1960 until the early 1970s. During that era of illegal surveillance of American writers, the FBI accumulated 276 pages on Richard Wright, 110 pages on Truman Capote, and just nine pages on Henry Miller.
If you could give a piece of advice to a young person starting out, what would you say?
I would provide five bits of advice:
Do not be afraid to want a lot.
Things take a long time; practice patience.
Avoid compulsively making things worse.
Finish what you start.
Often people start out by thinking about all the things that they can’t do. Once you take that path, it’s very hard to get off of it. Shoot high and shoot often.
The skin of some of the men developed a coarse, rough appearance, as a result of the hardening of their hair follices. Other effects included dizziness, muscle soreness, reduced coordination, and ringing in their ears. But the creepiest change, which occurred in all of the men, was a whitening of their eyeballs as the blood vessels in their eyes shrank. Their eyes eventually appeared brilliantly, unnaturally white, as if made out of porcelain.
Sometimes we are so confused and sad that all we can do is glue one thing to another. Use white glue and paper from the trash, glue paper onto paper, glue scraps and bits of fabric, have a tragic movie playing in the background, have a comforting drink nearby, let the thing you are doing be nothing, you are making nothing at all, you are just keeping your hands in motion, putting one thing down and then the next thing down and sometimes crying in between.
Another thought comes quickly, particularly when I think about all these people here searching for their happiness. It is the quote from Hugh Laurie: “It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”
P.T. Barnum, The Art Of Money Getting (1880)
“Golden rules for making money.” The table of contents alone is awesome:
- The art of money getting
- Don’t mistake your vocation
- Select the right location
- Avoid debt
- Whatever you do, do it with all your might
- Depend upon your own personal exertions
- Use the best tools
- Don’t get above your business
- Learn something useful
- Let hope predominate, but be not too visionary
- Do not scatter your powers
- Be systematic
- Read the newspapers
- Beware of “outside operations”
- Don’t indorse without security
- Advertise your business
- Be polite and kind to your customers
- Be charitable
- Don’t blab
- Preserve your integrity
Like most prescriptive books (including my own) you could probably write a whole book simply stating the opposite, but there’s so much in this book I love, especially the very simple message of “living below your means” stated in the beginning, which is not stressed enough these days:
True economy consists in always making the income exceed the out-go. Wear the old clothes a little longer… live on plainer food if need be; so that, under all circumstances, unless some unforeseen accident occurs, there will be a margin in favor of income.
Files under: my reading year 2012
[caption id=“” align=“alignnone” width=“2500.0”] My zine haul[/caption]
My first exposure to zines was courtesy of The Paper Plant, a downtown Raleigh new & used bookstore and literary press in the late '80s that featured weekly open mic nights and lots of local and national zines. I was fascinated by the homemade, raw energy of these little paper pamphlets.
It was probably from there that I found Mike Gunderloy's sublime Factsheet Five. Before the Interwebz, kids, there were homemade zines printed on the office copying machine on the QT and a postal network that linked their makers. Factsheet Five was a paper-based record of the zine scene, with every issue containing literally hundreds of mini-reviews of all types of publications.
Send Mike Gunderloy $20 and a SASE and he would send back a random assortment of zines: humor, comics, opinion, music, collage, art, poetry, diary, politics -- the choice was overwhelming. As someone who had spent four years in a relatively isolated region of the Old South, I could not get enough of the color, energy, verve, and connection that the zine culture promised.
That promise was all around me in April 2016 at the second annual Zine Machine Festival. The Durham Armory hosted long tables of mainly artists selling their self-made paper goods -- posters, art, comics, zines, stationery -- and other art objects too, like jewelry, fabrics, and so on.
It was such a great scene -- so much color, so much liveliness, so much love for paper ephemera. And so different from the comic-book conventions I used to go to. Compared to those types of events, the Zine Machine was smaller, not flashy or gaudy, quiet enough for you to talk with the creators selling their creations, more homey and friendly.
The Zine Machine folks are citizen artists, if you will -- out there making art, studying, holding down day jobs, supportive of their fellow artists and makers (or so it seemed to me) and traveling to sell their zines on the weekends.
I was struck by how young so many of them were; I was definitely one of the oldsters wandering around. The Triangle Printed Matter Facebook group was represented by several of their publications, and they looked to be all glowing and energetic twenty-somethings.
It was so great and heartening to see young people making art and being part of a community. No one is getting rich off of this, and maybe not even covering their expenses. But going to zine and small-press conventions and gatherings is a rite of passage, and if you're a zinester, you gots to do it.
I took, I think, $50 in cash with me. When I spent it all, that was the signal it was time to leave.
I paused often, though, to just look around and soak up the atmosphere. I thought the same thought as when I pored over Factsheet Five 30+ years ago -- God, it'd be fun to do that.
Herewith, some quick takes on the stuff I got, with links to the artists' sites.
Caroline L. Smith: Monk (daily diary comics), it's all about CATS, A Picture of the Universe. Caroline produces diary comics, with "Monk" a record of most of 2015; "CATS" is a subset of the diary comics where her cats take center stage. I like reading diary comics and this is a solid collection. "Universe" is an ambitious blend of tech-writing and comics, rather like Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of..." series, showing off what Caroline can do with more formal storytelling and design.
Filthy, Vol. 2: Self-Portraits from filthyzines at gmail dot com. Assemblage of stiffly hand-drawn stuff, photos, collage, hand-lettered pages, typed pages -- a real mish-mash that reminded me of the zines of old. It's so personal I can't make head or tail of it and I don't care. The need to communicate and get whatever was inside onto the page, is here.
Glittermeat Comix (Tumblr) (Etsy): Glittermeat Comics, Glittermeat Comics: Volume 2, Famous Meats in History. These standalone gag strips are the unacknowledged love child of The Oatmeal and Perry Bible Fellowship. The artist has a confident visual style and snarky attitude. I'd buy more of these sick and disturbing little puppies.
Evan McIntyre:I Scene't It! A colorful mini with each page devoted to a still-life, scene, or colorful detail, real or fantastical. My favorites: the ambulance in flames and the back of a guy's bald head and neck, covered with a huge band-aid.
Adam Meuse: White Cards, Drawing Is Hard. "White Cards" is Adam's collection of filthy, sexual (not sexy), and scatological drawings he sketched on little white cards used at his soul-killing job. The scenes often include his co-workers (a photo of them is on the endpaper) so they must have 1) gotten a kick out of them and 2) shared his rough humor. Physically and emotionally brutal and tedious jobs can do that to you. That said, the man is a damn good cartoonist and I'd kill to be able to sketch that well. "Drawing is Hard" is a more formal and professionally polished product as the artist protagonist discusses his and his work's worth with his walking talking brain and his walking talking heart. A nice little fable and pick-me-up for the creative zinester.
Desi Varsel: Emo Web Art: Self-Reflective Typography, #ABOUT The Artist. Loved the sweet little "ABOUT The Artist" mini. "Self-Reflective Typography" is a large-format mini, a short personal/journal zine of painful experience.
Barefoot Press: CMYK. This was a free mini showing off their pretty incredible color separations, design, and print quality. Stands on its own as a hand-held art gallery.
James McPherson: Let's Be Honest With Each Other For A Moment (A Total Let Down of a Story). Clown Kisses Press was represented by James and Rellie (see next item). "Let's Be Honest" is a mini that also looks like a formal experiment with pattern, design, and typography, telling an elliptical kind of first-person anecdote. I read, I frowned, I nodded, I moved on.
Rellie Brewer: Feeling Myself And You. An accordion zine. Loved the fluidity of her figure drawings and the hand-lettering of this paneled poem. I also bought her print "Dance Thru", a large color print of two entwined figures from the zine. A young woman at the Triangle Printed Matter table gushed when she saw me carrying it and I pointed her to where I'd got it. I love spreading the love.
Triangle Printed Matter Club: Conversations With Strangers. Anthology zine, with contributions from club members on the title theme. Comics, poetry, collage, and -- the most interesting things I read in any of the zines -- Jeff Stern's transcription (in teeny tiny type) of "The conversation among strangers ... recorded by hand 10/15/93 in an Amtrack 'club car' (the part of the train where smoking and drinking were allowed) in transit from New London, CT to Amherst, MA approx. 11pm-3am." Wired, loopy, rambling, hard to follow, and I couldn't stop reading it.
Eric Knisley: The Toaster, Denizens, Memory Murder Mystery, Fight Scene. Eric is a long-time denizen of the local comics scene and the stuff he draws and shows at the local Durham Comics Project meetups are jaw-droppingly good; I love the confident line and fluid anatomy, and the sometimes crazy level of detail in his bigger pieces. I bought four of Eric's zines that he's created over the years for 24-Hour Comics Day.
"Memory Murder Mystery" is stream-of-consciousness interior-noir while "The Toaster" is a dark parable of some kind, though I try to resist reading too many layers into a comic written and drawn over 24 hours.
"Fight Scene" is a fun and funny superhero/supervillain smackdown, where the banter between the foes takes an unexpected turn. My favorite is "Denizens," 24 full-page pictures of 24 unusual characters with a paragraph of character description for each. I enjoyed discovering the story that began to emerge and weave itself from those descriptions to tie these disparate characters together.
I got Eric to sign all 4, so I think I did all right.
In my office, under a table, has been sitting a white cardboard banker's box for several years. It contains assorted comics, magazines, and graphic novels or collections that I want to get rid of but that I can't bear to throw out till I've read them first. Marie Kando would say, "If you haven't read them by now, you never will. You've already gotten enjoyment from them. If they're not bringing you joy now, then say good-bye to them."
But ... I just don't want to say good-bye to them yet. Since I don't have a reading project or writing project at this time, why not use this box and this blog to give myself both?
So, no order or theme to these reviews. Just taking them as they come out of the box, and as I finish reading them.
Having been swayed by Critical Mas's post on the potato hack and read the (e)book on the subject, I wanted to see if I could strain Penn's book for ideas, tips, or just some new thinking. Presto! is Penn's memoir of losing 100 pounds in 3 months -- how he did it, why he did it the unusual way he did, and the physical, mental, and emotional changes it brought.
Penn's disclaimer in the book, interviews, and Q&As promoting the book, is if you take health advice from a magician, you're an asshole and deserve to die. Or put more delicately: his path was his path and it worked for him. So, take the book for what it is, sift it, and behave responsibly.
That said, it's still quite a story. Having lived a large life -- he weighed 320 pounds and was on high dosages of eight different blood pressure medications -- his doctor recommended a stomach sleeve following a health crisis that put him in the hospital.
To his credit, Jillette reports taking the news calmly and then pondering his next moves. The doctor said they needed to wait 3 months before doing the surgery, and Jillette saw this as his opportunity for an extreme challenge of the sort that has defined his life. If he could lower his weight by 100 pounds in 90 days, he could be taken off many of his medications and could avoid surgery for the stomach sleeve. I have to say, were I faced with that prospect, I'd have probably gone for the extreme choice myself.
Penn is an interesting guy, who does think differently from the herd and enjoys the company of others who think differently, so the book is full of his opinions on lots of things. That said, I skimmed many passages because his humor, such as it is, tends to the verbal smackdown and fast patter of his act. If he reads the audiobook version of this, it may be more enjoyable. But I doubt it. I don't think he's as funny as he thinks he is. But this is his personality, so I got used to filtering out the noise for the interesting detail underneath.
What, if anything, am I taking away from his book?
- It's winter now, so feel the cold more often. Penn's advisor, an odd and provocative fellow named Ray Cronise, prescribed contrasting showers of hot (10 seconds) and cold (20 seconds) for 5 minutes or so, ending with cold water for as long as he could stand it. Cronise maintains that the body will burn more calories trying to keep its trunk and brain warm than it will burn with exercise.
- According to Penn, Cronise said the modern world has eliminated three things that all wild animals must deal with: darkness, cold, and hunger. Our bodies, he says, are built to survive a winter that never comes. Cronise's program for Penn introduced more cold and more hunger to encourage his body to burn its stored calories.
- For the 90-day crash diet, Cronise prohibited any form of exercise. "You can't outrun your mouth." He focused on Penn eating only vegetables, no processed foods, no salt or sugar, and later on, only minimal seasoning. (Penn favored Tabasco.)
- After the body has lost the fat, then Cronise permitted him to start exercising to restore the muscle; don't confuse the body by promoting two different processes at the same time, according to Cronise. Penn said that when he started lifting weights again, he was very weak. But the leaner muscle he gained felt "stronger" than the marbled fat-and-muscle he had before.
- For his maintenance diet, Penn uses Dr. Joel Fuhrman's books and dietary program as a guide. He likes Fuhrman's uncompromising attitude to the subject: losing weight and eating right is hard. To paraphrase Fuhrman: I'm not here to make it easy, I'm here to tell you what you need to do.
- Penn now eats only whole plants, with no animals or animal products. He will allow himself a "Rare and Appropriate" meal(s) once or twice a month, but only if someone else is paying or it's a special occasion.
- He was monitored by his doctor throughout the 3 months and taken off blood pressure medications as appropriate, but this was a delicate process. The remaining medicines had to be balanced and tweaked to ensure he wouldn't have another health crisis. On Episode 233 of his podcast, Penn reported that he is still on some BP meds because his heart is still enlarged. After a few years, when his body has adjusted to the change, then the heart may reduce in size and he can go off more meds.
- Penn wondered about the social awkwardness of not eating with others at a restaurant. What he found was that it was awkward for about 20 seconds, and then everyone else settled down to their eating while he drank decaf coffee and carbonated water (my favored dinner drinks for years now). A lot of the food we shovel into our mouths has to do with imagined social harmony rather than real hunger.
- And fasting is also an option. I will fast 16-22 hours once or twice a week, or at least skip breakfast several times a week. Fasting is one of the few techniques that makes sense to me. It's binary -- you're either eating or you're not -- so it's hard for me to cheat; it's easy for me; and it always teaches me about the difference between cravings and real hunger.
- At the end of the first two weeks, where he ate only potatoes, Penn broke his cravings to the salty/fatty/sugared food that had been a staple of his eating life for 60 years. He wondered if he would miss his favorite foods, and he didn't -- because he had lost his craving for them.
- As an aside, Penn relates going on a celebrity cooking show and being quickly trained by a popular Las Vegas chef. The keys to winning are to pick 5 dishes and have a good story to go with each one; we're wired for stories and emotion, and telling the story as the dish is prepared lands with the judges more effectively than the food alone. (Training and association, folks.) Also, the way to make any food taste good? Fat, then salt to cover the fat, then sugar to cut the saltiness, then more salt to cut the sweetness, then more oil over everything, ad infinitum.
- Losing weight made him lighter -- physically and emotionally. Losing the fat helped him also level his moods. I've found this to be the case for myself, also.
Penn made it clear he was not writing a how-to book and that his advisor, Ray Cronise, was writing his own book (yet to be published), so Penn was deliberately vague on details. The CalorieLab site extracted from Penn's book all the details it could and subjected the book to the kind of skeptical (and somewhat sarcastic) appraisal that the ol' Penn Jillette of Bullshit! fame would admire. The comments to the CalorieLab post offer good discussion; some of the commenters support CalorieLab's view, some are skeptical of Penn, some support Penn. But as Penn said from the start: don't look to him for diet or medical advice. You have to look out for yourself.
To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.
The tipoff for me is somatic. Whenever a project comes to me, one that is right, that is genuine, I feel a kind of “shiver” in my body, and that tells me that it corresponds to something very deep in me, and that I need to pursue it. That has been my guide with literally every book I wrote. Trusting this kind of visceral reaction means that you are willing to let life “come and get you.” It means who you are is defined from the inside, not the outside. In terms of what’s really important, we don’t have much choice, and that’s as it should be. The decision is made by a larger energy or unconscious process, and when it’s right, you know it… Goethe wrote: “Man errs as long as he strives.” Sit still, meditate, just let the answer arise from the body. (It may take a while.)
In a 2004 New Yorker feature on the Farrelly Brothers’s attempt to write a script for a new Three Stooges movie, Peter Farrelly offered his theory of Stooge appreciation: “Growing up, first you watched Curly, then Moe, and then your eyes got to Larry. He’s the reactor, the most vulnerable. Five to fourteen, Curly; fourteen to twenty-one, Moe. Anyone out of college, if you’re not looking at Larry you don’t have a good brain.”
We have a strict rule: no playing of Christmas music until we're driving back from my Aunt Carolyn's Thanksgiving dinner. From then until the evening of December 25th, Christmas music plays pretty non-stop at home. The music we listen to may be good only to our ears; we've had some of these CDs for so long that they're old friends. It's hard to hear them anew. Still -- Christmas is a time for familiar, cozy comforts, and the music we enjoy reflects that. (Although streaming tons of new-to-us music off of Amazon Prime is tilting the balance these days...)
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1988) How can you not have this CD? A classic, of course, that stays listenable, always fresh, and with a children's chorus that sound like real children. Love that. "Christmas is Coming" always gets my attention. This is one of the few CDs Liz and I both had in our collections when we merged households.
Nomad Christmas (Various Artists, 1997) I remember buying this as a cassette from a music store on Ninth Street in the late '90s, I think. (Local bassist Robbie Link appears on it.) I love the more exotic and jazzy versions of some well-known carols, along with songs and melodies from other countries I'd not heard before. All instrumental, a great low-key sound when you're decorating the tree. This was one of our first forays into "world music" for the holidays.
A Very Reggae Christmas (Kofi, 1994) I remember we bought this from the gone but not forgotten Carrboro branch of Nice Price Books (secondhand books and records). He surrounds familiar old melodies with heavy beats and exciting arrangements so that I hear them fresh every year. Kofi transforms two of my most hated Christmas songs -- "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" -- into music that I actually enjoy. And, God, he makes "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" sound like a true celebration of joy and not a prim, tasteful dirge.
Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Shawn Colvin, 1998) This was an impulse purchase while I waited in line at the gone but not forgotten CD Superstore at Brightleaf Square, and one of the best I ever made. There are familiar Christmas songs alongside ballads, folk songs, and lullabies -- the cold night, the child in its crib -- plus several carols that were unfamiliar to me, such as "Little Road to Bethlehem" and "Love Came Down at Christmas". It's a record for winter that makes you want to sit in a dark room, watch the lights glint on the tree, and listen to the understated arrangements and Colvin's gentle voice.
Christmas Caravan (Squirrel Nut Zippers, 1998) The Zippers were a local band who flared brightly for a few years before burning out and disbanding. But not before making this CD, which we did not like at first, but that has grown on us over the years. (And isn't Christmas music all about familiarity?) More than any other CD on this list, Christmas Caravan is an acquired taste -- many of the songs are originals or tunes little known to me, Katherine Whalen's vocals take getting used to, and Jimbo Mathus' arrangements make each song so different the album as a whole lacks a unity. But tucked into this CD are some great one-of-a-kinds: "Christmas in Carolina," "I'm Coming Home for Christmas," "Hanging Up My Stockings," and a kick-ass "Sleigh Ride."
American Folk Songs for Christmas (Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger, 1989) We usually wait until we start our annual drive to Florida before listening to this 2-CD set. This is a respectful, lovely collection of folk and Appalachian hymns, carols, spirituals, shape-note, and songs clumped together to tell the Christmas story: the stars, the shepherds, the birth, the joy of Christmas day, and too the excitement the day brings to a poor household: jokey songs, counting songs, high spirits. The sound is of a family gathered with their instruments around the hearth -- almost painfully spare and austere, and beautiful in its directness to the ear and heart.
The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, 1991) A great smorgasbord of traditional and British Christmas tunes, with really great guest turns: the McGarrigle Sisters on "Il Est Ne/Ca Berger" and Nanci Griffith on "The Wexford Carol." But as comforting and charm-laden as Celtic-flavored Christmas music could be, the Chieftains keep their eyes on today and so the album layers in some tartness: Elvis Costello on "St. Stephen's Day Murders" and my favorite, Jackson Browne's "The Rebel Jesus."
Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers, The London Sinfonia, 1987) -- We have several of Rutter's Christmas CDs, but this is the first I bought (thank you, CD Superstore) and the one I like best. As with all his productions, the sound is crystal clear, the choral singing full and lush, and Rutter's arrangements restrained yet full of emotion. I like the selection of carols here, and the mood of it all -- faithful, in all senses of that word.
In the Christmas Spirit (Booker T. & the MG's, 2011) -- If you are of an age to have heard the first airings of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries on NPR back in the late '80s-early '90s (produced by a young Ira Glass), then this music is what you heard in the background. Low-key, funky, and could have been recorded yesterday. It can play in eternal rotation.
A Putumayo World Christmas (Various Artists, 2000). As time goes by, I find myself favoring international holiday music over the American pop holiday standards. Part of it is the attraction of new sounds and songs, part of it the aliveness of other traditions. I always enjoy the Putumayo collections and this one is hot; I love every track on it. (The Putumayo's Cajun Christmas CD? Not so much. Hardly at all, in fact.) I cite the year for this CD, as a later reissue removed some of the tracks that were my favorites. Amazon has several Putumayo Christmas collections, but this one looks to be out of print.
A String Quartet Christmas (Arturo Delmoni, et al., 2010) When I'm making sausage balls or Liz is decorating the tree, then what's needed is some instrumental background music that sets a mood. This set of 3 CDs fits the bill. (They were originally released as individual CDs in the late '90s under the title Rejoice!) These short string quartet arrangements of carols, hymns, and traditional melodies stick to the classic selections; no secular guff like "Frosty" or "Rudolph" here, thank Festivus.
There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty — and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.