Turning to Despair

Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism
Anne Case and Angus Deaton

Joseph Heller once said the effect he was striving for in his second novel, Something Happened, was for the reader to feel like a piece of metal banged into a new shape by the repeated blows of a ball-peen hammer.

I don’t recall feeling that way after reading the novel, but the far more than 400 blows delivered in this book Continue reading

I’m Losing Friends, I’m Losing Face

Midsummer 2021

If I’m unable to finish a book I ought to at least prove I keep reading.

What better brain food for a Sunday morning, then, than a sociological take on just what’s going on with folks refusing Continue reading

You’ve Got Possibilities

The Art of Possibility
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

One of the more entertaining, if inconsequential, arguments I ever entered into started about 10 PM one late-April evening in the final decade of the last millennium. What began as a simple disagreement on how to manage creative development soon expanded to encompass the entire advertising business. No cow was sacred and by the time my debating partner and I had worn ourselves out at 2 AM, a century’s worth of discarded advertising truths lay scattered about the office along with rejected layouts and revised copy decks.

One of the more contentious points, I recall, was the USP, a concept created and promoted by Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates advertising agency. A variant of that approach states that every brand–personal or otherwise–can be reduced to one inarguable, ownable attribute. Timex offers an apt, though dated, example. The watch that takes a licking and keeps on ticking is durable.

None of this has anything to do with the book at hand, mind you. But I’d suggest it provides an explanatory framework for just how I came to be in possession of a book in a genre I typically avoid. I’ve come to believe, you see,  that possibility lies at the heart of my personal brand.

Despite my encounter with this book, I see no reason to walk away from that belief. I’d suggest you run away fast, though, if someone recommends you read the book.

Found in every book store and library,
coast-to-coast.

Why do we even have self-help books? From the supply side, the answer is simple: there’s money in misery. From the seeker side, well, it’s more complicated. Needs, we marketers believe, are never far from wants and the interplay of the two is where we work. In a nation that likes to fancy itself full of strivers, improving the self practically commands investment.

How about two other factors marketers love: fear and greed? What if the key to your material success is lying right before you, bound between covers? Fourteen bucks is nothing compared to the rest of your life. The ROI could be incredible.

If you think I’m being unfair here, remember that Penguin, the publisher, has a marketing department. And they considered everything from the visually arresting bright yellow cover to the price to even the category: business/creativity.  Someone sensed a profit in sharing the Zander’s worldview.

My mind turns naturally to commerce as a social artifact. Yet my recurring thought as I made my way through this book had little to do with consumption and everything to do with social psychology. I realized, at a fundamental level, these books ask the reader to behave the same way members of cults or charismatic political movements do.

It’s a neat rhetorical trick, really. It also strikes me as self-serving and abusive of the very people all those entities are arguing they serve. But whether the venue is Jonestown, a Trump rally or this book, the initial transaction sets the terms of the deal.

I’m not sure survival and scarcity are great analogs when their reality is widespread and dire

Early on the Zanders present two dichotomous worldviews: survival/scarcity versus thriving/abundance. Almost immediately, they protest that interpretation of what lies right there on the page, saying “It may seem this chapter sets up a simple dichotomy between being successful and living a kind-hearted, feel-good life. Nothing could be further from our conviction.” (p. 21)

A bit further down the page, though, they introduce survival-thinking and scarcity thinking. Modes of thinking like these seem to abound in self-help writing, often serving the role of an internalized boogeyman who must be vanquished in the course of transformation ( a keyword in the genre and this book).

I’m not a fan of Abraham Maslow, but even he understood that survival and scarcity were so fundamental as to drive all other considerations understandably aside. Our authors reject that without ever even acknowledging it. Instead, they state Survival-thinking is  an “undiscriminating ongoing attitude.” Scarcity-thinking, they helpfully note, is a “prevalent” “fatalistic outlook.” (p.21) Thus the trap is baited. On the next page, it’s sprung.

“You look for thoughts and. actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety.” (p. 22) So, the problem is you, too concerned with thoughts that are merely attitudes and outlooks. But wait, there’ s more.

“See how easy it is to argue that you are an exception, that you personally are not governed by any such set of assumptions. This, of course, is another example of the measurement world at work” (p.22)

There you have it: the great circularity of true-believerdom. A world, which may or may not be exactly how you experience the world, is posited. Steps are taken to explain why this is the way things are. Then you are promised release from this prison once you see clearly and accept the gift you’ve been offered by your guide. Having been freed you can never look back.

It’s exactly the same, every time. The People’s Temple. The Branch Davidians. Erhard Seminars Training. Even Make America Great Again rallies. What amazes me is that it works.

All questions are answered and problems overcome when the proper frame of mind is adopted.

Though I had plenty of good reasons to walk away early on, I persisted. I didn’t want to negate the possibility that there might be some good here. That openness to possibility was not rewarded.

The work is a mess. The primary mode of instructing is the anecdote. I’ve nothing against that. The last time I looked, Christ did a pretty good job with the form. But the stories here are rarified, comprehensible on a deep level only by very privileged people. The Zanders are not just folks. He leads a symphony orchestra, she is a therapist, they attend Davos.

When they observe the form of seriousness, for example, using footnotes, it’s apparent doing so helps maintain a veneer of rigor.  And then there are the leaps that defy reason. This book was published in 2000.  After so much has passed, would any editor print this passage today?:

“If we want to increase the community’s strength against inhuman
forces, let’s include the terrorist in the discussion (emphasis added),
along with the families and the townspeople and the security forces
and the government. Let’s hear what he thinks about why this has happened…” (p. 191)

I have no truck with trying to understand yourself better. If you want great material success go for it. If you seek comfort and security I hope you find it. But the path to those things, I think,  doesn’t lie in this book or any charismatic movement.

But what do I know? I’m. just a spirit in the material world.

Blues for Dixie

South to a Very Old Place
Albert Murray

The first time I encountered the idea that prose could mimic music was during my Jack Kerouac obsession. Time and again I’d come across the assertion that his goal was to capture on the page the rhythms, textures and fluidity of a Bop solo.

I didn’t, couldn’t really see it. The jazz I knew was the music of the Swing era, and its purpose was dancing. If I held any opinion about the jazz of the 1950s it was second-hand, acquired from Chuck Berry.

My ignorance and obsession have long since passed. Some days, though, Chuck still seems wise and I have a hard time finding music on the page. When I do, it’s usually in a poem. Prose is not without rhythm and melody, it’s just harder to find, though I count myself a part-time searcher.

If that describes you, and you’d care to take a break from looking, this book offers a perfect example of what the fruits of your search should resemble.

Albert Murray is the real deal. Around here that phrase always means the same thing: a writer of immense talent who has invested time in honing their craft and whose erudition is apparent. That last bit is important because, for me, erudition goes beyond an ability to quote Classics or 19th Century German philosophers at will.

Robert Penn Warren
1905-1989

While either of those examples might impress me, I take an expansive view of knowledge. A student of the streets is no less knowledgeable than a PhD and often in a better position to attest to truth. Nor does a writer need to be deeply immersed in one subject. Synthesis is what really bowls me over again and again.

Allow me to sketch a quick biography of the present author. Born in Mobile County, Alabama, in 1916, Murray was of the same generation as Rosa Parks, born into a segregated society soon after the birth of the NAACP and the death of Booker T. Washington. Murray attended Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated in 1939, where he became lifelong friends with Ralph Ellison.

Murray joined the Army Air Force and served during World War II and remained in the reserves after the war ended. Though he tried to earn his living teaching he returned to active duty in the 1950s and rose to the rank of major before retiring, about the time I was born. He then moved to New York, completed his education with an MA from NYU and took up writing.

Always a music lover, his beat included writing about jazz and he moved in an orbit that included Duke Ellington and Count Basie, whose biography he would later write. The present book emerged from an assignment he accepted from Willie Morris, the legendary editor of Harpers in the 1960s. Morris, a man who brought Mississippi with him when he moved north and who later returned home, had a simple request: Go home to the post-Civil Rights Act South and see what’s really going on.

William ‘Count’ Basie
1904-1984

You and I, faced with such a task, would probably hop in the car or book a flight to Hartsfield. Murray caught the New Haven Railroad and headed further north. It’s really no small act of genius to begin an inspection of the contemporary South with a visit to the precincts of Yale.

But Robert Penn Warren was there ensconced. And what better place to begin than with an apostate apologist for segregation–a man who not only changed his mind but became an advocate for civil rights? That Warren wrote one of the classic novels set in the South–based loosely on one of the South’s real, larger-than-life characters–was icing on the cake.

The book–I’ve no idea if it was ever published as an article or series of articles–reminds me, structurally, of a jazz number. There is a head (the prologue and New Haven section) that sets the theme, and a coda (the New Orleans, Greenville, Memphis section). In between, it’s all riffing, a term I use in the best sense of the word.  For a jazz player, composing riffs and melodies out of raw material is the name of the game.

Murray hits his stride in those middle choruses named Greensboro, Atlanta, Tuskegee and Mobile. The first two represent different battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement. If Greensboro is famous for the sit-ins, Atlanta, home of Morehouse College and Dr. King‘s family, was famously the self-declared ‘City too Busy to Hate.

The John A. Andrews Memorial Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute

Much of the book is dialog, placed in the mouths of locals, some Murray has known since boyhood. The closer he gets to home, the more the words fly, the rhythms pound and the truth flows. I never find it difficult to identify a writer whose background is lower than middle class. You can’t fake your way into the knowledge and trust of people just like you who stayed at home. That the truths revealed may be uncomfortable to those who would establish the proper narrative is part of the fun.

In an epigram, Murray warns us “Not everything in this book is meant to be taken literally” a point he immediately undercuts by saying he has changed names. The best way to convey the language, and the insider honesty, is with an extended quote sure to piss off almost everyone with an ax to grind on the subject of race relations. The speaker is an unidentified Mobile resident who has known Murray since boyhood:

“I’m talking about the goddamn white folks now. They come up and figure out how they can let a lot of loudmouth hustlers in there that don’t belong in there. Because they know good and well these the ones ain’t going to study. So that’s what we got now. We send them up there to learn what them white boys learning about running the goddam world and they up there out marching and wearing all that old three-ring circus stuff and talking about how they got to study about Africa. Now what I say is if that’s all they want to know they ain’t got no business up there. That’s what I say. Because the white man only too glad if they rather learn about Africa instead of how to run the world. I say them Africans already known about Africa, and what good is it doing them?” (pp. 182-183)

I can’t be certain if a transcript or recording of this, or any of the other reported conversation, exists but I don’t think that’s the point. This is Joseph Mitchell reportage and if the truth on the page is a work of artful construction rooted in fact I can live with that.

That last sentence used the words art and truth and I selected neither lightly. By the time you reach this quote you’ve traveled quite a ways with Murray. Your BS radar would have, should have pinged if you found him less than truthful. Was the above speech excerpt, with its accelerating rhythm and rising frustration, spoken verbatim? I’m not sure it matters because it has the same ring of truth as conversations I hear when I return to the neighborhood of my blue-collar youth.

I can offer no higher accolade than Albert Murray, great American writer.

 

 

 

Hanging on the Telephone

America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940
Claude S. Fischer

My capacity for procrastination is legendary.

That’s probably not news around here, where I routinely fess up to getting around to books I acquired decades ago. By that standard the present volume, acquired sometime in the last seven to ten years, is almost contemporary.

Except for the fact that I read it that long ago and am just Continue reading

The Milk and Honey Done Run Out

Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell

Why, I wonder, in reading a book set in early 20th century London and Paris,  did I find my mind wandering ever closer to home and New York during the same era?

I’m always the first to point out that reading helps me connect things otherwise unconnected. So what I was Continue reading

A Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide
Arlie Russell Hochschild

Welcome to Tea Party America with your host, Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States. Many people find this fête unsettling. I’d rather understand why my worldview differs so much from that of the party throwers.

Luckily, I am not alone in that desire. Continue reading

Physical Conversations of Different Kinds

American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus
Lisa Wade

As a young social science student  I took a class sure to be easy. A 200-level course, it promised to use popular culture to illustrate major concepts in sociology.

Piece of cake, I thought. I like to read, it’s popular culture. How hard can it be?

Sixteen weeks later I was  dead from the punishing pace of reading 600-page novels, such as Thomas Mann‘s Continue reading

When the Sun Goes Down on Austin Town

whole-foods-market-logo-2008My cognitive dissonance meter started to peg about the time I reached the fish counter.

In Austin, Texas for a conference (working, not attending), and a retail marketer from way back, I had to visit the flagship store of Whole Foods, the behemoth ($14.2 BB in 2014 annual revenue) organic grocery chain that calls that burg home. I’m glad I did if only to have had an experience that Continue reading