Friday Poem

Bluebird

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see
you.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he's
in there.

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do
you?

by Charles Bukowski
from The Last Night of the Earth Poems, 1992

Verballing Abuse

Cover00Christopher Beha reviews Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, in bookforum:

As Gary Shteyngart's third novel begins, Lenny Abramov is seated on a “UnitedContinentalDeltamerican” flight to New York after a year in Rome. Taking out a collection of Chekhov's stories to pass the time, Lenny receives harsh stares from his fellow passengers. “Duder,” one tells him, “that thing smells like wet socks.” Perhaps America has changed during Lenny's sojourn in the capital of the ancient world.

On landing, he discovers that his old college friend Noah Weinberg will be airing his welcome-home celebration live on GlobalTeens—a Facebookish social-networking site. “Before the publishing industry folded,” Lenny explains, Noah “had published a novel, one of the last that you could actually go out and buy in a Media store. Lately he did 'The Noah Weinberg Show!,' which had a grand total of six sponsors. . . . The show got hit about fifteen thousand times a day, which put him somewhere in the lower-middle echelon of Media professionals.” Lenny has some reservations about broadcasting this intimate occasion but realizes that “this is exactly the kind of thing I have to get used to if I'm going to make it in this world.”

In the early pages of Super Sad True Love Story, Shteyngart has quite a bit of fun filling in the details of his postliterate near future, where “verballing” face-to-face feels quaint and everybody interacts instead by way of the iPhone-like devices called äppäräti. He is particularly good with Lenny's acquiescence—”the kind of thing I have to get used to”—illustrating how unthinkingly our needs adapt to technology, rather than the other way around.

Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization, and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States

Col2-3-cover Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson in Politics and Society (via bookforum):

Abstract: The dramatic rise in inequality in the United States over the past generation has occasioned considerable attention from economists, but strikingly little from students of America politics. This has started to change: in recent years, a small but growing body of political science research on rising inequality has challenged standard economic accounts that emphasize apolitical processes of economic change. For all the sophistication of this new scholarship, however, it too fails to provide a compelling account of the political sources and effects of rising inequality. In particular, these studies share with dominant economic accounts three weaknesses: (1) they downplay the distinctive feature of American inequality –namely, the extreme concentration of income gains at the top of the economic ladder; (2) they miss the profound role of government policy in creating this “winner-take-all” pattern; and (3) they give little attention or weight to the dramatic long-term transformation of the organizational landscape of American politics that lies behind these changes in policy. These weaknesses are interrelated, stemming ultimately from a conception of politics that emphasizes the sway (or lack thereof) of the “median voter” in electoral politics, rather than the influence of organized interests in the process of policy making. A perspective centered on organizational and policy change –one that identifies the major policy shifts that have bolstered the economic standing of those at the top and then links those shifts to concrete organizational efforts by resourceful private interests –fares much better at explaining why the American political economy has become distinctively winner-take-all.

The Reluctant Feudalist

Daisy Rockwell in Chapati Mystery:

Saadat_hasan_manto Everyone wants to be Manto. He is the gold standard of South Asian fiction. Even those who claim to dislike his work or find him offensive write about him because they want to write like him. Or forget just writing like him: Manto is the kind of author his readers want to dive into, like a swimming pool, or wear every day, like a sweatshirt. Manto is a pair of prescription glasses. No, he’s more than that. He’s a habitus.

If anyone writing in English has begun to capture something of Manto in their own writing, it is Daniyal Mueenuddin in his recent collection of short stories. The spare and elegant prose, the gift of understatement and the unflinching gaze at the darker side of human nature in Pakistani society are all reminscent of Manto. Mueenuddin has cited Chekhov as an important influence (“I am constantly reading Chekov. I am never not reading Chekov”). But in a list of five important books on Pakistan (for the website Five Books), the first book Mueenuddin lists is Khalid Hasan’s translation of many of Manto’s Partition-related short stories, Mottled Dawn. In his description of the relevance of the book he observes:

Danyai_g_20090129133659 For me, Saadat Hasan Manto is important as a writer because you see with stories like this there is nothing prettied up about his writing. One of the things that I object to about most of the people who write about Pakistan is “the scent of mangoes and jasmine school of writing”. I think that does a disservice to the country and plays into the stereotypes that most Westerners have about Pakistan, and he certainly doesn’t do that. He tells it like it is, with all the violence, madness and political turmoil that involves.

Mueenuddin’s characters are similarly rarely ‘prettied up’ (with some notable exceptions, see below). They use one another, calculate, cheat, manipulate and desert. But where Manto’s stories illustrate the principle that depravity is a natural human state that emerges even more in times of acute crisis, such as the Partition, when men (especially) rejoice and rush out to commit the acts towards which they are innately inclined, Mueenuddin’s humanity trends more to petty manipulation and callousness. In fact, almost none of them are willing to kill, for land, for gold or even for women, as promised so tantalizingly by the quote that opens the book.

More here. (Note: My dear friend, Daisy Rockwell, has written this brilliant analysis of Mueenuddin's work…read this but then also read Manto and Mueenuddin!)

Social Ties Boost Survival by 50 Percent

From Scientific American:

Relationships-boost-survival_1 A long lunch out with co-workers or a late-night conversation with a family member might seem like a distraction from other healthy habits, such as going to the gym or getting a good night's sleep. But more than 100 years' worth of research shows that having a healthy social life is incredibly important to staying physically healthy. Overall, social support increases survival by some 50 percent, concluded the authors behind a new meta-analysis. The benefit of friends, family and even colleagues turns out to be just as good for long-term survival as giving up a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit. And by the study's numbers, interpersonal social networks are more crucial to physical health than exercising or beating obesity.

“I don't think a lot of people recognize that our relationships can have a physical impact as well as emotional,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, an associate psychology professor at Brigham Young University and co-author of the new study, published online July 27 in PLoS Medicine. The researchers analyzed results from 148 studies—which included a total of 308,849 participants—going back to the early 20th century. Most studies assessed survival in contrast to mortality from all causes, although the authors rejected studies that focused on suicide or accidental deaths. “The findings are very exciting and show how important social relationships are for improving survival,” Kira Birditt, an assistant research professor at University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, who was not involved in the new study, noted in an e-mail to ScientificAmerican.com.

More here.

Thursday Poem

The Blueness

The blueness reaches from horizon to horizon
wrapping everything in blueness,
poppy fields, a prisoner hanging from his wrists
in Alabama sunshine that I heard about
on the morning news. Is there hope for us?
The phrase, Se frego la cosa is stuck in my brain
and I am trying to resist the temptation
to rhyme it with Julius LaRosa, but who
would remember him? Such buttery
memories I have that dribble down the sky
giving it a sickly green tinge, like those strange
Jerusalem sunsets when we lay expertly pleasing
each other like a single serpent devouring itself.
Now the wind shakes the palm outside the window
so soothingly flapping the blueness back.
This time it's a thin, almost invisible blue
just this side of whiteness, barely audible,
and I want to lie on the carpet with you listening
to whatever blue is saying now. Remember
the first dream is what it says: the closet, the pile
of shoes and the bones you found underneath.
The hell with that. Just look at this sky will you,
how it covers us with its soft, blue fabric of illusion.

by Richard Garcia
from The Blue Moon Review

on the gulf

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New Orleans’s Saint Charles Avenue is lined with oak trees whose broad branches drip Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads from the pre-Lenten parades, and behind the oaks are beautiful old houses with turrets, porches, balconies, bay windows, gables, dormers and lush gardens. There are no refineries for miles, hardly even gas stations on the stretch I was on in mid-June, and the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded on 20 April and the oil welling up a mile below it were dozens of miles away as the bird flies. So there was no explanation for the sudden powerful smell of gasoline that filled my car for several blocks or for the strange metallic taste in my mouth when I parked at the Sierra Club offices uptown, except that since the BP spill such incidents have been common. As of mid-July, the spill is supposed to be plugged at last, except that the plug is temporary at best, and the millions of gallons of oil are out there in the ocean, on the coast – and in the air.

more from Rebecca Solnit at the LRB here.

vilnius: nostalgia city

Venclova_234w

What probably marks Vilnius most strongly is the fact that the city is almost always construed as an object of nostalgia. The text of Vilnius is created by people severed from their city and thus extremely sensitive to the particulars of its everyday life: at this point one should remember Kekstas and his extraordinary letters, but also more prominent personalities, for instance, Czeslaw Milosz or Adam Mickiewicz. There is a similarity between Vilnius and Warsaw here, but in the text of Warsaw, nostalgia surfaces either during the war years as, for instance, in Julian Tuwim’s and Aleksander Wat’s texts, or marks the longing for the past, for the irrevocably destroyed pre-war city. In the text of Vilnius, such emotional complexity is also present, but nostalgia here is more frequent, more deeply rooted and more multilayered. And – this is probably the most important aspect – it affects not only individuals but entire ethnic and national groups. I suggested a long time ago that the Lithuanian capital had always been a border city with its border moving from place to place over the years: Vilnius would, for instance, find itself close to the lands of the Teutonic Order (Prussia – ed.) or, in the interwar period, some 30 kilometres from independent Lithuania; now, too, it is located 150 kilometres from Poland and a mere 30 kilometres from Alexander Lukashenka’s Belarus and thus at the eastern border of the European Union. This bordering frequently cut off the nation nostalgic about the city considered theirs: before World War II, these were the Lithuanians; now they are the Poles, Belarusians and Israel-based Jews.

more from Tomas Venclova at Eurozine here.

man v myth

Degaulle

Jonathan Fenby tells a revealing story. On May 29, 1958, France seemed on the brink of civil war. The army in Algeria had rebelled against the politicians in Paris. The President (René Coty) had told parliament that the country’s only hope was to “turn towards the most illustrious Frenchman, towards the man who, in the darkest year of our history, was our chief for the reconquest of freedom”. Charles de Gaulle, to whom these remarks referred, left his country house in Colombey-les-deux-Églises to go to Paris. His chauffeur drove so fast that he outran the police escort, which was only able to catch up when the general stopped his car so that he could relieve himself by the side of the road. De Gaulle the myth – the most illustrious Frenchman speeding to the capital to save his country once again – met de Gaulle the man – an elderly, retired soldier with a weak bladder.

more from Richard Vinen at the TLS here.

Edward Said on meeting Jean-Paul Sartre

Edward's daughter Najla brought this diary by him to my attention, and while it is now ten years old, it retains interest as one great man's remembrance of another. From the London Review of Books:

EdwardSaid It was early in January 1979, and I was at home in New York preparing for one of my classes. The doorbell announced the delivery of a telegram and as I tore it open I noticed with interest that it was from Paris. ‘You are invited by Les Temps modernes to attend a seminar on peace in the Middle East in Paris on 13 and 14 March this year. Please respond. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre.’ At first I thought the cable was a joke of some sort. It might just as well have been an invitation from Cosima and Richard Wagner to come to Bayreuth, or from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf to spend an afternoon at the offices of the Dial. It took me about two days to ascertain from various friends in New York and Paris that it was indeed genuine, and far less time than that to despatch my unconditional acceptance (this after learning that les modalités, the French euphemism for travel expenses, were to be borne by Les Temps modernes, the monthly journal established by Sartre after the war). A few weeks later I was off to Paris.

Les Temps modernes had played an extraordinary role in French, and later European and even Third World, intellectual life. Sartre had gathered around him a remarkable set of minds – not all of them in agreement with him – that included Beauvoir of course, his great opposite Raymond Aron, the eminent philosopher and Ecole Normale classmate Maurice Merleau-Ponty (who left the journal a few years later), and Michel Leiris, ethnographer, Africanist and bullfight theoretician. There wasn’t a major issue that Sartre and his circle didn’t take on, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which resulted in a monumentally large edition of Les Temps modernes – in turn the subject of a brilliant essay by I.F. Stone. That alone gave my Paris trip a precedent of note.

When I arrived, I found a short, mysterious letter from Sartre and Beauvoir waiting for me at the hotel I had booked in the Latin Quarter. ‘For security reasons,’ the message ran, ‘the meetings will be held at the home of Michel Foucault.’

More here.

A mind-meltingly stupid homeopathy policy

Martin Robbins in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_03 Jul. 28 17.26 The government has released its eagerly anticipated response to the Science and Technology Committee's Evidence Check on Homeopathy and, incredibly, it's even worse than I thought it would be. The verdict is “business as usual”, with the main recommendations of the committee ignored in a fog of confusion and double-think.

You get a sense of this confusion very early on, with lines like: “given the geographical, socioeconomic and cultural diversity in England, [policy on homeopathy] involves a whole range of considerations including, but not limited to, efficacy.” I actually have no idea what this means – do medicines work differently in Norfolk from the way they work in Hampshire? The report doesn't elaborate.

As expected, the word “choice” features heavily in the government's response:

There naturally will be an assumption that if the NHS is offering homeopathic treatments then they will be efficacious, whereas the overriding reason for NHS provision is that homeopathy is available to provide patient choice … if regulation was applied to homeopathic medicines as understood in the context of conventional pharmaceutical medicines, these products would have to be withdrawn from the market as medicines. This would constrain consumer choice and, more importantly, risk the introduction of unregulated, poor quality and potentially unsafe products on the market to satisfy consumer demand.”

So we can't regulate these products as medicines because they'd end up being banned, but we'll let them be called medicines anyway? It gives me a headache just trying to think down to the level of the person who wrote this stuff.

More here.

The Greenes: A Talented Tribe of Trailbrazers

From The Telegraph:

Greenesum_1683971d In the early years of the last century, two brothers found themselves living in a small Hertfordshire town. The elder, Charles, was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School; his six children included Graham Greene, the novelist, and Hugh Carleton Greene, the BBC’s controversial director-general in the Sixties and the bête noire of Mary Whitehouse. They were a gifted lot, elegant and clever, with round heads like cannonballs and bulbous blue eyes. A natural reserve was attributed by some to an innate coldness of disposition, by others to shyness.

After making a fortune in the coffee trade, Charles’s younger brother, Edward, bought an enormous house on the edge of Berkhamsted, and he too had six children. The “rich” Greene children had an exotic air – their mother was German and they had spent their childhood in Brazil – but they were thought to be woolly-minded by the “intellectual” Greenes, who considered themselves harder-headed and more down-to-earth. Both sets of cousins were extremely tall – so much so that when Ben Greene, the oldest of the “rich” Greene boys, was interned in Brixton in May 1940 at the same time as Oswald Mosley, his bunk had to be extended with a pile of bricks.

More here.

Experimental Error: Don’t Try This at Home

From Science:

RubenExperimentalerror_160x160_jpg In the terrible 2004 film Godsend, Robert De Niro plays a sinister obstetrician who helps a couple clone their dead son but secretly manipulates “intangibles” in the fetus so that the new child will show traits of his own dead son, who happened to be evil. While uncovering this well-thought-out and plausible scheme, the boy's father (Greg Kinnear) interviews a nanny the obstetrician once hired. “He was a doctor?” the father asks, and she replies, “A baby doctor, yeah.” Then she leans closer and whispers her suspicion: “Only … he seemed more like a scientist to me.”

For me, as a scientist, when I watched the movie, those words weren't exactly the ominous bombshell the screenwriter probably intended. It was as though the nanny had said, “Only … he sometimes ate Corn Flakes.” Her comment made me consider how the public views scientists — and how universal that perception must be for a screenwriter to presume that “scientist” is a zinger of an insult. (Maybe I should try that sometime. “Hey, jerk! Your mother is a synthetic chemist!”) We are distrusted, feared, but most of all, misunderstood. We work, after all, in one of the only two professions that idiomatically follow the word “mad” — the other such profession being “hatter.”

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second

Shorter than the blink inside a blink
the National Grid will sometimes make, when you’ll
turn to a room and say: Was that just me?

People sitting down for dinner don’t feel
their chairs taken away/put back again
much faster that that trick with tablecloths.

A train entering the Olive Mount cutting
shudders, but not a single passenger
complains when it pulls in almost on time.

The birds feel it, though, and if you see
starlings in shoal, seagulls abandoning
cathedral ledges, or a mob of pigeons

lifting from a square as at gunfire,
be warned it may be happening, but then
those sensitive to bat-squeak in the backs

of necks, who claim to hear the distant roar
of comets on the turn – these may well smile
at a world restored, in one piece; though each place

where mineral Liverpool goes wouldn’t believe
what hit it: all that sandstone out to sea
or meshed into the quarters of Cologne.

I’ve felt it a few times when I’ve gone home,
if anything, more often now I’m old
and the gaps between get shorter all the time.

by Paul Farley
from Tramp in Flames
publisher: Picador, London, 2006