Tag Archives: books

Modern life itself could make you sick

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

Visible in these perplexed diagnoses is a new way of thinking about the psyche. Diseases of the mind did not have to be rooted in some biological deformity, as the phrenologists had contended; nor was it attributable to some abstract “lesion of the will”; nor was it tied to basic biological realities like menstruation or masturbation. Instead, the root cause of the disorder was to be found somewhere else: in the lived history of social and economic change. Modern life itself could make you sick.

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You will find the future where people are having the most fun

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

This phenomenon turns out to appear consistently throughout the history of humanity’s trifles. The guilty pleasures of life often give us a hint of future changes in society, whether those pleasures take the form of English ladies shopping for calico fabrics in London in the late 1600s, or ancient Roman feasts laden with spices from the far corners of the globe, or carnival hucksters promoting strange optical devices that create the illusion of moving pictures, or computer programmers at MIT in the 1960s playing Spacewar! on their million-dollar mainframes. Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms. The institutions of society that so dominate traditional history—political bodies, corporations, religions—can tell you quite a bit about the current state of the social order. But if you are trying to figure out what’s coming next, you are often better off exploring the margins of play: the hobbies and curiosity pieces and subcultures of human beings devising new ways to have fun. “Each epoch dreams the one to follow, creates it in dreaming,” the French “historian Michelet wrote in 1839. More often than not, those dreams do not unfold within the grown-up world of work or war or governance. Instead, they emerge from a different kind of space: a space of wonder and delight where the normal rules have been suspended, where people are free to explore the spontaneous, unpredictable, and immensely creative work of play. You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.

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Third Worlders are forward-looking

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

“When I started in real estate, I considered renovating old houses instead of tearing them down, but it didn’t make sense. Nigerians don’t buy houses because they’re old. A renovated two-hundred-year-old mill granary, you know, the kind of thing Europeans like. It doesn’t work here at all. But of course it makes sense because we are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of that past.”

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Obama could actually win this thing

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

Blaine’s knife stopped moving. He looked up, eyes lit, as though he had not dared hope she would believe the same thing that he believed, and she felt between them the first pulse of a shared passion. They clutched each other in front of the television when Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. The first battle, and he had won. Their hope was radiating, exploding into possibility: Obama could actually win this thing. And then, as though choreographed, they began to worry. They worried that something would derail him, crash his fast-moving train. Every morning, Ifemelu woke up and checked to make sure that Obama was still alive. That no scandal had emerged, no story dug up from his past. She would turn on her computer, her breath still, her heart frantic in her chest, and then, reassured that he was alive, she would read the latest news about him, quickly and greedily, seeking information and reassurance, multiple windows minimized at the bottom of the screen. Sometimes, in chat rooms, she wilted as she read the posts about Obama, and she would get up and move away from her computer, as though the laptop itself were the enemy, and stand by the window to hide her tears even from herself. How can a monkey be president? Somebody do us a favor and put a bullet in this guy. Send him back to the African jungle. A black man will never be in the white house, dude, it’s called the white house for a reason. She tried to imagine the people who wrote those posts, under monikers like SuburbanMom231 and NormanRockwellRocks, sitting at their desks, a cup of coffee beside them, and their children about to come home on the school bus in a glow of innocence. The chat rooms made her blog feel inconsequential, a comedy of manners, a mild satire about a world that was anything but mild. She did not blog about the vileness that seemed to have multiplied each morning she logged on, more chat rooms springing up, more vitriol flourishing, because to do so would be to spread the words of people who abhorred not the man that Barack Obama was, but the idea of him as president. She blogged, instead, about his policy positions, in a recurring post titled “This Is Why Obama Will Do It Better,” often adding links to his website, and she blogged, too, about Michelle Obama. She gloried in the offbeat dryness of Michelle Obama’s humor, the confidence in her long-limbed carriage, and then she mourned when Michelle Obama was clamped, flattened, made to sound tepidly wholesome in interviews. Still, there was, in Michelle Obama’s overly arched eyebrows and in her belt worn higher on her waist than tradition would care for, a glint of her old self. It was this that drew Ifemelu, the absence of apology, the promise of honesty.

“If she married Obama then he can’t be that bad,” she joked often with Blaine, and Blaine would say, “True that, true that.”

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Old things

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

“But why is it prohibited?” Asked the Savage. In the excitement of meeting a man who had read Shakespeare he had momentarily forgotten everything else.

The Controller shrugged his shoulders. “Because it’s old; that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.”

“Even when they’re beautiful?”

“Particularly when they’re beautiful. Beauty’s attractive, and we don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like the new ones.”

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The nationalism of liberal Americans

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

“I’m Kelsey,” the woman announced as though to the whole room. She was aggressively friendly. She asked where Mariama was from, how long she had been in America, if she had children, how her business was doing.

“Business is up and down but we try,” Mariama said.

“But you couldn’t even have this business back in your country, right? Isn’t it wonderful that you get to come to the U.S. and now your kids can have a better life?”

Mariama looked surprised. “Yes.”

“Are women allowed to vote in your country?” Kelsey asked.

A longer pause from Mariama. “Yes.”

“What are you reading?” Kelsey turned to Ifemelu.

Ifemelu showed her the cover of the novel. She did not want to start a conversation. Especially not with Kelsey. She recognized in Kelsey the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.

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Bloated from all he had acquired

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

He climbed out of the car. His gait was stiff, his legs difficult to lift. He had begun, in the past months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired—the family, the houses, the cars, the bank accounts—and would, from time to time, be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He was no longer sure, he had in fact never been sure, whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.

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He had discovered Time and Death and God

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

All alone, outside the pueblo, on the bare plain of the mesa. The rock was like bleached bones in the moonlight. Down in the valley, the coyotes were howling at the moon. The bruises hurt him, the cuts were still bleeding; but it was not for the pain that he sobbed; it was because he was all alone, because he had been driven out, alone, into this skeleton world of rocks and moonlight. At the edge of the precipice he sat down. The moon was behind him; he looked down into the black shadow of the mesa, into the black shadow of death. He had only to take one step, one little jump…. He held out his right hand in the moonlight. From the cut on his wrist the blood was still oozing. Every few seconds a drop fell, dark, almost colourless in the dead light. Drop, drop, drop. To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow …

He had discovered Time and Death and God.

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Hard to feel bad for a middle-aged white man

Less by Andrew Sean Greer:

There is an old Arabic story about a man who hears Death is coming for him, so he sneaks away to Samarra. And when he gets there, he finds Death in the market, and Death says, “You know, I just felt like going on vacation to Samarra. I was going to skip you today, but how lucky you showed up to find me!” And the man is taken after all. Arther Less has traveled halfway around the world in a cat’s cradle of junkets, changing flights and fleeing from a sandstorm into the Atlas Mountains like someone erasing his trail or outfoxing a hunter—and yet Time has been waiting here all along. In a snowy alpine resort. With cuckoos. Of course Time would turn out to be Swiss. He tosses back the champagne. He thinks: Hard to feel bad for a middle-aged white man.

Indeed: even Less can’t feel bad for Swift anymore. Like a wintertime swimmer too numb to feel cold, Arthur Less is too sad to feel pity. For Robert, yes, breathing through an oxygen tube up in Sonoma. For Marian, nursing a broken hip that might ground her forever. For Javier in his marriage, and even for Bastian’s tragic sports teams. For Zohra and Janet. For his fellow writer Mohammed. Around the world his duty flies, its wingspan as wide as albatross’s. But he can no more feel sorry for Swift—now become a gorgon of Caucasian male ego, snake headed, pacing through his novel and turning each sentence to sone—than Arther Less can feel sorry for himself.

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The Cubs Way, Music, and Management

“Is that Tom Waits?”

“Yeah. Do you like Tom Waits?”

“I love Tom Waits.”

I am haunted by a childhood memory. Around age 13, my Little League coach and assistant coach had a falling out. Team practices were put on hold. For a kid unenthused about sports, you’d think this was a blessing. But the team was working well together and… winning!

We had a fantastic cast of characters resembling The Sandlot. There were Bennys, Hams, and Yeah-Yeahs. Maybe a Squints here and there. I myself felt like Smalls. We were a mixed bag, some with little to no skill, but we bonded. We helped each other. The loss of practice was arresting. Devastating.

Mike called me up. He was one of the leaders — very much a Benny type. He was organizing a practice and called me up to summon others. After we got off the phone, I had a thought: we should bring music. I loved doing any activity to music. I called Mike back.

He didn’t call it a stupid idea, but he suggest that we didn’t need it. I hung up and felt silly for the idea. I’ve never forgotten how embarrassed I felt for suggesting the idea.

In his fantastic book “The Cubs Way”, author Tom Verducci notes an immediate tactic new Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon took with his team at the opening of the 2015 spring training — his first spring training with the team:

After Maddon’s opening speech as Chicago manager, the Cubs took the field—actually, a wide swath of grass out in back of their training center—looking like a different team. The best way to measure the immediate change in the Cubs under Maddon was in decibels. As the team began its morning stretch, a huge speaker blasted “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix. What followed were more tunes from among Maddon’s rock-and-roll favorites, including “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, “Gimme Three Steps” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “Tom Sawyer” by Rush.

“I’m a product of the ’60s and ’70s,” he told his new team. “You’ll have to put up with that.”

After reading this passage, I felt vindicated. My 13-year-old self’s idea was not stupid. Joe Maddon plays music. It’s not that big of a deal. Scaling back a bit of focus for a bit of fun encourages free thinking and flow. (A big reminder that my 13-year-old self had shit for brains.)

I’ve recently taken on a new management role. It is challenging beyond belief. With these challenges, I’ve put lots of attention into how my manager runs his team. One of the simplest and subtlest tricks he uses is playing music during one-on-ones and meetings. At times, it can feel distracting, but more often than not, it lightens the mood and opens up conversations outside of work. In a recent case, we hit on our shared love of Tom Waits. (What’s he building in there? A team. I’ll stop.)

I’ve now applied music to my one-on-ones. Nothing too distracting. No early-’00s post-hardcore, ’80s pop, or ’70s prog rock. Mellow electronic, jazz, or my Apple Music Chill Mix do the trick. I think it’s helping. It’s lightened the mood. And — for me at least — makes me feel a bit more connected to my team.

Music can be an equalizer. Embrace it. There shouldn’t be rules to how you manage or run your team meetings. Find energy. Find flow. Find commonality. And while you’re at it, find a copy of “The Cubs Way”.

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