Archive for January, 2012

On my bookshelf: February 2012


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I’d broken one of our unspoken rules: We were always supposed to pretend our life was one long and incredibly fun adventure.

–  Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle

Last year, I read a coming-of-age memoir that was disturbingly bizarre. No, not The Glass Castle, although it can also be quite accurately described that way. The book that I read, and disliked very much, was Running with Scissors. My childhood and teenage years were, for the most part, remarkably normal and quite secure, and therefore in complete contrast with the extraordinarily strange life that Augusten Burroughs describes in his book. My dislike stemmed not from the fact that I couldn’t relate to his singular childhood, but that I couldn’t find any humor in what was clearly intended to be hilarious. Instead of finding his account bizarre and witty, I found it bizarre and off-putting. And quite sad.

The Glass Castle, on the other hand, made me stay up till the wee hours of the morning, wanting to read ‘just one more chapter’. This book is author Jeannette Walls’ account of her itinerant childhood spent with a set of splendidly unorthodox parents, her siblings, an assortment of animals, and stubborn, stubborn poverty. Set mostly in the 1960s and 70s, in towns that few non-Americans would be able to point out on a map (though I suspect that many Americans might have trouble locating them as well), and always described in a matter-of-fact voice, when describing hardship, and fleeting moments of escape from hardship alike, Walls succeeds in making all the struggles, the adventures, the hunger and scavenging the trash cans for half-eaten sandwiches, and the relentless poverty sound almost comical.

The book begins with a three-year old Walls in a pink dress, standing on a chair in front of the stove, cooking hot dogs, and eventually suffering serious burns to her little body. From the first few accounts, a picture emerges of the Walls family: poor, eccentric and very unique. Walls’ father, a self-described entrepreneur, is best known as the ‘town drunk’ and shares with his kids his ambitious project and blueprints to build a glass house for the family in the desert. Undeniably intelligent, and quite effortlessly charming, he is almost always between jobs or urging his family to do the skedaddle when the town becomes too hot for him. Walls’ mother is equally unusual, an heiress who lives in abject poverty, a painter who:

…didn’t like cooking much – “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d ask us, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that can last forever?” – so once a week or so, she’d fix a big cast iron vat of something like fish and rice or, usually, beans. We’d all sort the beans together, picking out the rocks, then Mom would soak them overnight, boil them the next day with an old ham bone to give them flavor, and for that entire week we’d have beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If the beans started going bad, we’d just pit extra spice in them, like the Mexicans at the LBJ Apartments always did.

Walls’ mother also did not approve of eye glasses.

 If you had weak eyes, Mom believed, they needed exercise to get strong. The way she saw it, glasses were like crutches. They prevented people with feeble eyes from learning to see the world on their own.

And so, Walls and her three siblings learn to fend for themselves, defending themselves and each other from tormentors in school, foraging for fruit and scraps when food was scarce at home, and in the process becoming incredibly resilient, protective, creative and unusually resourceful, such as when the author attempts to correct her faulty jawline by making her own braces with rubber bands, metal coat hangers and a Kotex sanitary napkin (for padding).

Moving from town to town, from California to Nevada to Arizona, from school to school, always not knowing where their next meal is going to come from, the family ultimately settles down in Welsh, West Virginia, in a house that can only be described as a dump. These desert kids, at home going barefoot in the scalding desert sand, collecting garnet, turquoise, granite, obsidian, geodes, fool’s gold and bull frogs, are seen as outsiders and freaks in this small, cold, racist mining town that they never really get used to. As their home situation gets increasingly impossible, these gifted children, who surely must have been a lot more troubled and less merry than the tone often implies, dream of escape to New York City and eventually live out their dreams (some of it at least). The story ends with the kids, now all grown up, living in New York City (with the exception of the distant Maureen, the youngest), sharing a loving yet difficult relationship with their ever singular parent(s), who continue to live exciting lives as homeless squatters, diving the dumpster for supplies.

Wall’s story of poverty and hunger is as poignant as her parents are memorable. Singular individuals with unique philosophies, they dole out entertainment, love and difficulty in equal measure.

“But Mom”, I said, “that ring could get us a lot of food [of a two-carat diamond ring that the kids found and that the mother decides to wear].”

“That’s true,” Mom said, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is even more vital than food.”

The Glass Castle is the first book I read (and tremendously enjoyed) this year as part of the What’s in a name 5 challenge – a book with a type of house in the title.

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Go make some memories!

You might know that Moonwalking with Einstein  is about “the art and science of remembering everything” if you’ve read the book’s subtitle. In other words, the book is about memory. But two wildly different aspects of memory: memory as a life skill, and the watershed transition from orality to literacy; and memory as a competitive sport and the requisite intensive training in memory techniques.

Author and journalist Joshua Foer emphasizes that the book is not a self-help guide. It documents his engaging journey as he immerses himself in participative journalism and ultimately becomes a US Memory Champion. No easy feat, but not out of reach to an average Joe, he insists. In his own words, the book chronicles the year he spent training his memory “and also trying to understand it – its inner workings, its natural deficiencies, its hidden potential”.

With the invention of writing and the printing press, human cultures hitherto reliant on oral lore to transmit cultures, adapted writing as the dominant medium of communication. The ‘externalization of memory’ no doubt led to a profound shift in our thought and consciousness, but also made the art of memory quite redundant. In Plato’s Phaedrus, which is essentially a complex dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus on what constitutes artful speaking and writing, Socrates argues that since writing has no notion of the receiver’s soul, it can neither raise questions nor offer instructions and can at best serve not as a recipe for memory, but a mere tool for reminding, and hence only implant forgetfulness. (Phaedrus was required reading while at graduate school, and while it may be an insightful analysis of communication and its breakdown, it is hands down the most dense and enigmatic conversation I’ve ever dissected.)

Our memory is only as good as the use it gets. So, with phones that store all our numbers, with post-its and plain notepads that store our to-do lists, with books that we can refer whenever we need to, with online dictionaries that save us the trouble of remembering what words like macaronic or saprostomous mean, it seems like our memory really gets very limited use. Such as, perhaps, where we saw our keys last, or what someone’s name is, or remembering to pay our rent on time. Unless, of course, you are in a business that depends on your ability to remember. Being a cabbie in London, for instance. Foer writes that:

..before they can receive accreditation from London’s Public Carriage Office, cabbies-in-training must spend two to four years memorizing the locations and traffic patterns of all 25,000 streets in the vast ad vastly confusing city, as well as the locations of 1.400 landmarks…Only about three out of ten people who train for the Knowledge obtain certification.

Or even a birder. In Feather Quest, Master birder Pete Dunne describes his own elaborate procedure for bird identification simply by listening to its song or call:

It takes time to tune an ear, and effort, too. It means tracking down every unfamiliar song and welding the visual image of the bird to an ephemeral voice. Unless you are among the gifted few, someone with the auditory recall of Igor Stravinskly, the weld usually does not hold the first time, or the second time either. The bird with the short, bright phrases or the raspy vowels must be tracked down over and over and over. Then over and over again, until those phrases and the image of that bird fuse and become one.

Or maybe you are a chick sexer and have honed your chick sexing skills by looking at thousands of chick bottoms, and can expertly identify the sex of a chicken in a few seconds. Maybe you do something less obscure, more mundane – maybe you drive. When I first learned to drive, I felt the need to memorize the different routines: K-turns, parallel parking, why, even starting the car (put the seat belts on, adjust the mirrors, check the seat, check the brakes), or making a turn (turn the indicator on, slow down, hand-over-hand turn), until I’d had enough hours of practice that it seemed automatic and not overwhelming at all. Anybody who is an expert on anything has an exceptional memory, even if it is just in his field of expertise.

The world of a memory athlete is vastly different from your mother’s (who remembers the date you started crawling). It is strange and fascinating, and yet it seems ridiculous and pointless. What is so exciting about memorizing 27 packs of cards in one hour? Foer writes in detail about his own memory training, and the various memory techniques he learns and masters. Such as, the memory palace. A memory palace or method of loci is a memory technique which hinges on the memorization of the layouts of a place – it could be your home, a museum, or even a route that you are familiar with, and imagining a specific path through this place. Imagine walking through the place of your choice (always along a certain path) and visually associating certain landmarks on that path (door, a couch, a clock) with the items you want to remember. In the book, Foer invites the reader to use their own childhood home (or any such familiar place) to remember a list. It worked. I still picture a giant bottle of garlic pickle near the gate of my apartment building. This technique is ancient indeed. Foer adds the interesting tidbit that the word topic is in fact derived from the Greek word topos for place. Now you know where the phrase in the first place comes from – the memory palace.

Being a memory champion is not likely to have many practical advantages. As Foer attests, he still is as forgetful (or not) in everyday life. Nevertheless, memory is important. Knowledge is sticky when you have prior knowledge – “it takes knowledge to gain knowledge..facts to fasten other facts to…the more you know, the easier it is to know more”.

“Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”

Memory and intelligence, it seems, go hand in hand. So, take notice. Be mindful and attentive. Even our ability to find humor depends on memory. Also, says Foer, change your routines, have new experiences, take vacations. Memories can also have an effect on perceived quality, and perhaps more importantly, quantity of our lives:

“Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives…life seems to speed up as we get older because life gets less memorable as we older.”

So, go to Iceland. Bathe in New Mexico’s hot springs under a star-studded sky. Or go to a croissant making class. Whatever rocks your boat. Go make memories.

But for me, the most poignant take-away is that my son will be probably have no memory of me, until now that is. Foer reports that the average age people report having their earliest memory is around three and a half years, which sounds about right. The most eventful years of my life will be less than a blur to him.

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In The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn from Newcomers to America about Health, Happiness,and Hope, Claudia Kolker, herself the daughter of an immigrant from Mexico, examines certain practices and customs that are brought to the United States from other, more traditional societies and which are often modified by second-generation immigrants to  result in hybrid versions, and ponders their applicability and benefit to American society as a whole.

In 2009, a conference hosted by Brown University brought together researchers, policymakers and educators to look into the question: Is being American a developmental risk? The conference probed the phenomenon of, what was later termed, the immigrant paradox. Despite the many disadvantages that may exist in the context of immigration, such as low education, low socioeconomic status, and a general unfamiliarity with the many, not easy to navigate, US systems, early generation immigrant children and adolescents demonstrate better behavioral and academic outcomes than later generation peers. Academic success aside, foreign nativity also seems to protect against mental illnesses. While there is no conclusive evidence to believe that early generation immigrants, in general, enjoy a better quality of life because of their ‘healthful’ customs, some of their habits and conventions are certainly comforting and unifying. The question is, can these practices be adapted to the American household, and if so, how? Are they relevant? Are they practical? And are they always enriching?

Specifically, Kolker considers:

  • the Vietnamese hui, a revolving loan money club –  a tradition that hinges on mutual trust and peer pressure
  • the Mexican cuarentena, a postpartum ritual that prescribes a 40-day period of rest for the new mother
  • the Indian assisted marriage, a modern variation of the traditional arranged marriage
  • Korean hagwons, popular private afterschools
  • Jamaican multigenerational living
  • Stoops, sidewalks and neighborhood shops that boost community cohesiveness in Little Village, a Mexican community in Chicago, and
  • the Vietnamese com thang, inexpensive home-style Vietnamese food delivered every night

None of these practices are exclusive to the communities in which they are practiced. I can think of an Indian counterpart to each of these systems that operate similarly, if not identically. What distinguishes these traditions from those practiced in origin countries is that they have been successfully adapted in a country that does not mix friends and money, that prides itself on being self-reliant, that frowns on parental interference in one’s love life, that shudders at the parenting practices (often humorously) suggested by the Tiger Mother, that disdains  living with one’s parents when one is an adult, that is mostly roads and cars, and take-out food and TV dinners (generalizations, that needn’t always be true).

In a country of immigrants, some who arrived earlier than others, none of these traditional practices should really sound strange and foreign to Americans. Kolker throws in some numbers to assure us that there are fewer foreign-borns in the country today when compared to a hundred years ago. Many of the immigrants who entered the New World a century ago surely had their own version of these practices. Somehow, in the intervening years, they have been displaced by ‘modern American values’. I certainly don’t wish to idealize either the ‘traditions’ or their modern counterparts, but it is fascinating to note the rate at which cultures and people change, or stay the same. While immigrant pockets might still be practicing ‘assisted marriages’, their peers in origin countries might consider the practice as antiquated as contemporary Americans do.

Kolker points out the merits of these customs. “They fortify our most portable resource – our conduct. And they harness core instincts like reciprocity, the need for approval, love of laughter.” And then, noting that these traditions needn’t be as alien to Americans as they are, she says:

Ingenious as they may be, I realized, most of these traditions aren’t really foreign at all. They are masterfully refined variations on classic American good sense. Mean to promote thrift, community, and individual backbone, versions of these customs lie packed away in every American’s family tradition.

While I couldn’t agree more with Kolker that these traditions are universal, I am not quite sure what to make of the ‘classic American good sense’. Good sense, I would like to think is also universal, a hallmark of humanity, and not a quality to be appropriated by any nationality.

While Kolker does not mean to look at these traditions through rose-colored spectacles, it might be worthwhile to note the essence of these habits. For instance, the cuarentena might be 40-day mandatory resting period for new mothers, but it no means prescribes a forced quarantine, or isolation. The cuarentena is based on rest, guidance, and companionship, and bans ‘tiresome acquaintances’. Unfortunately,more often than not, the “components for a traditional cuarantena in this country don’t exist”. What results is a semi-cuarantena which could well be a prescription for postpartum depression, and not peace.

In doing her research, Kolker speaks of asking immigrants this question: “What habit do you think people from your country should hang on to when they move here?”. One little girl’s response to this question, “Little shops you can walk to”, resonates with me deeply. Having lived in communities that have semi-public spaces, porches, parks, sidewalks, and shops one can walk to, my affection for these neighborhoods stems less from a laziness to drive, than from a sort of near desperate longing for the kind of living that is associated with a walker-friendly community. Kolker associates such neighborhoods with protection from asthma, but she doesn’t have to convince me.

Traditions are neither good, nor bad. They are practices, and just like others, may or may not work for you. Foreign-borns like me can benefit from a different perspective that does seem to offer some comfort. The Immigrant Advantage invites us to be more accepting of our traditions and be a part of a ‘tossed salad’ culture, instead of wanting to melt into a homogenous, American melting pot. Towards the end of the book, Kolker writes of a research project focused on adolescents in immigrant families.

They [the researchers] found that the more years they lived here, the more urgently the youngsters wanted to break with their parents, speak only English, and emulate longtime Americans…”It’s a bit of a twist,” the director of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health told the New York Times. “Linguistic isolation is a positive thing because it slows assimilation…[and assimilation can mean] adopting unhealthy behavior and risk factors from which they are protected by their own culture.”

Assimilation. That may well be the real paradox.

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A Year in Birds

When I was younger, much younger, reading James Herriot made me feel warm and fuzzy. I remember feeling disappointed later when I found out that Herriot actually wrote fiction, even though much of it is said to have been inspired by fact. Well, at least it wasn’t inspired non-fiction.

Savoring Pete Dunne on a cold winter afternoon brought back the warm fuzzies. There is, of course, his signature wit, which I sampled earlier  in Prairie Spring. But there is something else to his writing too. Something that inspires wonder, respect and understanding. Expertise and experience. His masterful identification of birds, whether he catches but a glimpse or not at all (purely by ear), whether he sees the birds high up in the sky where field marks are all but devoured by the sun, or camouflaged by tall prairie grass or lush spring leaves. And his rich experiences amidst all the bird wealth the world has to offer, in crowded national parks, and solitary corners of the world. And his lifelist and the glorious birds on it.

Rushing to look up goldeneyes and condors on All About Birds, I was reminded yet again why birds hold so much fascination for bird watchers and non bird watchers alike. They are alive, often colorful, they make music, they are elusive and yet, they are everywhere. Roger Tory Peterson sums it up very nicely:

As James Fisher[noted British ornithologist] commented, they [birds] can even be a bore if you are a bore.

Indeed. And so, just as birds are so many things, according to Peterson, “the observation of birds can be many things, depending on who you are and what you are”. It can be a science or an art. It can be a pleasant recreation if you are a backyard bird watcher or a source of passionate obsession, a game and a sport, if you are one of those listers, those birders. It’s no wonder then that birding is a popular outdoor activity in the United States (I was’nt able to find much more specific data – Is birding more popular than bicycling? Gardening? Fishing? Walking? I am not sure how these rank.)

Dunne’s Feather Quest is really a bird quest, a Pete Dunne’s life in birds circa 1989. With fancy typesetting, and a silhouette of a bird delineating each chapter adventure, the book makes me want to be Dunne’s invisible companion. It even makes me want to be the expert that he is, to effortlessly identify birds, to have all those colorful birding experiences, and that warm birding camaraderie. Dunne is humorous and philosophical and always environmentally conscious. So what if he has a strange proclivity to talk to trees and painted horses, or if he reuses his punch lines. The ‘Basset Hound’ line that I so enjoyed in Prairie Spring where Dunne refers to a Mountain Plover thus:

“a bird with a fawn-colored back, a cream-colored breast, and an expression so baleful a basset hound might die from envy”

…was sadly not all that original. Dunne had already used the same, now less funny, description in reference to a Ross’ Gull in The Feather Quest:

“a feathered figurine, pale as ivory, with an eye so balefully black that a basset hound would die from envy”

Well. It was a good one, even if a tad overused.

Having read Moonwalking with Einstein (more on that later in a separate post), I was struck by the integral role that memory plays in birding. What is a birder’s brain but a high-speed retrieval system that operates on a catalog of thousands of bird names, field marks, bird songs, calls and other tiny, important details polished by years and years of watching birds? Dunne talks about his own techniques (that no doubt every birder worth his salt has mastered):

It takes time to tune an ear, and effort, too. It means tracking down every unfamiliar song and welding the visual image of the bird to an ephemeral voice. Unless you are among the gifted few, someone with the auditory recall of Igor Stravinskly, the weld usually does not hold the first time, or the second time either. The bird with the short, bright phrases or the raspy vowels must be tracked down over and over and over. Then over and over again, until those phrases and the image of that bird fuse and become one.

Now, what is that if not an elaborate memory technique?

Novice bird watchers like me can also benefit from advice that Dunne sometimes dishes out, such as, “just as with foraging flocks of titmice and chickadees, if you want to find uncommon seabirds, search through the ranks of common one”. The next time I see a sea of gulls, or starlings, I will keep my eye open for that lone treasure. Dunne’s admonitions about pelagic birding also are spot on:

First, you are afraid that you are going to be sick. Then, you are afraid that you are going to die. Then, you are afraid that you are going to live. And if you are sick, in rough seas, one hundred miles from land, that is a long, long time to live.

After a painfully long (and empty, I might add) birding trip into the deep Atlantic, I have reconciled myself to the idea that I might never sight a whale or a porpoise or possibly even an albatross.

Finally, Dunne is critical about man’s impact (mostly negative) on bird ecology and the environment in general. While in Prairie Spring he speaks at length about the damage the grasslands have endured, in Feather Quest, Dunne touches upon the impact of birding on birds. While a lone birder or small group might not have a noticeable impact, hundreds (or even thousands) of over-zealous birders vying to catch a glimpse of that rare bird, might trample their way to a longer life list. Heavy birding can destroy vegetation and even disrupt the activity patterns of birds.

Feather Quest was the last book I read in 2011 and I completed it just in time to achieve my modest reading goal of 60 books for the year that was.

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