One of my rules of thumb is that you can tell how healthy a college’s culture is by how often the college’s president has his or her picture in the magazine and online. The more megalomaniacal the graphic presence, the more oligarchical the institution is likely to be. I’ve worked for places in which the leader had to take credit for every single thing, surrounded by his anonymous “people.” Those workplaces are both personally miserable and organizationally ineffective.
One of the goals of leadership should be to surround yourself with people far superior to you in whatever that thing is that they do, and to take every opportunity to push them to the front, so that their best talents shine. And this is not merely a public strategy, this should also be operational strategy. The leader’s role is to hold the mission, to measure actions against the mission, to assemble the best possible team to advance the mission, and to use what charisma she or he has to rouse others to stay strong and join the cause. The leader’s role is also to follow… to follow the recommendations of people who know more, to follow the guidance of those who’ve immersed themselves in the data and the practices of their fields.
For decades, I’ve wished that presidential candidates were required to name the entirety of their cabinet prior to the election. I know that’s unfair to those cabinet nominees, who have to be public with their willingness to leave their current positions even with the uncertainty of an election ahead. But we deserve to know who a candidate believes should be our nation’s Attorney General… our Secretary of Defense… our Secretary of the Treasury. We deserve to know in advance whether an administration will be filled with intellectual leaders, professional practitioners, party holdovers, or personal sycophants.
In our time of COVID, it’s especially important for our leaders to know when to follow. This is not a political opponent with a strategy to outwit, and it’s not a business cycle to be timed correctly. It’s just a mindless virus that neither knows nor cares what we want, going about its daily business in a way that’s incompatible with our own. This is the time we follow… follow the guidance of the epidemiologists and public health experts who have decades of experience in studying other outbreaks, and have learned what has and has not worked.
Leadership is not always (perhaps not even usually) about exerting one’s will. Leadership is about surrounding yourself with smart people, and then listening to their recommendations in service to a common goal.
The last three books I’ve started to read have been DNFs—Did Not Finish. I don’t need to tell you what they were: other people liked them just fine, and I prefer to talk about books that I love instead of those that didn’t catch me. But I can tell you why they didn’t catch me: I didn’t want to spend time with the characters. There was nobody there who was both intelligent and good-natured. If I went to a party where there was nobody intelligent and good-natured, I’d go home from that, too.
It used to be that I would have kept those books. I would have either bulled my way through them, determined to cross some irrelevant finish line, or I would have left them on my nightstand with a bookmark in them, nagging at me to fulfill my responsibility and gathering dust. Now, I don’t feel bad for even a minute; I set them into a pile for a friend who runs a used bookstore and would be happy to sell a nearly-new copy of some otherwise well-regarded book. Maybe I’ll get a couple of bucks from her if they sell, and maybe those books will land with a reader who appreciates them in a way that I couldn’t.
Back when I was a runner, a DNF was a sign of defeat or disaster. I dropped out of my first marathon at mile 23, from hypothermia on a gray and drizzly Northern California March day. But for more elite runners, a DNF can be a strategic decision. If you’re having a bad day, there’s no reason to finish 26 miles just as a poorly-framed training run. Let it go, plan for your next race, and don’t hurt yourself. I later finished two other marathons, under better conditions.
I think of DNF’s with books the same way. I don’t need to prove to myself or anyone else that I have the gumption to finish a whole book: I’ve done that thousands and thousands of times already. I’m an elite reader, I don’t need to finish a bad novel just for the training. I can drop it and get myself ready for the next one.
A couple of days ago, a friend asked Nora and I for recommendations for novels she should read during this moment of isolation. And the ones on that list were the happy ones, the ones where finishing them was never in doubt. Allow me to introduce you to some of my friends:
The Fortunes: Peter Ho Davies
The Queen’s Gambit: Walter Tevis
Miyami and the Sea of Happiness: Jennifer Tseng
A Pocketful of Names: Joe Coomer
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Dancer: Colum McCann
The Calligrapher’s Daughter: Eugenia Kim
The Kiss Quotient: Helen Hoang
Fingersmith: Sarah Waters
Our Souls at Night: Kenth Haruf
Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion
I hope they’ll bring you as much joy as they did me. But if not… DNF them and go on to another. Read what you want.
Some years ago, the writer Daniel Pennac devised what he called the Reader’s Bill of Rights. The right to not read… to skip pages… to not finish… to reread… to read anything… to escapism… to read anywhere… to browse… to read out loud… and to not defend your tastes. These are not the rules that Sister Edna Marie would have led us to respect, but she’d have marked me down for the DNF’s, too. I’ve gotten over it.
Nora’s been occasionally helping the local museum community identify the spinning wheels they own: their likely origins, the kinds of fibers they would have been meant to spin, and the things to look for when identifying a new acquisition. And as is true in all museum work, there’s some degree of debate about what constitutes “appropriate” preservation. How much of something can you change before it’s no longer the same thing?
Sure, you can clean a piece of art… unless the acquisition of detritus was one of the artist’s original intentions. You maybe can change a painting’s frame, but you can’t just grab one from Michael’s. If the varnish is cracked on a piece of furniture, you can probably try to clean it, but you can’t sand it down and throw some polyurethane on it, even though it’s a more durable material and the table would be better protected.
A lot of historic preservation in architecture is what I think of as taxidermy: we save the skin, fill it with a modern building, and stick a pair of glass eyeballs in it. What part of a building deserves to be preserved? Just the facade? Or the plumbing? Or the original interior walls? Should we put an elevator into a building that never had one? Should we keep storing hay for the police-wagon horses on the second floor? It’s easy to chase questions of preservation down to silly extremes, but the underlying question is always the same impossible, ontological dilemma: What, exactly, is the nature of the thing? What parts of the thing must remain part of the thing if it’s going to continue to be the thing? At what moment in the thing’s development must it be locked into place and not further changed?
Sometimes that question doesn’t matter at all. There are some car restorers who want to verify the exact original part of every element of their restoration, building a sort of archaeological record of what came off the assembly line. On the other end, I’ve long been a fan of car customization, in which whatever Detroit provided is merely inspiration for what could be.
This car was completely reimagined by the brothers Yoshi and Kyohei Sakuragi and bodyworker Gene Winfield, to capture a love of curvature and solidity, and to hearken back to the late 50’s and early 60’s origins of “kustom kulture.” You could put it into one kind of museum as an exemplar of creativity and craft, but you couldn’t put it into another kind of museum as an historical record of auto production. So what do you want the thing to be?
One of the few books I’ve kept from my former academic interests is Preserving Cultural Landscapes in America, a book of essays that were edited together by Arnold Alanen and Robert Melnick. One essay by Richard Francaviglia offers a classification system for understanding what he calls “heritage landscapes,” but which we can use to think about any kind of historic object.
There are the passively preserved, “preserved unintentionally through continued traditions of use, ownership, and design.”
There are the actively preserved, “consciously preserved to retain their historic heritage or charm.”
There are the restored, “in which significant historic features have been reconstructed or replaced (or later intrusions removed) to enable them to regain their original character.”
There are the assembled, “in which historic designs and historical features are constructed to achieve a look of antiquity.”
There are the imagineered, “designed to appear historic but reconstructed to convey essence rather than re-create particular locale.”
There are the imagically preserved, “images, models, or dioramas that recreate vanished landscapes for viewing rather than entry.”
Most of Nora’s wheels are either passively preserved, rescued intact from someone’s mom’s house, or restored, with broken parts rebuilt from materials similar to the originals (like using cow or deer bone to make the bearings rather than nylon). There’s no pressure to modernize, to install stainless steel parts for increased production, so it’s easy to keep them more or less original. But sometimes, in order to get the machine to run at all, you make do: building a spindle harness from a leather belt instead of braided corn husks, for instance. It’s a little thing, but in some circumstances, little things matter.
In re-enactor culture, the question of material authenticity is a constant. Coming to a Civil War re-enactment with your contemporary Browning rifle wouldn’t do: the Browning company didn’t even exist until the 1880s, much less that particular instrument. Participants would be discouraged from bringing a polystyrene cooler filled with machine-made ice and canned beer. But lots and lots of re-enactors go beyond that. They make their own woolen underwear, forego their contact lenses in favor of glasses appropriate to the 1860s. But even that is about visual authenticity. Do they leave their Lipitor at home? Do they no longer get to participate once they’ve had a knee replacement or a composite-resin tooth filling? How about if they’ve studied contemporary sociology, and simply know things that wouldn’t have been known at Appomattox? Where do we quit?
It’s all about intentions. Do we intend to recreate an 1810 object in its precise detail? Or do we want to use it every day, and thus accept some improvements? And what level of imprecision becomes immediately noticeable and regrettable, like the photo at the top of today’s post? I mean, SOMEBODY approved that. A whole bunch of them, actually, the developer and the design firm and the local building council. So what were their intentions, and who are we to judge them?
I love the heuristic value of a simple two-by-two matrix. I discovered its power when I was trying to understand why some of the teenagers I hung out with twenty five years ago during my dissertation were brilliant and funny and didn’t have a lot of interest in school, while others who were equally smart were teacher’s pets, somewhat dull and always dutiful. And it occurred to me that we were actually seeing two simultaneous variables. The first was whether or not they had families with sort of normal white-collar resources. And the second was whether they were engaged in testing the boundaries of what they and others knew, or were satisfied to follow the tracks laid out by others. And once I had that, once I could put it into a named model, I could suddenly see dozens of other ways that it played out.
The kids who had resources and were comfortable in how life played out were simply believers, those who knew that compliance brought rewards. But those who were both protected and wanted to know more took on the role of theologians, constantly questioning why some practice was in place, always looking for alternatives. The same contrast played out for those students with fewer resources. The ones who let it all wash over them because they knew it didn’t matter were agnostics, but the ones who felt personally threatened or demeaned and that the situation required resistance were the infidels.
I’m pretty convinced that you could take almost any two social variables, place them orthogonally to one another, and learn something interesting and meaningful about social relations and where individuals stand within them. And that’s where the uppermost graphic came from.
One of the benefits of social isolation is that you have time to a) clean out all the old articles you’ve clipped from magazines, and b) read them before recycling. So Nora had kept an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 21, 2003, by Alice Weaver Flaherty, called “Writing Like Crazy: a Word on the Brain.” This essay was a pre-publication excerpt from her 2004 book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. (Thank god for the Chronicle’spre-publication excerpts…)
Anyway, it’s a really interesting article, and the book’s probably pretty good, too. But the thing that stopped me dead was this:
Most researchers agree that a useful definition of creative work is that it includes a combination of novelty and value. Creativity requires novelty because tried-and-true solutions are not creative, even if they are ingenious and useful. And creative works must be valuable (useful or illuminating to at least some members of the population) because a work that is merely odd is not creative. This two-factor definition of creativity also provides an explanation of why the creative can be close to the crazy (unusual but valueless behavior).
And that explains so much of the travails of the early author. The attribution of whether our work is valuable is inevitably external; someone else must value it. Without that external validation, all we can know is that we’re doing work that hasn’t been done before. And the question of whether we’re creative or crazy becomes a daily (or hourly) dilemma. Steven King and Margaret Atwood don’t have to live quite so closely to that question, because the world has provided tons of validation for their work. For the rest of us, struggling to find readers… I think it’s natural that at least once in a while, we imagine ourselves to be fully insane. By definition, the writer of an unpublished work has created novelty without value; that status may change at some point, but we have no empirical grounds upon which to say that. We have no control over the value, and can’t fully trust our self-assessment.
We all know plenty of people who imagine themselves clever, but are merely annoying. The possibility of the Dunning-Kruger Effect always has to be recognized. One of the other quotes from Flaherty’s article was this simple laugh line:
As Eyler Coates put it, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually produce a masterpiece. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”
This was late 2003, remember. The exponential growth of the Internet since then has introduced us to an explosion of wonders, and an even greater explosion of idiocy. Sturgeon’s Law, introduced in 1957, still holds: Ninety percent of everything is crap. How can we imagine ourselves immune?
A group of people in the United States took to social media on Tuesday to express shock at receiving a pornographic video while dialing in to a virtual social event held on Zoom, a California-based video conferencing platform… “Participants screamed and cringed while the hosts rushed to kick the troll out of the call. But they just re-entered under a new name and blasted the audience with more disgusting imagery.”
There’s a whole subculture devoted to shock and destruction. Of people who bring nothing to the table but a desire to disrupt, to disturb, to provoke.
Social workers Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner have identified a few of the underlying causes of trolling in children, where it’s kind of normal:
Children are generally known for having a low tolerance for frustration. They want things to go their way.
They are unable to cope with their frustrations and extreme feelings, and destructiveness is a release of sorts.
Sometimes a child may learn that by breaking things or behaving in a violent manner, he will effectively frighten a parent into doing what he wants.
Intimidation may also give a child who’s feeling powerless a sense of control.
How is it that we’ve created an entire culture of these man-boys who have no other strategy than defiance and destruction? How is it that millions of people got stuck at eleven years old?
How is it that we elect them?
This nonsense about the “Chinese virus” has two goals. One is to encourage fear of the other, making us compliant with the hero who might save us. The other is to deflect attention from our own amazingly bad planning. (A century ago, we’d have probably called it the “Italian virus,” since Italy has been hit so badly, and we didn’t like Italians so much back then.)
Listen. Viruses don’t have nationalities or ethnicities. They don’t carry passports, don’t have allegiances to a homeland. They aren’t “attacking” us, since they lack motivation. They aren’t “aggressive,” since they lack emotion. They grow somewhat normally among animals, then at some point a human host is infected successfully, and then it’s just people all the way down after that. If people travel, viruses can come from far away. If people don’t travel, then once in a while, a virus takes down everybody in our little insignificant holler, and no one else ever hears about it.
The “Spanish flu” of a hundred years ago was originally from Kansas, then France, before discovered in significant numbers in soldiers returning to the US from Spain in World War 1. There was nothing any more Spanish about the Spanish flu than there was about the “Spanish rice” my mother made from Uncle Ben’s and paprika. There’s nothing any more Chinese about the “Chinese virus” than there is about the holiday cookies I make every year from melted chocolate and bagged chow mein noodles.
Viruses don’t come from bad sanitation. They don’t come from “dirty cultures.” They don’t follow family lines. They come from breathing on or sneezing on or coughing on or exchanging bodily fluids with somebody else. It’s as simple as that.
As Susan Sontag wrote forty years ago in Illness as Metaphor, our need to anthropomorphize everything gets in the way of understanding diseases on their own terms. The sick become flawed, the well become virtuous. And neither are true. It’s all just respiratory droplets, in the end. Bleach and alcohol and physical distance have positive effects, fear and blame do not.
There’s a common line in internet protocols: Don’t feed the trolls. To mean, ignore them and they’ll go away. Well, we ignored them for a long time, and they elected their king to be ours. We need to step up and do better. Trolls are vicious and dangerous, far more so than viruses. In the end, they can’t be ignored, or else we cede the ground altogether.
…When it comes to how we respond to them, our tactics can and will vary, and they may involve anger, humor, love, tolerance, blocking, or maybe even some productive discussion. But ultimately, if we care about abuse, we cannot care most about whether we have comforted, converted, or even fed them. We have to care more about the people they hurt.
I’m acting as the Town’s emergency management director, which means I’m getting tons of info from the state department of health and the state emergency management office. I try to put out daily updates on our town website, so as to help people sort through what they can trust.
I know, at this moment, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about COVID-19 and how we might respond. Some of that is just mistaken, the flurry that comes when things change rapidly. Some of it is purposeful scamming and profiteering, the anti-coronavirus toothpaste or the Silver Solution. But sometimes…
Here’s a near-verbatim transcript of a conversation I had today at the grocery store, getting a few things before practicing shelter-in-place for a while. (First off, there was no toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectant anything, any kind of cold & flu. No meat, no chicken, no dairy, no bottled water. No pasta, no rice, no tomato sauce products, no beans. It was pretty apocalyptic, unnecessarily so.)
So I’m in the checkout line, working to sustain a respectful distance between me and the fellow ahead of me. But before I get to the conveyor, this person comes up behind me. Close behind me. Like she-could-choke-me-out-with-both-hands close behind me.
I turned over my shoulder and said, “Could I ask you to give me just a little more space?”
“Why? What happened?”
I didn’t quite know how to answer that. “Nothing happened. I’d just like to have a little more personal distance between us… as recommended by public health.”
“I’m not sick!”
“Well, you don’t think you’re sick…”
“I know I’m not sick. And I don’t want to argue.”
And just as I gave up and turned forward to go about my business, she added…
“You need to look up 5G and chemtrails. The storm is coming…”
O! M! F! G!
It used to be hard to publish things. It used to be hard to spread lunacy. You used to have to stand on the subway platform and harangue the passers-by. But now there’s a whole alternate universe out there, where the like-minded can convince one another that “they” are out to get us. Depending on where you live online, COVID-19 is:
a way to digitally disable the organs of those who are non-compliant in the face of the New World Order, using 5G wireless technology and chemtrail-diffused “smart dust.”
the means of righteous execution of those responsible for the global pedophilia ring, which somehow includes Tom Hanks and the NBA because why not.
a tool of Big Pharma to scare us into accepting high-profit vaccines.
biological warfare by the U.S. (in China), or biological warfare by China (in the U.S.).
I’m sure there are a dozen others.
Public discourse relies on a public. And we no longer have a public, we have hundreds of thousands of specifically curated worlds that bear almost no relationship to one another.
Viruses are dangerous. But viral stupidity is what will kill us.
I’m a big fan of the Graham Norton talk show (or as they call them in England, “chat shows”). He brings all his guests on together, gives them drinks, and they make each other funnier and wittier as they tell stories, mostly having to do with some stupid or embarrassing thing they themselves have done. Here’s a part of one story from the American comedian Kevin Hart, about one of his early-career stand-up gigs:
I remember hearing a woman’s voice, an older lady, I tell a joke, and the joke doesn’t work. And I remember this lady just going, “Oh, no…” And I would much rather be booed than hear the disappointment from her voice. I remember, she said, “Oh, no, baby…” Like I had made a mistake with my whole choice of life.
Nora and I spent the day yesterday out of town at a craft center—I won’t tell you where, so as to not cast aspersions on perfectly lovely people doing their best. But…
You know how you can just tell when it’s not right? How you can spot the hobbyist acrylic painting, the church-supper poem, the crocheted pillow cover that won’t ever be displayed? How you can hear the tin ear, the stiff piano player, the story that might never end?
What do you say when you see the bad taxidermy, the tuna-noodle casserole, the birch branch jigsawed into a rough crucifix? What do you say to the rock polishers, the potholder-makers, the person who makes refrigerator magnets of tiny photos inside bottle caps?
And what if they’re me?
I live in perpetual fear that my work is just… precious, a nice hobby, like an endless series of knitted baby caps foisted upon every distant relative.
There’s an internet meme that says, “Being stupid is like being dead… you’ll never know it, but everyone around you will.” And that’s the fate of the artist, putting our work out in public, and having the public walk past, trying not to notice you… or having them pick it up, consider it silently for a few seconds, and set it back down.
Short of the National Book Award, the glowing review in the London Review of Books, the Booker or the Grand Prix… anything less than that leaves us to wonder, really, whether the work has mattered. The doing of the work matters, and matters enormously. To us. But the work itself, and its worth to others… it’s impossible to say.
And sometimes, when I’m in the galleries of ill-proportioned still life drawings, or undrinkable home-brewed beer, or yet another lumpy ceramic pot… the question feels awfully close to home.