Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book

10percenthappierMeditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book
by Dan Harris, Jeffrey Warren, and Carlye Adler
read by Dan Harris and Jeffrey Warren
2017

I ran across this book a year or so ago at someone else’s house and noted that it looked interesting. The  elevator pitch that originally caught my eye: it’s written by a TV news anchor who had an on-air panic attack and got into meditation in the aftermath as he dealt with his issues. So when I was looking for a good audio book to listen to on my commute, I remembered it, requested it at my library, and gave it a shot.

As it turns out, a book on meditation is not necessarily the best thing to listen to while driving. While the authors are very specific about how you don’t have to actually stop and meditate when they do through a meditation, it’s something I might have enjoyed doing otherwise. And driving along as the speaker says, “close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing” isn’t the safest way to drive, especially if I want to do so.

Also, as I should have realized from the title, I’m not actually the audience for this book since I’m not a skeptic about the benefits of meditation. I don’t care for the spiritual and transcendental elements that sometimes come along with meditation, but I’m quite well aware of the mental, emotional, and physical benefits of meditation. Sadly, there are all sorts of things I know would be good for me that I still don’t do, which is why I wanted to try this book out. But while it was a reminder that I should try to meditate on a semi-regular basis, I found a lot of the self-deprecating bonhomie humor of Harris, the primary author, not to my taste and a reminder of one more reason why I don’t watch TV news chat shows.

But it did seem like a good book for the right audience. And as an audio book it was recorded in some ways like a podcast with Harris and Warren switching off reading their sections and occasionally interacting with each other in scripted conversations. So to sum up, a relatively good book but not really my cup’a.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic_DSTraffic: why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)
written by Tom Vanderbilt
read by David Slavin
2008

Since I’m listening to audiobooks on my commute, I figured I might as well listen to one about traffic patterns. This was not my best idea ever. Not only does the reader try to input emotional import into every single one of his sentences to make it sound important and high energy and highly emotional (not what I want first thing in the morning as I drive in or after a long day’s work), but it also has a tendency to tell me what the average person’s commute is like and how people with longer commutes are unhappy with those commutes. I dislike being told I should dislike something that I don’t currently dislike. Look, there are enough things in the world that I do dislike, that I don’t need to acquire more just to fit in! And yet, I start double-guessing myself: am I unhappy with my commute? Should I be? Urg.

But aside from all that, it’s still a really interesting book.

While not in specific sections, this book addresses traffic in three different ways: as a psychologist about human behaviors, as a game theorist about best options, and as historian about stories. As it turns out, I really enjoy the stories (did you know that LA traffic has a central command hub that is largely automated except for Oscar night where there are people literally manipulating the light cycles to try to get the limousines all through? Because I hadn’t and I love it!), I find the game theory interesting (when lanes merge, late merging benefits everyone, so don’t merge until you absolutely have to!), and I find the psychology really, really irritating (as stated above, I don’t like people telling me what I do or do not think, and I’m not sure whether it’s worse when they’re wrong or when they’re right.)

Overall I do recommend the book and have found that even as I waited a month or so to actually post about this, that many of the stories and concepts have stuck with me.

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

HowToBeAloneHow to Be Alone
written by Jonathan Franzen
read by Jonathan Franzen and Brian d’Arcy James
2002

Franzen starts out introducing this book of essays with some reflection about how angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing he had once been as a younger man, and I’m listening to the remaining essays, glad that he’s found his own sense of self-improvement but also realizing that these essays are the most angry, zealously elitist, and deeply navel-gazing that I’ve ever read/listened to. In large part because I actively avoid the genre I would normally typify as Guy-in-your-MFA High Literature, but this is a set of nonfiction essays by a literary author and I have a commute, so I might as well listen to this one through to the end. With each successive CD, I had to convince myself anew to complete it if only just to write this review.

He discusses a variety of issues that I actually find moderately interesting, if depressing: the Clinton-Lewinsky-Starr-Report scandal, the problems with the Chicago postal service, the internal conflict between research departments and legal departments in the tobacco industry, the for-profit prison industry, the commercialization of sex. However, his essays are like op-ed pieces where he presents himself as speaking for “the silent majority” who all agree with him, and is distraught by the “cheap attacks” of naysayers with their statistics and surveys pointing out that he is, in fact, in the minority. The facts of a given situation are quickly overwhelmed by his personal interpretations. He is the everyman and speaks for everyone.

He states that High Literature = The Social Novel = Tragic Realism, and that all of these are best demonstrated by being about the unmarked straight white male. I generally avoid any modern novel calling itself “Literature” because it seems to me to be a genre made up of unpleasant people living unpleasant lives. Franzen agrees, except he thinks this is a good thing.

In fact, he seems to be carefully cultivating his own dissatisfaction with life. He’s not glorifying the problems of the world, per se, but glorifying his own knowledge of those problems, throwing it in contrast to the bourgeoisie others who “don’t fully understand.”
Part of his unhappiness is based on his apparent belief that being lauded by the masses is his proper default state and thus nothing to take pleasure in, while anyone not actively being impressed by him is taking something away from him. He is insulted that his demands for solitude and privacy are met without demure. He’s bemoaning the loss of his rape fantasy: he wants to be able to say “no” to demands for his opinion and then have that “no” disregarded.

As he bemoans the loss of interest in “real” literature, he remarks without any acknowledged irony, that publishers are instead publishing more works done by women and people of color. These he considers genre rathe than literature, by default. He argues that authors should not pander to the masses while also despairing that the masses do not like his books as much as they should. (Keep in mind that this is the complaint of an award-winning author.)

I can understand, in theory, that it must be very hard for straight, white men who have long been told that their concerns are universal, and that other’s concerns are merely genre issues, to be confronted with the discovery that they are actually just one more demographic. I can understand that it is a hardship for them all, and this author in particular. But I can’t managed to dredge up much actual sympathy.

In contrast, I realize that he is likely creating the background against which hopepunk and solarpunk have developed. And that, I think, is a gift.

Hit by a Farm by Catherine Friend

hitbyafarmHit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn
written and read by Catherine Friend
2009

I’m a fairly urban/suburban individual, but my aunt recently decided to leave her office job and start a homesteader farm so I wanted to know a little bit more about it. I like the theory of sun and fresh air more than I care for the practice. This book is about a couple who decide to leave their urban life and start a farm as well.

The chapters are all quite short, many of them could even stand alone as short stories, but together they build a sense of a whole life and lifestyle that Friend and her wife were creating. And while the topic is the farm, a lot of the focus is on the relationships that made up what the author refers to as their threesome: her, her wife, and the farm. I came for the stories of animals and plants, not people and relationships, but the stories of physical, mental, and emotional stress were clearly an integral part of starting a farm. There is a steep learning curve and while overall everything works out well, there are some serious set-backs.

While listening to the book, I sometimes found myself mentally criticizing the author for some of her poorer decisions, in the same way one might criticize a professional athlete: I could/would never do any of the thousand things she’s doing but how in the world did she manage to mess that one up! She and I are significantly different people and it occasionally made it hard for me to empathize, but I think that probably says significantly more about me than about either her or the book.

I like it when the author is also the reader of an audiobook, especially when that book is a memoir, since it allows them to add an extra layer of nuance to the stories.

 

The 1619 Project

I wasn’t planning to borrow from Kinsey’s occasional tendency of reviewing something that everyone has already read and talked about, but Rebecca assured me that it hadn’t crossed her path until I told her about it.

So…the 1619 Project:

In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the British colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.

The more I read as an adult, the more I realize just how sanitized the history I was taught was, and most particularly when it comes to slavery. This project is a collection of writing looking at the history of slavery, how it has roots in every sector of our country, and the ongoing harm it does today. It includes over a dozen pieces – mostly written essays but also poems, short works of fiction, and photo essays. It is large in scope, both in size and range of topics, and it is a daunting read that I honestly wasn’t sure I could manage.*

Then I started seeing some of the buckwild responses from conservatives who very clearly had not read any of it, and decided that I had to read it, out of spite if nothing else (for proof of what I’ll read out of spite, see Atlas Shrugged). And no lie, it is a hard read, though I suspect less difficult for black readers, who may mostly feel relieved to see published acknowledgement of what they already knew. I’ve set myself to read just one of the entries each day, so I’m only four in at the point of this review, but I feel like every sentence hits me like a ton of bricks:

This violence was meant to terrify and control black people, but perhaps just as important, it served as a psychological balm for white supremacy: You would not treat human beings this way. The extremity of the violence was a symptom of the psychological mechanism necessary to absolve white Americans of their country’s original sin.

— from “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” by Nikole Hannah-Jones

Continue reading

Havana Nocturne by T. J. English

HavanaNocturneHavana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution
by T. J. English
read by Mel Foster
2008

This was another audio book on my commute and it was interesting. It left me both extra cynical and moderately reassured about politics: that politics have always been extremely shady and the extremely wealthy are always trying to take advantage of their positions to make more money while accomplishing less and less with that money.

The book is really like a verbal flow-chart/timeline, describing the people involved in the mob’s financial invasion of Cuba and how they make connections and how those connections changed over time. This is not a negative review — I do love a good flow-chart — but perhaps a bit of a warning to potential readers who don’t. But it’s a fascinating situation and interesting characters and the author does a good job of laying it all out and showing who the players were and how it all came together.

While not a proponent of the time-period, per se, the author is clearly a fan who loves it*, which leads to him using some pretty purple prose and hollywood gangster-slang in an unironic way. English also has a habit of switching up how exactly he refers to a given individual, so it was a bit confusing in the beginning until I’d memorized the various nicknames, for instance, Meyer Lansky = “The little man” = “the Jewish mobster” = “the Jewish mobster from Brooklyn”. When English is feeling particularly dramatic, he stitches them all together: “Meyer Lansky, ‘the little man’, the Jewish mobster from Brooklyn”. The author was having a bit too much fun with all the gangster talk.

He’s also discussing an extremely sexist time period without any particularly acknowledgement of that, so the whole book comes across as sexist. Women and women’s attention are treated as desirable commodities that get bought and sold, both in and out of official prostitution.**

While the focus is on the American mob’s rise and fall in Havana, Cuba, their position was entwined with that of Fulgencio Batista and thus in conflict with Fidel Castro, so that regime and revolution were discussed as well. What I found particularly heartbreaking is how much potential both Batista and Castro had to do amazing amounts of good, that they each threw away in their rise to power, although Batista more than Castro, if only due to the fact that Castro only came into power in the final chapter of the book.

The epilogue discusses how involved the American Mob was with the CIA in their attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro and how bitter the mob was about the massive losses they had to the loss of their gambling empire in Cuba. The author seemed moderately sympathetic for the loss. I was less so: they gambled and they lost. That’s part of gambling and they should have known it.

* It would not surprise me at all if he had the entire Godfather trilogy memorized. He certainly references The Godfather, Part II often enough.

** Although it’s kind of amazing how heterosexuality is still the norm (with the acknowledgement that homosexuality exists but to the side) while the main porn star that *everyone* wanted to see was a guy with a massive dick. I’m like: the women are interchangeable but all the guys wants to see this one guy’s dick in action? That’s… something.

 

Stones into Schools by Greg Mortenson

StonesIntoSchools coverStones into Schools
by Greg Mortenson
read by Atossa Leoni
2009

What is particularly wonderful about this book is the pervasive optimism. At a time when I often feel hopeless in the face of atrocities I can’t fight, this is a story about a guy who figured out how to fight. And by fight, I mean arrange the building of schools for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.

I may be the last person to know about this book since it’s a sequel to “Three Cups of Tea”, which I vaguely recall from that having been on the New York Times Best Seller list for a gazillion weeks some years back, but I never read. I now probably need to do so. But I picked up “Stones into Schools” kind of randomly as one of the few audiobooks at my local library that looked like an interesting read for my work commute. And it really was.

Apparently, in the first book, Mortenson talks about having been a mountain climber who got lost in Pakistan, winding up in a small rural village where a very goal-oriented young child wrangles a promise out of him that he will return and build her a school in her village. There’s some extreme mission creep, as happens, and he winds up with a nonprofit that builds a number of schools in a number of rural villages.

The second book, this one that I’ve just read (ie, listened to), starts with Mortenson checking in on one of these schools along the Pakistan-Afghan border, when horseriders come down from the Afghan mountains to meet him. They explain that they had heard he was in the area, and by area, they meant a mere six-day horseride away, and had come to ask him to build a school for their community of nomadic yak herders in the heights of the mountainous Wakhan Corridor. This was in 1998.

The book covers the next ten years of Mortenson’s attempt to get that school built, through the rise of Taliban and the complex series of relationships, favors given and owed, with all the people and communities along the way.

The book does an amazing job of introducing the people he meets and works with, in all their complexities of personal histories and motives, and how, in the end, they align in trying to bring literacy to rural girls. It also really introduced me for the first time to exactly how horrific the Taliban was to the people it claimed as its own, and how few they truly numbered for all their viciousness. The Taliban created an unsustainable society that hates its own women, but the women and the men who cared for them continued to strive for better.

This book makes me feel hopeful. And that is something I desperately need right now.

When I checked my library catalog to make sure they had “Three Cups of Tea” for my future reading/listening (they do), I discovered another book “Three Cups of Deceit” all about how Mortenson is a liar and a fraud and just the title felt like a slap in the face after such optimism. I looked up both that book and Mortenson on Wikipedia to figure out what the actual truth was and, as far as I can tell, the “Three Cups of Deceit” guy was angry that Mortenson isn’t perfect, nonprofits are always weird, rural schools for girls haven’t immediately created peace in the middle east, and decided to ride the coattails of fame with a clickbait title, while doing his best to turn optimism into cynicism and hope into despair. Mortenson promotes his successes and talks less about his failures and there’s no more financial shenanigans in his nonprofit than in many others. I think the ultimate lesson here is: you don’t have to be flawless to still be good. Find a quest, like-minded people will join you on the quest, and do as much good in the world as you possibly can.