If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff? Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch

Nothing to it. If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff, writing fifteen thousand criminal offenders? He said to Jackie, ‘Okay,’ and was committed, more certain of his part in this than hers. Until she stood close to him in the kitchen and he lifted the skirt up over her thighs, looking at this girl in a summer dress, fun in her eyes, and knew they were in it together.

—Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch, chapter 20

“Fun in her eyes” has to be among the most Leonardish phrases out there. His books are populated largely with women with fun in their eyes. There’s a great bit in Djibouti about how the heroine is feeling, standing on the deck of a cargo ship in the Red Sea, as the plot she’s involved in ravels or unravels, I can’t remember which. She’s cool, curious, slightly excited; she appears in pretty much every Leonard book.

In Rum Punch, the bail bondsman, Max Cherry, gets these lines above, and maybe he’s actually the cool, curious one in this book; Jackie Burke, his love interest, takes more of an active role in the plot than is usual for a Leonard female protagonist.

I like the quote because it illustrates why Leonard’s oeuvre is so attractive to read; instead of a thriller, where the reader is pulled into the story by empathy for the protagonist’s troubles, in Leonard’s books the protagonist pulls the reader along by sharing just how interesting life has gotten. During the course of Rum Punch Max gets involved in heisting several hundred thousand dollars, a vault into the upper middle class that allows him to quit his day job and file divorce papers with his estranged spouse. Max is able to rise above the existential dread that you or I would feel while on such a voyage of self-reinvention, but that’s why it’s a book and not real life. As I’ve mentioned before, people who radically alter their circumstances in the course of 300 pages are a genre of people who you only meet in books.

“They thought these things so that they were not terrified all the time,” Denise Mina, The Long Drop

But Mr Cooke knows what has happened to his daughter. It has happened before out there, in those fields. Girls and women attacked and no one caught. He thought, his wife thought, that women should not be out at that time. He thought and his wife said, they must be peculiar kinds of women to be out there at that time, in a field with a man. They didn’t think these things because they were nasty people, or spiteful or uncaring. They thought these things so that they were not terrified all the time. Otherwise they would never have allowed their Isabella out of the door.

—Denise Mina, The Long Drop

Mina’s entire book is written in the present tense except for this paragraph, which serves as a kind of aside to the reader: this is the way things were, the way that my book describes, I want you, dear Reader, to understand how things differed from the present day.

The entire book, set in a coaldusted postwar Glasgow has a sheen of unreality, abetted by the use of the present tense throughout. As I’ve been realizing lately, the way people think in books is not necessarily the way I think in real life. Mina has intuited this also and tossed the contemporary reader this bone; I read this parenthetical remark and not only the critical distance between the book’s 1950s and the contemporary day but an appreciation of Mina’s reverence for the milieu came into focus.

Origins of interpersonal problems

In her consulting practice, Dr. [Amy Cooper] Hakim says, many interpersonal problems boil down to a failure to communicate directly about the real problem with someone who can actually resolve it.

Good advice from the Rob Walker Workologist Sunday advice column in the Times, this one from 22 January of this year.

I appreciate this as lately I have seen so many iterations of this type of problem, where there appears to be a real problem but the person affected doesn’t seem to be willing to move very far to solve it.

Treating goals as if they were programs

One of Klein’s favorite adaptations is the conflation of wishes and operative political programs. Again and again she holds up statements of intent—protect Mother Earth, treat all people equally, respect all cultures, live simple, natural, local lives—as if they were proposals whose implementation would have these outcomes. It’s all ends and no means. This is a double convenience: first it eliminates the need to be factual and analytical about programs, since announcing the goal is sufficient unto itself, and second, it evades the disconcerting problem of how to deal with the daunting political challenge of getting such programs (if they even exist) enacted and enforced. I believe the treatment of goals as if they were programs is the underlying reason for the sloppiness of this book on matters of economics and law. Klein can say we should finance a large green investment program by taxing fossil fuel profits, or we should simultaneously shrink the economy and increase the number of jobs, because in the end it doesn’t matter whether these or other
recommendations could actually prove functional in the real world. The truth lies in the rightness of the demand, not the means of fulfilling it. But this too is an adaptation to powerlessness.

—Peter Dorman, on Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything

To paraphrase in terms of the bicycle: we should enact a giant bicycle facility construction program, or we should simultaneously shrink the economy by reducing private motor vehicle traffic, because it doesn’t matter whether these recommendations could actually prove functional in the real world. I prefer to ask, “Who is the marginal person on a bike?”

Heather Havrilesky’s solid work advice

And let’s be honest, it’s harder to be a real person in real time than it is to live in a fantasy world. The real world takes real risk. You have to show up instead of distracting yourself with your whimsical, sexy imaginings. You have to get out of your own head. You have to work really fucking hard at things that don’t seem to matter at first, and you have to work really fucking hard to figure out what things might seem to matter eventually.

From this Ask Polly column, which showed up today in my RSS feed.

Despite the salty language, this half-paragraph appears to be pretty good advice for the particular job I’m doing right now, which is personnel recruitment. It makes me feel like I’m going back to my old days doing marketing for my delivery business. What she says, especially the part about getting out of your own head, is kind of important. I feel as if I want to get my pitch down perfectly before calling people; if I screw up I would be shy about calling them again.

Aristotle on trolling

Newly translated by Rachel Barney, this little essay is, I believe, now the definitive definition of trolling.

Well then, the troll in the proper sense is one who speaks to a community and as being part of the community; only he is not part of it, but opposed.

I don’t think I’m a troll, but I’m sure opinions can vary. My worry of being misperceived, is great enough, however, to keep this blog going.

Found on Language Log.

Interviewing the Elves

Figuring out why people who choose not to do something don’t in fact do it is like attempting to interview the elves who live inside your refrigerator but come out only when the light is off. People already working for a company might tell you what makes them unhappy. But these complaints won’t necessarily pinpoint the factors that keep women and minorities away from studying computer science in the first place.

Eileen Pollack, “What Really Keeps Women Out Of Tech,” New York Times, Sunday Review, page 3, 10/11/2015

Pollack’s metaphor is a trailer-load of apt when applied to the perennial question of bicycle advocates, “How do we get more people in the saddle?” One problem I see advocates having is that their own good fortune (or commodious circumstances) blinds them to the struggles that people at present considering whether to ride a bike actually face. This is an error that I have previously noted and categorized as a kind of fundamental attribution error, but I think it’s actually deeper than that. I see fundamental attribution error when I see bicycle advocates dismiss other people’s apparent reasons for not riding a bicycle as laziness or unfamiliarity. But the error that Pollack identifies is made on a different level.

Simply put, someone already bicycling sees his or her perceived choke points and difficulties as pervasive. The best example of this is the missing Second Avenue bike lane. Between 59th St and 34th St, there is no Second Avenue bike lane; there are signs along the leftmost traffic lane that say, “Bicyclists May Take Full Lane,” but not green paint or even a reserved door-zone lane. Commenters, some of whom are actual real-life bicycle advocates, are complaining on Streetsblog all the time about this, even hijacking posts about bike lanes in other parts of the city to do so. “Why are the authorities painting these subpar bike lanes in Washington Heights when the Second Avenue bike lane is still missing,” for instance.

From a wide-angle perspective, it’s clear that a New Yorker’s decision whether to bike or not to bike on any day is probably very little influenced by those 25 blocks without a bike lane. Plenty of people, after all, are not bicycling into midtown Manhattan at all, let alone the East Side. Here’s where Pollack’s insight comes in. While we can fairly easily attribute ridership to the presence of a bike lane on a certain street, it is more difficult to attribute the lack of ridership in the city overall to the absence of a bike lane on a certain street. The Second Avenue advocates’ argument is that better bicycle infrastructure on those 25 blocks will have some kind of domino effect, the riders irresistibly drawn by the lane’s presence channeling like a spring tide along all other bicycle infrastructure in Manhattan, thus by safety-in-numbers creating more and more bicyclists until all 8.3 million of us New Yorkers are hastening to and fro on two wheels.

This argument blithely assumes that there are no other constraints on bicycling in midtown, that nobody is hunting in vain for a bike share bicycle, or unable to find a safe place to park, or obliged to leave work after dark (or leave home before dawn). It recalls the old chestnut, the reserve army of bicyclists, in this case waiting in their midtown offices with padded shorts on for the Second Avenue bike lane to be opened.

I fully agree that the lack of the Second Avenue bike lane does make bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown more hairy and fretful than it needs to be. But this effect is only noticeable if you are already bicycling to Brooklyn from midtown (like, I expect, most of the advocates). Bicycling advocates have already worked through all the other difficult aspects of commuting by bicycle (finding the parking space, packing the clean shirt) and the implementation of the full Second Avenue bike lane is the one thing that would make their commute easier. Pollack’s insight is that the one thing for the advocate is likely not the one thing for someone ready to get in the saddle.



‘These are my friends. They died.’ –Michael Connelly, ‘The Burning Room’

She reached across her body with her left hand and Bosch tensed. But her hand went to her left wrist. She unbuttoned her cuff and violently pulled the sleeve up her arm. She turned her arm to reveal the tattoo on the inside of her forearm. It was an RIP list with five names on a tombstone. Jose, Else, Marlena, Juanito, Carlos.

‘I was in that basement when the fire started, okay?’ she said. ‘These are my friends. They died.’

—Michael Connelly, The Burning Room, Chapter 9

I honestly burst into tears reading this. The speaker is Harry Bosch’s new partner, whom he has caught in the files room reading up on the murder by arson of several children in day care. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for my son to lose five of his buddies from Ms. Nuñez’s Pre-K class.

The parent’s nightmare is that your kids will have it worse than you ever did.

‘Why all the oblique loops and feints and ridiculously convoluted travels?’–Mark Sarvas, ‘Harry, Revised’

Harry lies in bed, poking at the carcass of the day. He supposes Max is right. Theirs was a friendship that never ran all that deep. So why does he feel so lousy? Because, one by one, the fixed points in his life are giving way, dissolving, and he’s left wondering why any of it mattered to begin with. Why all the deception? Why all the oblique loops and feints and ridiculously convoluted travels? Looking back at the last few years of his life, he can find no two points connected by a single, straight line, and now an ineffable sadness at the time wasted, the opportunities missed, takes hold, and he’s afraid that this perpetual indirection is all he knows. The direct approach, Max had advised. How might the direct approach have saved him and Anna?

—Mark Sarvas, Harry, Revised, Chapter 13

I do enjoy rereading books, partly because I barely remember what they are about, and partly because it justifies keeping them on the shelf. I remember reading this the first time on the southbound Bx10 bus, dawdling through Riverdale on my way back from the veterinarian. This second time I read most of it on the QM2 bus dawdling through Beechhurst and Whitestone on the way back to Manhattan. Last time I take the QM2 bus, although it’s a good way to catch up on the reading.

Harry, Revised is about a guy in his forties who has been married for eight years, so it seems strangely apropos. Of course, Harry’s wife has died, and my wife is still living, and I actually have only been married for coming on five years. The George Szirtes blurb which I referred to in the comments on the original post brings out the idea that the book is about Anna, Harry’s wife, much more than about Harry. I can support that; the balance of the book between Harry’s flashbacks to life with Anna and his adventures in the present day seems tilted in favor of Anna.

Bearing in mind that Harry Rent is a fictional character and thus needs something to justify himself in the author’s imagination, his regret quoted above seems strange and alien to me. I feel so concentrated on spending time either at work doing the job or at home with the family that the notion of deceiving anyone, of even having a secret, seems like it would take up too much brainpower and time.

I suppose my secret is writing this blog. How about that for a loop or feint?

Setting yourself on fire takes time and requires you to look inward

Setting yourself on fire takes time and requires you to look inward, and focus on rubbing your internal, invisible sticks together, and this is hard when bodywashes keep calling you out. But you must ignore the song of the bodywash. You must continue to look inward, and you must find a problem you can work on your whole life, a giant, almost-unanswerable problem, to set yourself on fire about. Once you do this, people will come, they must come, to warm themselves by you.

Amy Fusselman

I took a course in Zine Publishing from Amy Fusselman. This is a pretty good paragraph, and a nice example of her writing on the McSweeney’s site to boot.