Books Archives

On Walmart and Bach

Been busy as of late. If I’m not busy listening to different versions of the Bach cello suites and obsessively comparing them, I’m at Walmart buying clothing for the children, it seems.

I know – Bach and Walmart. Doesn’t that give me whiplash? Pretty much.

I’ve spent more money at WalMart the past month or so than I have in my entire life, I think. Yes, I’ve gotten over yet another of my certainties.

I used to avoid Walmart because of how they invaded small towns and run the small businesses out. I was incensed when a Super Walmart threatened to build in a cornfield near the neighborhood in Stoughton I grew up in.

But I have since started to chill. One thing that did it was this post on the Ochlophobist blog:

The merchants that WalMart replaced deserved, often enough, to be replaced by a box store because they essentially sold the same crap that WalMart does, only less of it sold at a greater cost. By the ‘50s and ‘60s most small merchants in America were buying all their goods from distributors who bought from distributors who bought from distributors who bought from manufacturers. Why not consolidate such an economic affair? This is different from the grocery man of 1900 who knew most of the producers of the most of the goods he sold, and personally held them accountable for their products. WalMart is the summation of the überization of the markets. WalMart is not the cause of the problem, it is the economic end result of the problem. WalMart simply “perfected” a process of economic exchange already in place. So yes, the merchant families in the county seat of the county I grew up in all deserved to go out of business, which half of them did when WalMart came to town, because they sold crap which they really didn’t know anything about at too high a price. But this does not mean that WalMart is a good thing. It is just a bigger and more efficient version of a bad thing.

Then I noticed that Walmart has basic clothing items that are so hard to find at other stores. It’s remarkably difficult to find, say, a black children’s turtleneck, at most stores but Walmart has them. And for only $5.

Then I noticed how nice the underground parking is in this cold, wet weather.

Then I noticed Tom and Lorenzo (my favorite fashion bloggers) said they buy basic clothing items at Walmart.

Then I found a pair of jeans there – in size long, even – that fit so well that I’ve finally been able to wear jeans again, after a few years of not being able to find jeans. And for only $20.

While strolling the aisles of Walmart I usually have a Bach cello suite going through my head because I recently read the book  The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece.

It’s as engaging as a mystery novel because it talks about how the cello suite music disappeared for a time and was rediscovered in a small music shop in Spain by cellist Pablo Casals when he was 13-years-old in the late 1800s.

The author tells stories about Bach that are very interesting and also stories about Pablo Casals. There are many stories about contemporary cellists as well.

I was particularly taken with the story of cellist Matt Haimovitz. He had a “Bach to the Bars” tour in which he played the cello suites in bars, clubs and coffee houses. People would laugh, cry, clap and talk in the middle of songs, which is how public performances were back in Bach’s day in the 1700s.

Haimovitz is convinced that classical music won’t  be taken seriously among young people unless musicians continue to take it out of the hushed atmosphere of concert halls and into real world venues.

That concept is almost enough to make me take my cello out of the corner of my bedroom and learn how to play it (perhaps at Walmart? :-) ) except I’m too old to learn how to play it well enough, even for a venue like Walmart, and I’m not a performer by nature. But I hope other cellists will keep bringing Bach to the bars and Walmarts.


Rich Boy (plus Six Word Story #16)

Rich boy’s money made him poor. (Six Word Story #16)

I finished reading the novel Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz over the weekend and that six word story is one way to summarize the plot.

The first half of the book is about Robert Vishniak’s working class upbringing in Philadelphia and his college years at Tufts University, with the remainder of the book focusing on his life after he marries an extraordinarily wealthy woman and tries to make partner at a law firm. The book ends with the 1987 stock market crash.

Perhaps the most interesting insight from the book is when Robert, after several years of living and working with the affluent, notices the rich sometimes like to pretend they are middle class and this is the one thing they have in common with the poor.

Rich Boy is Pomerantz’s first novel and took her ten years to write. Below is a short video of her talking about the job she worked as a shoe shine girl in New York City, which brought her into the company of the wealthy men in the financial district about whom she would write in Rich Boy. She analyzes various pairs of men’s shoes and describes the wealthy men who wear them and describes how a shoe shine is a “shockingly intimate act” in the midst of a hustle and bustle environment like this. It’s interesting to watch even if you haven’t read the book:


Drunken butterflies careen through pine trees. (Six Word Story #15)

That is my six word story summary of the second to last chapter of John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday.

Although it has nothing to do with the plot, which takes place in Cannery Row in Monterey Bay, California, Steinbeck takes us on a field trip to nearby Pacific Grove in this chapter. In Pacific Grove millions of butterflies gather every spring and spend a week getting sloshed on pine tree resin.

What makes this even more amusing is that Pacific Grove “is not only a dry town, but ardently dry… the fact that the visiting butterflies came to the dry oasis to get drunk seemed a little unfair, but the town solved this, first, by ignoring it, and then, by hotly denying it.”

This random butterfly scene reminded me that the second to last chapter of Cannery Row has a random chapter about a gopher. Hmmm. Do I detect a pattern here? I wondered if I had accidentally started reading Watership Down. A six word story about this gopher scene would be:

His provocative squeaks didn’t attract females. (Six Word Story #16)

I know the gopher probably symbolizes something (Doc, perhaps) and his intricate burrow might be a microcosm of Cannery Row. If I went back in time my 20-year-old English major self would probably want to write an English paper about that, but fortunately here I can be more whimsical than that and move on and talk about Fauna instead.

Fauna runs the whore house in Sweet Thursday, but it’s more like a finishing school. Like her predecessor Dora, she’s quite endearing, and gives the following advice to Suzy before a date:

1. They ain’t no way in the world to get in trouble by keeping your mouth shut. You look at every mess you ever got in and you’ll find your tongue started it.

2. Lay off opinions because you ain’t really got any.

3. There don’t hardly nobody listen, and it’s so easy! If a guy says something that prices up your interest, why, don’t hide it from him. Kind of try to wonder what he’s thinking instead of how you’re going to answer him back.

4. Don’t pretend to be something you ain’t, and don’t make like you know something you don’t, or sooner or later you’ll fall on your ass.

5. They ain’t nobody was ever insulted by a question. The nicest thing in the world you can do for anybody is let them help you.

6. Before you say something, say it first to yourself and kind of dust it off.

7. Don’t never start a fight, and if one starts, let it get going good before you jump in.

8. Talk about them. If you see something nice or good or pretty, tell them. Don’t make it a fake though.

9. Thing people like most in the world is to give you something and have you like it and need it.

Fauna turned whores into proper ladies. (Six Word Story #17)


Six Word Story #12 & #13 (A tribute to Steinbeck’s Cannery Row)

Men scooped hysterical frogs like berries.


That’s my six word summary of my favorite scene in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row novel.

I’m on a John Steinbeck kick right now. Many of his novels are under 200 pages and can be read quickly.

I love his clear writing style. I sit there enthralled even when he’s describing how a character is fixing a Model T engine.

And did I mention the frogs?

If you haven’t read Steinbeck, or are looking for a short novel to read, then I recommend Cannery Row. (If you’ve already read Cannery Row, check out Sweet Thursday, the sequel. The Cannery Row Wikipedia page has some interesting info as well.)

Here’s the opening sentence of Cannery Row:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.

Oh, heck. I can’t stop there. Here’s the whole opening paragraph:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

See? Lures you right in.

There is only one main female character in the book – Dora, who runs the whore house.

This might seem unfortunate but, even though her work is unsavory, she’s the most generous character in the book. She’s the one that sits by the bedsides of ill people when influenza strikes; she’s the one who suffered the most financially during the Depression because she gave so much to her neighbors; she’s the one who gives the most money to local charities.

Which goes back to that opening paragraph, where depending on how you look at someone, they are either a whore or an angel.

Now that I think about it, the last scene of the book might be my favorite. Dora and a group of frowzy men are gathered around while Doc reads poetry (not your typical poetry reading). If I were to write a six word story about that scene, it would be this:

Remembering lost loves, Dora breathed beauty.


Six Word Story #8 (plus a book recommendation if you’re into fiction)

Their neuroses fit together like gloves.


The above is a line from Nora Jane: A Life in Stories that I tweaked into a six word story.

If you like fiction I recommend this book, which is a collection of short stories and one novella about Nora Jane. The author Ellen Gilchrist wrote  the stories over a period of 20 years. The first story begins when Nora is a little girl and ends about 35 years later.

A side note: The two main male characters are best friends and see each other almost every day, even though they are married and have kids. It’s a sub plot I found interesting, because it’s unusual to see male friendships like this both in stories and in everyday life. At my physical last fall my doctor asked me “Do you have 3-5 friends you can confide in?” He said he begins every physical with questions like that because he thinks those questions are even more important than things like cholesterol numbers. He told me men always answer the friendship question by saying they have zero or, at most, one friend to confide in.

Anyway, back to the book… the book isn’t heavy on character analysis but the characters are charming enough and the plot interesting enough that I found myself staying up late reading it and then wanting to read it again first thing in the morning. Sometimes you need a book like that.


The ethical challenge of relationships (plus 4 questions)

I’ve been reading my way through the James Hollis books at the library but dragged my feet in getting around to Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves. It seemed like a good topic to avoid. Ahem.

I finally read it this weekend and am glad I did. To my surprise it contained a lot of material about relationships. He lists 4 questions to ask yourself as you ponder your relationship with your spouse/partner (or Other, to borrow his term, even though that makes me think of the show Lost ;) ).

I’ll list those questions below but first I’ll mention some of what he says about the ethical challenge of relationships, which he defines as keeping your own needs from dominating the other person.

As we mature we learn more that we are responsible for meeting our neeeds, not the Other. The more we take on this project, the more we can live with ambiguity -as individuals and as a society – the freer and more worthy of the name of love the relationship becomes…

I do not see that relationship in which people ‘take care of each other’ as worth of the name of relationship, at least not a loving, mature relationship.

Dependency is not love; it is dependency – it is an abrogation of the essential responsibility of each of us to grow up.

Here are the four questions he gives us to ponder. It occurs to me that some of  these questions could apply to parents or other relationships as well:

1.  Where do my dependencies show up in this relationship, and what must I address to cease being dependent?

2. What am I asking my partner to do for me that I should be able to do for myself, if I am going to be a self-respecting adult fully charged with the conduct of my life.

If neither one of those questions made you say, “oops,” perhaps one of these will:

3. How do I repeatedly constrict myself by reimporting my history, with all its charged reflexive responses, into this relationship?

4. Am I truly supportive of my partner while not taking on his or her responsibility to grow up and be a free adult?


In which we run in bare feet

This afternoon I spontaneously suggested to three of my daughters that we go running in bare feet at a nearby soccer field.

Of course they were shocked at this suggestion, yet quickly agreed to it.

I came up with this idea because I’m almost finished with the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.

The author discusses the Tarahumara tribe (check out this 10 minute video about them here) in a remote area in northern Mexico, where they routinely run 100 or more miles at a time in bare feet or makeshift sandals.

He also presents evidence that our bodies were designed for long distance running and that before the creation of the running shoe in 1971, running injuries weren’t common like they are now.

When you wear running shoes, your heel hits the ground first, whereas when you run in bare feet, the padded middle portion of your foot hits the ground first, which is easier on your feet.

I decided to see for myself what it’s like to run in bare feet. I have no memories of running like this as a child because I always dutifully wore my PF Flyers when going outside to play.

So off I went to the soccer field with my daughters.

We ran 125 yards or so and my 15 year old said it was “exhilarating.” She never uses that word when she talks about running laps in her Nikes at tennis practice – that is always drudgery for her. She has fond memories of running barefoot as a child and was happy to experience it again.

We turned around and ran the 125 yards back to our shoes, which we reluctantly put back on. It was definitely more effortless than running in shoes and I hope it created a fun memory for the girls.


Rock your neurosis

The same author who says that anxiety is really an elixir is now telling me that it’s OK to rock some of our neuroses. Woo hoo!

I continue to be on a bit of a James Hollis kick and am now reading his What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life book. He’s a renowned Jungian analyst and I like his style because it’s minds-on, yet clear, and free of fluffy self-help.

He says this in the preface:

I have no vested interest in our becoming saner, or mentally balanced, or even useful to society.

If you, the reader, find a neurosis that works for you, and gifts others as a bonus, then ride it for all it’s worth.

We are not here to fit in, be well-balanced, or provide exempla for others.

We are here to be eccentric, different, perhaps strange, perhaps merely to add our small piece, our little clunky, chunky selves, to the great mosaic of being.

I think I can handle that. :-)

I’ve only just started the book, but the chapter titles alone are compelling, so I’m sure the book won’t disappoint:

That Life Not Be Governed By Fear

That We Learn To Tolerate Ambiguity

That We Consider Feeding The Soul

That We Respect The Power Of Eros

That We Step Into Largeness

That We Risk Growth Over Security

That We Live Verbs Not Nouns

That We Find And Follow The Path Of Creativity And Delight In Foolish Passions

That We Engage Spiritual Crises And Other Bad Days At The Office

That We Write Our Story Lest Someone Else Write It For Us

That We Fight Fate And Love It Also

That We Live More Fully In The Shadow Of  Mortality

That We Accept At Last That Our Home Is Our Journey And Our Journey Is Our Home


We’re all in the art business now

Did you know the MFA is the new MBA?

So says Daniel Pink in chapter three of his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

White collar jobs are being lost  as a result of abundance, Asia and automation. To survive, individuals and organizations should examine what they do for a living and ask:

1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

2. Can a computer do it faster?

3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

Pink says we’re leaving the Information Age and entering the Conceptual Age, where creativity and empathy will be in greater demand. High-tech is no longer enough; we also need to supplement that with high touch and high concept.

Some stats:

* In the US the number of graphic designers has increased tenfold in a decade.

* Graphic designers outnumber chemical engineers by four to one.

* Since 1970 the US has 30 percent more people earning a living as writers (yay!) and 50 percent more earning a living by composing or performing music.

* 240 US universities have creative writing MFA programs, up from 22 universities twenty years ago.

* More Americans today work in arts, entertainment and design than work as lawyers, accountants, and auditors.

* Advanced nations are exporting high-tech computer programming jobs and importing nurses from Asia.

* Nursing salaries are climbing and the number of male registered nurses has doubled since the mid-1980s.

The conceptual age has become evident even in areas that are typically a bastion of analytical thinking.

For example, some medical schools now include “narrative medicine” in their curriculum because it’s recognized that a patient’s story is important in making a diagnosis. (See my review of How Doctors Think for more about that.) The Yale School of Medicine has students take art history classes because they believe that students who study painting excel at noticing subtle details about a patient’s condition.

In Japan, where math and science schools have typically ruled the day, the country is remaking its education system to foster greater creativity, artistry and play. The Education Ministry there is now encouraging “education of the heart.”

In the automotive industry, one of the GM executives says, “I see us being in the art business. Art, entertainment and mobile sculpture, which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation.”

[That sounds cool, but if it’s true then why are most cars such a snooze to look at? :) It seems art was taken more seriously in car design in the 1950s and 1960s.]

The College Board, creator of the SAT test has provided funding for a new type of  test to possibly augment the SAT someday. It’s called the Rainbow Project.

In this test, students are given five blank New Yorker cartoons and must craft humorous captions for each one. They must write or narrate a story using as their guide only a title supplied by the test givers (sample title: “The Octopus’s Sneakers”). They have to perform real-life challenges, such as go to a party where they don’t know anybody or convince friends to help move furniture – and report their findings.

This test has been twice as successful in predicting how well students perform in college. Also, the gap in performance between white students and minorities narrows considerably on this test.

As one who was a liberal arts major (English), I’m predisposed to liking all of this. It would seem a liberal arts degree these days is, well, liberating.


Anxiety is an elixir

Yeah, I did a double take when I first read that too.

I just discovered the author James Hollis, Ph.D. He is director of the Jungian Studies program at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco and I’m reading his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up.

It has never occurred to me to think that anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing but here’s what Hollis says:

The daily confrontation with these gremlins of fear and lethargy obliges us to choose between anxiety and depression, for each is aroused by the dilemma of daily choice.

Anxiety will be our companion if we risk the next stage of our journey, and depression our companion if we do not…

Not to consciously choose a path guarantees that our psyche will choose for us, and depression or illness of one or another will result.

Yet to move into unfamiliar territory activates anxiety as our constant comrade.

Clearly, psychological or spiritual development always requires a greater capacity in us for the toleration of anxiety and ambiguity.

The capacity to accept this troubled state, abide it, and commit to life, is the moral measure of our maturity.

He goes on to say we should choose anxiety over depression:

Faced with such a choice, choose anxiety and ambiguity, for they are developmental, always, while depression is regressive.

Anxiety is an elixir, and depression a sedative. The former keeps us on the edge of our life, and the latter in the sleep of childhood.

Well then.

As an entrepreneur, I face anxiety and inner feelings of resistance almost every day because, believe it or not, it can be terrifying at times not having a boss telling you what to do.

As a parent I struggle with anxiety too, with the What If Something Bad Happens To My Kids character hogging up most of the space in my closet of anxieties.

But maybe, as Hollis says, anxiety isn’t such a bad thing after all. Hmmm.