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Book Review of "We Are Not Ourselves"

From the opening pages of Matthew Thomas’s debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, a sprawling multi generational family saga, the forces that profoundly shape Eileen Tumulty, the character around whom the story is centered, are manifest.  The roots of her complicated relationship to the world and to herself unfold before us. Page by page. Day by day. Event by event.  

Eileen endures a fraught childhood, spent largely in a Queens tenement taking care of her family’s home and her alcoholic parents--a larger than life father, with a gambling problem, and a timorous, shrinking mother, slowly decaying as she retreats further and further from the world.  

We witness the reverberating lessons learned, and the smoldering aspirations, the daemons operating below the surface, that drive Eileen.  She has big dreams:  a better life.  Eileen craves an opportunity to dramatically recalibrate who she is.  She is painfully aware of the shackling nature of social stratification: determining who you are, and who you are not; where you are from, and from where you are not; where you should live, and where you should not.  

Eileen desperately wants to be free of the DNA that binds her--longing to shake up the hand which she was dealt.

Eileen’s childhood was a consuming maelstrom: unending drama, unpredictability, and chaos.  As an adult, she seeks harmony and forward movement.  She needs order.  Eileen sets out to build a life over which she exerts absolute control:  She envisions every detail that will bring her the life she wants to live: her family, their economic trajectory, their neighborhood, and the way they are perceived by the world.

Eileen works hard. She becomes a nurse, often detached and clinical in her approach.  She marries Ed, a brilliant, handsome, young scientist.  Ed will deliver her to the promised land. She positions Connell, Ed and Eileen’s only child, within a promising social network.  The course is set: a brilliant, sure-to-advance husband, and a capable son, one who will attend the right schools and have the right friends.  

As a child, Eileen wanted: she will not want as an adult.  As a child, Eileen was neglected: as an adult, she will attend assiduously to all things family.  As a child, Eileen experienced scarcity: as an adult, she will save, and they will have more.  As a child, Eileen’s social station was muddled and unclear..  As an adult, she will make sure they proceed correctly, ensuring they are perceived favorably by others.

The three of them, the Leary’s, will work hard and proceed according to plan.  Together, with Ed’s piercing intellect, Eileen’s irrepressible drive, and Connell’s enhanced social standing, they will strategically assemble the building blocks of a “better life”.  She will be the architect of the perfect milieu for herself, for Ed, and for  Connell.  The perfect family living the perfect life, preparing to cross the great divide.

And then Eileen’s life does what lives invariably do--it fails to cooperate. Eileen’s carefully drawn template is brushed aside.  Their  lives twist and morph and steer toward an unknown future.

The dominant themes change.  The external props once clear and thought stable  are elusive. They no longer provide cover.  The unanticipated takes hold.    

Ed changes.  He no longer accepts what Eileen wants.  He no longer wants to advance professionally.  He doesn’t care about maintaining the correct social relationships.  He does not aspire to make more money--but he certainly wants to spend less.  Ed begins to act in ways that initially disarm, then frighten, and finally anger Eileen.  Her carefully nurtured dream of prosperity and economic security is threatened.   Ed appears to completely unravel.  He shuts out Eileen and Connell, and withdraws into his own world. He is puzzling and bizarre and not interested in explaining why he has become almost monstrous.

Finally, we learn that Ed has Alzheimer's. Although clearly devastating, at least his diagnosis provides a label.  Through this lens, Eileen can try to understand and fight a known enemy.  She can also allow herself to love.

Eileen is a fighter.  This is what she does best. Her love and her commitment to Ed now matter more than a fur coat and a house in Bronxville.  She makes hard choices and sacrifices rooted in newly mined values.   Her renewal is magnificently rendered-- underscoring growth,  fortitude and exceptional compassion.   Eileen’s core beliefs about how one lives one’s life transform and deepen.  

Matthew Thomas has written a riveting, sweeping,masterpiece. We Are Not Ourselves elegantly captures a time and chronicles beautifully the Leary’s journey.  Life came at Eileen with all her fury, unpredictably changing direction.  Eileen pushed back-- moving forward  bravely and honestly.  She accepted and fought the challenges encountered and, quietly, lived a meaningful, inspiring life.  

Observations

“You can observe a lot by watching”

-Yogi Berra

Joy in looking and comprehending is nature's most beautiful gift” 

-Albert Einstein

One of life’s basic principles is that we are, to a large degree, the product of our choices. Our epistemology is self-determined. The tenor of our days lays the course for our lives.  And the depth of the moments that become our days are profoundly shaped by our awareness--how mindfully we experience what is happening all around us.

In On Looking: A Walker’s Guide To The Art of Observation, Alexandra Horowitz, professor of  psychology, animal behavior, and canine cognition at Columbia University, and author of the New York Times’ bestseller, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know,  turns her attention to  the cognitive processes of the human brain.  Horowitz examines how and why we perceive the world as we do: what we see, why we see it, and, as important, what we don’t see.  She attends to our inattention.

While we walk to work, ride the bus, stop for a coffee, talk on the phone, text a colleague, or chat on a street corner, what are we missing?  Evidently, quite a bit.  Much of our time  spent “doing”, traveling back and forth, coming and going, goes largely unremembered.  We are often doing little more than sleep-walking through those parts of our day that fall outside our focus.  

We are efficient because we  ignore that which we determine irrelevant--concentrating instead on what we consider important.  This is not unintentional.  By so doing, we  judiciously allocate and preserve our precious mental resources. We bank our wattage  until we think we’ll really need it.  We accomplish much,  while cognizant of very little that does not serve our identified end. Mental focus, a tool that delivers so much in our uber goal-oriented culture, is also why we miss the poetry and nuance all around us. 

Painfully aware of the blinders that shape her experiences, and inspired by the sensory engagement that animates her dogs’ meandering walks around her block, Horowitz wants to see the world for the first time--again and again. She wants to experience the morning walks around the block as fully and completely as her dogs. She wants to follow her interests on a walk rather than a route.  She wants to free her senses and see more than simply what she expected to see.

How does one know what one is missing? Horowitz  develops a plan: she will walk around a block with eleven different experts who will expose her blind spots.  The  experts range from an architect, to an artist, to a geologist, to an engineer, to a sound designer, to a physician, to a blind person,to her toddler son, to, of course, her dog, Finn. 

Horowitz experts were people trained in different areas with various scopes of expertise and knowledge.  The guiding thought was that while on these walks, the experts would share what they saw and experienced.  Her walks would in turn be informed and oriented by their expert eyes. She would be“an investigator of the ordinary” and, ideally, the familiar would be rendered unfamiliar.

Horowitz set  the stage by taking a walk by herself  and describing what she sees.  She then walks with her eleven experts and begins to see what she’d never seen, smell the unsmelled, hear the unheard, interact with  people  historically ignored, and more fully appreciate the fabric of an experience she never knew existed.  

From all of this, Horowitz  learns to stop generalizing and connecting too quickly the dots.  She cultivates curiosity and wonder and appreciates how powerfully knowledge orients the experts’ seeing.  Horowitz describes with graphic eloquence the world that she is re-experiencing, all the while insightfully connecting much of what is going on to established cognitive theory.  

Alexandra Horowitz’s eleven walks provided an opportunity to experience new ways of understanding the world   Her perspective  broadened and her capacity to connect deepened,  she became keenly aware that her conscious experience is likely only a fraction of what’s available.

This experiment was primarily about understanding the richness of unintentional moments; moments that often fall outside our calibrations.  It was about “valuing the ordinary” as a meaningful determinant of one’s self.  It was about embracing the reality that different people  often process the same situation differently.  

Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking documents a unique framework within which she realizes how narrowly we interpret our world and how singular our experiences can be.  Her acute awareness that one’s perspective  is richer and more comprehensive  when one attempts to  see the world through the eyes of others is healthy.   For all of us, this is a valuable lesson worth learning, one from which much good can spring.

Other noteworthy books on understanding why we experience the world as we do:

About Looking, by John Berger

About Looking explores our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. Berger quietly – but fundamentally- alters the vision of anyone who reads his work. (Publisher Marketing)

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, by Daniel Dennett 

Intuition Pumps offers intrepid thinkers--in all walks of life--delicious opportunities to explore their pet ideas with new powers.(Publisher Marketing)

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow  

An examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world and how, for instance, we often misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates, misunderstand the reasons for our investment decisions, and misremember important events.(Publisher marketing)

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, by Joseph Hallian  the same qualities that make us efficient also make us error prone. We learn to move rapidly through the world, quickly recognizing patterns--but overlooking details. Which is why thirteen-year-old boys discover errors that NASA scientistsmiss--and why you can't find the beer in your refrigerator.  Hallinan sets out to explore the captivating science of human error--how we think, see, remember, and forget, and how this sets us up for wholly irresistible mistakes.

On My Bookshelf: "The Mommy Code: A New Mom's Guide to Surviving Parenthood," by Kerri White

 

“We are the windows through which our children first see the world. Let us be conscious of the view.”

Katrina KenisonMitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry

 

Most parents, when raising a child, struggle with finding the right approach, one that both suits their own demeanor and provides some assurance of a positive outcome. Successfully navigating the landscape of“teachable” moments often requires this finely calibrated approach: a balance somewhere between severe restrictions that may girdle your child’s independent spirit and a laissez-faire hands-off approach that may pave the way to a well tailored orange jumpsuit. In my unexceptional experience, the correct response to much of what we parents encounter often requires patience, trust, and a steely willingness to be un-friended by your child(short periods of time that often seem like forever).

On the subject of parenting and raising children correctly, there is no shortage of advice and how to books. Some are mostly clever, characterized by humorous anecdotes; some are quite laughable;some offer solutions not particularly germane to the circumstances I’ve encountered; some read like text books.

Thankfully, another subset within the genre provides helpful and engaging guidance for the broad spectrum of situations which every parent eventually encounters. To this select group, Keri White’s new book, The Mommy Code, is a welcome addition. Keri White blends humor with utility by providing colorful tales of typical Mommy challenges and concrete, proven ways to meet them. Although there is humor—frequently laugh out loud humor—on each page, the book is chock full of really useful tips. White’s gift suggestions, tips for entertaining en famille, and birthday party ideas are clever, innovative, and very user-friendly. She offers solid advice on social media, dealing with daddies, the care and keeping of nannies, mommying in difficult financial times, managing other peoples’ kids, and a particularly hilarious chapter on the “mom vs mom” playground wars.

When asked about the genesis of the book, White explains: “I had been writing an etiquette blog, thesocialgrace.com for about 4 years, and increasingly I was fielding questions about parenting. In particular, my readers were flummoxed by the social ramifications: hosting a family friendly dinner party without anesthesia; dealing with a mommy-bully who broadcasts her superiority because she makes organic baby food from veggies she grew hydroponically in her window box that she built herself from reclaimed wood; resisting bodily harm when your husband fails to find the milk in the fridge. It seemed that there was a need for this type of book, and having read a lot of those dry parenting manuals, I thought that a fresh, light-hearted take on the subject would be a welcome change.”

She was right.

 

Keri White will be discussing The Mommy Code at Head House Books on Thursday, March 13, 2014. 

 

Oh Privacy, Where Are You Hiding?

 

“Nothing endures but change”

Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)


“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs

 

The pace of change in today’s world is unprecedented and exponential. We are taking extraordinarily creative steps, making possible solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems. Our global connectedness promises untold local benefits.  Nevertheless, the pace is dizzying.  Occasionally, disquieting.

Whether the sweeping technological changes are more, or less, dizzying  than those wrought on earlier cultures is unclear. In the 6th century BCE, Heraclitus astutely noted that  shifts happen.   And although most historical changes were arguably less tectonic in nature than the 21st century changes, the affected cultures were much less accustomed and more resistant to change than ours.  Existentially, these smaller shifts may have been equally disequilibrating. Perhaps, impossible to know, but interesting to consider.

When I look to the future and try to gauge the trajectory of where we are going, where we will be, I feel awkward and clumsy: incapable of comfortably extrapolating from current trends a vision of what our world will look like in 50 years. Questions abound: we are  social animals, but what will being social look like in 50 years? How will we relate to one another?  What will we share about ourselves that hasn’t already been distilled from our digital shadow? Will we still enjoy the luxury of a “private” self, a self preserved, cocooned if you will, from an open-book world?  Will our connections be broader and shallower, rather than fewer and deeper? Will future relationships still satisfy the need to meaningfully and quietly connect, or will the need atrophy? As a future condition, will privacy be important, or is it absurd to even contemplate?

The impacts of our current information flow and data gathering give rise to these, and many more, elemental questions.  The changes to the way we conduct our daily lives and what we now tacitly accept are sweeping and often difficult to appreciate.  We enter into information transactions every day.  Many of us use apps and most make weekly, if not daily, credit card purchases.  All of this activity results in a data point, which contributes to a file from which our portrait is drawn.   Quite willingly, we  exchange information for convenience. Short-term, this transaction feels great.  However, often discounted is the permanent record of our choices.  This is not insignificant.   

Big Data is changing what we see and how we are viewed. Our digital shadows are staggering: our photographs, our adolescent follies, our enduring foibles, our diet, our friends, how often we shower, what exhilarates us, and what makes us sad.  It has all been captured.   Who owns and controls this data:the government? the corporations? do we?  How much government surveillance is acceptable?  How does this erode trust?  How will our digital shadows  frame our future opportunities and circumstances?  These  are monumentally important issues.  Issues which are unresolved.

This is not new.  Much has been written on this subject.  I’ve listed a number books that contemplate the vast technological changes that define our time, explore what our tendencies say about us as a culture, and address our responsibilities.  If we are going to be key players in this unfolding drama, we ought well know the script.

One of my favorites is Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, by Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptist Michel.  This book tells the story of the Google Ngram Viewer, a technology, developed by the two authors in collaboration with Google.  The Ngram Viewer deconstructs history and gleans meaning by discerning linguistic patterns and word usage now measurable because of  the more than 30 million of books scanned and digitized by Google.  This technology yields enormous insight into the economic activities and prevailing values of historical cultures, ranging  from shepherd accountants counting sheep with many little stones ten thousand years ago, through the Stone Age, which witnessed the development of of a stylus used to record commerce on one large stone rather than using many little ones,through medieval times, up until today.  The authors’ style is insightful, engaging, and very funny, which makes following a very important and complicated subject enjoyable.


Other books to consider:

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Victor Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind, by Michio Kaku

 

On My Bookshelf: "hoop: the american dream," by Robin Layton - Beauty and Grit Captured in Photographs

 

"Ninety feet between bases is perhaps as close as man has ever come to perfection."

Red Smith

 

Well, I believe that the 18 inch diameter of a basketball hoop is a close second to the distance between on the bases on a diamond. This often orange, occasionally rusted, perfectly sized metal rim, and all the dreams and anguish it bespeaks, has been beautifully captured by Robin Layton in her latest book, hoop: the american dream. She has created an absolutely stunning book. From rickety street courts to rural barnyards to the White House basketball court, Robin Layton, a photojournalist for the past 25 years, has created a visual love letter to basketball and its central prop--the hoop. The photographs are amazing in the breadth of emotion and the passage of time they so poignantly convey. There are many photographs of the childhood hoops of basketball greats, past and present, as well as quotes about the significance of the sport and of particular hoops. Robin Layton has created an absolutely lyrical portrait of America’s ballet on asphalt and concrete, one that’s sure to enrapture the basketball loving aesthete on your list.

 

On My Bookshelf: "Cities Are Good For You: The Genius of The Metropolis," by Leo Hollis

 

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

Jane JacobsThe Death and Life of Great American Cities

 

What makes a city a city? What is its defining characteristic? Its DNA? No doubt, there exist many parts and factors. We all have our opinions regarding a city’s nature, about what works. Perhaps, more numerable are our expressed opinions about what does not work.

In his compelling new book, Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of the MetropolisLeo Hollis posits a take on cities at odds with the less flattering view often extolled in literature: from Dante’s beastly depiction of Florence and Florentine politicians in The Inferno, to the Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who considered cities lawless pits, to the great American industrialist Henry Ford, who believed “we shall solve the city by leaving the city. Get the people into the countryside, get them into communities where a man knows his neighbors…there is nothing to do but abandon the course that gives rise to them “

For many, cities have long been considered bad for us: they compromised our humanity, drained our resources, threatened our traditions, and tore apart families.  Leo Hollis, a British historian and author of two books on London, takes another approach. Hollis highlights cities’ promise and identifies what they mean to us, rather than focusing exclusively on their ostensible costs--often myopically calculated. And for Hollis, what cities yield, and their future promise, is eminently more important, given that 50% of the world’s population currently lives in cities and that number will likely climb to 70% by 2050.

Cities are complex, chaotic, disordered, and often misunderstood. Cities are vital. In an effort to more comprehensively understand the city and how it works, Hollis explores the historical context and formation of the city. He examines how and why they were formed before leading us on an instructive journey through time--from New York to Mumbai to Zurich to Hong Kong. We visit the slums, the business districts, and the dazzling skylines. This journey aims to shake us up, awaken our senses, thereby allowing us to see the city in new ways. We survey the thoughts and writings of leading architects, urban planners, archaeologists, economists, artists, designers, and sociologists. Ultimately, supported by scientific findings, academic studies, stories, anecdotes, and first-hand observations, Hollis concludes that the city and urban life is infinitely more than a physical place. The city is a place of multiple connections--an incubator of new ideas and solutions. The city is a creative and dynamic complex system within a system characterized by multi-layered experiences and forces which self-organize and advance our collective skills and knowledge base. The city is synergistic. There exists a powerful emergence: novel structures and patterns which arise from a dynamic interplay. Put simply: the whole of the city is far greater than the sum of its parts.

The global challenges we face today are enormous (e.g., climate change, massive migration, economic fragility, water and food scarcity, dysfunctional governments). Hollis concludes that Urbanization, the movement from the country to the city, and the synergies and creative solutions which emerge, may well be the only way to a healthier planet. This movement back to cities may save us from the population explosion that is at the core of our challenges: “Humanity stands at a tipping point between disaster and survival, and the city is the fulcrum upon which our future balances.”

Let’s hope he is right.