Howard & Hannah: A Non-Review

I didn’t know how to start this review. I kept going in circles, orbiting around stark definitions, Rube-Goldberg machines, Jonathan Swift and his Laputians. Rubbing my temple, in a row boat with only one oar, my unidirectional turning felt synchronicitous, as I pondered and wrung my hands over how best to surmise Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government. 

But the answer was there, on the cover, in those tempered but stark words. That’s Hannah for you; a forthright lantern in the darkness. Hannah Arendt, beloved and poignant philosopher and perhaps Patron Saint of all things ‘why.’ I read her book On Violence in my twenties, around the time I discovered whom I’ve come to call “The Erics”, Hoffer and Fromm. So when Howard’s The Rule of Nobody came out in 2015, I was drawn to it, but it sat in my ‘to-read’ list until 2021 this year. 

“The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances […]. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.” These are Hannah’s words. It feels prophetic, considering America’s current volatile state. As a survivor of the Holocaust, her interest in social dynamics and mass movements is self-evident, and her insights into the Human Condition remain stable to this day; however, it was not her philosophical contributions to the human race that first propelled me towards Hannah and in a way, also into her. It was her herself—in her most intimate life—as I first got to know Hannah Arendt through her handwritten correspondences with her dear friend Mary McCarthy. 

This is just the way of me, to do things backwards, to find the willowy fringe of a thing before I grasp its obvious well-known meat. “Mary, darling—” Hannah begins; “Dearest Mary—” she starts again; I would read, and close my eyes and think for a moment, might I be Mary? I knew Hannah initially through her hopes, her heartaches, her annoyances, her loves, her sorrows. So whenever I bump into Hannah Arendt, whether direct or inadvertent, it feels personal. So I struggled over and over to write a review for Philip K. Howard’s impersonal read. 

Getting to know Howard is the opposite of getting to know Hannah—as is fortified by the fact I instinctively use surname ‘Howard’ and first name ‘Hannah.’ (My default functions are showing…) Philip K. Howard writes with brevity, a sturdy head, and though not abrasive the structure of his words speaks to a mind that be-rids the fluff of life and wants to get down to business. Every paragraph has a topic sentence; every logic chain has a beginning and end; no feedback loops or musings; he prefers to talk of things rather than terms; he double-backs only to clarify; he seems not too interested in saving-face if one doesn’t agree. 

It’s refreshing, though sometimes I’d roll my eyes while turning a page. Well, I guess it’s just that easy, ain’t it Howard? So my internal narrator would sometimes harrumph and groan, but all and all, Howard is a man whose thoughts are occupied with solutions, and the executing of those solutions. The minutiae of what is wrong with things is a botheration he would rather not play with. In this light I think we might get along, though maybe only in small doses. 

So The Rule of Nobody is a book of getting on with it: American politics is broken, overrun with bureaucracy and pointless performative partisan politics, and the answer is to say to hell with the endless debates and paper pushing and put actual power back into the hands of citizens and elected officials. Howard is against what he calls “automatic-government.” When everything is dictated by bullet-list laws and impositions, the ability for people to exercise their judgement is lost. The attempted exactitude of law is strangling the flexibility and nuance needed for people to operate in life. Howard, following Arendt’s lead, realizes that when no one has the power to definitively say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but everyone has the power to ask someone else to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ we have stasis. Everything grinds to a halt. In our desperate zealotry of checks and balances, to make sure that dreaded thing called ‘corruption’ is kept at bay, we tie everyone’s hands. Philip K. Howard’s lesson is candid, and follows the simple idiom: “A man who trusts no one can’t be trusted.” In our paranoia, we have made a quagmire of dead-ends. America is a nation of mistrustful, frustrated souls.

“Between 1969 and 1979 the Federal Register nearly quadrupled in length, expanding not just the scope of regulation, but the granularity of its mandates. Forest rangers used to have guidelines in a pocket pamphlet. Now they had volumes of rules. The purpose of regulation was not to confine executive discretion but to eliminate it altogether. Legal detail replaced public choice. Law would tell you not only what to do, but how to do it. The rhetoric of both liberals and conservatives “converged on the term ‘discretion,’” Professor William Simon observed, “contrast[ing] legality with discretion.’

“Pretty much everyone signed on to the idea of using detailed rules to minimize discretion. Liberals and conservatives like rules, as discussed, because they distrust each other. Corporations like detailed rules because rules provide a safe harbor and, as a bonus, rules are a barrier to entry for potential competitors. Public employees like rules because rules absolve them of responsibility by following the rules, they avoid having to justify the fairness of their decisions. Precise rules were also the sure antidote against violating someone’s rights: The rule made me do it.’ […]

“Out of the cauldron of the 1960s emerged the most amazingly impractical public philosophy ever devised: No one could take responsibility for making public choices. Legal restrictions on official choice now reached its apogee. No president, no judge, no official, no teacher, no anyone, would have authority to draw on their judgement. Public choices would be automatic, like spell-check in a word processing program, or go into the purgatory of perpetual process.”  

Philip K. Howard, from The Rule of Nobody: Saving America From Dead Laws and Broken Government

So here we are, with Arendt’s “tyranny without a tyrant.” There is much that can be argued with in Howard’s book, many oppressions he has glibly overlooked, many depressions he has hastily filled with dirt so he can simply get his wagon down the road without breaking an axle. But deep in its heart, in a chamber that is foundational to Howard’s theory of ‘what is wrong,’ there is something profound. Something that I agree with deeply and have aches and pains over when I am alone in my room at my desk, writing my words, penning my thoughts. 

And it is Hannah.

Portrait of Hannah Arendt via Getty Images

In The Rule of Nobody Howard makes clear the differences between what he describes as ‘principles’ and ‘goals’ vs. ‘rules’ and ‘dictates.’ In the book he uses the Australian reform of nursing homes as an example to get his point across. In 1988 the Australian government made a dramatic shift in its ideas on how to regulate its nursing homes, eliminating hundreds of listed ultra-specific regulations nearly overnight and instead opting for a mere thirty-one broadly stated objectives. Rather than making sure each resident had “at least 80 feet” of private space and check-list edicts of the ilk, new reform insisted on more nonspecific terminology, such as making sure each resident had a “homelike environment” and be treated with “privacy and dignity.” 

The reform was scoffed at, initially, as supposed regulatory experts doubted that such “motherhood statements” could keep residents of nursing homes safe and secure. But in a welcome surprise, Australian nursing homes flourished. Quality of life improved dramatically for residents, less arguments among caretakers and officials ensued, and infighting and bickering broke way into civil debate and collaboration. The conversation of ‘Did you check everything off the list?’ gave way to ‘How best can we serve our residents? In what way can we improve?’ The Australian government had stumbled upon the difference between rules and principles, or what Hannah Arendt described as methods versus aims. 

The human world is chiefly encompassed by two things: the nomothetic, meaning that which is fit for a law-like generalization, and what is perhaps best described by the Hebrew word da’at, meaning something akin to knowledge gained from direct experience with the subject. Both of these do not hold to absolutes, or that without question. One is an open-structure, and one is just plain open. When a system is governed by rules, there is no room for judgement or choices, there is only the letter of the law, and one must follow it religiously, lest one be found astray or out of place. But when we follow principles, or aims, then there is room for voluntary human interaction, for judgment, for choices. Morality, by its nature, can not be automatic. This is Hannah’s greatest epiphany: morality, the goodness of people, can only flourish in an environment where human choices are allowed. This is Philip K. Howard’s kernel of deep wisdom, though it is not his—it is Hannah’s, but Howard is at least wise enough to recognize it.  

In August of 1954 Hannah writes an exhaustibly delicious letter to her dearest friend, Mary McCarthy. Hannah’s mind is a garden here, as she breezily traverses over Socrates and Kant and the French and English traditions of philosophy, in her left hand a cutting scalpel and in her right a delicate paintbrush—in her letters she is both a surgeon and an artist, and Mary’s mind frees her to be herself—it’s compelling. She falls upon the Cartesian doubt, the habitual fear likely born out of the Scientific Revolution where all of humankind’s senses were thrown into the boiling pot of unreliability. This “ritual of doubt,” obsessive and inherent in the west, created what she called a “chief fallacy,” and mused over the possibility that it was perhaps “the oldest fallacy of Western philosophy.” The fallacy is thus:

“The chief fallacy is to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought-process. Truth, on the contrary, is always the beginning of a thought; thinking is always result-less. […] Truth, in other words, is not in thought, but […] is both, beginning and priori.”

Hannah here scrapes against something that jars, that moral truth is neither the end result of critical thinking, nor is it inherent in human existence. It is an involvement of what I will simply call the spontaneous life. If Americana is indeed suffering under bureaucratic stifling, beneath what Max Weber coined “the iron cage” and what Howard has opted to see as the “rule of Nobody,” we must shake free the shackles of fear, and cease to perform the ritual of doubt. Either we continue down the path laid out by old men long dead, to keep to the laws as scriptures and maintain the rules purported by faceless policy-writers who bear no responsibility if things go amiss, we can continue to play it safe, and fulfill the duty of stringent due process. 

Or, we can trust and take chances, and bear all consequences.


I negate a star rating for Philip K. Howard’s The Rule of Nobody: Saving America from Dead Laws and Broken Government, as this is not really a book review. I’ll just say I recommend reading it.            

Death On The Shelf: Megan Rosenbloom On Books Bound In Human Skin

When I was a child I had a hamster named Pepper, who lived for about three years I recall. When he died, I don’t remember crying. Pepper sat curled in the corner of his glass domain, his shut eye a soothing crescent, looking as if he simply fell into sleep. I asked my father if I could touch him, and my father said I could; so I reached in, and gave him one last pet. Rigor mortis had set in, and as I petted Pepper’s back I could feel his spine, stiff and knobbed although his fur coat still had shine, and curled tightly as he was he reminded me of a seashell, a conch or ponderous ark set on the shore or ocean bed. Pepper was buried in the backyard by the garage. I didn’t feel too bad—I had the distinct feeling he had just up and left somewhere.

This is my earliest memory of death. I probably had encountered it before this moment, but time loosens the bows. My hamster’s quiet, peaceful sleep, endless and never waking, is clearest when I hold shells, running my fingers over their bumps and edges. And not just seashells, but pasta shells and candy shells and gastropod shells and those little coat buttons shaped like clams… My little girl’s assumption that Pepper’s skeleton bore some connection to our underwater kin was surprisingly insightful. I think of it often, veering my brain into the wonder of whether symbolism is innate inside us. Very early in my life I linked death with the sea, and also with the stillness of sleep. Countless have drawn these parallels before me: Thanatos and his brother Hypnos in the ancient Greek; in Tom Stoppard’s Hamlet spinoff play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern, “Do you think Death could possibly be a boat?”

The question is refuted, but it stands. Humans oft associate death with the sea, and death with his ‘brother’ sleep. But death with books? Mm, perhaps with the binding, some poor PETA faithful mourning the loss of a beloved cow. More often then not though, we seem to associate books with immortality, the preserved written word transcending our mortal selves into the halls of meaningful permanence.   

Immortality is so far from death it could be considered its antithesis. Life everlasting—what’s dead about that? When we link death and books it feels more circumvential. One must maneuver around the obvious lifeblood to find the ghost.

In the state of Pennsylvania, in the city of Philadelphia, on South 22nd Street, there is an austere building, with an iron wrought gate flanked by two imposing lampposts. It is bulky, wide and congressional looking, and inside its walls is a macabre collection of medical oddities. It is the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and here rests perhaps the largest collection of anthropodermic books, or for the layman, books bound in human skin. Upon this a link between books and death slips not through our fingers, but rather assaults as one strolls through the Mütter’s aisles of wet specimens, medical models, instruments, and osteological wonders, including a corset skeleton with the alluding title “The Price of Beauty” and a vast collection of human skulls.

These books are dead. Yet, somehow, also living. A creeping ambivalence overtakes; the books are rather plain looking, so it is both surprising and skepticalizing, but then an actualization hits. Who are these people?, one finds themselves asking. It’s a question asked throughout the entirety of the Mütter Museum but it feels more acute here. After all, a skeleton is by natural law something that is discovered, not created—but a book? Bound in human skin? It pries forth a very specific fascination. If you are a human who feels its tickle there is a knowing it possesses an intangible pull. One is propelled forward and toward these strange covers as though on a sleigh. Librarian Megan Rosenbloom felt that pull, as her grey-blue eyes swept over the volumes. She wanted to know, Who are these people?, or, more accurately, who were they? What would they have to say about the fate and display of their derma? Would they object? Did they object? Were they pleased about their immortality? What were their names?

Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science and History of Books Bound In Human Skin is that exploration, and so much more, as Megan Rosenbloom sets herself on a course to test, catalog, and build provenance for any and all anthropodermic books scattered and hidden about the globe. Like its subject matter, it is an oddity, and a gem of a read. 

“Anthropodermic bibliopegy has been a specter on the shelves of libraries, museums, and private collections for over a century. Human skin books—mostly made by nineteenth-century doctor bibliophiles—are the only books that are controversial not for the ideas they contain but for the physical makeup of the object itself. They repel and fascinate, and their very ordinary appearances mask the horror inherent in their creation. Anthropodermic books tell a complicated and uncomfortable tale about the development of clinical medicine and the doctoring class, and the worst of what can come from the collision of acquisitiveness and a distanced clinical gaze. The weight of these objects’ fraught legacy transfers to the institutions where they are housed, and the library and museum professionals who are responsible for them. Each owner handles this responsibility differently.’ 

“[…] the conservationists at Harvard Library had discovered that a simple scientific test could be employed to confirm definitively whether an alleged human skin book was genuine. Shortly thereafter, I joined forces with the chemist who carried out the Harvard test, another chemist, and the curator of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia to create the Anthropodermic Book Project. Our aim is to identify and test as many alleged anthropodermic books as possible and dispel long-held myths about the most macabre books in history. Sometimes the most unlikely candidates turn out to be real human skin, and some books with plausible pedigrees turn out to be frauds. As of this writing, my team has identified only about fifty alleged anthropodermic books in public collections and a few more in private hands. With such a small field of study, any test result could completely reshape our understanding of the scope of this practice. We have to approach every item objectively and let science out the truth.” 

Megan Rosenbloom, from Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin

In the mid to late-2000s a chemist named Daniel Kirby started utilizing proteomics to help museums better restore and protect their artifacts and artworks. With modern technology Kirby realized by looking at an object’s proteins he could help distinguish a painting’s egg tempera content, or the type of seal skin used in a nineteenth-century Yup’tik kayak, assisting in recreations. When Megan Rosenbloom found Daniel Kirby, the Anthropodermic Book Project was born. Taking only a sliver of the supposed skin binding (about the amount of a thin fingernail shaving) peptide mass fingerprinting (PMF) for the first time in history could prove whether an alleged human skin book was real or fraudulent. Soon, confirmed anthropodermic books started showing up all over the world, though there were still unanswered questions. For one, PMF testing cannot identify the race or cultural makeup of a person; homo sapiens “do not have enough genetic variability among its populations to justify either the identification of geographically based races or of evolutionarily distinct lineages.” For another, PMF testing cannot even really distinguish between homo sapiens and other members of the Homininae subfamily (i.e. chimps, bonobos, and gorillas); however, no book has ever (to modern knowledge) been bound (or allegedly bound) in gorilla skin. That said, Megan Rosenbloom wants you to know that if you do know of a book allegedly bound in gorilla skin to contact her immediately.  

The ghostliness of these books makes them uniquely opaque, despite their grim nudity. Stripped of their personage, decontextualized, their true pasts can only be cobbled together through dedicated detective work, old paper trails and the sort. Some anthropodermic books are terrible question marks: nameless, with limited provenance and nothing substantial to grab hold to. But others are blatant in their confessions. 

Patterns began to emerge as more and more anthropodermic books were wedged into the light. The majority of acquisitioners and tanners were doctors or part of the doctoring class; when alleged human skin books were outed to be frauds, a large portion of them were centered around ploys of racism; though PMF tests cannot determine sex, many of the skins were claimed to be female, alluding to a rather sinister result of what happens when the distanced clinical gaze collides with the objectifying male one, making women and their skins victims of physicians’ psychosexual pathologies. Yet some defied expectations. One such anthropodermic book, Narrative of the Life of James Allen, Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Peirce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove the Highwayman, was the result of a deathbed wish. The inscription “Hic liber Waltonis cute compactus est” graces the cover, on a gold-tooled black leather strip: “This book by Walton bound in [his] skin.” George Walton, lifelong criminal bibliophile turned armchair philosopher in prison, took end-of-life matters into his own hands. When he died, he requested his memoir be bound in himself; skin was taken from his back, tanned to mirror grey deerskin, and sent to bookbinder Peter Low. He now rests at the Boston Athenaeum, his words preserved in his own suede. 

Though one might be inclined to believe Dark Archives is a book of grotesque goggling, it is chiefly a book of history—medical history to be precise. When we die, we inevitably leave something behind: our bodies. Much of Dark Archives circles around the dubious questions of what rights do these bodies have. Who owns them if not ourselves, ourselves which have flown away? Rosenbloom wends us through humanity’s troubling pasts of corpses and their defilements; the dead stolen from graves, criminals hacked up in front of storefront windows to the appeasement of oglers, the moral minefield of surgeons in need of practicing cadavers, the exchange of money for human flesh. In the long shadow of medical butchery, anthropodermic books are a niche, and at times almost seem quaint in the grand scheme of things. But so many factors must converge to make an anthropodermic book possible. It is this chain of compliance that is most fascinating, and it is this chain that presents the most challenging end result of why. What does an anthropodermic book represent? What does its existence mean? 

I am not so squeamish about death. From the fungi growth of human composting to how bodies explode when cremated, I am rather captivated by the human corpse’s embracing of ugliness and repellency of what is considered contemporarily aesthetically good. We spend so much of our lives overly concerned with our appearances… I am strangely refreshed with the reality that at the end death throws all that hard work and devotion away. Once dead, we stiffen then fall slack, we yellow and brown and grey; insects flume within us, our internal bacteria goes bonkers and we bloat, blister, and burst; we are all—essentially—eaten, whether by fire or dirt. What’s left of us? In time not even bones. Should your derma befall the fate of an anthropodermic book, your lifeless body will be flayed, your skin pickled in acidic juices then washed and beaten and pressed. It is all an odd, ugly sort of business, a wonderfully odd ugly business. But, why shouldn’t it be? Must we be preserved youthful and plump with intrinsic beauty? Encased in resin, pumped full of formaldehyde, or launched into the vacuum of space, so as to never rot and decay. I suppose what draws me most to anthropodermic bibliopegy is despite the frequent usurping of human rights, it feels like a second life, so unlike that of our first. 

These books exist, for now at least. Another ornament to be hung and considered on the tree of the Human Condition. What we can learn from them, and what we believe of their nature, is sure to vary with time. 

From 1497-1543 a German artist named Hans Holbein existed. While in his impressionable twenties, he endeavored on a series of intricate woodblock paintings. These paintings were small, small enough to cup in the palm of your hand. In them, Death in the form of a skeleton performs a dance, a dance that yanks the cowl off an astonished monk, steals food from a miser, skewers an adorned knight, pulls the covers off a resting duchess, and leads a crying child away from his parents into the coming night. It is The Dance of Death, and to all peoples of every class he is an intruder, enthusiastically performing his jig. Cut by Hans Lützelburger (who died before he could see the finished product over which he labored, in a crude stroke of irony) the sensational woodblocks were later sold to creditors and compiled for publishing in Lyons in 1538. They have never been out of print, the hypnotic movements of Death’s swinging arms and empty eyes enlivening and alarming viewers for over six centuries. 

And in 1816, a famous bookbinder by the name of Joseph Zaehnsdorf commissioned the skin of a woman to give what he saw as “an appropriate binding” for a copy of Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death. The quantity of the material he was given (meaning, human skin) was in his own words “scanty”, resulting in him having to split the human leather in two, creating a smooth finished cover but a lumpy binding. In the typed memorandum he signs conditionally, “Yours obediently, Zaehnsdorf”. It is macabre in its pragmatism, the capitalist system that incited and buoyed this tome’s creation.

This copy along with two other anthropodermic editions of Holbein’s Dance of Death were later displayed at an exhibition by Grolier’s Club in 1903. Supposedly, three more copies throughout the 19th century of The Dance were made, totaling the number of times Hans Holbein the Younger’s eerie woodblock series The Dance of Death being allegedly bound in human skin to six. Though perhaps the most well known anthropodermic books, Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives barely covers these volumes, likely because of their notoriety. Of these six, only two have been tested, and confirmed by PMF testing; Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 binding is one of them, obedient to the end.  The book now rests at Brown University, at the Jay Hay Library in Providence, Rhode Island, ‘rests’ holding more weight here than is perhaps norm.

Hans Holbein created The Dance of Death to showcase what he saw as an encouraging—and brutal—truth: Death comes for all of us, regardless of wealth, faith, condition, or class. Sometimes Death’s dance is like an assault, as to a jewel-laden emperor being denied his crown; but other times, Death is more a liberator, as to an old woman limping down a dirt road being released from her pains. Holbein also made The Dance as a sort of warning, a reminder to the most elitist classes that they will not be spared. But what Holbein’s enigmatic dancing Death misses is that though being dead will likely be the same for all of us, our dying—and the bodies we leave behind—will not become equalized the moment Death’s dance is finished. Rather, death just follows the path life has laid out. And, as all of us know, life is not egalitarian. 

The skins that bind Holbein’s [Dances] of Death were surely taken without consent, and with disregard of their owners. The commissioners, the bookbinders, the sellers, they all get to have their names passed on through history. But who makes Zaehnsdorf’s 1816 Dance of Death? No name is granted. We don’t know. Without the name, what immortality is given? They are doomed to mere superficial covering, a pale smooth beautiful nothing on a paper throne. Megan Rosenbloom gives new life to these dark volumes, and asks us to think about death, and our dead, more often. Through Dark Archives she invites us with compassion into a “more empowering relationship with our mortality.” 

An edition of Hans Holbein’s The Dance of Death bound in human skin, 1898. The only image of an anthropodermic book featured in Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives.

5 out of 5 stars for Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation Into The Science And History Of Books Bound In Human Skin.


The featured image is of the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. It is an American museum of medical history, and “helps the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to appreciate the history of diagnosis and treatment of disease.” Photograph via muttermuseum.org – Thank you.

On Tides

Growing up in the Twin Ports of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I was often exposed to the chilling brutality, and lashing beauty, of the waves of Lake Superior. 

The Ojibwe called Lake Superior kitchi-gami, meaning “great sea”. With the largest surface area of any freshwater body in the world, if one looks outwards from the shores of either Wisconsin Point or Canal Park, the lake can truly appear as an ocean—vast and unbroken as the sky. On a vicious, windy day, bundled well in a thick coat and set on just the right rock, observing the lake can be a meditative, absolving experience, and it’s one I indulged in quite often. There’s no brine or scent of life in the lake; just her coldness, and clattering foams, like a land of liquid angry snow. Sitting alone on those shores are some of my most peaceful, quiet memories. Sometimes, I go there in my mind, and I can smell the crisp mist. 

Stunning image of Lake Superior waves at North House. Photograph taken by Layne Kennedy.

Waves that chop and peak when unruly. A color more resembling iron in winter. A heavy, thudding roar. The visage of the lake—if it could be described with a single word—is flinty. Hard and unyielding, like the gaze of a tiger or Cellini’s defiant Perseus. With temperatures in the region that can hit -40℉ with windchill, this stoic, saltless sea, can display a unique form of frigid savagery. An old saying rises up: “Lake Superior seldom gives up her dead”. This axiom, sounding like the stuff of grim tall tales, has a surprising basis in truth. Due to the unusually low temperature of the water, the cold functions as a sterilizer, inhibiting bacterial growth. Decaying bodies, lost in the waves, need feeding bacteria to generate gases to float. Therefore, without the bacteria feeding and thriving, the heavy lake holds down any and all souls. In Lake Superior is a graveyard of men, women, children, and ships. Kitchi-gami plays for keeps, giving little up. 

I swam in those waters, I walked along those coarse and rock laden shores and picked up pieces of smoky glass and smooth small stones. One of my uncles, who ran a booth at Minnesota’s Renaissance Faire for some decades called Wizard’s Wax Works, used the driftwood tossed up along Wisconsin Point to mold his fantasy wax figures on. In the spring and summer as a family we’d all go to the point and collect these extravagant burled and gnarled wood pieces, and stack them in the back of the van and take them home. Beneath a small heating lamp in my grandparents basement my uncle would push and pull dragons and wizards, unicorns and fish and bears out the wax, and merge and coil them about the driftwood. Kitchi-gami, seemingly against her character, also grants gifts.

And sometimes the mad lake tries to kill you. It almost took me, one summer when I was a child. I was wearing little green shoes, full of tiny pink, blue, and white flowers. Playing down by the water at Canal Park, near the lighthouse, a massive wave enveloped me and nearly swept me out. In my memory, I remember the smack and crush, and the sudden roll of the world being turned upside down as I was flung inside the watery drum. My uncle saved me (a different uncle, not my uncle who forged creatures from wax to driftwood) and after it was made clear that I wasn’t dead and drowned, I was carried back up the rocks to the van in the parking lot, and I was set down in the back, drenched and dazed. My older cousin, excited by the event, gave me a once over and exclaimed, “Look! She’s lost a shoe!” The great lake that day had almost swallowed me up. I was toweled off, and sent back out to play to supposedly laugh in the face of death. Kitchi-gami, swung her fist, but missed.

Image of the Canal Park Lighthouse, very close to where I almost drowned as a child. Image Credit: Canalpark.com

The water woos me; it’s always been this way. Living in Seattle now some of my favorite things to do are to take the ferries or go to the docks and watch the Pacific waters rising in, flowing out. Always in motion (perhaps that’s why I love the water, for it resembles my mind) scientific studies say I love the water because it lowers my cortisol levels when I see it, smell it taste it touch it; that we humans always seek it, are soothed by it; that it is a reflection of our bodies and our lives. The same percentage of salt that exists in our blood exists in the ocean—but I prefer a poet’s view. I look out at the unending blue and think, Winter never rots in this sky.

So we all tend to be drawn to the waters. For me, the pull of the great blue bodies is that they change. The oceans, lakes, rivers, and seas have their own unique patterns and their own processes of time. For me, it’s all about the tides and waves—not the heart or head or belly or feet—but the lungs, that breathing, that comb and swell and yaw. Taking the hours to be witness to that slow, unwavering rhythm of up and down, ascent and descent, high and low, is a day well spent, a very good day indeed. This is what Johnathan White’s book Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is about. You set out your front door on a wave and it circles the globe, and with prowess and gentleness and speed, it carries you back home. 

“My interest in tides springs from a fascination with the ocean. I grew up on the southern California coast, surfing, diving, sailing, fishing. I built a twenty-six-foot sloop after college and sailed it for a couple of years in the Atlantic and Caribbean, making several offshore passages. In the early 1980s, at twenty-five, I bought a leaky old sixty-five-foot wooden schooner, Crusader, and founded a non-profit educational organization, Resource Institute. For eleven years we sailed Crusader off the Northwest Coast, from Seattle to Alaska, around Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii. We conducted weeklong seminars afloat on topics ranging from natural history, photography, and whale research to psychology, music, poetry, and November Coast Native art, culture, and mythology. […] Six or eight participants from across the country – sometimes from around the world – would join us at a coastal town, and we’d sail off, often not seeing another human settlement until seminar’s end.

It was a wonderfully adventurous eleven years, but one of the not-so-wonderful adventures was going aground on a large tide in Alaska’s Kalinin Bay.”

Johnathan White, from Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean

Following White’s example, I opened this review with my own experiences of life by the waves, one of which involved me nearly getting swept out. White, in a similarly uncomfortable vein, opens his book with an excellent tale of running aground in mud. An unexpected turn of tides left him and his crew completely stranded in the Kalinin Bay. At a loss, White went to the pilothouse and grabbed for the tide chart, hoping the news would be good—but it wasn’t. The schooner Crusader had gone aground at peak high tide; that left White and his hapless crew of passengers stuck for at least nine to ten hours, and during those hours, White knew Crusader would continue to sink deeper and deeper into the mud. “Over the hours, I watched Crusader drop like a fatally wounded animal, first to her knees, then all fours, and finally onto her side. She filled chest-high with water. When the tide reversed, all seventy tons of her were stuck in the mud and didn’t want to come back up.”

The crew was shuttled ashore via small boats, leaving only White and one other crew member aboard the floundering ship. Fruits bobbed in the watery blue, books flapped about like birds. They pumped and pumped the water to what felt like no avail, White called the Coast Guard, it seemed all was lost and that he would have to say goodbye. But then, something changed. The tide, a silent avenger, rose, and the Crusader was jogged loose and floating again in little over a minute. 24 hours stuck in the salty sludge and in under two minutes Crusader was free. White never forgot. That event changed him, and he vowed to learn more about the tides, the oceans and the seas and their rhythms and harmonies. A masterful work of ensnaring prose, illuminating discoveries, and good old journalism, Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean is Johnathan White’s journey around the world, and wherever he goes, the waves give chase. 

Image of a semipalmated sandpiper. Image Credit: Encyclopedia Britannica

With introduction, broken into nine chapters (there is a lovely foreword by Peter Matthiessen that I would recommend not skipping) White has undertaken a deep exploration of the tides and their many intricate dances. Perusing topics such as the first tide theories by renown figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Zakariya Qazvini, to the Ptolemy-Aristotelian astronomies of the Mediterranean world, White delves into a rich history of human fascination—and bafflement—with the tides. There is a bouquet here of information, shaped by White’s elegant pen; a reader can feel at ease sailing along the wending of history, as though in the hands of a veteran captain. White searches for the tidal secrets both scholastically and by foot, traveling to famous sites like Mont Saint-Michel in France; China’s Qiantang River; Venice, Italy; and the Eling Tide Mill in Southampton, just north of the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. In these fervent voyages of the mind and heart, White performs a series of dances of his own: with the moon and sun, with semipalmated sandpipers and mudshrimp, with tidal bores, with technologies designed to harvest tidal energies, with massive gates rising from out the sea hoping to hold them off. It is a stellar work of writing, peppered with visual treats. Helpful photographs and diagrams make Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean an immersive, decadent read.  

And then there’s Johnathan White, with a childlike sense of awe that really brings animation to the journaling of his journey. White is a fine writer, expertly rendering scenes, a reader gets to really chew the senses: tactile, taste, smell, sound, sight, stream of consciousness, musings. A reader can clearly feel the tiny sandpiper in their cupped hands, can hear the roar of the upcoming bore, can know the slosh of high tide in Venice. The book is wonderfully thought through, with clean transitions and engaging topics.

Great diagram explaining how the Sun and Moon influence Earth’s tides. Image credit: Encyclopedia Britannica.

When one stands with the ocean, there is often an overwhelming feeling that sweeps over, a feeling of great encapsulation and interconnectedness. John Steinbeck states it well in his story The Log from the Sea of Cortez, “It’s a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious… is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable…. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” This quote, stationed at the beginning of the first chapter of White’s Tides, encompasses what the oceans and their cycles are really about: the understanding that all things are bound together, and that all things are dependent upon this binding. From this, it is easy to see what White is really exploring throughout his voyages with the tides, is influence. How one thing shapes another thing and how that thing shapes another, and another and another, so on and so on, possibly ad infinitum. The discovery of this totality of union, of this naturalist perspective, can be an aid in understanding and coping with the events of the modern day. Johnathan White’s Tides is a welcome balm against stringent individualism—stringent individualism being the belief of existence of one inside a vacuum—and a much needed lesson of balance, connection, and patience, in time.

It has been a tough year. With the coronavirus pandemic biting at our heels, and the terrible losses for human rights, 2020 seems a year of high highs, and low lows. Here we all are, caught in the tides; some of us are run aground, lodged in mud, others of us are being swept out. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about cycles, about the rolling circle that is life. Some might describe it as a hamster wheel—but, I struggle to have a view so nihilistic. I sense it more as a phasing, that life has us crest, grow, peak, shrink, shrivel, go dark, and retry. That my time here exists beyond my basic body, and that we will all roll onward into the future, repeating these seven fundamental forms in some manner, matter, or way. That we are always part of a shifting mold. If we view humanity as a collection of all that are human, and perhaps, even some that are little less, or little more, we can view ourselves as an ocean, and all oceans have their tides, tides both consistent and changing.

In times like these, it is helpful to remember that there have always been times like these. One day as a child, a wave pounded and almost swallowed me up. 

It could have swallowed me, but it didn’t. Kitchi-gami surely didn’t let me go that day, she simply missed her mark. I toweled off, and kept on playing. Because the wave goes out, as surely as it comes back in. The wheeling ring never stops, though the complications and complexities are many and wild.

Beautiful image of the tides of river and sea meeting. Image credit: Shutterstock

Five out of five stars for Johnathan White’s Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. 

Thank you for the voyage.  


The featured image is of Le Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France. It is a tidal island and mainland commune, the fantastic abbey being of Romanesque architectural design, and is only accessible at low tide, for at high tide the waters sweep in and flood the sand strip. It is visited by more than 3 million people each year.

Dreamland: Science and Musings on Sleep

I have been reading online over the past few weeks about how during the COVID-19 pandemic people are reporting having strange, vivid dreams. As to why this is happening, theories abound, but one of the more interesting theories is that withdrawal from our usual environments (caused by the quarantine) has left many subconscious brains searching back into the lost stacks of the mind for inspiration. The past, for many, is being dug up, and played out in new formulations while they sleep. How fascinating, I thought as I read, The dreaming mind is such a deep, welling place. 

That got me thinking about sleeping in general, and all the mystery that entails it. My own sleep has always been plagued by oddities, from having Night Terrors in my youth to run-of-the-mill somnambulism to a terrible case of Exploding Head Syndrome I got in my mid-twenties. My immediate thought was I should get a book on it from the library, ride the wave of my sudden interest, before I was triggered by the remembering that I, in fact, already own a book about sleep and its many variations, and had never gotten around to reading it.

So to my small-ish Tsundoku collection I went, and pulled from the back of my shelf Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall. A rather journalistic endeavor and easy reading, Randall’s book was a fun, intriguing exploration into what happens (and what can happen) when we lay our heads down at night. A little lacking in imagination but clear cut on facts and a good dose of wit to it, Dreamland is a good beginner’s guide to the strangeness of slumber and the nebulous workings of the unconscious mind. 

Dreamland_Randall

“Whether any of us has a sleep problem or not, it is clear that we are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not that long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electrical lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.’ […]

“Because of the number of new findings in such a short time span, today’s researchers believe that they are in a golden age of their field. Sleep is now understood as a complex process that affects everything from the legal system to how babies are raised to how a soldier returning from war recovers from trauma. And it is also seen as a vital part of happiness. Whether you realize it or not, how you slept last night probably has a bigger impact on your life than what you decide to eat, how much money you make, or where you live. All of those thing that add up to what you consider you–your creativity, emotions, health, and ability to quickly learn a new skill or devise a solution to a problem–can be seen as little more than by-products of what happens inside your brain while your head is on a pillow each night. It is part of a world that all of us enter and yet barely understand.”  

It was neato to learn that Randall’s interest in the hidden elements of sleep were prompted by his own experience of sleepwalking. Always more of a talker in his sleep than a walker, David K. Randall woke up one night on the floor of his hallway, having no recollection of how he’d gotten there. Obviously, he’d been sleepwalking, but he’d never done it before and was baffled by what had happened, and slightly concerned it would happen again. When he sought out a specialist, a neurologist, all he received was an answer that led to more questions. The neurologist told him plainly, “I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a lot that we know about sleep, but there’s a lot that we don’t know. If the sleepwalking continues, let’s try some sedatives. But I don’t want you to start taking drugs that you don’t need. Try to cut down on your stress and see what happens.” And that was that.

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Flipped image of Hebert Antoine Auguste Ernest’s lovely “The Little Violinist Sleeping” via FineArtAmerica.com

But being a reporter, Randall couldn’t just leave it at that. So began his adventures into the weirdness of sleep. Though the science was still in its infancy when Dreamland first appeared on the shelves in 2012, and hasn’t come that far since, Randall touches upon all sorts of topics, from Freudian and Jungian theories of our dreams, to criminal acts committed by sleeping individuals, to baseball stats, Randall’s book is a wonderland of fascinating discoveries and entertaining trivia. 

The book is 13 chapters, the first opening with Randall’s own bizarre encounter with his unconscious self that left him confused and dazed on the floor, to closing up shop with a fruitful experiment to see whether he could, as it were, brain-hack himself to a better night’s rest. Very readable and easy to follow, Dreamland is articulate and streamline. Choosing to touch upon as many subjects as he can instead of going into expansive depth of any one or two, the book has a jack of all trades feel to it that keeps it light, and keeps the pages turning. The information gained tastes a great deal more like data than knowledge, and that’s just fine, and Randall has a charming sense of humor that adds a component of warmth to the book, even in the drier bits. A reader is sure to find something that interests them, and sure to learn some new amount about sleep. My favorite chapters where “Between The Sheets”, “Game Time”, and “Breathe Easy”, mostly due to the surprising socio-economic turns they took that had never much graced my mind. 

Speaking of my mind, Dreamland was certainly a book that got me thinking about my own inner mechanics. Recently, I learned about an area of the brainstem called the PONS which regulates respiratory and sensory functions, and is in fact the little switch that turns off our motor functions while we sleep. But for those of us who are somnambulists (sleepwalkers), our PONS areas frequently decide not to turn off when the lights go out, and we are left running around and acting out our dreams, so many of us waking up cooking sunny-side eggs, stumbling on stairs, or completely prone on our living room floors. It got me thinking, What disrupts this? Why some and not so many others? The clockwork of the mind is a fine, intricate machine that loves to suddenly sproing springs. Much like many other mysteries, sleep is an entity who when answers a question is poised to ask twenty more.     

And that’s the review. A good enough read that taught me new things, got me thinking, and helped satiate my curiosity on the recent coronavirus pandemic dreams going around. David K. Randall’s Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep gets three out of five stars. 

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Gustave Courbet’s “Portrait  of Juliette Courbet as a Sleeping Child”, mere graphite and paper, via Wikiart.org

Sweet dreams, everyone.  


The featured image is Frederic Leighton’s “Flaming June” produced in 1895. Painted with oil paints on a 47-by-47-inch (1,200 mm × 1,200 mm) square canvas, it is widely considered to be Leighton’s magnum opus. “Flaming June” disappeared from view in the early 1900’s and was rediscovered only in the 1960’s. It now resides at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, via Wikipedia – Thank you.      

All About Function Words(?): Pennebaker’s Secret Life Of Pronouns

A decent read for sleuths, James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us is a book to remind that little things can invoke big realizations.

For a paperback I snatched from the store on a whim, The Secret Life Of Pronouns turned out to be a very enjoyable Sherlockian jaunt around the basic principles of language and how they reflect the human psyche. Though not exactly a rich, or deeply educative read, nonetheless I learned things and had genuine fun participating in the several exercises and small tests Pennebaker peppers throughout the book. Though there are holes—to be sure—and some of the items presented feel lackluster and obvious, Pennebaker has knitted together a fine, comfortable read that will likely pique the interest of any inquisitive brain seeking to snoop a bit into the external lives and mentalities of others.

SecretLifeOfPronouns_coverAlthough the analysis of language is the focus of this book, it is really a work of psychology. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language for its own sake, I’m interested in what people’s words say about their psychological states. Words, then, can be thought of as powerful tools to excavate people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and connections with others. With advancements in computer technologies, this approach is informing a wide range of scholars across many disciplines–linguists, sociolinguistics, English scholars, anthropological linguists, neuroscientists, psycholinguists, developmentalists, computer scientists, computational linguists, and others. Some of the most innovative work is now coming from collaborations between academics of all stripes and companies such as Google.

Aside from the points of being a tad repetitious and quite a lot naïve about machine-learning technologies and their impacts, Pennebaker is a fun, pep-filled narrator, enthusiastic about his work and eager to share. This animated, optimistic energy is ensnaring, and keeps the pages turning regardless of whether the subject matter has become tiresome and stretched (and therefore thinned) to its capacity. Certainly, the childlike twinkle in Pennebaker’s eye shows up in his writing, and though the book itself could have been shaved down to 150 pages or less, he makes it worthwhile. Pennebaker, after many years of service in his field, has discovered something; and he is excited—oh yes he is excited—and like a kid with a newfound love of dinosaurs, Pennebaker launches himself headlong into telling us all about it.

Broken down into ten chapters, the book opens with the basics: a short refresher on elementary school grammar, function and content words and what the differences are, and how our words and speaking styles represent our emotional states, and furthermore, our personalities. Specifically, Pennebaker is interested in function words, and the book (rightly so) revolves almost entirely around them.

What are function words? We’ll do a quick lesson. Check out this sentence of mine I hastily jotted down in one of my notebooks some unknown time ago:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

I picked this specifically because its rather nebulous; however, any reader can gauge with some accuracy what I’m talking about/commenting on even without the knowledge of the full context. That is because the above sentence is full of content words.

exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Because of content words, it is relatively easy to glean that I am critiquing an aspect of social media and its value for users. Perhaps an image of a person helplessly scrolling through Instagram or Facebook jumps into frame. If you are someone who’s native language is not English, and you only know a few choice words, you might pull “picture,” “joy,” “social media,” and “viewers” from the sentence, and still (probably) be able to cobble together what I may be talking about.

But if we highlight these words, a very big confusion emerges:

…exaggerated understanding of the joy/emotion given to those in the ever rolling visual of social media; a grandiose view on the emotional response a picture gives viewers.

Behold function words. Those little things that hardly seem to exist in the midst of an engaging conversation, a bombastic argument, or the sweet nothings uttered in blushed ears. Function words, via Pennebaker, “[…] are words that connect, shape, and organize content words.” If one reads just the function words (regardless of what their native language might be) what the heck I’m talking about is just that—Huh? The heck are you talking about?

So completely unmemorable are function words it’s amazing that a whole book has been written about them. And though The Secret Life Of Pronouns in itself is not such an amazing book, I was once again reminded of how knowledge, and wisdom, often hides in the cracks.

Yet even with this praise, there is a lot that is unclear in much of the statistical data Pennebaker dishes out.

Pennebaker_portrait
Very nice portrait of James W. Pennebaker, provided by Pinterest – Thank You.

In fairness, Pennebaker acknowledges that the research is still in its infancy—however, along that note, there seems to be a lot of formulating hypotheses and locating data needed to support them after studies and tests have been carried out, also known as p-hacking. Regardless, correlations by those algorithmic machines are fervently being made: women tend to use far more cognitive words and personal pronouns than men do, men tend to use bigger words and more prepositions; when tragedy strikes a nation’s use of the word we skyrockets, when a world leader is about to declare war his/her use of the word I plummets; liars use more verbs and social/emotional words such as she and him, if and any, while truth tellers tend to use more words in general and more self-reference words such as I and me. This all sounds neat-o, but (noted by Pennebaker himself) much of these subjects suffer from a lack of “ground truth” and others seem more to do with the circumstances and environments of individuals rather than the personalities of individuals unto themselves. Sometimes the information contradicts itself, such as in the case of world leaders dropping the word I from their vocabulary during tumultuous times, and research stating the more confident and in control a person feels, the more their use of the word I drops. Are we supposed to draw the conclusion that leaders lodged in conflict are, in fact, more confident and sure of themselves? Such impasses are not discussed, nor it seems even noticed. Much of the data feels cherry-picked, and therefore detached and limp. For a book loaded with tables and charts, it stings of discombobulation and half-finished projects.

There is also the problem of Pennebaker not really delivering on his goal—a window into personality. Can function words tell us if someone is kind or cruel, selfish or generous, neurotic or relaxed? The Secret Life Of Pronouns doesn’t say, but it does say how to utilize function words in finding out whether someone grew up rich or poor, is female or male, or if a person’s relationship is happy or on the rocks. Pennebaker doesn’t seem to think much about how such discoveries and sleuthing technologies could be manipulated by advertising companies and the ilk, or be misused to decide whether someone gets extension on their credit, is let into a prestigious college, lands a dream job, or wins publication in an esteemed journal. Straight into it, the vision of The Secret Life Of Pronouns is severely limited. Though entertaining and interesting, it ceases to have substance or anything really worth chewing on.

But it’s good enough. So give it a read if you’re bored and like sleuthing. Really, who doesn’t like playing detective every once in a while? Ultimately, I enjoyed Pennebaker’s bubbly spirit and gained a little more insight into myself. (Which, I’ve consistently found, is always worth doing.) So, what the heck, I give it a solid C.

Three out of five stars for The Secret Life Of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us.

The Water Will Come: Jeff Goodell Wades into the Future

In the morning of October 2, 2018 a massive oscillation of pulsing white started to heave its lungs over the southwestern Caribbean sea.

For the NHC (National Hurricane Society) this was nothing out of the ordinary. Such disorganized accumulations of thunderstorms occur fairly regularly during the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico hurricane season, however, dutiful in their profession, they began to monitor it. Over the next few days, the tropical disturbance slowly, in a smooth fog-like creep, began to gather itself into a definite whorl. An enormous wheel, of rumble and powder, started to roll northward and then so eastward toward the Yucatán Peninsula. Its body got built quickly, and a head began to form. By October 6th, a lazy, sleepy eye was taking shape. Advisories got initiated. People waited on the land, looking out. On the 7th day, it depressed, spun, and woke, and by 16:55 UTC that day it had a name. Hurricane Michael over the next three days would begin barreling into the Gulf Coast and Florida, its gaze reaching landfall on the 10th of October. In wild winds and torrential rains, it popped up electrical poles like wine corks, smothered beaches, flooded rivers, tore into houses and flung small animals into the sky. Northward it banked, tired—yet still determined—and poured and howled itself over the states of Georgia and both Carolinas. On the 11th day, its one, beautiful mean eye closed; still, like a sleepwalker, it continued. Hurricane Michael had one last gasp, and after traveling east for four days, its cyclone-shell dropped on the Iberian Peninsula the 16th of October, washing Portugal in its death throes. No doubt it was satisfied with its brief, but brutal life.

gettyimages-Mexico Beach FL-michael-12th
An aerial shot of Mexico Beach, FL after Hurricane Michael hit on the 12th of October. Image provided by weather.com – Thank you. 

I was not there, of course; I was safe and snug on the west coast of the United States, watching it all from my laptop. I had an awe and respect for its savagery, its sheer size. Hurricane Michael in little more than a week had ripped through a dozen countries and touched three continents. It slouched its belly over some 5,000 miles, crushing all it could before it vanished into literal thin air. I found it remarkable, and terrifying; a true Titan of Nature.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, the glaring, unforgiving Sun, are all welded into the amorality of the Earth and Universe, so very far beyond the simply duality of right and wrong that us human beings so lovingly cling. It was at this time, watching Hurricane Michael thunder itself through the lower east coast, that the true mass of climate change—the heavy bodies of the fast rising seas—sat all their weight upon me. As I scrolled safely through the destruction of Hurricane Michael (a pang for being a rubbernecker, twinging) it began to fully settle upon me just how much we were not ready for the onslaught of destruction that was making headlong for us.

The water, la belle dame sans merci, was coming. And she was arriving at a good clip, unable to wait for anyone or thing. I saw it, like a vision: if the west coast of the North American continent would burn in wildfires unending, than the east coast would flood. Highways would wend along the seafloor, barnacles would encrust front steps; the tops of buildings, pockmarked from eroding salt and oiled in algae, would metamorphose into small craggy islands, waves breaking upon them like rocky shores. It was all going to happen, in the rising decades, the turbines of a windmill wheeling in one direction—the east coast was going to flood. One day, the tides would come and the waters would cease to recede. Hurricane Michael with its wake had washed clarity over me, and I sought more detail in the emerging scene.

(So, I went to the bookstore, for I know it is safe to assume that when something of importance strikes me it has surely struck someone else far more educated than I, earlier, and that that someone has probably written a book about it. Lo and behold—there it was.)

Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is not a book to enlighten and uplift a reader. It is a book of education and facts, designed to inform, ask open-ended questions, and little more. Goodell has one thing on his mind: what’s going to happen, when the water comes? Not if—when. Compiling, vetting, daydreaming, Goodell pens the coming scenarios lurking beneath those encroaching waves. Someday in the future, the Ferrari on the seafloor won’t just be a haunting image in a fiction dystopia. In the approaching decades, as a child grows into an adolescent and so into an adult, so too will the sea gradually climb, and the land—along with the coastal metropolises of the homo sapien world—will become one with the cold blue.

Water-Will-Come-jacketThe real x factor here is not the vagaries of climate science, but the complexity of human psychology. At what point will we take dramatic action to cut CO₂ pollution? Will we spend billions on adaptive infrastructure to prepare cities for rising waters—or will we do nothing until it is too late? Will we welcome people who flee submerged coastlines and sinking islands—or will we imprison them? No one knows how our economic and political system will deal with these challenges. The simple truth is, human beings have become a geological force on the planet, with a power to reshape the boundaries of the world in ways we didn’t intend and don’t entirely understand. Everyday, little by little, the water is rising, washing away beaches, eroding coastlines, pushing into homes and shops and places of worship. As our world floods, it is likely to cause immense suffering and devastation. It is also likely to bring people together and inspire creativity and camaraderie in ways that no one can foresee. Either way, the water is coming. As Hal Wanless, a geologist at the University of Miami, told me in his deep Old Testament voice as we drove toward the beach one day, “If you’re not building a boat, then you don’t understand what’s happening here.”

A book that opens with a prologue titled “Atlantis,” like many current events reads of the day, a reader is aware that they are likely going to feel a little depressed and a lot disappointed. This is to our nonfiction writer’s benefit, however, for a good enough writer can grasp what a book is for. Though fluffy feel-good inspiration and kinship memoirs flood the shelves in these self-help, self-love times, a book has a much greater power, one that many modern writers do not utilize fully: The Omen. In this, science fiction writers particularly excel, and lucky for Goodell, his subject of choice falls nearly parallel to the realm of science fiction. But, The Water Will Come is not a fantasy—it is frightening reality. Goodell employs not the mistakes of the past to get his point across, but the what-ifs of the future, and he does it well, gently veering readers to brush by grave scapes of political deadlock, citizen denialism, flooded neighborhoods, climate refugees, health and sanitation nightmares, nuclear spills, abandoned houses, skyscrapers half submerged and crumbling into the sea. The complexity of the situation he tries to make clear: the future of rising seas looks less like an orderly spider’s web and more like a mountain-sized tangle of electrical cords. No one really knows what’s going to happen when the water shows up; but, it’ll show up, salty and bacteria ridden and full of fecal matter and dead things. It’ll kill trees, fuck-up army bases, eat poorer countries and neighborhoods alive. When it comes, not everyone is going to play fair. The rich will likely get along fine, pack up and move inland or to higher ground, sail around the rusted hats of buildings in their boats, continue with their lives. Others won’t be so fortunate.

How much will the waters rise? How much land loss are we talking about here? Once again, Goodell says with a distressing shrug, we’re not sure. But the hopeful 3 feet 2 inches reported in the 2013 ICPP report is looking grimly underestimated. This is of particular importance, because in 2013 the thaw and collapse of the Greenland ice sheet happened too sudden and too quickly to be included. Scientist thought the melt would take decades longer than it did. This is regrettable, for the 2013 ICPP report was the scientific bases on which the 2015 Paris Climate Accords was constructed. Countries all over the world are planning for at most 4 feet of additional water. But by possibly as early as 2075, we’re looking more at 7 to 10 feet of sea level rise. Some climate scientists even suggest as much as 25 feet by 2100.

If I lived on the second floor of a small apartment complex right along the ocean in Miami-Dade, with 10 extra feet of water, I could open my window, sit my leggy self on the pane, and dip my toes in.

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Drone image of the famous Miami-Dade strip provided by Pintrest – Thank you.

And Miami-Dade is ground zero. Those who will be hit the hardest will be those living in Atlantic coastal cities like New York, USA and Lagos, Nigeria; the island states of the South Pacific, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands (the Marshelles made famous by climate change); Alaska and the upper Canadian coasts (the melting of the Bering Strait a national security and foreign affairs nightmare for the United States); and Shanghai, which sits only about 13 feet above sea level, built on the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River Delta. Small towns will be hit too, and perhaps suffer even harder than their big metropolis neighbors, who’ll have more money to fund big projects such as raising sidewalks and roads, building and tearing down infrastructure, and fixing municipal sewer systems that have broken down from the erosion of salinization, the salt of the rising ocean seeping into everything.

There will be refugees: people who have lost everything and will have to move across national lines, over oceans, travel hills and valleys to find new homes. And we are not ready for them. Such displaced people will have no protection, Goodell reminds, for under international law, there is no such thing as a climate refugee. Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives (deposed by a military coup in 2012) made an enemy of big Western polluters by being fervently outspoken about the fate of his island country. In 2014, he issued the following statement to the polluting giants: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in… Or, when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.” Though seemingly bleak, Nasheed’s pronouncement is disturbingly real. Consider how the world today is handling the present refugee crisis. With the first-world countries, from Denmark to Australia to the supposed haven of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (the United States of America) slamming their doors, one does not have to be a prophet to envision the horrible future that awaits on the coming, ever rising, ever rising waves.

Has Goodell written a good book? I don’t know; the writing is a tad dry. (I guess I’ll forego a rating on this review.) Goodell’s writing doesn’t wow, however, on such a dire timeline—one that seems fated to be swallowed into aquamarine dimness—flowing prose and cruel optimism (or pessimistic declarations) seem not the point. Goodell presents what’s there, and like many journalists turned authors, his writing is informative, brief, concrete; and, when he does dream, he does so in a way where he confines himself to the modern day consensus of “Hey now, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.” The Water Will Come is the book I was searching for, and it is what it is. Whether we as citizens of Earth will heed the warnings in its pages, is yet to be seen, but the word is getting out, and Goodell is doing his part in trying to make sure it outpaces the water.

Karachi heatwave-2018
People in Karachi, Pakistan sleep on the sidewalk to escape the heat and frequent power outages during the 2018 heatwave. Image provided by The Guardian – Thank you. 

2018 was the year scientists all over the world declared that we were no longer talking about climate change—we were living it. That year, record high temperatures struck Europe and India, Hurricane Florence ripped through Cape Verde and Hurricane Michael followed suit, famine continued for many East African countries, wildfires burned on and on.

It will only get worse. Many climate scientists believe our planet is on the path to becoming a “hothouse.” By 2100, the Republic of Kiribati, and many other South Pacific nations, will be underwater. As the waters rise, and the heat grows, rainforests and coral reefs will shrivel and collapse, freshwater ecosystems near the coast that become contaminated with seawater will choke and die. It will get hotter. Southern Spain and other parts of Europe will turn into deserts; the western United States will be caked in the fumes of wildfires. Berlin, Germany will become as hot as Basrah, Iraq. Such radical transformation in such short time seems impossible to many—but it is already here.

Change is coming; the Anthropocene has begun its march. At current, the world is undoubtedly ours. For how much longer, is a topic up for debate.

Goodell’s message is clear: the water will come. But so much more is riding in on those crystal waves. Though the horizon looks dark, the future will forever remain unknown to us until the light of the present breaks it free. All Goodell and the lot of us can glimpse are the silhouettes of things to come.

And, if you are gazing out, seeking glimpses, The Water Will Come is a good place to start.

Water-Will-Come-Jeff-Goodell


The featured image is a view of the eye of Hurricane Michael taken on Oct. 10, 2018 from the International Space Station currently orbiting Earth. The photo was taken by astronaut Dr. Serena M. Auñón-Chancellor, who began working with NASA as a Flight Surgeon in 2006. In 2009, she was selected as a NASA astronaut. Image provided by Wikipedia – Thank you. 

Milquetoasts: Jesse Eisinger Explains Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives

If you’re like me, you wonder what happened to the supposed coming convictions of the top bankers from the top firms after the 2008 financial crisis. Not a single person went to prison. The recession was a meteor that slammed into the United States at 13 km per second, creating an upheaval of the financial system and rolling us into a dark hole that at the time felt 6 feet deep. Coming to the aid of the quivering industries, the government tossed out bailouts like a float chucking out candy at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. With the malfeasance of the financial firms well documented, and the reek of guilt emanating from every pore, you probably waited just as I did for the prosecutorial gavel to slam down. And oh, we waited—oh did we wait. We waited so long some of us sprouted grey hair and were closing in on grandkids. What was the Justice Department doing? Why the feet dragging? The papers wanted to know, the people wanted to know. When the trickle of deferred prosecution agreements came in, the rage came in too; the Charging Bull was descended upon by millions of confused, angry Americans. One of the largest movements of the current era, Occupy Wall Street, flooded big cities. To put it in everyman terms: People were hopping mad.

Then, par for the course of the modern day, the rage died. The social media feeds moved on, the executives walked scot-free; however, the landscape of America was forever changed.

So what the hell happened? “I waited for the government to charge bankers with criminal wrongdoing. And waited. The indictments never came.” writes Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jesse Eisinger.

The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives is Jesse Eisinger’s exhaustively researched gamut of just that: Why the indictments never came. Like many of us, the lack of action from the Justice Department nagged at him. Being a journalist, Eisinger began turning over stones. He came to find ( as most things are) the truth to be complex and winding. Even so, one word clearly did stand out in his mind as to why the Justice Department had failed. A fragment in a speech by James Comey, given in 2002 to the criminal division of the Southern District of Manhattan after being appointed the fifty-eighth US attorney by then-President George W. Bush, summed up Eisinger’s feelings perfectly.

The Chickenshits_Cover“Before we read off the box score, I have something to say,” Comey said. “We have a saying around here: We do the right things for the right reasons in the right ways.”

All the assembled prosecutors had heard that exhortation in some variation, from Comey in the hallways or in smaller meetings, and from other chiefs.

Then Comey asked the seated prosecutors a question: “Who here has never had an acquittal or a hung jury? Please raise your hand.”

The go-getters and résumé builders in the office were ready. This group thought themselves the best trial lawyers in the country. Hands shot up.

“Me and my friends have a name for you guys,” Comey said, looking around the room. Backs straightened in preparation for praise. Comey looked at his flock with approbation. “You are members of what we like to call the Chickenshit Club.”

Hands went down faster than they had gone up. Some emitted sheepish laughter.

The aforementioned complex and winding truth, though unable to be boiled down to one concentrated point of fault, could in fact be summarized: ‘Cowardice’, Jesse Eisinger found, plagued the Justice Department. After Comey’s compelling speech, ironically, a trend began. The well-dressed, well-educated, and well-groomed lawyers of the DOJ over and over again failed to bring any charges against executives involved in white-collar crime. As a snail confronted with salt, the department shriveled up. Deference became the norm. No one was willing to bring executives to court for fear that they might lose.

Eisinger has written a good book. The bureaucratic game boards are well laid out, the accounting jargon followable. Eisinger starts at the beginning, building a history, telling the story of when, where, how, and why through a compelling timeline starting around the Enron trials and ending near the dusk of the lackluster Yates memo. The United States government has become more and more pro-business—this is no revelation. What is impressive, however, is Eisinger’s incredibly provocative and detailed report. The pile of evidence he pushes forward is eyebrow raising. What Eisinger presents isn’t just capitalist culture bleeding into government; what Eisinger presents is a full occupation. The Fat Cats have sunk their claws in deep, and our government doesn’t appear eager to shake them off.

The events leading up to the present day milquetoast-ridden DOJ and SEC Eisinger documents in detail. Death in the body politic doesn’t happen with a single thrust; it happens through dozens and dozens of tiny stabs from legalese and lobbying, spins and promotions, bloated incentives and revolving doors. From the 1971 Powell memo, to the debacle of the Arthur Andersen trial, to the “namby-pamby” settlements of AIG and KPMG, to the reversal of the Thompson memo, to the loss of investigative ability within the DOJ and SEC, to the arrival of “the Obamanauts”, to the misguided ruling of Judge Lewis Kaplan and to the ostracism of the corporate boogiemen Stanley Sporkin, Paul Pelletier and Judge Jed Rackoff, the demise of the prosecution was made. A pipeline from big business progeny to esteemed colleges was built; the prosecutorial means in which to pursue investigations were gutted; 9/11 hit, and the resources dried up, sent to the DOD to battle terrorists, both real and imaginary. All these things, compounding through the vastly shifting world landscape, dealt a thousand small blows, and the DOJ went down like a sack of hammers. For the white-collar criminals, it is a Gilded Age. For them, never has there been a more freewheelin’ time to be alive.

To read the newspaper today is to be in a constant state of disappointment. So it is in reading The Chickenshit Club. It is evident the governmental systems that have stood strong for centuries are now becoming relics on a planet that is rapidly evolving. The people and the technologies are outpacing the laws. A surprising statistic: About 91% of all currency exists only in digital form. In Jesse Eisinger’s words, understanding tax fraud is like translating “Aramaic into Mandarin back into English.” The world of white-collar crime can feel so daunting, even to the most well-versed of veterans, but we must keep up. The boom/bust cycle roars on, and so must justice.

Jesse Eisinger has put an important book into the public sphere. Though the plops of dropped balls can still be heard on any given day, there is one good thing to take away: Somewhere there’s a journalist, picking up bread crumbs, turning over stones. Though the Rolls-Royce driving criminals and Windsor knot wearing lawyers might skirt the courts, it’s nice to think that maybe, when they’re at their dining-room tables having morning coffee, they’ll pick up the paper, and see their name printed in black ink, beneath a headline that says something like this:

“CHICKENSHITS”

DOJ_Badge
Official Seal of the Department of Justice. Image Credit: The Department of Justice 

Four out of five stars for Jesse Eisinger’s The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives.

Letter To An Old Man: Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

From 1968 to 1989 the western world was overrun with ghouls.

Crime was rampant, and not just the petty kind. Between 1980 to 1989 alone, some 600 active serial killers roamed. It was madness. The movie theaters filled their seats with slashers and methodical, cannibalistic swoll men, wearing masks, wielding axes, stitched into black gloves. People were scared. Single women made plans so they wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark. Each Halloween, Jasons showed up, in gaggles on the front steps of houses holding pillowcases aloft, caroling “Trick or Treat!”

By the 90’s, a cool down occurred; the shadows began to slither back into the cracks. The masks got peeled back. The gloves put away. We caught some, and the ones we didn’t got sleepy. By the 2000’s, the Era of the Serial Killer was deemed over. Now we have the Rampage Killers, with their trench coats and guns. Columbine changed everything. The forensic scientists came, garbed in their angel white robes.

Some of us are obsessed with those times. Some of us would rather bury it in the deep dark earth. Some could care less, but we all know the stories, and some of us know the checklist: 1.) Always park your car under a streetlight. 2.) Don’t wear a ponytail if you jog in the early morning. 3.) Always keep your blinds closed at night. 4.) Don’t be sympathetic to men in the dark.

Men in the dark; that’s how they get away. Sink into the oil pits and vanish like ghosts. In such foul, pathetically twisted minds we can’t breathe, but some of us dive in anyway. Some of us wade into the slosh, and try to feel out the skeletons laid at the bottom with our toes.

I’ve been reading True Crime since I was young. My mother always had mystery books and crime novels scattered about the house like autumn leaves. Patterson, Grisham, Garwood, Sandford, Johansen, Higgins Clark. Sometime in the 90’s the general nonfiction Pulitzer Prize nominee Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt showed up. I gobbled it like chocolate. I was hooked. I read True Crime on my back porch rooftop by flashlight, in my bed with the crank of the snake light; in my closet, when the sun set I’d climb into my haven and turn the switch and illuminate the bulb with a click. I developed a studious, unabashed love. The names of vile men and women stacked high in my brain; the tools they used, the odd ticks that inhabited them, the men and women they killed, the men and women who survived—those who had outsmarted them.

Contrary to the pop culture, the lump of serial killers aren’t meticulous geniuses. In the US, their average IQ runs below the national average, at about 94.5. They get away not because of their mountainous intellects, but rather because what they do is so chaotic and beyond reason, they simply fall out of sight.

But a slim few of us have eagle eyes. Some of us are dogs that get something in their mouths and refuse to let go. Bloodhounds with noses that continue hunting over the hills long after the trail has gone cold. One of those individuals lived in Los Angeles, with a famous husband and a little girl. Her name? Michelle McNamara. And her True Crime tour de force I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is destined to be a classic, and has shaken up the investigation world.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark_jacket“Precision and self-preservation were his identifying features. When he zeroed in on a victim, he often entered the home beforehand when no one was there, studying family pictures, learning the layout. He disabled porch lights and unlocked sliding glass doors. He emptied bullets from guns. Unworried homeowners’ closed gates were left open; pictures he moved were put back, chalked up to the disorder of daily life. The victims slept untroubled until the flashlight blaze forced open their eyes. Blindness disoriented them. Sleepy minds lumbered, then raced. A figure they couldn’t see wielded the light, but who, and why? […]’

“Drapery hooks scraping against a curtain rod awakened a twenty-nine-year-old woman in her bedroom in northwest Stockton. She rose from her pillow. Outside patio lights framed a silhouette in the doorway. The image vaporized as a flashlight found her face and blinded her; a force of energy rushed toward the bed. His last attack had been Memorial Day weekend. It was 1:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Summer was over. He was back.”

In the decades of the ghouls, the Golden State Killer, also known as EAR-ONS (East Area Rapist – Original Night Stalker) was one of the most infamous. In the state of California, in a span of about ten years, the diabolical GSK committed fifty sexual assaults, terrorizing Sacramento and the neighboring counties before moving down south, where he murdered ten people, targeting male/female couples in their beds. He was an absolute plague. Whole towns filled their streets with floodlights. Worried and tortured men patrolled in their cars when night fell. Women couldn’t sleep, their minds buzzing like bees. GSK played with his prey, like a cat with a spider; hog tying victims, muttering incoherent nothing’s as he ransacked their homes, placing teacups on husbands backs as he raped their wives, leaving out milk and cookies, phone calls to the police. Behind him was a littered trail of puzzle pieces that didn’t fit together. He ducked, dived, slithered, and got lucky. The Golden State Killer was never caught. His sadistic legacy oozed through the 1990’s and 2000’s like molasses. But through that time, under the radar, armed with a laptop and a fierce, determined mind was Michelle McNamara. She believed that the case was crackable. That EAR-ONS was catchable. McNamara knew he had a face, and she worked tirelessly to drag that face into the light.

michelle&patton
Great picture of Michelle McNamara and her husband Patton Oswalt. Image Credit/Taken from: Bustle

A book of conflicting feelings, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is both a victory and a tragedy: A victory because Michelle McNamara’s stalwart resolve and keen brain has lit a fire; a tragedy, because the brilliant McNamara died before the work was finished. Lovingly and painstakingly put together by her husband, well known comedian Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s unfinished novel hangs in nebulousness, much like the Golden State Killer himself, who she hunted obsessively. Yet the book stands strong nonetheless, which is perhaps the greatest testament to McNamara’s deft, enthralling pen. Even released too soon, the arrow still hits its mark. The writing is clean, crisp; the visuals and sensations leap off the pages, and I was turning and turning them late into the night, my heart hammering.

Many times reading True Crime one can not help but be engrossed by the wicked killers and their sadistic actions; however, what is wonderful about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is that the most engrossing, captivating character on this dark wending road is McNamara herself. McNamara is fascinating, brave, intelligent—she feels like a secret weapon. Through all the blood, fear, and darkness, McNamara holds out a lantern, and by her little flame we all find our way out of the rumpus night. Bringing organization to chaos, hope to despair, McNamara doesn’t give up, and through her diligent collecting of the pieces, and her preening of the muck, a picture, a truth, starts to take shape. In the epilogue – Letter To An Old Man – she writes:

“And then, after May 4, 1986, you disappear. Some think you died. Or went to prison. Not me.’

“I think you bailed when the world began to change. It’s true, age must have slowed you. The testosterone, once a gush, was now a trickle. But the truth is memories fade. Paper decays. But technology improves.’

You cut out when you looked over your shoulder and saw your opponents gaining on you.”

Michelle McNamara, from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Although now gone, McNamara’s hunt continues. GSK  may still lurk, but now, thanks to McNamara, the world is awake, and watching.

Michelle_McNamara Portrait
Portrait of Michelle McNamara. Image Credit: Robin Von Swank

Five out of five stars.

The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori – Chris Hedges Deftly Defines WAR.

“The days are hot and the dead lie unburied. We cannot fetch them all in, if we did we should not know what to do with them. The shells will bury them. Many have their bellies swollen up like balloons. They hiss, belch, and make movements. The gases in them make noises.”

Erich Maria Remarque, from All Quiet on the Western Front

In my sophomore year of high school I read Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of war, and it changed me.

All Quiet on the Western Front was a book that captivated my mind, laden in the grotesque horrors of violence and the unblinking, unflinching nature of modern warfare. Young and angry when I read it, the refracted nihilism that scorches Remarque’s words created slow burns of thought inside me, and I was so in love with it, I stole a copy from the school library one evening. It was late 2002, and 9/11 had already struck. The cogs and pistons that would turn the engine of the Iraq War were being built; my country was wounded, and vengeful. I still have that mass market paperback, its spine riddled with crags, its corners dogeared and torn. The many hours I spent with Remarque’s novel, began to shape questions I wouldn’t be able to put answers to for years. What war was or wasn’t. What violence meant or did not mean. What victory or shame lied in mass murder and death.

In Chris Hedges descriptive and moving work, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, I was hearkened back to that time; that time of upheaval and new thought, and the challenges of examination into the unmanageable, unimaginable aspects of murky human action. For me, the book is a vindication. My study and thinking has always led me to understand Violence and Power exist not in parallel to each other, but in polarity. The same deep-cut axis runs through them, but their motives and roles play in opposition to one another, with Violence as the perversion of Power. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a book that validated and echoed these long held feelings and thoughts of mine, and Chris Hedges accurately and elegantly, with harrowing prose and lived experience, explains war by explaining the continental clashes of Violence and Power.

WAR_Hedges“We are humiliated in combat. The lofty words that inspire people to war—duty, honor, glory—swiftly become repugnant and hollow. They are replaced by the hard, specific images of war, by the prosaic names of villages and roads. The abstract rhetoric of patriotism is obliterated, exposed as the empty handmaiden of myth. Fear brings us all back down to earth.

Once in conflict, we are moved from the abstract to the real, from the mythic to the sensory. When this move takes place we have nothing to do with a world not at war. When we return home we view the society around us from the end of a very long tunnel. There they still believe. In combat such belief is shattered, replaced not with a better understanding, but with a disconcerting confusion and a taste of war’s potent and addictive narcotic. […]”

It should be understood that War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is not about combat, but is a novel about the mechanisms that drive war into being. Cultural and governmental mechanisms like propaganda and mythos, pedantry and jingoism, and the destruction and perversion of tangible and intangible heritage. Chris Hedges is a veteran war correspondent, having spent large portions of his life as an observer in warzones and combat scenarios; from the Croat-Bosniak War of the early 1990’s, to surviving imprisonment in Sudan, to escaping ambushes in Central America, Hedges has witnessed firsthand the brutality, and emptiness, that is war. Hedges openly speaks of such painful and disturbing memories, and through the keen pen of a journalist is able to bring clarity and compassion to horrid scenes often never seen by citizens back home. Bit by bit, Hedges picks apart war, eradicating the radiant myths and elaborately ornamented slogans, and so strips it raw to reveal it butt naked. What is left is a disturbing portrait of addiction and denialism, corruption and greed, and of course, violence.

Living in this time of an unprecedented refugee crisis, and the inexhaustible rise of quibbling dogmatism and hate, Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a balm of rationality, analysis, and humility. The book does more than provide a window for the reader to peer into violent conflict, but provides a mirror into our darker, deeper selves. Hedges, in his heart, is a psychologist, and through his words performs a sort of logotherapy on us; we are caught off-guard by his undeniable authenticity and intuitive mind. The bite of the statistical, and emotional truths presented through him leaves one stranded on a very small island, and we are forced into a reckoning with the cold, hard realities of war, and our own individual parts within it.

Hedges does acknowledge that sometimes war is unavoidable. With maturity, it is acknowledged that human folly and power grabs are inevitable and that diplomacy will sometimes fail; yet, through this acknowledgement Hedges takes us out of this often overused excuse, and brings us back down to earth. War in its foundations is sinister, unrepentant, and destructive. In what Hedges calls “a collapse of the moral universe”, war turns right and wrong upside down, and all things are liquidated to “the cause”. People, men and women and children, are transmogrified into objects. War diversifies nothing and coagulates everything, stuffing the veins and preventing blood flow to the heart and mind. In essence, war is a collective stroke. In what Hannah Arendt coined “nihilistic relativism”, all loathful deeds are canceled out by other loathful deeds, each horrible act justified by each other horrible act; by dispelling the existence of moral truth, the parties of war create a vacuum in which no light can get in. War sits in this void, and after it is over, this void does not evaporate but persists, and is more often buried, rather than confessed. This demolishment of truth perpetuates the myth of war, and therefore war becomes not a teacher, but an invalid, dumb and deaf. No lessons are learned, no honest accounts are passed down. The hollowness hangs in the graves.

In the first pages, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” is shared. Though at the front of the book, for this review, I believe the poem works best for closing. War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is required reading, not because it is heavily anti-war, but because of the unfiltered reflection of all ourselves that exists within its pages. The old Lie, is at last, swept away.

Owen I think would be proud.

If in smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patria mori.

Wilfred Owen Portrait
Portrait of Wilfred Owen, beloved WWI poet and soldier. Image Credit BBC – Thank You.


The featured image is a screen shot taken from the 1930 movie adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel All Quiet on the Western Front directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy and Ben Alexander.

Looking At Stars With Alan Lightman

Along my youth, in the brief Wisconsin summers of my hometown, I use to creep from my bed and go sit on my family’s back porch roof and look at stars.

I could never sleep. The night was an electric zap that would shock me to life. I’d pray to the moon, who I sometimes would refer to as God, whisper my secrets in the indigo lush hours, and at moments would cry at the famous hush of greater things. This stillness and silence—the sound of divinity or mystery, was both a comfort, and disquieting, as the racket of my inner uncertainties and deepest hopes roared like a waterfall in my lit mind.

When young one can philosophize in ways that only the young can; with angst and an unbridled sense of certainty. There exists a mere two great paths of thinking: Knowing and Not Knowing. As children we rarely question whether we truly Know or Do Not Know. Complex processing, such as Might Know and Might Not Know, do not cross our paths. So writing and thought is pure freedom when we are juvenile; we do not parse our words. The universe is very reachable, and one reaches most eagerly.

Most of us will lose much of this ability as we age. We grow and our roots sink further down, and it becomes harder and harder to uproot us. We are not so easily surprised, not so easily scared, not so easily swayed, not so obsessive, not so pure. Complexity, both the grasping and performing of it, is something laboriously acquired. The ability to wonder and pick and choose shrinks inside the increasing days. We more and more so move into the arenas of Maybe, Perhaps Some, and For Now. But certain individuals have chosen professions that keep them in the Know and Do Not Know. Scientists and religious leaders often frequent this youthful way of being, remaining tucked inside wonder and concentrated thought.

In Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine he states, “The most profound questions seem to have this fascinating aspect: Either they have no answer at all, or all possible answers seem impossible.” So Lightman’s questions are all our questions: Who are we; are we alone; what is truth; how should one seek truth. In these veins, all the blood flows back towards the heart. Lightman’s essays explore what combines and differentiates us, and in no less than poetic terms, waxes and wanes on humanity’s place in the cosmos and existence as a whole.

Searching_Stars_Lightman“Despite these exceptions, the Absolutes and the Relatives can be considered a large frame in which to view the dialogue between religion and science, or between spirituality and science. But I suggest that the issues go deeper, into the dualism and complexity of human existence. We are idealists and we are realists. We are dreamers and we are builders. We are experiencers and experimenters. We long for certainties, yet we ourselves are full of the ambiguities of the Mona Lisa and I Ching. We ourselves are a part of the yin-yang of the world.”

Lightman does what few writers can: He writes with the deft precision of both youth and age. Though a book that would attract more adult hands than young ones, make no mistake, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine is a book for youth. Lightman is an excellent teacher. His explanations for complex systems and far away concepts are down to earth and visual. His vocabulary remains within the margins of rudimentary comprehension while simultaneously willing his readers to stretch beyond their capabilities and perceive things through a glass darkly. He uses metaphor to aid in understanding, and stops it there, not risking the fall into misinterpretation by cementing the metaphor as strictly non-literal. Lightman does what few modern day writers think to do: He does not want to confuse you. Lightman acts as a cartographer to thinking, drawing out the roads of thought: Know, Might Know, Do Not Know, Might Not Know, Perhaps Some, and For Now. He travels these roads himself throughout the pages, guided by science, religion, curiosity, and simple faith. He at times gets himself lost in his attempts to chart uncharted lands, spiraling into meta-cognitive Möbius bands leading himself and the reader in circles. But Alan Lightman hopes for what everyone else hopes for: A place among the stars. And this openness creates space for readers of all kinds. Lightman makes room, and even through sections of disagreement and dismay between writer and reader, one still feels one is in the company of a teacher who respects and understands them.

Alan_Lightman
Portrait of Alan Lightman. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Books about science often chase certain readers away. This sometimes happens before the first page of an informed book can ever be turned. Intellectual snobbery, or the mere anticipation of snobbery, is a deep wide canyon that has been carved over centuries of scientific jargon being lobbed like gunfire in the faces of those who chose differently or had limited choices to start. The fixed mindset model has flourished in the post-Human Genome Project, neurobiological age, where it seems everyday there’s a news article reporting on some obscure study claiming to have found the latest brainbox or success gene. So determinism haunts Alan Lightman as well, and he questions whether he has ever truly chosen anything or if he is but a cog in the machine. Yet, in reading Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, never once did I feel Alan Lightman was telling me, “You can’t get it.” A patient instructor, Lightman whether consciously or unconsciously, believes in the power of teaching; that the mind is plastic, that change is not only possible but unavoidable, and that the great mysteries of the universe can and might be known, and that you – person not knowing what to do with their weekday off – can participate in this grand search. Be you scientific or spiritual, be you pessimist or optimist or pragmatist, you too can ponder the fabric of space and time and the meaning and intricacies of existence. And you don’t even need a PhD in quantum physics.

I am older now than I was back in the days of gazing at celestials on my back porch roof in a small town in Wisconsin. I live in Seattle, Washington now, and the stars are faded and gulped by the light pollution and smog of my congested, wakeful city. But I still look up. I think differently now than I did back then, kinder in my thoughts and less selfish, my place in the cosmos having shrunk from a gilded throne to a seat in the nosebleeds, but I still wonder. Wonder about space, about gods, about time, about ecosystems and evolution, and my own body and its multitudes. And it is comforting, and strangely beautiful to know, that on some island shaped like a lute in Maine, Alan Lightman is doing the same thing.

Stars in Maine
Beautiful photo of the Southern Maine forest and the sky. Image Credit: USM/Southworth Planetarium – Thank you

Four out of five stars for Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine.