even magicians find dust bunnies in their hats

even magicians find dust bunnies in their hats

There is too much stuff in my magic show.

beloved historiesThis became abundantly clear to me while sitting in my hallway this morning among the pocket watches, tiny carved boxes, ship’s gauges, hundred-year-old microscope slides, turn-of-the-century medicinal bottles, raven feathers, antique buttons, candelabras, photographs of people and animals long passed on to other adventures… and books.

Over 500 books.

I have a svelte magic show, by a common magician’s standards: it all fits in one hallway, one bedroom, and two closets. It is tidy and organized. There is no dirt, no piles of things, no boxes of forgotten junk. There is no muffin top here, no spare rabbit, no cage full of doves- only feathers and broken time pieces. Only beloved forgotten spells cast by strangers into the world that somehow ended up in my pockets, and I’ve carried them for years, listening to their wonders, and wondering about their secrets.  At night, when the noise of traffic keeps me awake, I try to tune my ear to a deeper place, to the restless, unending whispering of these objects. Each has a pulse, a story that goes on.

This might be sounding a bit creepy at this point, so let me clarify: I suffer from no terrible Gollum-like lust for what was. Neither am I guarding horcruxes while my actual soul withers and splits. I am just a poet. And a poet is a magician of words… an intermediary, a translator, an amplifier, a caretaker of stories. Look at all the stories!

souls transcribed and somewhat immortal

But every few years the same thing happens, no matter how small a space I live in, not matter how much I maintain my resolve to not accumulate… I end up losing my equilibrium. I’m the raccoon that is caught in a nail trap because I won’t let go of the shiny object in my fist. I am, as George Carlin once joked, enslaved to my boxes. I work so I can pay for a box to put my boxes in, which are full of more boxes. And books are like the tesseract of boxes… they are boxes that contain hundreds of very thin, double-sided boxes, with ink printed in box shapes, and should you be able understand the spells written in these boxes, suddenly each produces an entire heretofore unknown reality… right into your brain… as if you experienced it yourself. And in a sense, you did, because you add your own images, your own particular interpretation of what you find there, and it stays with you, and over time you might pass it on by giving the book away, or telling the story to someone else, or dropping a clever reference about Voldemort or Tolkein into your blog post… a wink wink, nudge nudge to others who have been in the box and know the status of the cat.

Books are the deepest sorcery that exists. Do I need to mention the old/new testaments?  torah?  qur’an? confucian analects? bhagavad gita?  book of mormon?  Okay, just checking.

So here is the question: what does a magician keep? What does a poet let go of?  As the world continues its shift to convert so much of what was physical into encoded (smaller) versions of the physical, we may be reducing the visible cache, but we are increasing the volume to an ear-splitting level. And what is the value of thingness?

I don’t keep these objects because of their monetary value. Most of them are monetarily valueless. I took 30 music Cd’s to Amoeba yesterday and was offered $16 cash or $32 in trade. If I sell off even 1/5th of these books at Green Apple, I might get $50 if I’m lucky. These are not financial investments, they are the currency of dreams, and the record of a silent, collective experience that our living memories simply don’t have room for. We press the “clear cache” on these events more and more quickly as the decades gain thrust… because we have to.

LIFE magazine from 1980. TIME magazine from 2005But physical reminders are necessary. This 1980 LIFE magazine contains a hopeful report on thousands of people surviving cancer. As of 2007, the number was 11.7 million…  in the United States alone. This TIME magazine shows a woman holding her mother in floodwaters after hurricane Katrina. This information is all over the web, but the context in time has been lost. What these events meant when they happened is a subtler understanding that comes from reading what’s around the articles in these magazines…  advertisements for the boxy 1980 Dodge Aries K with the tag line “America’s not going to be pushed around anymore,” is laughable and sad when you consider the Hummers and Suburbans and Ford F150 fiberglass leviathans that cars ballooned into by the 2000’s. In 2005, photographs of bodies floating in Louisiana’s floodwaters are surrounded by mostly pharmaceutical ads promising restful sleep, pain-free diabetes monitoring, effort-free weight loss, and cholesterol-lowering drugs.

The physicality of objects is a tangible memory of what people were in a place and time. What they felt, and what was important to them, is not so much in the information, but in how they put it together, and what they included and excluded, and even more so, what they considered a “given”. In a pocketwatch, you see precious metals, intricate gears, jewels and flywheels and springs that must be cared for in order to work together as a precise mechanism. If you owned a pocketwatch, you owned not only an object of necessity and utility, but one of moveable wealth, and you quite literally, kept time in your pocket. Nothing about this can really be understood by the idea of a pocketwatch. You have to carry it around, remember to wind it, attach is safely to your button with a fob, have it accessible at any moment. Without it, you don’t know what time it is. The world will move on without you.

But even a magician doesn’t have room in her hat for everything. Sometimes, it’s time to reach in there and sort the bunnies from the dust. Sometimes the urge to purge becomes overwhelming and indiscriminate. I fantasized this morning about carrying down every object I owned by armfuls and leaving it all out on the street, and watching people carry it all off to new life and purpose. But screw that, I’m not a neo-hippie. If I want to go to extremes I’ll dye my hair again.

What I do in this situation is ask myself… what kind of magician am I… and what do I really need to accomplish that? I think a little bit of hunger is in order. I don’t want to live inside a curiosity cabinet, I am a curiosity cabinet, and the feeling of being beloved is much more like light than like money.  If I pass on some of these books, I pass on the stories that live inside them, but like the sunlight that bounces off the moon, someone else can experience the illumination, without any diminishing of mine.

battery-powered 1970s owl clock

All that said, there are certain objects that no sane person would have produced in the first place, let alone used, and cherished and hauled around from place to place.

That is why I am so not getting rid of this clock.

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, by Kay S. Hymowitz

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys, by Kay S. Hymowitz

Read this review at Publishers Weekly

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys

Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys
Kay S. Hymowitz, Basic, $25.95 (187p) ISBN 978-0-465-01842-0

What do Adam Sandler movies, Maxim magazine, and South Park have in common? According to journalist Hymowitz’s unpersuasive polemic, they are compelling evidence that “crudity is at the heart of the child-man persona,” an increasingly ubiquitous personality type among men age 20–40 who don’t grow up because they don’t have to. Weaving together the socioeconomic and cultural paradigm shifts of the last half-century, Hymowitz identifies the appearance of “a new stage of life” in developed societies–pre-adulthood–where the traditional life-script: grow up, marry, have children, and die, is now: “What do I want to do with my life?” But in a world where social demands no longer equate manhood with maturity, frat dudes, nerds, geeks, and emo-boys can remain in suspended postadolescence, while women, whose biological clocks are ticking, are forced to choose between single parenthood and casting their lot with a “child-man.” It’s a provocative argument that Hymowitz advances with considerable spirit, but she conflates character with maturity, and her blaming feminism for the infantilization of men wrests more power and control away from men, suggesting that they can’t develop a sense of responsibility without a woman’s help.

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, by Mark Matousek

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, by Mark Matousek

Read this review at Publishers Weekly

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good

Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good
Mark Matousek, Doubleday, $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-52789-7

Matousek (Sex Death Enlightenment) makes a case for why human beings are inherently ethical creatures in a provocative book that suffers from uneven execution. Wired from birth with “mirror neurons” that function involuntarily, and cause us, for instance, to tear up when others cry: “Emotions, not reason,” Matousek asserts, “are the bedrock of ethical life.” Drawing on philosophy, neurological and psychiatric research, anthropology, pop psychology, and mysticism, he debunks the belief that organized religion is a necessary framework for an ethical sense, and demonstrates that moral behavior evolves out of a complex interaction between our built-in empathy for those we identify as like ourselves, and the way we respond (or don’t respond) to the supposedly abstract suffering of those we deem as “other.” In the hands of an Oliver Sacks, this braiding of the scientific, moral, and anecdotal could be revelatory; Matousek, however, repeatedly substitutes opinions and inferences for fact, sapping his argument’s credibility and his reader’s patience.

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, by Kim Barker

Read this review at Publishers Weekly

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Kim Barker, Doubleday, $25.95 (300p) ISBN 978-0-385-53331-7

Barker, a journalist for ProPublica, offers a candid and darkly comic account of her eight years as an international correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Afghanistan and Pakistan, beginning shortly after September 11. With self-deprecation and a keen eye for the absurd, Barker describes her evolution from a green, fill-in correspondent to an adrenaline junkie who gets hit on by Nawaz Sharif, former Pakistani prime minister, and becomes adept in “how to find money in a war zone, how to flatter a warlord, how to cover a suicide bombing, how to jump-start a car using a cord and a metal ladder.” Barker reveals how profoundly the U.S. continues to get Afghanistan wrong–that American personnel in the country live in a bubble, rarely dealing with Afghans, that they trample on local customs by getting routinely and “staggeringly” drunk despite Islam’s prohibition of alcohol, and throw offensive costume parties at the Department for International Development (DFID). In equal measure, Barker elucidates the deep political ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S.’s role in today’s “whiplash between secularism and extremism,” and blasts Pakistan’s leaders for destroying their nation through endless coups and power jockeying.

The Winter of Our Disconnect, by Susan Maushart

The Winter of Our Disconnect, by Susan Maushart

Read this review at Publishers Weekly

The Winter of Our Disconnect

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale Susan Maushart, Penguin, $16.95 trade paper (329p) ISBN 978-1-58542-855-7

Maushart (The Mask of Motherhood) embarked with her three teenagers on a six-month screen blackout (no cellphones, iPods, PCs, laptops, game stations, or television) to discover if the technology intended to stimulate and keep us virtually more connected was, as she suspected, making us actually more disconnected and distracted. Ironically, Maushart may have gone screen-dark, but her writing remains riddled with “textspeak”–“LOLs,” “WTFs,” emoticons–and exhausting chipperness and self-conscious “hipness,” which all distract from an otherwise intelligent and eloquent core text. Funny and poignant precisely when it is not trying to be, this book vacillates between diary entries (written longhand) and deeply researched reportage, which brings needed balance to the subject of new media, often touted as either the answer to all of our problems or the accelerant of societal doom. What Maushart’s experiment uncovers is a commonsense conclusion: in a world of proliferating demands on our attention, exercising the on/off switch is the ultimate practice in understanding connection.

American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection, by Laurie Essig

American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection, by Laurie Essig

Read this review at Publisher’s Weekly

American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and the Quest for Perfection

 

American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection
Laurie Essig, Beacon, $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0055-7

Essig, assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College, argues that our national obsession with plastic money and plastic surgery is more than a cultural fad; it’s a capitalist conspiracy engineered to persuade Americans that problems of economic insecurity, downward mobility, and lack of opportunity for the poor can be solved by consumption. Essig posits that the national tendency toward self-reinvention has been hijacked into a new and impossible American Dream: attaining the perfect body. She traces this shift to the 1980s, when trickle-down Reaganomics, financial deregulation, and the AMA’s decision to allow cosmetic surgery marketing converged with a neoliberal rhetoric wherein “public issues became defined as personal troubles and problems of lifestyles.” America’s classic preoccupations with “rugged individualism” and “self-improvement” shifted to the literal canvas of our physical bodies; the result, Essig cautions, is a “plastic ideological complex,” a relationship to our personal and national self-image that will lead to an economically and emotionally insecure future. Essig has a brisk, smart style and she approaches her subject with a welcome serving of wit–which keeps her message on target even as some of her prescriptions (forming “reality-check” groups with our friends) are woefully insufficient.

Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Read review at Publisher’s Weekly
Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Faber and Faber, $26 (307p) ISBN 978-0-86547-909-8

Currid-Halkett (The Warhol Economy) takes a tasty subject and rehashes it into sawdust in her repetitive study of celebrity. She dissects the “collective fascination with some people over others,” postulating that our preference for watching television and surfing the Internet over actual engagement has created a public “lonelier than ever” but with free, instant access to indulge our “voyeuristic tendencies.” Analyzing the appeal of personalities as disparate as Paris Hilton and Bill Gates, she concludes unremarkably that celebrity has little to do with talent or fame, but with an unquantifiable “light” recognized and exploited by those whose livelihoods depend on star-based revenue, including the media. Having made this point, the remainder of the book is reiteration, supported with diagrams and tables that seem unnecessary in supporting the incontrovertible conclusion that “celebrity ultimately hinges on whether we decide to pay attention or not.” A glimmer of interest flares on the penultimate page of the book, when Currid-Halkett observes that, “on the whole many of us care far more about [Jennifer] Aniston’s latte than the thousands being murdered in Sudan,” a more puzzling phenomenon that could have proved a more promising focus.

Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Going Better, by Sarah Z. Wexler

Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Going Better, by Sarah Z. Wexler

Read this review at Publisher’s Weekly
Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Going Better
Sarah Z. Wexler, St. Martin’s, $23.99 (222p) ISBN 978-0-312-54025-8

Wexler, a staff writer for Allure magazine, spent three years on the road, investigating America’s worship at “the Church of Stuff.” Wexler dives into America’s new normal where bigger is better and our landscape is dominated by starter castles, Barbie boobs, megachurches and megamalls, jumbo engagement rings, mammoth cars, and landfills visible from space. By turns horrified, tempted, incredulous, guilt-ridden, mystified, and captivated by these excesses, Wexler approaches her subject with a compassion born of her own complicity (she’s an SUV driver and enjoys her shopping). Though the book covers increasingly familiar postrecession “the party’s over” territory with the depth of an extended magazine piece, Wexler brings a friendly first-person perspective to her study of surfeit and of the psychology behind our compulsion to consume and squander, why “living large” is defended by some as our “God-given right as Americans” and in other cases, might be downright unavoidable.