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A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

July 6, 2018

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“You could probably call her an intellectual nomad,” Josh Lacey wrote in Guardian UK of Rebecca Solnit. This intellectual wandering, searching, is maybe the thing that most ties Solnit’s writing together. There are common themes of nature, politics, social justice, memoir, but it’s the ease with which she slides from one topic to the next and stitches together provocative tapestries that makes her writing unique.

She recalls a quote given to her once, from Plato’s Meno, in which the paradox is laid out: “How will you go about finding that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” We all search for the truth that will transform us, but none of know the nature of that transformation nor how it will transform us. So then, how can we look? We can wander. We can get lost.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlines the archetypical story—The Hero’s Journey. Most of the epics, from Star Wars to The Odyssey follow it. The central required element is that the hero must get lost to find him or herself. It’s also a near-universal theme in religions and cultural rites of passage around the world to spend time lost in the wilderness and emerge changed on the other side.

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Yet, Solnit laments, we have constructed a world meant to keep us safe and on track. Guardrails and signposts, well-marked trails and GPS, medication and distraction, routine and regimented schedules that keep us from that dreaded place—lost. “Lost,” Solnit points out, has roots in the Old Norse los, which referred to the disbandment of an army. Much of our modern world is built to keep us in formation. To keep us from going beyond what we know. “Advertising, alarmist news, technology, excessive busyness and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.”

Our place in the world and our sense of community is wound so tightly with our identity that the notion of detaching from it, even for a short time, can be terrifying. Lost challenges our very identity, can represent a destruction of self. It can lead to despair, to depression, to death. And yet it is necessary for transformation, for growth, for self-discovery.

The theme of getting lost in this collection of essays takes many forms. It applies as much to “all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.” Solnit examines many of artists and writers who have covered the topic. She writes of the color blue, the color of the distance we long for but will never reach. She writes of early cartography, of literal terra incognita, of historical figures who were lost, some found again. And she writes of her own life and travels, dreams, memories and relationships.

This book feels like walking through a wilderness of thought, albeit with a guide. A guide who, though you may sense is not following a set course, just wandering, you have confidence will lead you somewhere interesting. I am slowly making my way through Solnit’s Storming the Gates of Paradise and plan to read Wanderlust soon. I have a mild brain crush on her.

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Escape to Twin Peaks

June 26, 2018

welcome-to-twin-peaks-town-sign-snoqualmie-don-detrick-1On a cross-country flight a few weeks ago, I was hunched over my phone watching the opening scenes of the pilot episode for Twin Peaks and I began getting teary-eyed. Famously, in the opening scene, the body of seventeen-year-old prom queen Laura Palmer is found wrapped in plastic at the river’s edge. Much of the pilot is the heart-wrenching grief of the town as the news spreads. The pain is palpable. I was caught off guard at how hollow the pilot made me feel.

Of course, Laura Palmer’s death was no surprise. I’d seen the pilot maybe five times over the years. But now I was carrying the weight of an additional 47 episodes. I knew every one of these characters inside and out, knew the arc and final end of almost all their stories. I was also hit with a wave of nostalgia, taken back to a different time and place in my life. (And, someone once told me, you’re more emotional on a plane because of the lower level of oxygen. I’m sure it was just that.)

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I came to Twin Peaks a little late. The pilot aired on ABC on April 8, 1990. When I was a senior in high school, my girlfriend would play the wonderful, ethereal Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack in her basement. In college in 1994, my course load was filled with film classes. I was introduced to David Lynch and became a frequent patron of That’s Rentertainment, the video store in Urbana, Illinois. They had the full Twin Peaks collection—seasons one and two—on VHS. I rented them one at a time.

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Twin Peaks is without a doubt the strangest thing to ever grace network television. It is my favorite TV show (followed by Northern Exposure, 1990’s other quirky small-town drama and True Detective, HBO’s 2014 hit that owed much to Twin Peaks). It is a strange cross-genre blend, a whodunit mystery meets horror meets comedy meets sci-fi wrapped in soap opera pastiche, directed by an artist with a penchant for surrealism.

By episode 2, which ends with FBI agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle McLaughlin) strange dream of a giant in his hotel room, viewers knew this was not Northern Exposure, Dallas or Columbo.

Last year, after a few head fakes, Showtime released season 3 of Twin Peaks, picking up 25 years after the end of season 2. Perhaps scarred somewhat by the various Star Wars returns, I was hesitant. Television has evolved so much in the past quarter century. There was no way Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost would be able to upend television again. No way they’d be able to capture the charm of the first two seasons or create something so surprising and bizarre.

I put off watching for almost a year. But after stumbling on a video about the music from the original show, I caught the Twin Peaks bug. So I got a free month-long trial of Showtime and dove into the new season.

 

I couldn’t have been more wrong with my hesitation. The eighteen episodes of season 3 again trumped everything. Twin Peaks obliterated my expectations again. Stunning, confounding, terrifying, surprising, delightful, magical, at times hilarious, frustrating and weird.

It took me about two weeks to get through it all. I accompanied it with podcasts—about 65 hours’ worth so far, by my count (there are dozens of podcasts dedicated to the show).  Once I finished the new season, I started again on the first two seasons and am currently at Episode 15. I listened to the audiobooks of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer and Diane: The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper. I read The Secret History of Twin Peaks and The Final Dossier and John Thorne’s The Essential Wrapped in Plastic. I’m now a subscriber to The Blue Rose, the Twin Peaks fanzine. Marking them all up, looking for clues like some armchair detective.

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After a couple weeks of all of this, I realized what a total gift it has been. Not only have I been able to reconnect with this fantastic place, but it has distracted me from our current news cycle. My regular podcasts, many of them news or political, have almost all been replaced by shows devoted to Twin Peaks, where fellow obsessives explore every nook and cranny of this weird world. It has been the definition of escapism, and it’s been delightful. It’s reignited my love of film and provided a needed creative spark.

One of the reasons Twin Peaks has built this cult following is that it is thought-provoking in a way that’s rare with pop culture, especially television. Everyone’s understanding of and experience with Twin Peaks is different. The new season delivers a key quote from the Upanishads: “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives inside the dream.”

The show is an invitation to live in that dream, to bring your own dreams to it. It is a mystery where every question is answered with three more questions. I could go on and on about it.

But rather than bury this blog in posts about Twin Peaks, I’m starting another blog. I’ll continue to post reviews of the books here, but everything else will go over there at Listening Post Alpha. The world only has 1,879 Twin Peaks blogs. There’s room for one more.

Please follow if you care to. Or just stop in from time to time. I’ll have at least one post for people who have never seen Twin Peaks.

In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

June 25, 2018

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I know what made me want to read this book—it was a review that compared it to Cormac McCarthy. I’m too easy. This was more like Jim Thompson meets Anne Rice. Texas noir with vampires. A drifter cowboy haunted by memories of Viet Nam is literally haunted by female vampire who turned him into a bloodsucker years ago. He does what he can to resist the temptation, but the hunger is strong, etc. etc.

The violence is sometimes McCarthy-esque, but the writing isn’t as strong as McCarthy (or Jim Thompson, for that matter). It’s uneven, at its best moments genuinely suspenseful, its worst moments a bloody mess of pulpy violence, like the worst of True Blood. The premise sounded interesting, but to be fair I’m not sure I’ve ever really enjoyed a vampire book, Anne Rice included. This book has four stars on Amazon, so maybe it’s just not my thing.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein

June 23, 2018

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The Nixon years read like the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Viet Nam. Black Panthers. Counter-culture. Revolution. Kent State. Jane Fonda. Timothy Leary. Chicago Seven. Burning flags. Burning bras. Burning buildings. Burning protesters. Bombings. Watergate. Lies, lies lies.

Black Panther Fred Hampton was executed in his bed by Chicago police. The FBI assisted. George Winne Jr., a 23-year-old UC San Diego student, lit himself on fire in protest of the war. Across the Midwest, a dozen campus ROTC buildings were burned to the ground. A lefty college professor was beaten nearly to death in his office by an angry right-winger.

In New York, construction workers assaulted protesters, then forced City Hall officials to raise the American flag, flying at half-mast for the four killed in the Kent State massacre.

In 1971, 13% of American university students identified themselves as “revolutionary” or “radically dissident.” When a survey asked students at the most distinguished universities to list men they admired, the three presidential candidates came in behind Che Guevara.

West Virginia passed a law declaring anyone who disobeyed an order of any cop, or any bystander deputized on the spot by a cop, as a “rioter.” They simultaneously passed a law declaring cops guilt-free in any rioter’s death.

Checking the Nixon years is a dose of healthy perspective to anyone who thinks we’re in an unprecedented era of political insanity. Today is an eerie echo of the Nixon years, and in many ways Nixon set the table for today’s divisiveness.

“The second half of the twentieth century will be known as the age of Nixon,” Bob Dole said at Nixon’s memorial. Perlstein agrees: “In a sense he surely did not intend, I think Bob Dole was correct. What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image, a notion that there are two kinds of Americans.” These two kinds of Americans are forced by our binary political system into two distinct tribes. They each have very different ideas of what it means to be American, each convinced that they are right and justified and the other is evil and stupid. What is America? Who should be an American? These are fundamental disagreements. Two sides, long at odds but, since the Nixon years, increasingly at war.

Vietnam fractured America. Richard Nixon was the rat that took up residence in the fissure. He and his team eschewed the typical political strategy of consensus-building. They saw opportunity in the polarization and made divisiveness a strategy.

Nixon introduced the idea of the “elite media” and was more openly critical of the press than any previous president. He undercut the credibility of the news. People could start to believe whatever suited their political disposition. Yet Nixon was obsessed with the press’s portrayal of him. He spent hours alone every day, brooding, fuming over the news coverage, angered they wouldn’t pick up the line that he worked 20-hour days, wouldn’t run stories that, ironically, stated he was a man who “cared nothing of public relations.” Nixon, I was amused to learn, made absurd claims about crowd size at his events.

He played to the economic divide and the cultural divide, stoking the anger of middle-America whites who felt left behind. “Negroes at least had a lobby. Blue collar whites feel like a forgotten people,” one journalist wrote.

And then the downfall. Watergate and all the deception surrounding it. The denials, the slippery dodges, dancing on lies until the dance floor disappeared. Americans mistrust their government because the government showed it could not be trusted. Nixon should have gone to jail for what he did to this country. His crimes changed us, made us a weaker nation. Made us a cynical nation. Made us a divided nation.

This book is long, but it is enlightening and, at times, even entertaining. If you look at our current situation and wonder how the hell we got to here, a pairing of Nixonland and the Ken Burns/Lynn Novik documentary The Vietnam War hold many of the answers. Our current President is as toxic to the well-being of America as any in history, but we can thank Nixon for the playbook.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

June 14, 2018

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This is the story, made popular by 2016 film, of the group of African-American computers who helped make the early days of space exploration possible in the 1960s. Back then, a computer was a job, not a machine. Computers were responsible for the complex mathematical calculations required to put a person into space. It was one of the few technical roles open to women at NASA.

As the title suggests, the three main women in the book—Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan—were uncelebrated heroes until recently. Not only did they make critical contributions to the space program behind the scenes, they did so in the face of layers of prejudice. Women faced sexism, particularly in a scientific field like aeronautics, and there was blatant institutionalized racism. The women had to walk to another building to use the “colored” restrooms. When they came to the cafeteria, there was a “colored” table (though after they stole the sign for the table enough times, it stopped appearing). Yet they carried on doing their job and doing it well, proving that mathematics doesn’t care about one’s race or gender. Math is about doing the correct calculations, period.

This is an enjoyable read, and these women are indeed heroes who should be celebrated for their contributions to the space program and their steadfastness in the face of racism and sexism. The only thing that bothered me was that it felt a little quaint, like this was a friendly aw-shucks version of casual racism, something deserving of a head shake and a “can you believe it was like that?” rather than vehement rejection. The women were calm and perseverant because it was the only way to keep their jobs, but the injustices deserved a bigger, angrier reaction.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

June 2, 2018

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The Golden Compass is the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series. Though it’s often compared to Harry Potter, The Golden Compass has more symbolic depth. And though the main characters are children, it’s also pretty dark for young readers.

The story centers around Lyra Belacqua, a cunning orphan girl who is recruited to fight in a war between good and evil. Creatures called “gobblers” have been kidnapping children and taking them north where they are subjects of terrible experiments (in the same way Tolkien pulled much of the Lord of the Rings imagery from his experience in WWI, the forces of evil here seem clearly inspired by Nazi tactics). Lyra and her companions head toward the Arctic to rescue the children, along the way encountering all the things you’d expect from a fantasy novel that follows a fairly typical hero’s journey.

Still, the characters along the way and the mythology of this world are wholly engrossing and entertaining. Lyra’s quick wit (she’s also known as Lyra Silvertongue, as she can talk her way in or out of almost anything) is instantly likable, as are many of the other characters. But the show is stolen by memorable Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørn, which is a species of giant, intelligent, armored polar bear warriors. When we meet Iorek, he is working for people who tricked him, stole his armor and now pay him in alcohol for manual labor. “I mend broken machinery and articles of iron. I lift heavy objects,” Iorek says, a terrible fate for a majestic creature. On top of that, we learn that Iorek is also a king in exile—another familiar fantasy trope.

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Despite some of these familiar-feeling constructs, the world of The Golden Compass is enthralling. It has been called a response to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’s writing was heavily influenced by Christian theology. In The Golden Compass, the world is run by a theocracy attempting to root out heretics. Scientific inquiry is suppressed, hidden behind a curtain of dogma.

But throughout the novel, we’re introduced to a world that had its own supernatural mythology. All humans have dæmons—animal familiars that exist outside of their bodies and act as a kind of conscience, compulsion, intuition or guardian angel, depending on the circumstance. As a manifestation of the spirit, the dæmon is a vehicle for some poetic, if not subtle, symbolism.  The dæmons of children shape-shift depending on their mood or circumstance. But during adolescence, dæmons “settle” into a consistent animal, a fact that Lyra finds almost offensive. Still, the dæmon always has a mind of its own, and as Lyra experiences, it can be very painful when the dæmon pulls in a direction different from the person’s present course.

The Golden Compass is unique, inventive, fascinating. It’s about growing up, about the loss of innocence, but also about the nature of truth and the politics of power.

I’ve seen it on several “great novels” list, but not being a big fantasy reader was skeptical that I’d enjoy it as much as I did. I read it on the recommendation of David Plotz from the Slate Political Gabfest. Over the years, I’ve followed many of his recommendations and have rarely been led astray. Chalk up another one. I don’t know if I’ll read the whole series (I only read the first Harry Potter as well), but this book was great as a standalone novel.

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

May 18, 2018

 

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Westover didn’t know her birthday. Nobody in her family could tell her for sure. There was no birth certificate. Her survivalist family, in rural Idaho, wasn’t much for formalities. They were fundamentalist Mormons with radical spiritual and political beliefs—complete faith in a backward god and irrational suspicion of formal institutions. What started as a run-of-the-mill paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories evolved to extremist positions with Ruby Ridge, the bungled FBI raid of a neighbor’s home (Ruby Ridge would also plant the seed for the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco years later).

For Westover, it meant her already reclusive family would withdraw from society even more. Her father and brother were mentally and physically abusive, sometimes shockingly violent. Her father, who owned a scrap heap, also put the kids in dangerous situations with no seeming regard for their physical safety. They were often severely injured. Her mother, a mid-wife and herbalist, offered only quack medicine when the inevitable accidents did happen.

From the outside, it’s easy to see the madness of this situation and wonder why Westover didn’t just leave. In reality, the abuse, religious fanaticism and isolation compounded to create a family-sized cult. For most of her life, the gravitational pull was too strong. Until, despite her lack of formal education, she managed to get into BYU. There, she had some caring faculty who saw both the damage and the potential in this girl who hadn’t heard of the Holocaust until she stepped into a college classroom. After BYU, she was accepted into a fellowship program at Cambridge, where she eventually earned her PhD. A remarkable testament to her grit and fortitude.

This book has a kind of “The Shocking Story of…” tabloid appeal that made me a little uncomfortable, but Westover is clearly intelligent, so there’s a thoughtfulness as she reflects on her story. She let us in as she confronts a lot of what is still relatively raw.

There is a lesson in here about how much a product of environment we are, no matter how screwy that environment is. For most of her life, Westover was trapped in a bizarre world, but it was the only world she knew. Getting out took incredible courage. That feat alone makes this worth the read. And for others in abusive relationships of any kind, Westover’s story of escape is one that could provide hope.


Related reads: 

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief  by Lawrence Wright

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance