Review Of ‘The Europeans: Three Lives And The Making Of A Cosmopolitan Culture’

This is the sort of book that seemed like it should be right up my alley. After all, the three lives were a writer I enjoy, an opera singer, and an art connoisseur. But it nonetheless failed to properly grip me.

It was, dare I say, too bourgeois?

And the implied premise is that these three characters are deeply interesting, as well as being useful exemplars of Europe’s growing cosmopolitanism in the nineteenth century. And they are (I believe) interesting figures (well, the writer and the singer definitely are), but more than sixty pages in, I had learned about the connection between the rise of railways and mass market literature and about how fear of buying forgeries led the nouveau riche to invest in (then) contemporary art, among other interesting things, but had not gotten anything close to an idea about the central figures (well, except perhaps for the connoisseur, Louis Viardot, whose primary personality traits are deeply positive in a partner, but maybe not engrossing reading; traits like patience, tolerance, and staidness).

I did, eventually, get a better idea of the three central figures but the premise… I don’t know. I feel that Baden-Baden would have been awesome in the 1860s (did you know they had a public building called the Conversation House [only, they naturally used the German]?), but the epilogue went on to suggest that, actually, their time (the mid nineteenth century) was less truly European and cosmopolitan than the early twentieth century.

So, should you read it? I guess. It’s interesting in many ways, but at the same time, never has a ménage a trois seemed so boring.

A Very Special Notebook

This was a special Father’s Day gift, but I only just saw how special its provenance was…

Cycle, Repeat

I find myself repeating the habits of my father, now that I’m father. Something about which I have, let us say, mixed feelings.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the casting of my father for the role of parent was a deeply flawed decision and maybe didn’t play to his strengths. But I suspect that to be true of most fathers, in general, and almost all of them before a certain time in our history (some mythical point where we understood the importance of a father as a caregiver).

But I find myself repeating some of his paternal patterns. Not, I hope, the most obviously destructive ones. Nevertheless, at a playground, I kept pushing my child to try more things, to climb its more intimidating structures. I never really thought that I was doing anything bad and she doesn’t really need much incentive to be frighteningly fearless, but because I remember similar actions by father, I do wonder whether I am building her self confidence and independence or recycling negative traits from my own childhood.

You can’t really tell me, either, unless you witnessed, at the least, what I do in those moments. And it’s probably nothing. But when you’re inside the cycle, surely, it is wretchedly difficult to be sure.

I Am Not Paying Attention

Someone at my work died. Unexpectedly. She was younger than me, I told someone. But I know that. I know that I thought that she looked younger than me, but I didn’t know her at all. She’d worked at my office before. Maybe it was before I came here. Maybe it was only for a short time when I first started here and I just don’t remember her.

This doesn’t make me a bad person, a colleague pointed out. It doesn’t make me anything except uninterested or inattentive.

I have been thinking about religious matters. Both about my own faith (and my poor keeping of the basic minimum expected of me from it) and about the Buddhist faith. I have been reading a little about it and have gone to a Wat Thai (a Thai Buddhist temple; they are Theravāda, if you’re interested, but with a lot of syncretic features from Hinduism and a powerful monastic tradition that is intertwined with the government) twice in recent weeks and contemplating what it would mean if my child chose Buddhism over my Catholicism.

But we’ve gotten far away from the person who died, haven’t we. Not ‘we.’ Me.

My religious point was my failure to be attentive in my compassion. I know what she looked like. I remember that, like me, she was a bit in her own world when the building’s fire alarm drove us all outside. I remember that I only pieced together by deduction that she was the same person as the email address in the ‘all staff’ list. I had to ask if she was married. If she had children. I still don’t know how she died. A human being grew up, lived, and then died early and unexpectedly and though I was in a position to know her, I did not and the fact that I did not was, in the end, a choice.

My iPhone Is Slowly Dying

It doesn’t charge very well. Most cords won’t work. I can sometimes charge in car and with the off brand cord next to my bed, but only if I brace it and the angle is correct.

One day soon, I suppose, it won’t charge at all. Read more

Can’t Wait

Going back to Thailand I cannot wait. Absolutely ready. One hundred percent. Too much going on: buying a house, jam packed holiday season for my better half (she objects when I say that I ‘work’ for her; she prefers something like ‘help’ or ‘volunteer,’ but let’s be realistic, I’m an unpaid employee [so maybe the correct term of art should be that I ‘intern’ with her]), work stuff, work stuff, work stuff, family stuff.

Ready for a vacation. Ready to get away. Especially, knowing that it will probably be a while before I get away again. Logistics, and all.

Perhaps this is what adulthood is like, the constant, ceaseless nervous tension (I stole that turn of phrase about tension; I think from William Gibson; google it, I’m not your babysitter). Or perhaps it’s middle age. Did I skip adulthood and go directly to midlife?

Part of it is struggling, as always, with depression, which feels like a perpetual weight on your internal organs. Something is constantly pressing down on your heart and lungs and so they don’t work properly and you can always feel them about to fail and that knowledge of their being on that precipice takes your mind away from everything else and keeps you psychically crippled, after a fashion.

Let’s hope it’s the break I want it to be. I’ve downloaded several books to my Nook and are keeping them unread for the journey (mostly fantasy novels) and I’ll take some pleasure soon in picking out one or two physical books for the journey. At least one book of poetry, something worth re-reading. In the past, I’ve taken Wordsworth, for example. Perhaps this time I’ll bring Eliot or Shelley or Clare. And something else, something in prose. Could be a novel, but I’m inclined towards something non-fictional. While unpacking, I saw my cope of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and maybe I’ll bring that. It’s a little bulky, but perhaps if I put it away and don’t read anymore of it, Quintillian’s writings on the education of an orator. But probably not. Cicero might be better. Plato would be perfect, but I don’t have a compact copy of any of his books.

We shall see. Here’s a picture from Thailand, in the meantime.

What Do You Really Think Of Me?

I’m not really asking. I don’t think. I probably don’t want to know, do I? Not really. Or it might be like tearing off a band aid. But I’ve never believed in that either. They’re lying when they say it’s better to get it over with.

You have no idea what I really think of you, because I’m an excellent liar. Always have been. Not that my guard doesn’t sometimes slip, but I am good at being unknowable to all but my very closest friends and family and even then, many of them know far less than I think. Maybe, to steal from Sokrates, the ones who know me best know that they could very well not know me at all.

But that could easily be everybody. I think I’m special, of course. I think that I have reasons for thinking so. But I am almost entirely sure that people I don’t think are special at all are convinced beyond all doubt that they are special and have valid reasons for their conviction. Justified true belief. Or warranted true belief (hat tip to Alvin Plantinga). Take your pick.

There are people who I think like me. There are people who I think like who I don’t like in turn. There are people who I think like me who I don’t like in turn and who I think don’t know that I don’t like them.

But what do people really think of me? Surely, even in the most perceptive person, that’s the greatest blind spot. We think we are generally good and likable people, so naturally we believe that people like us as the good people we are. But these people who I don’t like and who I don’t believe know that I don’t like them – I believe that many of them like me. But what if I’m not special and perceptive or only ordinarily so and my specialness, such as it is, is limited to my vast delusions of likability and opaqueness?


Flying from Abu Dhabi to Washington, DC, I was sitting next to a window on the starboard side of the plane.

I had fallen asleep and when I looked out the window, we were above an enormous frozen sea, white and faint blue, abutting an ice-scarred landscape of islands and mainland cut with straight and narrow lines, some filled with snow and ice. In the frozen sea, I swear, I saw a castle. The landscape was like something from a Professor Challenger story or the further, strange travels of Arthur Gordon Pym.

It was Greenland as it turned out, but not long after I first saw it, we flew past the western edge of it and it was gone and it was one of the saddest moments of my life.

It is a myth that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is danger + opportunity. Only the ‘danger’ is true.

Weekend Reading – No, You Are Not That Hip

locust_street_2013Okay, this list of top twenty hipster cities… first of all, West Des Moines is a somewhat tony suburb of Des Moines and no, it is not hipster. That ratio of cafes to residents must include Starbucks located inside grocery stores. Oddly, the East Des Moines Village, a neighborhood inside Des Moines proper, is actually pretty hipsterific.

Here, check out the East Des Miones Village.

Remember when Starbucks was a place to hang out? When it aspired to be a neighborhood coffee place? Now they’re building infrastructure to not just get you out of the door more quickly, but to even keep you out of the store altogether.

‘Kant is a moron,’ says graffiti on Kant’s old home. I think that’s a little extreme. Maybe ‘Kant is unnecessarily obscure.’

I always thought I was sort at the a– end of Generation X, but maybe I’m wrong. But really, I shouldn’t take the word of any blog managed by Chris Cillizza. Anyone else think he’s kind of the love child of David Broder and Thomas Friedman?