Books Worth Rereading

February 4th, 2016

I asked a fun question on Twitter and got lots of great answers from my reader friends. Sample from the thread below if you’re looking for your next great read.

Sin against the page.

November 7th, 2015

You’ll never find your voice and express your truth if you don’t.


Cast off your bogus obligations.

November 1st, 2015


I’ve been reviewing my life for fake obligations.

Of course we have genuine obligations — for example to our spouses and children, or contractual obligations that we’ve entered into intelligently and that it would be painful or unwise to break.

But feeling obligated, or guilty, about some old personal choice that doesn’t fit into one of those categories of genuine obligation? Bogus.

  • Feeling guilty about the “To Be Read” pile of books on your nightstand? Pointless
  • Needing to “catch up” on a TV show or your Twitter timeline? Inane.
  • . . . you can fill in your own examples.

I once worked with a guy who had a sort of fetish about reading ALL of the New York Times every day. But he was a busy man, so the newspapers piled up. He had weeks’ worth of a backlog, but he wouldn’t chuck even one section without at least leafing through it.

To the degree that that was enjoyable for him, and that the growing stack of newsprint in the corner of his living room didn’t weigh on his psyche, fine. But it was starting to weigh on him, from what he said.

A lot of us do something similar with our inboxes, magazines, Netflix queues, financial mail to be shredded, books we’re not thrilled about finishing, or whatever else. If you take ten seconds you can probably think of the leading culprits in your own life.

I say: chuck those bogus old not-really-obligations to the curb, and do it with a clear conscience. In fact, make a conscious point of developing your skill and your mental toughness in chucking them without remorse.

Travel light in your psyche, friends. Life is short.

[image source]

Some Twitter-driven thoughts on “white privilege”

August 28th, 2015

This morning I struck up a conversation with @GRIMACHU on the topic of “white privilege” — a term he rejects as nonsensical. I composed my reply in the form of a series of tweets, but he and I agreed in a friendly exchange that it would be simpler to itemize them here.

(I’ve retained the original numbering of my tweets for ease of reference, even though I posted only the first 6 of them on Twitter.)

1. IMO, @GRIMACHU, your ire over “privilege” is misplaced. But you’ve obviously given it much thought, so I’ll lay out my logic in detail.

2. Others are free to follow along, but I’ll frame the rest of these (30+) as replies to @GRIMACHU to keep from cluttering streams.

3. I also acknowledge that Twitter is cramped for this kind of discussion. We can change venue, if you want.

4. And I get it that we may simply disagree. If we do, please tell me where the disagreement arises. I genuinely want to know.

5. Okay, here goes. Let’s keep in mind a short vers. of that OED defn: “A special advantage available only to a particular group.”

6. The “Basic, expected, societal standard of treatment” you cite definitely SHOULD be equally available to all. Totally agree.

7. Alas, what do we observe IRL? That standard isn’t equally available, in this context, because racism still exists in society.

8. Now, COULD a POC be biased against white people? Of course. But is that really what we’re talking about when we say “racism”?

9. I don’t mean some abstract, philosophical definition of “racism” that applies it equally to any race. I mean in real life.

10. In the US, Europe, and many other parts of the world, whites have traditionally held most power, influence, and wealth.

11. And we’re not only talking about long ago. Whites remain the overwhelming majority of legislators, CEOs, the wealthy, etc.

12. This doesn’t mean that all whites are racist, or that things are as bad as they used to be. Not at all.

13. But wouldn’t you agree that POC continue to suffer from racial bias far more often & far more deeply than whites do?

14. If you don’t agree, what evidence would you cite that whites have it anywhere nearly as bad as POC in terms of racism?

15. There’s tons of evidence that IRL the basic standard of decent treatment is disproportionately afforded to whites.

16. Or, more precisely, that when the standard is denied on a racial basis, it’s disproportionately denied to POC.

17. This is no mystery; it’s grounded in mountains of research in history, psychology, etc. We know where it comes from.

18. So, unfortunately, the basic standard of treatment is not equally available to everyone. And the pattern isn’t random.

19. I’m a straight white native-born male. Through no action of my own, I experience nearly zero racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

20. To use your term (which I have no problem with), I’m not “underprivileged” in any of those dimensions.

21. So how could we label MY experience? For instance, does it work to describe it as neutral?

22. Alas, it’s not really neutral, because it’s way better than what a lot of people get.

23. One way to describe it would be to say that I benefit from “A special advantage available only to a particular group.”

24. Philosophically, sure, it SHOULDN’T be an advantage. It SHOULD be the standard everyone enjoys. But IRL it’s not.

25. And in the abstract, sure, I COULD suffer from anti-white bias. But IRL: nearly zero instances, & none w/power behind them.

26. None of this means I did anything wrong. In fact I couldn’t have done anything to change my race, where I was born, etc.

27. Rather, it’s an observation that I benefit from a sort of exemption-from-systemic-B.S. that POC routinely don’t receive.

28. So my question for you is: What term SHOULD we use for that unearned, unwanted exemption-from-systemic-bullshit?

29. “Racism” doesn’t work, because racism is not what I’M experiencing.

30. I experience a 2nd-order effect CAUSED by societal racism, but I don’t suffer b/c of either racism or this 2nd-order effect.

31. (By the way, this is why I can’t agree with your rephrasing of my earlier question, or that I engaged in tautology.)

32. In fact I BENEFIT from this 2nd-order effect, relatively speaking – even though I didn’t ask for it or want it.

33. So what shall we call that benefit? “White exemption”? “Pro-white bias”? “Status quo bias”? What would you suggest? [End.]

Usage peeve: series out of parallel.

January 23rd, 2015

I love the eclectic Quartz newsletter that hits my inbox every morning. I don’t mean to pick on Quartz, but this morning’s edition contained a prime example of a usage peeve of mine — when a series of items is rendered out of parallel grammatically:

Quartz parallel

Here’s the problem: when you read “the company suffered food safety scandals in Asia, rising competition from ‘fast casual’ restaurants in the US, and…” you EXPECT the next thing to be a noun phrase conveying something else that the company suffered. In sum, “the company suffered A, B, and C.”

Yet then you encounter the verb “saw,” which presents a different construction — one that ought to run “the company suffered A, [verbed] B, and saw C.”

Good writing chooses one construction or the other rather than mashing the two together.

The fix here is incredibly simple:

“the company suffered food safety scandals in Asia, saw rising competition from ‘fast casual’ restaurants in the US, and had half of its Russian outlets closed by the government.”

I see this issue constantly. Please join me in stamping it out.

ADDENDUM, Saturday, 24 January 2015: My lovely friend Ann Marie Gamble suggested this page on parallel form for anyone wanting more instruction and examples.



January 8th, 2015

Books on Shelf

I asked my Twitter friends to “Please tell me ONE book you’re concerned that I may not have read yet.” This is what they told me:

Great Books You Might Have Missed

(And now I’m going to go figure out the easiest way to embed a Storify page into a WordPress post . . . )

(Also need to dig up the photo credit for this image — coming shortly!)

The beauty of mise-en-place.

January 5th, 2015


Anyone who’s been following this blog for a long time may recall my affection for the creative dictum of Chef Fernand Point:

Every morning the cuisinier must start again at zero,
with nothing on the stove.

That is what real cuisine is all about.

This item from NPR complements it nicely, I think:

For A More Ordered Life, Organize Like A Chef

The piece talks about how professional chefs live by the concept of mise-en-place, which guides them to organize everything in their kitchen workstations ruthlessly. Having an ideally-ordered workspace allows chefs to do their grueling work, even at the highest level espoused by Chef Point, without becoming overwhelmed by it.

Thanks to my friend and fellow writer Glenda Burgess for pointing to the NPR piece. She and I have been talking about various ways that we can organize our own writing lives to eliminate clutter and noise and get the real work done — which is what mise-en-place is all about.

What are you doing to organize your workspace and workflow better, here at the start of this new year?

Photo by Don LaVange, used under a Creative Commons license.

Book Review: Maigret in Montmartre, by Georges Simenon

January 3rd, 2015

This is the first Maigret novel I’ve read, but the second Simenon overall — after Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, which I read a couple of years ago. Three Bedrooms was too claustrophobic and had too much navel-gazing even given its narcissistic protagonist in the throes of a midlife crisis. This Maigret book, by contrast, showcases a Simenon who has a much more evenhanded touch with his characters: the dialogue flows, the details included are only the telling ones, and you get a real sense not only of Paris at its seedy, sodden worst, but also of the routine work of police detectives and the distinctive human traits of the call girls, pimps, morphine addicts, and other people they encounter.

Do be aware that it is a period piece — the misogyny is ripe, and the homophobia is overripe — and that there are a few bumps in the road that could have been smoothed out with a few more minutes of careful editing. But that was not Simenon’s way, was it? Considering the overall smooth delivery of such racy subject material (which must have seemed very edgy indeed in 1959) and the attractive subtlety of Maigret himself, it’s easy to understand how Maigret became so popular among millions of readers around the world in Simenon’s heyday.

Related post: Simenon and Fleming on Writing.

Maigret in Montmartre at Amazon

My Home-Office Circuit Workout

December 3rd, 2014

Do you spend a lot of time stuck at your desk? Do you work from home? I do, and I like to kill two birds with one stone by doing dumbbell circuit workouts right in my home office.

  • Bird 1 is my need for frequent breaks to refresh my mind for more writing.
  • Bird 2 is my quest to constantly improve my fitness.

Actually, they’re friendly birds and should not be killed, but rather fed and petted. Allow them to sit on your wrist and eat from your hand — they love that.


Anyway, a friend from Twitter asked me to share my workout, so I thought I would write it up here for anyone who’s interested.

Of course of course of course I’m NOT a certified trainer, I don’t know your medical condition or history, and I can’t be relied upon — or held liable — as a source of expert advice. I’m just telling you what I do, and encouraging you to explore what you can do. By all means, consult your doctor and maybe a certified trainer before you begin any course of exercise. And do take it easy as you progress. Slow and steady wins.

My routine is a variation on the Cosgrove Complex developed by trainer Alwyn Cosgrove. Basically, the Cosgrove Complex — also known as the “Evil 8” because it includes eight exercises — takes a trainee through several different movements in succession. The point is to hit most or all of the body’s main muscle groups in a single round of exercise that takes only a minute or two, and then to stack up those rounds into a short workout that helps you build or maintain strength while also giving you substantial benefits in terms of cardiovascular conditioning and fat burning.

My variation, which I devised after a bit of tinkering with the original, includes these seven exercises:

  1. Deadlift
  2. Romanian deadlift
  3. Bent-over row
  4. Overhead press
  5. Overhead squat
  6. Lunge
  7. Bicep curl

You can see a sample of Cosgrove’s original routine in this video.

If you’re quite fit, you can go heavier, complete more rounds, move directly from one round to the next without rest, or any combination of these. If you’re just getting started, you want to go VERY light — lighter than you even think is reasonable — and not do so many rounds.

For the first round, you might start with 5 repetitions of each exercise. Then you’d reduce it to 4 reps for the next round, 3 reps for the next, and so on. For maximum “evil,” you can do one or both of two things:

  • Once you get down to one rep, do more rounds to take you back up the ladder from 1 to 5 reps
  • Start at a higher number of reps, e.g. 6 or 8, and thus do that many rounds as you eliminate one rep per round

I found the Cosgrove routine at this page on T Nation:

Screw Cardio! Four Complexes for a Shredded Physique

Ignore the beefcake photos: doing this routine won’t make you a bodybuilder, nor do you need to be a bodybuilder to start. As you read toward the bottom of the page, you’ll see the Cosgrove Complex already referenced, along with a few other variations developed by other trainers.

Keep in mind that you can easily adapt this routine to suit yourself and the equipment you have. For example, I often do my version of it with 5# or 10# dumbbells rather than a barbell. For that matter, you could do all of the exercises using nothing other than your bodyweight — as in this 6-minute circuit workout from personal trainer Jessica Smith.

Great things about workout routines like these:

  • They don’t take long to complete.
  • They don’t take much (or any) equipment.
  • You can do them just about anywhere.
  • They’re totally modular. You can do a quick circuit of 5 rounds with 5# dumbbells to get your blood pumping, or you could do the full-monty 8-down-to-1, 1-up-to-8 circuit with a 45# barbell and work up a serious sweat.
  • They work great as part of a bigger circuit with anything else you may already be doing for a quick exercise break: pushups, planks, crunches, selected yoga moves, etc.

Will this work for you? How will you put it to use?

Bird photo from Flickr user lovekatz, used under a Creative Commons license.

Commonplaces: Exley on football.

September 22nd, 2014

Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it; I chose to believe that it was not unlike the jobs which all men, in some sunnier past, had been called upon to do. It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge. It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity — perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.

~ ~ ~

I had wanted to make the pilgrimage [to former Giants head coach Steve Owen’s funeral] because it was Owen, as much as any other, who had brought me round to the Giants and made me a fan. Unable to conceive what my life would have been without football to cushion the knocks, I was sure I owed him sorrow. It occurs to me now that my enthusiasms might better have been placed with God or Literature or Humanity; but in the penumbra of such upper-case pieties I have always experienced an excessive timidity rendering me tongue-tied or forcing me to emit the brutal cynicisms with which the illiterate confront things they do not understand.

–Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes