The Destructive Creep of Homogeneity

Small ripples in the current can collect to form one big destructive tidal wave.

This morning on Facebook, someone posted “Quiz: How Sensitive Is Your OCD Radar? Lets find out right now.” (Yes, “Lets.”)

I was intrigued because the post showed the link with an image of three shapes that looked identical to me. Since I couldn’t see any difference, the quiz looked like a good challenge. I clicked.

The quiz ran me through more than a dozen questions. Each question showed three shapes. Two were identical. I had to choose the shape that was slightly different. (Turns out the image in the Facebook post was altered for the quiz–one of the shapes in the image was quite different from the others.)

I scored 100%. The quiz declared me a bona fide obsessive compulsive disordered person in a way that felt like a affirming pat on the back. Here’s an excerpt: “1. You have a killer eye for spotting the tiniest, most invisible inaccuracies, errors and mistakes. 2. And it’s very important to you to correct them 🙂.”

As far #1 is concerned, the quiz does test your ability to spot small dissimilarities when two identical shapes are placed alongside another shape that is slightly different. But it doesn’t test an ability to spot “most invisible inaccuracies, errors and mistakes” for things that are not shapes. 

As for #2, which may speak to OCD, the quiz doesn’t do anything to determine or prove that it’s important to me to correct the differences in the shapes. (The quiz creators get one thing right: They say the quiz has been “created for entertainment and also is not diagnostic by any means.”)

The differences in the shapes didn’t bother me, and I suspect they don’t bother many people who took the quiz.

Ever notice that difference, not homogeneity, is what makes life rich and interesting? 

I took the quiz again, this time purposely getting some answers wrong. Here’s how I was assessed: “Great news! You’re OCD free! You are relaxed, easy going, and whimsical. You know that life is hard enough, and you shouldn’t sweat over the little things. Good for you!!”

There are many ways to interpret that affirming pat on the back, as there are the response to my 100% score. In keeping with the line of thinking I’ve already introduced, this is how I interpret it: “Great news! You’re OCD free! You’re oblivious to nuance and detail. Life is hard enough for you, so don’t sweat over the little things, like life being hard for others because they are made to feel different.”

Differences–subtle, bold, and everything in between–is a gift from nature. It makes the world a better place and is integral for advancing human thought.

Difference is not a mistake, inaccurate, or an error, which this quiz subtly emphasizes in its response to my 100% score. To paraphrase James Baldwin, you should take a deep look at your belief system to find out why you think of difference as a negative thing.

 

2016 in Books

1994-2016

I hesitated calling this post “2016 in Books.” It’s difficult to admit that I didn’t read that many books this year, again. I should be reading a book week, not less than a book a month. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid the one or two people who read this post will judge me: “She must be frittering away her waking life on social media and Amazon Prime Video.”

Well, I have spent some time on the latter, much less on the former. My favorite shows this year, in almost no particular order:

Extant
Humans
Suits
Mozart in the Jungle
Girls
Transparent
Schitt’s Creek

Thanks to Amazon, I didn’t watch much on the actual TV, except “60 Minutes.”

Another thing I did instead of reading more books was read my phone. Before the presidential election, I read the New York Times app, every day that I commuted. The day after the election, I deleted the app from my phone. I know I shouldn’t be ignorant about the news. But the New York Times was so sure Hilary would win. It was like saying the Titanic would never sink. I was lazy enough to believe it and allowed myself to settle into one of the Times‘ deck chairs. I do miss the mini crossword.

My other big time suck was and continues to be my guitar. This whole thing started when I received a ukulele on Christmas day, 2014. I call the uke my gateway drug to the guitar. I bought a used guitar (a Playmate) at Zaborski Emporium in Kingston, NY on Columbus Day in 2015. My second guitar (Taylor Mini GS-e) arrived six months later, purchased at the Grateful Guitar in Key West in April 2016. I rush home from work and play the guitar. Weekends, I play the guitar. Sometimes I still play the uke, especially in Key West– at the Grateful Guitar!

The good thing about deleting the New York Times app is that I now read more books during my commute. The New York MTA is so fucked up that I have lots and lots of time to read on my commute, which should take no more than 30 minutes on a bad day, but usually lasts an hour. It’s longer on days when I have to leave the broken down subway or bus and complete my commute on foot–the point here being that I can’t read.

Related news: I recently joined a book club.

2016 in Books

From the Land of the Moon
Milena Agus
I didn’t love this book. The protagonist’s obsession with the past and her relationship with her husband were largely reported, not analyzed, by the narrator. I guess that analysis supposed to be the reader’s job, but it would have been more interesting to me if the author had delved into her mother’s issues a bit more.

The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
Leonard Cassuto
Yup, it’s a mess but you should still get a PhD if you want one. You’ll be a better person for it. Of course, there are other ways to become a better person, too–so read this book before you decide. Much of it was published in the Chronicle of Doom, I mean the Chronicle of Higher Education, but Cassuto expands on his ideas here. He’s an elegant writer and thorough researcher.

The Fold
Peter Cline
Good science fiction is hard to come by, and this one had enough dystopian apocalypse to keep me interested to the end.

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Wonderful, suspenseful book “about a blind French girl and a sensitive German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”

As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
After The Sound and the Fury, I think I’ve read this Faulkner book the most times. The occasion for this particular reading was the new production of a play based on As I Lay Dying. The writers/directors/producers asked me to be their literary consultant for the play. Of course I said yes, and so far their production looks wonderful.

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away
Rebecca Goldstein
Loved this book! Goldstein takes Plato’s major ideas and places them, and Plato, in contemporary contexts.

And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini
One of those books everyone reads because they’ve read The Kite Runner, which I haven’t read. The exotic setting, tortured characters, and lovely story that stretches across generations is well done. Don’t be put off by the parable-like chapter at the beginning of the book.

The Fifth Season
N. K. Jemison
It must be nice to have a brain that can produce this type of book. It’s resonant with today and yesterday’s social, environmental, and economic issues, and set in an exotic world, populated with driven, powerful, and sensitive people. Will read the next installment.

J
Howard Jacobson
This book took me almost 365 days to read. I made it a point not to let it follow me into 2017. The reason I even own this book is because I was flying home in early January 2016. My plane was delayed. The Hudson News was in the process of switching magazine suppliers. They were selling the Economist and magazines on the subjects of crafting, weaponry (yes, at the airport!), and electric guitars (yes, I bought one, but I don’t play an electric guitar [yet]. Visually, electric guitar magazines are music’s equivalent of porn magazines). Nowhere to be found was Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, or even Time and Newsweek. The books on sale were the kind I just don’t read–mysteries, thrillers, stupid sci-fi, and non-fiction about business. But, strangely, in the middle of it all, there was J by Howard Jacobson, previous winner of the Man-Booker prize. This dark, slow-moving (obviously) book describes what happens when the world has tried to blot out memories of the past and forbidden most artistic pursuits and pleasures.

The Code of the Woosters
P.G. Wodehouse
Now I can say I’ve read P.G. Wodehouse. I wonder if there is a gay subtext involving Jeeves and Bertie. Bertie’s profound and overt misogyny gave the book substance.

The New Yorker
The New Yorker is a magazine and I read it every week. I read it first, then I read my book. That has to count for something.

2015 in Books

I keep track of my most of my reading with the Goodreads app. Searching the app for titles and marking them “read,” “reading now,” and “to-read” is one of the ways I fill the time on my commute, aside from reading. The app should have another category, “abandoned,” for books that are started but not finished.

Some people think it’s terrible to not finish a book, as if they’re not “real” readers if they don’t read everything from cover to cover. Please. So many books, so little time. I abandoned two this year. One by choice, the other by circumstance.

2015 in books in no particular order (and not including the books I forgot to add to Goodreads, and whose titles are now forgotten):

The Announcers: Darkness Before Mourning, Volume 1. Greg Perkins. Greg is my friend, and ever since I’ve known him, since 2004 or so, he’s been working on a very long. He finally published the first book, and it was wonderful. I even wrote a review of it on Amazon (a first). Here’s the review: Greg Perkins is a skilled writer; his literary father is clearly William Faulkner, but unlike early Cormac McCarthy (whose literary father is also Faulkner), he has his own, distinct voice. It is not easy to write about emotional and physical pain without sounding maudlin or contrived. Perkins is neither. For example, the father’s pain from knowing he would not live to see his son grow up was understated, though that pain permeated the book. Similarly, the father did his best to keep his physical pain hidden from his children, yet he felt it constantly. And the tension of the son’s knowing and not knowing what exactly was going on with his father was exquisitely wrought. I look forward to the next installment.

The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. Gillian Tett. The introduction was the most interesting part; Tett describes her background in anthropology, which gave her insights into how people develop certain blindnesses. The elephant silo in the room she never mentions: Our political parties.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement without Giving In. Roger Fisher. Read this 20 years ago and it was time to read it again. Aside from the gender stereotyping, which felt anachronistic, book remains relevant. Biggest takeaway: Know the other side’s perspective, and you’ll have a stronger argument. Some of the book’s negotiating strategies are not going to be very effective if the other side is not willing to play along according to the formula.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, 2nd Edition. Michael Miller. See my post, Simple Gifts, for thoughts about music theory. I like this book better than the music theory MOOC I took with Coursera this year. According to Goodreads’ metrics, this was the least popular book on my 2015 shelf, with only 6 other people reading it.

Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities. Dan Cohen. A classic text on just what the title says.

Bel Canto. Ann Patchett. This book reminds us that terrorists are humans, too. However, the book ultimately simplifies terrorism in an almost quaint way. Her terrorists are not the kind of terrorists we’re dealing with these days.

Outlander. Diana Gabaldon. I’m one of the last people on earth to read this book, to enter the amazing world created by Gabaldon. Too bad it’s incredibly homophobic. No plans to read more into this series. According to Goodreads’ metrics, Outlander was the most popular book in the short stack of things I read: 457,998 others read it in 2015. No surprise there.

The Night Circus. Erin Morgenstern. Here’s a world I loved being immersed in. Creative, if far-fetched, premise. Intriguing characters. Sorry to have it end. According to Goodreads’ metrics, The Night Circus was the second most popular book in the short stack of things I read: 366,304 others read it in 2015.

The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Jill Lepore. The essays in this book are morsels of intelligence, wit, literature, history–all in an American context. How could anyone not like this book?

Average page length of books read (according to Goodreads): 386 pages. Longest book: Outlander.

ABANDONED
American Gods. Neil Gaiman. I didn’t check this one out of the library on my iPad. Rather, I bought it, since I knew I would never finish before maxing out the renewals. It’s just easier to have it on the iPad. I dug this book until about 3/4 of the way through, when they’re in the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. The book began to feel like it needed to end already, just like House on the Rock, only more so. Like The Adventures of Hucklebury Finn, it turns episodic and the narrative collapses.

Lucky Us. Amy Bloom. Randomly checked this one out of the library. It has an MFA-writing program feel to it, if you know what that means. However, the characters were fully drawn and crazy enough to keep me going. Unfortunately, it came due before I could finish, and expired from my iPad. I have not had motivation to check it out again. There’s always another New Yorker to finish reading, first.

OTHER READS and LISTENS
Read lots of the New Yorker, New York Times, and a magazine about swimming. My main book purchases this year, however, were for ukulele and guitar instruction. Coffee Break French, a Scottish podcast, was a major attention suck for the first six months of the year. I also completed Music Theory, a Coursera MOOC.

 

“Simple Gifts” in the Key of F

Elder Burch, author of the Shaker Hymn, "Simple Gifts," looks like Lurch from the Addam's Family.
Elder Burch, author of the Shaker Hymn, “Simple Gifts,” looks like Lurch from the Addam’s Family.

Music theory class was sprung upon me as an adjunct to piano lessons, when I was in sixth grade. I resisted it. Wasn’t it enough that I could zip through the major and minor scales, up and down the keyboard? I had other, more pressing problems: Math class. What to wear. My hair. I shut my ears and my mind to music theory, and ultimately quit piano lessons.

Behind me are the math classes taught by people who never struggled with a math problem. I’ve finally found a good hairstylist. And now that I’m taking ukulele lessons, I realize that music theory is the key to expanding my playing ability. Fortunately, I have an amazing teacher, Paul Hemmings, who digs music theory. And in between lessons, I employ my new-found knowledge about scales to arrange some songs I like, such as “Simple Gifts.”

“Simple Gifts,” a traditional Shaker hymn, is an earworm. For some reason it doesn’t bother me as much as other earworms, such as Dionne Warwick’s version of “I Say a Little Prayer” (The moment I wake up, before I put on my make up) or The Bangle’s “Manic Monday” or “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong,” by B.J. Thomas. I know you are glad you don’t have access to my head, with its cabaret of battling earworms.

Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle. Video Game Box. "Five Things - 1.12.14" Timid Futures.
Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle. Video Game Box. Image from “Five Things – 1.12.14,” Timid Futures.

Perhaps “Simple Gifts” is different because it’s so clean. The song was written by Shaker elder Joseph Brackett, in 1848, when James Polk was president, the California Gold Rush occurred, and the first women’s rights convention occurred in Seneca Falls, NY.

What would Elder Brackett think of his song being used as background music in the 1982 Colecovision video game “Smurf: Rescue in Gargemels Castle”? Elsewhere in popular culture, part of it was used as the opening theme music for the show CBS Reports. The Ingalls Family sang it on Little House on the Prairie (cue the Little House theme song earworm). Jodie Foster sang it in 1973 on the TV show Kung Fu. Find more details about its history at Wikipedia.

Below is my arrangement of “Simple Gifts” for the ukulele. I think it’s more pleasant than the Colecovision version, which is an earworm with graphics:

Simple Gifts
Shaker Hymn
Joseph Bracket (1848)
Arr. Elizabeth Cornell

Key of F
F                          Am                  F            Am
Tis the gift to be simple, tis the gift to be free

F      C7               Gm     F        C7           Gm       C7
Tis   the  gift to come  down  where we ought to be

F                             Am                       F             Am
And when we find ourselves in the place just right

F        C7             Am      F(high)
Twill  be   in the valley   of love  and delight.

F(high)    Am     F                    Bb
When       true     simplicity is  gained

F                      C                     Gm        C
To bow and to bend we will   not be    ashamed.

F                      Am         F
To turn, turn, will be our delight

C7        Gm       F
Till by turning, turning we   come out      right.

 

2014 in Books

Late Autumn, Ulster County, NY | (c) RobertGoldwitz.com
Late Autumn, Ulster County, NY | (c) RobertGoldwitz.com

What’s notable about this list is that for the first time in many years, most of these books were read for pleasure. This means I didn’t have to take notes on what I read. Also, late last year, I discovered how easy it was to check out ebooks from the library and put them on my iPad. The Nashville Public Library and New York City Public Library have kept me well-stocked. Also listed here are books I didn’t like and didn’t finish. Thank goodness for GoodReads, because it makes it easy to keep a list of books I’ve read and plan to read. In a somewhat chronological order:

1. Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches

2. Terry Pratchett, The Long Earth

3. Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877

4. Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night

5. Max Barry, Lexicon

6. Max Barry, Jennifer Government (unfinished)

7. Hugh Howey, Half Way Home

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

9. Orson Scott Card, The Lost Gate (Mither Mages #1) (audiobook)

10. Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (stopped reading)

11. Orson Scott Card, The Gate Thief (Mither Mages, #2) (audiobook)

12. John Shelton Reed, Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s (one chapter; took notes)

13. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

14. Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

15. Lev Grossman, Codex

16. Vicki Croke, Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II

17. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

18. Cathy Marie Buchanan, The Painted Girls (must finish!)

Not a lot of books, actually. With the onset of a renewed research project, I have read no new books in the past two months. If it wasn’t for the New Yorker, I would be adrift.