“The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do” by Colin Nissan

woman writing on a keyboardWhy I Read It: This weekend happens to be one of those weekends in which I found myself facing more writing obligations than I can possibly get through in a weekend. I need to write for grad school. I need to write lessons for my classes. I need to write for professional development. In truth I could spend 48 hours in front of my computer and still wind up short of my goals. But I have to be productive. And I have to write well enough that no one will read what I have written and question my qualifications as a teacher of English.

So, as I have done numerous times in the past, I have turned to McSweeney’s for inspiration. More specifically, I have turned to Colin Nissan’s “The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do,” a humorous take on writing manuals. I’ve probably read this piece two dozen times. I used to have a copy of it tacked to a corkboard next to my desk. In moments of need, I would pluck it off the wall and give it a quick scan. It has always made me laugh and I almost always find it easier to write after reading it.

Who Wrote It: Before I went to write this post, I thought Colin Nissan was the nom de plume of some anonymous contributor to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. The site is

McSweeney's logo
Logo: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

known for a stripped down style. It provides no biographical details or portraits for any of its contributors, even those who have attained some degree of celebrity, such as Michael Ian Black and Josh Gondelman. I’d also heard a rumor that many of the early articles on the site were ghostwritten by Dave Eggers, the site’s brilliantly creative founder. I kind of assumed that “The Ultimate Guide” was one of his.

As it turns out, though, Colin Nissan is a real person who really wrote “The Ultimate Guide.” Though he may not exist in the eyes of Wikipedia, he does have a personal website (with an even more minimalistic aesthetic than that of McSweeney’s). He has also been published in The New Yorker, and he has written commercials and advertisements for major companies. Googling him also reminded me that he was responsible for the most iconic McSweeney’s article of all time: “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, M***********s.”

Given my love for “The Ultimate Guide” and “Decorative Gourd Season,” I’m now looking forward to seeking out more of Nissan’s work. But I’ve gotta get through this weekend first.

What It Is: “The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Normally Do” satirizes the tropes long-associated with writing manuals. The article’s headings, such as “Write Every Day,” “Find Your Muse,” and “Read, Read, Read,” might have been swiped directly from any book with the word “writing” in its title. Nissan even borrows some of the old clichés from these books. For example, the section “Write Every Day” opens with “Writing is a muscle,” a tired and somewhat bizarre metaphor. But then Nissan layers on the absurdity:

Writing is a muscle. Smaller than a hamstring and slightly bigger than a bicep, and it needs to be exercised to get stronger. Think of your words as reps, your paragraphs as sets, your pages as daily workouts. Think of your laptop as a machine like the one at the gym where you open and close your inner thighs in front of everyone, exposing both your insecurities and your genitals. Because that is what writing is all about.

The blend of the familiar and the farcical makes the article tremendously fun.

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White employ dry British humor to great effect. In On Writing, Stephen King writes about writing with unbridled honesty, holding the reader on the edge of his seat. Nissan’s approach, by contrast, is to take the task of offering instruction on writing as un-seriously as possible. Silliness is his mode of choice.

More often than not, this silliness manifests itself in sudden turns down unlikely alleyways of thought. Consider, for example, what Nissan does with a well-worn admonition in a section called “Learn From the Masters”:

Mark Twain once said, “Show, don’t tell.” This is an incredibly important lesson for writers to remember; never get such a giant head that you feel entitled to throw around obscure phrases like “Show, don’t tell.” Thanks for nothing, Mr. Cryptic.

Portrait - Mark Twain
No doubt an influence on us all

The fact that the masters teach us nothing about writing in this section is humorous in itself. The fact that Mark Twain never directly said “Show, don’t tell” takes the humor to a different level. It suggests that the author has no basis for his claim, being unfamiliar with the masters’ instruction. But the double irony is that Mark Twain, like Oscar Wilde, was also a master of the sudden turn for comedic effect. So evidently Nissan learned from the masters after all.

If I had to sum up “The Ultimate Guide,” I would describe it as a writing manual that offers no meaningful instruction on the art of writing. However, it is so cleverly written that it actually inspires others to write “better than [they] normally do.”

Why YOU Should Read It: Writing under obligation can be an onerous challenge. It’s hard enough to think of something to say and find the focus and motivation to sit down and say it. Then you have to figure out how to say the thing. You add a thousand rules and guidelines along with the pressure of writing for a particular audience and writing after countless others have likely addressed the same subject before, and pretty soon you’re on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Colin Nissan’s guide to writing is a reminder that writing can be fun. Rules can be ignored or even derided. Truisms are never absolute. In the end, the only style that really matters is the one that feels right to the writer.

The next time you find yourself being crushed by the weight of required writing, give “The Ultimate Guide” a chance. It’s the sort of quick read that makes everything feel just a little bit lighter.

 

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“No Risky Chances” by Atul Gawande (Excerpt from Being Mortal)

double bed - dim lightingWhy I Read It: A little over a month ago, my grandfather passed away at the age of 88. It was hard to let him go, but it might have been much harder if the manner of his death had been different.

A few weeks before his death, he had been rushed into the hospital for a procedure. A few days later, he was processed into a care center to recover. Although this facility offered excellent care, my grandfather never wanted to stay. The facility was comfortable but far from familiar. He wanted to go home. At the same time, my grandmother could no longer give him the care he would need. As a family we understood there was little chance of him returning home again. The time would come when he would need to be told.

As it turned out though, that challenging conversation never took place. Grandpa took a turn while at the care center and passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was surrounded by loved ones as he died. In fact, he had eaten dinner in the facility’s dining room the evening before.

breeze through window at sunsetIt always feels too soon to lose someone you love, but we took solace in knowing that it could have been worse for Grandpa. Slowly deteriorating in a lonely nursing home would have been worse. Living apart from his wife of 64 years would have been worse. In a way, my grandfather died with his hope and his spirits intact.

In the last few years, I’ve watched my grandparents age. I’ve lost close relatives to cancer. It’s safe to say the nature of end-of-life care has been on my mind quite a bit. And at times, after seeing a loved one suffering in the limbo between life and death, after hearing my other family members discuss insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, I’ve thought, there must be a better way.

In the last few months, I’ve been tempted to purchase a book called Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Written by Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the book addresses the questions raised by end-of-life care. I’ve previously read his books Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance and his popular Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. I’m sure I would love this book, but I haven’t found time to pick it up, sit down, and page through it.

Fortunately, this week I found time for an excerpt.

Who Wrote It: In addition to performing surgeries at Brigham and Women’s, Dr. Gawande also writes for Slate and The New Yorker and The New England Journal of Medicine. His rise to moderate levels of fame has paralleled the dawn of the healthcare reform age. His TED talk, “How do we heal medicine?”, has been viewed almost 1.5 million times.

Atul Gawande - portraitGawande’s appeal as a writer derives largely from two specific abilities. First of all, he is a master of anecdote. The stories he tells about his patients and other medical professionals effectively humanize the practice of medicine. He is one of those rare doctors who possesses a keen eye for anatomical disruptions and an equally sharp perspective on the human factor.

Secondly, Gawande can talk medicine without talking science. If I took the MCAT tomorrow, I might answer one out of a hundred questions correctly. When I watch a hospital show, the only word I follow when the doctors speak during a procedure is “Stat” (which means, “right now!”, I think). But when I read Gawande, I’m never mystified to the point where I can’t keep reading. His capacity for simplification is profound.

What It Is: The excerpt from Being Mortal is called “No Risky Chances.” The title comes from an exchange the author had with a 72-year-old patient named Jewel Douglass. He had asked her how she wanted to proceed with the treatment of late stage ovarian cancer. Her answer, “No risky chances,” revealed that she wanted to move forward, but only on her own terms. Fortunately, she had a doctor who was willing to accommodate that request.

I would guess this excerpt comes from a chapter of the book called “Hard Conversations” (the subtitle of the Slate article is “The conversation that matters most”), and that subject serves as the main focus of the piece. Gawande devotes the lion’s share of the selection to his conversations with Douglass. The questions he asked her went beyond the typical surgeon-patient discourse. He asked her what her goals were. He asked her what she was afraid of. He asked about the sacrifices she would be willing to make for potential gains.

These exchanges between a doctor and his patient serve as the basis for Gawande’s argument. When he steps outside of the experience to consider its implications, this argument comes clear. For example, after considering how Douglass wanted to shape her last days, Gawande writes this:

Life is meaningful because it is a story, and a story’s arc is determined by the moments when something happens. . . [Y]our remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole. That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. Football fans will let a few flubbed minutes at the end of a game ruin three hours of bliss—because a football game is a story, and in stories, endings matter.

That final notion, that “endings matter,” might come across as pithy to some or overly The End - movie credits imageoptimistic to others. Sure, it would be great if we could shape our endings as we wanted to, but life is not always that simple. Gawande acknowledges this point as well, tempering his idealism with a dose of reality:

No one ever really has control; physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But as Jewel Douglass taught me, we are not helpless either—and courage is the strength to recognize both of those realities. We have room to act and shape our stories—although as we get older, we do so within narrower and narrower confines.

This qualified remark represents another aspect of Gawande’s writing and thinking that I have come to admire. At his core, Gawande is a reformer. He is seeking to reform the system he is very much a part of. However, while some call for revolution, Gawande has the wisdom to recognize that changes can only take place within a complex, multi-faceted landscape. Minor adjustments, such as asking a few simple questions, may make lasting differences in the long run.

Why YOU Should Read It: At the risk of expectorating another cliché, I’ll just say this: everyone has to deal with death. It’s scary, it’s sad, and yet it’s certain. Reading about end-of-life care may not be ideal for a sunny day on the beach, but I do believe it’s worth one’s time at some point or another. It was certainly worthwhile for me.

 

 

 

 

“The Perfect Fit” by David Sedaris

Tokyo Skyline - DaytimeWhy I Read It: Earlier this afternoon, I followed my wife and my mother-in-law into an upscale boutique in Newburyport, Massachusetts. For the better part of twenty minutes, I sauntered from one side of the store to the other. I smelled fragrant candles. I handled exquisite linens. I inspected a svelte, stainless steel water bottle. I spent several moments

toothpicks
Roughly $18 worth of toothpicks.

pondering why anyone would pay $5.95 for a dozen bourbon-flavored toothpicks…and, in doing so, I discovered an urge to buy the toothpicks myself.

 

I decided that if money were no object, I would probably purchase half of the items in the store. So many things looked useful or fun or just gleefully extravagant. I imagined myself turning to my guests at home and explaining, “Oh these toothpicks? Yeah, it was an impulse buy–a bit of a splurge. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Wouldn’t a couple of those conversations alone be worth six bucks?

Of course, in the end, I walked out of the store having spent nothing. Or basically nothing. I bought an absinthe-flavored sugar cube for twenty cents. It was tasty, but I still felt like I’d wasted two dimes.

The entire experience reminded me of a recent David Sedaris article, published in The New Yorker. As you can tell, I am not a “shopper.” David Sedaris most definitely is. The shopping experience he recounts in this article is, like most sides of David Sedaris’s life/worldview, unlike anything I have ever heard.

Who Wrote It: If you call yourself a reader and you’ve never heard of David Sedaris, let me just say this: you’re doing it wrong. And by it, I mean reading. I implore you to immediately leave my blog, navigate to Amazon, and buy pretty much anything with a Portrait - David SedarisDavid Sedaris byline. Whether it’s Barrel FeverMe Talk Pretty One Day, or Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, you will not be disappointed.

Sedaris owns one of the most distinctive voices of all active writers. He is the only author I know who can celebrate and mock a subject at the same time. He oscillates between these two impulses with inimitable deftness. Above all else, he is hilarious, employing a sense of humor that is simultaneously subtle and side-splitting. When I read Sedaris, I get the sense that I’m in on a private joke. But, then, most everyone else who reads him feels the same way.

The only thing better than reading Sedaris is listening to him read his own material. In addition to writing for The New Yorker, he is a traveling performance reader in the style of Dickens and Twain. Many of his performances can be found in the archives of This American Life. After Ira Glass basically discovered Sedaris in the early ’90s, Sedaris has been something of a regular contributor, exploring subjects as diverse as home movies, the city morgue, and a squirrel falling in love with a chipmunk. He can make you laugh. He can make you cry. He can make you laugh until you cry. If you can excuse the cliché, he is a true original.

What It Is: In “The Perfect Fit,” published in the March 28, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, Sedaris tells the story of shopping in Tokyo with his two sisters, Amy and Gretchen, and his partner, Hugh. If you haven’t experienced Sedaris, you might be thinking, “So, Tokyo is cool, but otherwise this is just the story of a family shopping trip?” Well, yes. But Sedaris could narrate the growth of grass and make it enthralling.

After grounding the story in the nature of family dynamics, Sedaris launches into an
explanation of a store in Tokyo called Kapital. He writes:

The clothes they sell are new but appear to have been previously worn, perhaps by someone who was shot or stabbed and then thrown off a boat. Everything looks as if it has been pulled from the evidence rack at a murder trial. I don’t know how they do it. Most distressed clothing looks fake, but not theirs, for some reason. Do they put it in a dryer with broken glass and rusty steak knives? Do they drag it behind a tank over a still-smoldering battlefield? How do they get the cuts and stains so . . . right?

Ripped denim material
Perhaps a hot commodity at Kapital?

Coming from anyone else, this would be damning criticism. Coming from Sedaris, it is sincere admiration. He loves Kapital. He later admits to buying three hats from the store, saying, “I like to wear [them] stacked up, all at the same time, partly just to get it over with but mainly because I think they look good as a tower.”

His sister Amy, a multi-talented artist in her own right, is also a hoot. Sedaris recounts her excitement at seeing a row of carved wooden penises in a window display:

Amy’s eyes popped out of her head, and before I could stop her she hoisted the middle one out of the window, crying, “Oh, my goodness, it’s teak! I thought from out on the sidewalk that it was mahogany!” As if she were a wood expert, and saw nothing beyond the grain.

In the end though, Sedaris produces most of the laughs with his own antics. At one point, in an effort to practice his Japanese, he tells a saleswoman that he is a children’s doctor:

I didn’t set out to misrepresent myself, but I didn’t know the words for “author” or “trash collector.” “Doctor,” though, was in one of the ninety Teach Yourself Japanese lessons I’d reviewed . . .

I loved the respect that being a pediatrician brought me in Japan, even when I wore a smock and had a tower of three hats on my head. You could see it in people’s faces. I grew before their very eyes.

I realize I’ve quoted more from this article than any other I’ve reviewed, but that’s how it is with David Sedaris. You just have to share what he said in the way that he said it.

Why YOU Should Read It: I hope the description of this piece and this author provides you enough motivation to go out and find this issue of The New Yorker or look it up online. If not, you should definitely read it if:

(A) You like shopping.

(B) You hate shopping.

(C) You like laughing.

or (D) You enjoy a writer who can take something ordinary and make it hilarious.

“Batman And Superman Are Totally BFFs” by Walt Hickey

Batman and Superman action figures facing off

Why I Read It: I’ve always been a big fan of superheroes, but I’ve never really cared for comic books. Though I bought and read a few of them in days when I collected a weekly allowance, I quickly discovered my preference for words over images. I could never make a full story out of sequential panes of illustrated action without a sufficient number of speech balloons. Instead my introduction to the super-world came in the form of cartoons: X-Men, Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Justice League, and Captain Planet. I’ve really only discovered the full range of the Marvel and DC Universes since starting college. I never knew who Ironman was until the first movie came out in 2008.

I realize this makes me a relative novice in the field of superheroes. Comic books are the true source of authentic superhero lore, but my superhero-lite exposure was enough to ensure my appreciation for the genre. Most specifically, I’ve always loved how easy it is in the superhero world to discern the good guys from the bad guys. A luxury we rarely have in the real world, it makes the superhero world feel trustworthy and comforting. So I was somewhat surprised when I first heard news of the Batman vs. Superman movie a few years

Dark_knight_returns
Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”

ago. Why would two good guys battle each other when there were so many villains out there? It didn’t make sense. Of course, had I read more of the comic books, I might have been exposed to Frank Miller’s version of the conflict and been just as giddy as my cousins in the nerd community. But, really, I’ve been reluctant to see my heroes duke it out (and even more so since critics panned the new film). And given the upcoming Captain America movie, I worry that good guys fighting good guys will become the new normal.

 

Fortunately, my hope for the preservation of a Manichean duality in the superhero world was partially restored by a recent article published on FiveThirtyEight. In “Batman and Superman Are Totally BFFs,” Walt Hickey affirms through statistical inquiry that, in the comic book world at least, the good guys generally stick together and the bad guys generally get beaten.

Who Wrote It: Walt Hickey writes about culture on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog. The blog itself is all about data, and Hickey’s work fits well within the context. He focuses on

Walt Hickey portrait
via FiveThirtyEight

the numbers in culture and the numbers in the news. (In fact, his daily “Significant Digits” column, to which I happily subscribe, is labeled as “a daily digest of the telling numbers tucked inside the news.”) Like most of the writers on the site, Hickey focuses on the unusual and unexpected trends that facts and figures can reveal. He may be dealing with math, but his work is never boring.

 

I, as you may have guessed, am not a math guy. I prefer story and character and interpretation. I have no doubt some mathematicians would use those words to describe their work, but their descriptions have never won me over. The reason I like Hickey’s writing is he invests humor and narrative into his work. His references work for me. I have to think he would make an amazing high school stats teacher for otherwise uninspired students.

What It Is: In “Batman and Superman Are Totally BFFs,” Hickey tallies up appearances of side characters in a huge range of Batman and Superman comics. Sure enough, Kal-El/Superman appears in 32% of all Batman comics, and Bruce Wayne/Batman appears in 35% of all Superman comics. Okay, so I might have predicted these numbers to some extent with my limited understanding of comics, but I never would have predicted that Superman appears in more Batman comics than any individual Robin, and Batman appears in more Superman comics than any character other than Lois Lane. I was also surprised to learn that Batman’s main nemesis, The Joker, only appears in 12% of Batman’s comics, and Lex Luthor only appears in 15% of Supes’s. So, evidently, Batman and Superman defy the old adage: they keep their friends significantly closer than their enemies.

Of course, Hickey points out that the circumstances under which Superman entered Batman’s world and vise versa may not have been consistently pleasant:

Now clearly, number of appearances is not always an indicator of close friendship. Just because they appeared together in a comic doesn’t necessarily mean they were allies, indeed, throughout their immense history, Superman and Batman have often been at crosspurposes.

Still, Hickey concludes with the optimistic note I was hoping for. He writes, “In the end, however, Superman and Batman will work things out. I mean, they were in a group called the ‘Super Friends.'”

Why You Should Read It: My experience of math in high school was not great. I don’t mean to say it was terrible, but I certainly did not look forward to math classes, whereas I

Data-driven journalism process - visualization
Data CAN lead to story!

genuinely enjoyed English, social studies, and even science. I guess I found it hard to relate to math. It seemed to be a dead subject, just page after page of lifeless numbers, formulaic thinking, and right-or-wrong answers.

 

Over the past few years, Walt Hickey and the other writers at FiveThirtyEight have forced me to shift my perspective. Whether the reporting on the site covers culture, sports, politics, science, or economics, I find it consistently engaging. Nate Silver’s staff knows how to tell stories with stats. Walt Hickey’s “BFFs” article is just one example.

“Nirvana” by Charles Bukowski

Vintage bus on a snowy street
GM New Look bus of 88 Transit Lines Inc. in Pittsburgh, 1984. Photo by Steve Morgan.

Why I Read It: For somebody who teaches poetry, I really don’t read much poetry. (And, yes, I realize this makes me a poor “salesman” for the subject.) I would like to read more, and every now and then I feel guilty for reading so little. But then I remember that every second I spend pondering my inadequacies is a second wasted in my efforts to correct them. Spending time feeling guilty about not reading poetry leaves me with that much less time to actually get down to the business of reading poetry.

So, anyway, a few weeks back I read a poem outside of my school building. I would love to say I discovered this poem in some sort of ambitious and valiant self-improvement quest, but, alas, the discovery was entirely unintentional. The poem was handed to me in the middle of a two-day writing conference that I attended with several of my students. On a more exciting note, the person distributing the poem was a poet named Kevin Carey (who also happens to be a professor at Salem State, where I am seeking out my M.A.). If receiving a poem directly from a published poet isn’t enough to get me reading poetry, I don’t know what it will take.

The poem that Mr. Carey passed my way was called “Nirvana.” It was penned by a poet named Charles Bukowski. In the time that has passed since I first read it, it hasn’t left my thoughts.

Who Wrote It: I knew Charles Bukowski‘s name when I saw it on the page, but I admit I knew little about the poet. The reason I knew the name of the poet is that it had appeared Portrait of Charles Bukowskion a list of poets for my students to study as part of their end of the year research project. The reason I knew so little about the poet is that freshmen level papers and presentations tend to blur together at the end of the year.

Now that I’ve read some biography though, I’m surprised I couldn’t remember more about him from what must have been interesting research projects at the time. I’m also a little bit embarrassed that I hadn’t studied him myself in training for my profession. The dude lived a pretty remarkable life and wrote in a pretty remarkable way. Born in Germany to parents who met at the end of World War I, Bukowski’s family eventually landed in Los Angeles. The city and its inhabitants became the predominant influence in Bukowski’s life. By the time he died in 1994, he had developed a cult following among his free-thinking kindred spirits and he had published over sixty books.

The critic Stephen Kessler might offer the best summation of Bukowski’s style: “Without trying to make himself look good, much less heroic, Bukowski writes with a nothing-to-lose truthfulness which sets him apart from most other ‘autobiographical’ novelists and poets.” Even in my obviously limited experience reading his work, I can attest to the accuracy of Kessler’s comment. “Nirvana” most definitely epitomizes the art of “nothing-to-lose truthfulness.”

Looking forward in my own writing life, I hope that I can live up to Bukowski’s mandate for writers and artists of all kinds. His philosophy is distilled into two simple words on his gravestone: “Don’t Try.”

What It Is: The beauty of “Nirvana” is its simplicity. I suppose that statement could apply to both Bukowski’s poem and the Buddhist state of spiritual enlightenment (and maybe even a certain ’90s rock band). Focusing on the former, though, I observe no word in the single-stanza poem more complex than “unaffected” (excluding the title, maybe) and no line longer than five short words. According to the undoubtedly reliable Readability-Score.com, the poem achieves a grade level reading score of 4.5 on the Fleisch-Kincaid scale, though I’m sure a precocious second-grader could easily muddle through it. Bukowski even eschews capitalization for everything except “North Carolina.”

For a taste of the poem, check out the first seven lines:

not much chance,

country diner
The eventual setting of the poem.

completely cut loose from

purpose,

he was a young man

riding a bus

through North Carolina

on the way to somewhere

And you’re off! There’s nothing to hold you back: no convoluted diction, no metrical complexity, no sophisticated rhyme scheme, and none of those pretentious literary devices so obscure that we still refer to them by their original Greek names. Instead, Bukowski offers us the simplicity of “a young man / riding a bus.” His location is far from exotic, his destination sounds like nothing special, and he travels without “much chance, / completely cut loose / from purpose.” Who hasn’t spent a day in this young man’s shoes? Who wouldn’t want to read on to find out what happens next?

Why YOU Should Read It: If your sympathy for Bukowski’s young man is an insufficient incentive to click the link, maybe I can encourage you with this. When Mr. Carey passed out copies of this poem, he told our group that his favorite poems are the kind that can be grasped in one pass. I really liked hearing that from a professional poet. If I’m totally honest with myself, part of the reason I don’t read more poetry is that I just don’t get a lot of it. Maybe that’s something an English teacher shouldn’t admit to, but it’s true. When a poem begins to feel like work, I check out. I have more enjoyable ways of spending my time.

“Nirvana” does not feel like work. It is one of those rare poems that lifts you up and takes you away without making your stomach lurch or your head throb. The journey will leave you feeling both lighter and more enlightened than you were before.

So take a bus ride with Charles Bukowski. No Dramamine necessary.

“The Scold” by Nick Paumgarten

A pile of pointless petroleumWhy I Read ItIn just a few seconds, I am going to say something so brash, so rude, and so directly confrontational that you may feel compelled to hurl whatever device you’re reading this on against the nearest concrete wall. Are you ready? Here we go.

If you drink bottled water, you’re a dummy.

Wait a second…you’re still here? I’m shocked! But surely I’ve offended you! Surely you’ve partaken of water from a disposable plastic bottle at some point in your life! Even I, enlightened as I now am, have had dozens, maybe even hundreds of plastic bottles full of water in my lifetime. I’ve even purchased bottled water in bulk. In fact, I once paid $4.00 for a bottle of water at Six Flags. Oh yes. I have been a “sucka” at some points in my life.

But no longer. Today, I avoid bottled water on principle. I refuse to pay a nickel for it. Evencontainer_recycling.jpg a single penny would be a whole penny too much. Though I admit my palate is, well, unrefined, I can taste no difference between tap water and Fiji. And then I learned most bottled water is just filtered tap water anyway. And then I learned that plastic water bottles are wreaking havoc on the environment. And finally I woke up to the fact that Evian is just “naïve” spelled backwards.

Really, though, it all comes down to frugality. I may not be a cheapskate through-and-through, but I do have something of a reputation among my friends. A splurge for me is a trip to Chipotle. I’ve had buyer’s remorse after paying a little bit extra for two-ply toilet paper. I wear the same pair of shoes until holes form in the soles, no ifs, ands, or buts. But none of this matters half as much to me as bottled water.

If it all mattered, though, if I made shouted every cause of frugality through a bullhorn, then I would not be Mr. Lunch Break. I would be Mr. Money Mustache, a character I met through Nick Paumgarten’s New Yorker article “The Scold.” This guy is the real deal. A fundamental frugalist, right down to the “woodworker’s vise” he uses “to squeeze more juice out of limes.”

 

paumgarten
Via: The New Yorker

Who Wrote ItNick Paumgarten, a staff writer for The New Yorker (like Adam Gopnik), has not yet developed wide enough acclaim to merit a Wikipedia page (unlike Adam Gopnik). He is, nevertheless, a strong writer with esteemed journalistic credentials. In “The Scold,” he selects detail like a fiction writer would, painting his character as clearly as possible. He also plays a small role in his story, exposing his own frugality to the harsh scrutiny of Mustachian ideals. Like me, he is stingy in many ways. But neither of us are up to the standards of Mr. Money Mustache.

What It Is: Paumgarten’s profile of Mr. Money Mustache reveals the man behind the ‘stache. This man’s name is Peter Adeney. He moved to the United States from Canada at the age of 24, and he now resides in Longmont, Colorado. He made a name for himself as the creator of a lifestyle blog called Mr. Money Mustache. In this blog, Adeney adopts the persona of Mr. MM to advocate “financial freedom through badassity,” the heart of Mustachianism. In Paumgarten’s profile, the root of Mustachianism is revealed to go even deeper. Adeney’s greatest concern is the effect of rampant consumerism on the environment.

Mustache on a mission.So, how did Adeney arrive at this place of enlightened existence? To get the full answer, you would need to read Paumgarten’s piece. If you want the Spark Notes version, here it is: A lifelong devotee of frugality, Adeney retired from his tech job at age 30 with several
hundred thousand dollars in savings. His critics would have you believe that Adeney achieved this sum only by working in a high-paying field. Adeney would concede that his job paid well, but emphasize that most of that figure was a product of fiscal responsibility. Today, Adeney lives with his wife and his son on a budget of $24K/year. His mortgage has been paid off. He is staunchly anti-debt. He now lives to make thrift a practical option for everyone, and his blog readers view him as a sage or prophet of a new financial religion.

Why YOU Should Read It: Last week I ended my post on “A Modest Proposal” by pondering the effects of extreme positions. I suggested that Swift’s preposterous agenda might have encouraged more moderate approaches to problem solving, and I expressed my hope that the extreme platforms of this year’s presidential candidates might pave the way for more sensible policy changes.

Mr. Money Mustache represents an extreme that might influence the world on a much smaller scale. Reading Paumgarten’s profile encouraged me to evaluate my own consumer behaviors. It prompted me to think beyond bottled water and toilet paper. I found myself considering the role I play in the “consumer-industrial complex.” And if  my role changed, how would that affect my life? Could I, like Mr. MM, gain a sense of liberation by training myself to want and need less than I think I do?

If these questions resonate, read the article. A little Mustache might make a big difference in the way you see the world.

 

 

 

“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift

Modern day Dublin looking old.Why I Read It: I first read Swift’s “Modest Proposal” as a seventeen-year-old student in AP English. Now, over a decade later, I am teaching AP English and starting a unit on satire. Given that “A Modest Proposal” is one of only three texts I remember from my own experience as an AP student (the other two? The Scarlet Letter and A Prayer for Owen Meany), and given that “A Modest Proposal” is by many accounts the best known work of satire in the English language, I could see no reason not to revisit the historic essay.

audiobookIn returning to “A Modest Proposal,” I made two key discoveries. First, I learned that one of the best ways to rendezvous with a text read long ago is to listen to it instead of reading it. Whenever I re-read something, my eyes tend to wander down the page ahead of my reading pace. My attention splits into a conscious part that cares about the words themselves and a subconscious part that only cares about restoring the pride of my presumptuous long-term memory. This involuntary effort to find the familiar saps all the joy out of the experience. However, by listening to an audio version of “A Modest Proposal,” I had no ability to “read ahead.” The text was recharged with much of the suspense and the surprise I had experienced in my first reading.

The second discovery I made in returning to this work was this: a classic is a classic for a reason. Swift’s essay was engaging and relevant to me when I was seventeen. Now, eleven years older and maybe a few weeks wiser, I found the essay engaging and relevant in entirely new ways. But more on that later.

Who Wrote It: Although many are familiar with “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift is J_Swiftbest known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels. Born in Dublin, he would spend time in both Ireland and England throughout his life (1667-1745), though he actually preferred life in England (which was far more prosperous at the time). Nevertheless, Swift was always a true son of the Emerald Isle. He showed immense disdain for the English authorities, and they were none too fond of him either. Becoming involved at politics at a young age, he worked as a pamphleteer to sow his seeds of dissent.

Later in life, his primary concern became England’s inequitable treatment of his native country. Ireland in this time was dealing with poverty, starvation, homelessness, crime, corruption, and a general loss of hope for a better future. Swift blamed England for most if not all of these problems, and his anger inspired much of his satire.

What It Is: I don’t quite know how to talk about “A Modest Proposal” without spoiling it completely, but I’ll do my best.

The essay starts like any other policy paper. Swift explains the problem, saying, “It is a melancholly Object to those, who walk through this great Town [Dublin], or travel in the Country, when they see the Streets, the Roads, and Cabbin-Doors, crowded with Beggars of the female Sex, followed by three, four, or six Children, all in Rags, and importuning every Passenger for an Alms.” Who could read such an opening line without his heart wrenching within his chest? Yet this was the reality in Dublin at the time, and the author presents the issue in the grave tone it deserves.

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He got his statue after all.

The reader’s first sense that the piece is remotely satirical comes a few clauses later. Here, Swift observes that “whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these Children sound and useful Members of the common-wealth would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his Statue set up for a preserver of the Nation.” The shameless self-promotion of the speaker in this line suggests to the careful reader that perhaps the essay contains a grain or two of salt.

And then Swift moves to “humbly propose [his] own thoughts.” Of course these thoughts are anything but humble. In fact, the solution proposed is so audacious, so grotesque, and so barbaric that I found myself laughing out loud as I listened to the audiobook. The fact that Swift maintains a consistently pragmatic tone adds even more humor to the piece. He defends his position by appealing to social ideals, economic theory, political ideology, and even spiritual grounds. The essay can be interpreted through a wide array of lenses (several of which are detailed on the essay’s Wikipedia page), yet reading it to fulfill a yearning for grim and grizzly humor is maybe the most satisfying approach.

Why YOU Should Read It: More likely than not, you read this essay in high school or college. If that’s the case, I would still encourage you to re-read it, and here’s why:

Though the writing in “A Modest Proposal” is impeccable, it is also unremarkable. The essay is really written just like a political pamphlet. Swift adopts the same syntax, diction, and tone another in his time might have used to argue against taxes. The enduring worth of the essay comes from its combination of an all-business approach and an utterly appalling subject matter. Swift proposes absolute absurdity with earnest and sober indifference, and the outcome is fantastic satire.

Going through the essay again, I couldn’t get this thought out of my head, and I couldn’t democrat_republicanhelp comparing it with American politics in 2016. Over the last few months, I have monitored the election process from a safe distance. Yet even from this vantage point I have seen candidates promote absurd ideas with nary a wink or a smirk in sight. They, like Swift, have made a number of “modest proposals” to change the course of the nation’s future. But, unlike Swift, these men and women are not satirists. And the American public is struggling to get the joke.

Like all good satirists, Swift used his humor to effect change. By proposing an extreme solution to an extreme problem, he hoped to encourage those in power to take a moderate course of action in order to achieve real progress. Let us hope that the absurdity in today’s news cycle ultimately serves the same purpose.

“Death of a Fish” – Adam Gopnik

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Why I Read It: I have owned pets for most of my life. As a toddling tyke, I kept tiny bugs in plastic cages: crickets and caterpillars and beetles and butterflies. As I grew older, my pets grew larger and more complex: a handful of frogs and toads, a turtle that I named Claw,

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Returning Claw to his natural home.

 a garter snake I called Handcuffs, a gang of green anoles, and, most ambitious of all, a pair of Jackson’s chameleons, one male and one female. Waking to find a troop of chameleon hatchlings crawling around their terrarium was one of the great joys of my childhood (although recognizing that the mother was eating her young was a great horror of my childhood…and then watching all of the little ones die despite a heroic effort to rescue them was a great tragedy of my childhood). Eventually, I moved on to mammals, which is where I am now. Our first family dog, a cocker spaniel named Ginger, lived for thirteen happy years before making a final trip to the vet. Our second family dog, a duck toller named Scout, travelled from Minnesota to Massachusetts to live with me and my wife. She is six years old, but is still mistaken for a puppy by everyone who meets her. She makes me smile and laugh every day. She makes my house feel like my home.

Considering my history, you would likely assume I have no reservations about pet ownership. You would guess that somewhere down the road when my own kids beg for a gecko or a hamster or a kitten, I’ll acquiesce without a moment’s hesitation. Well, maybe not. Despite my numerous experiences, most of them net positive, the moral ambiguity of owning another animal and keeping it in captivity frequently gives me pause.

And so it was a pleasure to stumble across Adam Gopnik’s “Death of a Fish” this past week (Side note: The article is only available to subscribers, but I read it in The Best American Essays 2006.). I wasn’t specifically looking for something to resolve my dilemma. In fact, I was simply intrigued by the title. Nevertheless Gopnik’s detailed analysis of his 5-year-old daughter losing her pet fish “Bluie” not only provided me with a compelling answer to the question of pet ownership, but it also raised more challenging questions about consciousness, empathy, and what it really means to be human.

 

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Adam Gopnik

Who Wrote It: Anyone who has read The New Yorker in the last thirty years has likely encountered Adam Gopnik on a few occasions. As a staff writer for the revered magazine, Gopnik has written critical reviews, news columns, feature stories, and philosophical musings inspired by household pets. He has also published several books, including one that bears the title Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. (The dude has a knack for titles.) His New Yorker biography also references a stack of prestigious awards he has collected over the course of his career. He is, by all accounts, a writer’s writer. He also has a website.

 

 

What It Is: The best possible introduction I could make to Gopnik’s essay was written by Gopnik himself in the opening paragraph of the essay:

When our five-year-old daughter Olivia’s goldfish, Bluie, died the other week, we were confronted by a crisis larger, or at least more intricate, than is entirely usual upon the death of a pet. Bluie’s life and his passing came to involve so many cosmic elements–including the problem of consciousness and the plot line of Hitchcock’s Vertigo–that it left us all bleary-eyed and a little shaken.

After reading these two sentences, I knew I would finish the essay. I had to discover how the death of a five-year-old’s goldfish could trigger a bout of acute existential angst. Though I have seen several pet fish meet tragic ends (a guppy I had in my college dorm vertigoroom froze in its bowl when I left the window cracked over a vacation weekend in February, and my brother once earned a call to the principal’s office for organizing a betta fighting ring with some of his friends), none of these casualties inspired me to question my reality. I had to figure out what made this fishy fatality so special.

As I continued to read, I learned that Bluie was actually a betta fish, a placeholder for the goldfish that the Gopniks had originally sought out (hence the title image for this post). I learned that Olivia’s older brother was as precocious as any ten-year-old boy could be. I learned that the author’s wife had a little too much integrity to pull off the “old switcheroo.” I learned enough about Vertigo to understand the reference (maybe a bit too much for a classic I hadn’t seen). Finally, I came to understand why the death of a fish could mean so much. And Gopnik pulls all of this off in twelve pages.

Why YOU Should Read It: If you have ever owned a pet or even considered owning one, this essay is well worth your time. That should be everyone, right? Well, if not, it’s worthwhile anyway.

From the first paragraph on, “Death of a Fish” is a pleasure to read. It may come as no shock that a staff writer for The New Yorker is capable of writing well. Gopnik’s strength rests in his ability to blend humor, pathos, and deft characterization to deliver a profound and lasting message. He could almost certainly fill a thick book with the subject matter that occupies this essay, but his economical approach leaves the reader ample space to think for himself or herself long after the final sentence ends.

“Ice Cream” – Anne Fadiman

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Why I Read It: Last Friday, as I sat watching snow pile up outside my window, I found myself craving ice cream. Not a snow cone, not a popsicle, but thick, rich, decadent ice cream. I realized then that this was hardly a seasonal craving. Ice cream has always seemed better suited to mid-July than early-February. But for some people, such as one of my favorite essayists, ice cream has no season.

So, after scooping a heap of Breyer’s mint chocolate chip ice cream into a bowl, I returned to the couch with a spoon in my right hand and a favorite book in my left. Anne Fadiman may not be widely-known, but she earned my lasting respect and admiration through her excellent collection of essays, At Large and At Small. Furthermore, her essay on ice cream in this book is the best essay I’ve ever read on a frozen dairy dessert (okay – so it’s the only one…but still!), and it’s tremendously re-readable.

Who Wrote It: I was introduced to Anne Fadiman by a close friend and mentor from my anne_fadiman.jpgcollege years. She gave me a copy of At Large and At Small and I devoured it in a matter of days. After finishing it, I felt as if I’d been introduced to a new friend instead of a new writer. Though Fadiman may have made a reputation for herself through a serious award-winning book of “medical anthropology” called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, At Large and At Small is full of what she calls “familiar essays,” essays that explore familiar subjects in greater depth than most readers would think possible. Perhaps it is this almost intimate focus on her subject that endeared Fadiman to me, or perhaps it is the unapologetically light-hearted enthusiasm and wit that characterize her writing style. Either way, whether Fadiman writes about ice cream or coffee or the mail or the flag or even something as niche as amateur entomology, I will read it with rapt attention.

What It Is: Anne Fadiman’s essay on ice cream can best be described as a celebration of its sweet and scrumptious subject. The author explores its history, its traditions, its enduring appeal, the various processes by which it may be produced, and the surprisingly central role it has played in her own life. She opens the essay by relating the story of a local dispute that revolved around ice cream trucks:

I read last March that the town council of Stafford, New Jersey, had passed an ordinance stating: “At no time shall a vendor be permitted to use a sound device, mechanical bell, mechanical music, mechanical noise, speakers, [or] amplifiers.” The target was ice creamHollywood_Cone_Ice_Cream_Truck_1 trucks, whose peripatetic tootles the council wished to classify with the roar of jets and the blasts of car alarms.

In that second sentence in particular, Fadiman offers the reader a taste of what is to come. First, the sonically pleasant combination of “peripatetic” and “tootles” exemplifies her gleeful writing style. Then we see the incongruity of roaring jets and blaring car alarms being placed in the same category as ice cream trucks. This jarring juxtaposition suggests her implicit agenda. Fadiman expresses no concern for those who found the ice cream trucks obnoxious, choosing instead to highlight the absurdity of the ordinance. It is clear where her sympathies lie. In the remainder of the essay, she will build her case that ice cream can do no wrong.

This premise might strike today’s reader as laughably erroneous. In the age of Whole Foods and Crossfit and the Paleo Diet, ice cream is painted as the villain more often than not. Of course, the inherent irony of her message is not lost on Fadiman. Her awareness emerges when she discusses her own ice cream consumption habits:

I recently calculated (assuming an average consumption of one pint of ice cream per week, at 1,000 calories per pint, and the American Medical Association’s reckoning of 3500 calories per pound of stored body fat) that had I eaten no ice cream since the age of eighteen, I would currently weigh -416 pounds.

While so many point to ice cream as a key culprit in America’s obesity epidemic, Fadiman jokingly credits this dessert as a key to her physical existence.

As the essay continues, it becomes clear to the reader that Fadiman’s infatuation with ice cream may in fact stem from a greater love of family and tradition. She describes her parents bringing home ice cream from NYC’s Louis Sherry when she was very young. She refers to her brother as “Wyoming’s Emperor of Ice Cream” (no doubt alluding to Wallace Stevens’s poem). She explains how the rehearsal dinner for her wedding involved “the strange grinding noises of three hand-crank ice cream makers, each of which . . . produced five quarts: vanilla, coffee, and mint chip.” Clearly, ice cream is more than just a treat for Anne Fadiman: it is a way of life.

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Old-fashioned ice cream maker.

Why YOU Should Read It: First of all, if you enjoy ice cream with even an ounce of the gusto that Fadiman applies to the subject, you just have to read this essay. Your mouth will water from start to finish.

However, if you, like many consumers apparently, find ice cream less appealing in the coldest part of the year, there are other, more substantive reasons to enjoy this essay. For one, Fadiman proves that scholarship can be both frivolous and fun. Do you need to know that the Nobel prize banquet concludes with the serving of parfait glace Nobel, the official Nobel ice cream? Is it essential to understand that “[i]ce cream must legally have a butterfat content of at least 10 percent?” Will your life be forever changed by the knowledge that American fighter pilots made ice cream in B-17 bombers during WWII? The obvious answer to each of these questions is “no,” but isn’t it fun to consider them? At the very least, in reading this essay you can marvel at Fadiman’s exhaustive and enviable research efforts.

Beyond that, Fadiman’s essay is worth reading for the simple fact that there is not a single negative note sounded in it. From start to finish, she rejoices in ice cream. Her tone is jubilant and carefree. A wise bunny once said, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Sometimes it seems like most of the voices in the world have forgotten that message, but Fadiman’s essay is nothing but nice. And what could be nicer than ice cream?

 

“Consider the Lobster” – David Foster Wallace

Why I Read It: Twenty years ago today, David Foster Wallace published his magnum opus, a leviathan of a novel called Infinite Jest. I would love to say I have read Infinite Jest. From what I’ve heard, just reading it raises your IQ by 20 points. I’ve even heard that people who claim to read Infinite Jest are seen by others as having higher IQs. At times I’ve been tempted to claim I have read Infinite Jest on the grounds that I’ve read a little bit of David Foster Wallace; I know it’s a long, meandering, comedy epic; and I know it’s chock full of footnotes.

All of that said, though, I haven’t read Infinite Jest. The book is over a thousand pages long and over a thousand miles deep. It has sat on my reading list for the last five summers, but to this point I have yet to pick up a copy. I know exactly what would happen if I did. I would start the book in mid-July, reading ravenously into early August. Then, a few hundred pages in, I would have to start planning for the following school year. My reading rate would slow. By labor day, my bookmark would sit somewhere near 500 pages, and the book would begin to gather dust on my nightstand until at least the following June. I could pick it up again at that point, but I would have to start back at page 1 due to the sieve-like nature of my long term memory. And thus a vicious cycle would begin. Perhaps that is what Wallace meant with his title: an infinite jest for overeager English teachers.

So, instead of bending the binding on what A.O. Scott called “the longest novel about tennis ever published,” I turned my attention to a much shorter, yet still lauded, piece – Wallace’s 2004 essay “Consider the Lobster” (17 pages).

Who Wrote It: If the Internet came to life today and decided that, instead of annihilating david_foster_wallace_2the human race, it would become a writer, I have to think this anthropomorphized network of intelligence would write an awful lot like David Foster Wallace. I mean that as both soaring praise and gentle criticism. Wallace could write about anything and everything, and so he did. Most often he would start a piece writing about something and end up writing about everything. He popularized the notion that knowledge was arranged like a vast web of interconnected wires. Pulling one wire would inevitably lead others to shift. (Yeah, I know, that’s the Internet. Wallace would have said it better.)

Wallace’s writing life peaked in the 1990s. He also worked as a professor of English and creative writing. After suffering from severe depression and anxiety through much of his life, Wallace committed suicide in 2008. His literary legacy continues to influence writers of all sorts today.

What It Is: Like many of Wallace’s works, “Consider the Lobster” starts in one place and ends miles and miles away. For this essay, the starting place is Rockland, Maine and the Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace was dispatched to cover this event by Gourmet magazine. Given the sponsor, it is no surprise that the article affords the reader extensive background on the crustacean craze and the culture that created it. Wallace puts his characteristic brand of humor to the task of setting the scene, and for a while the piece reads like a smirking travelogue or a snarky foodie’s journal. But then Wallace turns it in a new direction. He follows the imperative implicit in his title and raises questions about why we eat what we eat, how we treat what we eat, and whether or not any of it matters. An entertaining feature story in the self-described “Magazine of Good Living” quietly and shrewdly transforms into a provocative exploration of culinary ethics.

Why YOU Should Read It: David Lipsky, an author who wrote a book about David Foster Wallace after joining him on a five-day road trip (a book that was recently adapted into a movie starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg – further testament to the enduring appeal of Wallace), said this of Wallace in an article for NPR:

When I leave an art museum, the world becomes a series of beautiful, frozen images. Stepping from a movie, my life is full of zip. After reading Wallace, I feel buzzed-up, smarter — I’m better company. Books should be like super-coffee, a wake-up slug to the brain. And David Foster Wallace is a controlled substance.

Even in my limited exposure to Wallace, I couldn’t agree more. If you’ve never read him before, today is as good a day as any, and “Consider the Lobster” makes for a great introduction. Not only does this essay exemplify Wallace’s wit and his inimitable way with words, but it also highlights his ability to leap from the mundane to the profound in a brief span of pages – sometimes within a single paragraph or sentence.

If that’s not enough, try this: Wallace makes footnotes fun. Footnotes! Reading any other author, I view footnotes as entirely non-essential and all too easy to skip. I go to them only in times of confusion or utter boredom with the main text. Reading Wallace, I search for footnotes like Jim Gaffigan searches for bacon in his salads. In fact, if reading Wallace is walking down the sunny side of the street, then the footnotes are loose bills scattered on the sidewalk. (Need an example? In one of the best footnotes in “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace asks why the cooking world calls fish meat “fish” and chicken meat “chicken,” while it calls cow meat “beef” and pig meat “pork.” It’s a thought that many of us have had, but it meant nothing to me until Wallace discussed it. Just one small way that Wallace might make you smarter too.)