June: a bit of darkness but far more light

And then it was July.  I can hardly remember June; life has been fast, and hectic, and stressful, but the days are long and the skies are blue.

New Town, Edinburgh

The books this month:

  • How to Make Sourdough.  This book reminded me of my friend Caesar.  He was a golf pro in London, and people always came to the course shop and bought drivers for, like, £400.  He would try to dissuade them by telling them that they could hit the ball better by spending £50 on a golf lesson to correct their swing; the driver might make a tiny difference, but it was their technique that was defective, and if they corrected their technique, they could pick up a £5 driver at a charity shop and still hit better than if they had a £500 driver and a crappy swing.  How it relates: I am now making the best bread I’ve ever made.  I’m using the same ingredients, but the results are better than I have ever seen.  The lesson: technique matters.
  • Notes from a Friend. Not nearly as long as his other books, but a nice reminder of his life lessons.
  • Exactly what to sayThis was a good book for short takeaways; I’ve already used it in several situations where persuasion seemed to hinge on a single phrase.
  • The Running RevolutionI am running an off-road half marathon in a few weeks, then another in Copenhagen in September, and then a marathon in October, and I wanted to get my technique tight.  Man, the first week, my calves were TIGHT.  But it seems to be paying off – I’ve never run so fast, so comfortably, for so long.  Fingers crossed and knock on wood that I don’t injure myself.
  • The Undoing Project.  A beautiful, complicated story about a beautiful, complicated friendship.  The end made me shiver.  I tried reading Thinking Fast and Slow after this, but I just couldn’t get into it; I’ll try again, but for now, I can recommend this as one of the five best books I’ve read all year.
  • Friday Night Lights.  I felt odd picking this up, as I didn’t care much for Texas, nor do I like American football, especially after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent piece on how it’s probably worse than dog fighting.  Then something clicked; the glorious descriptions of Texan autumn nights, the stretches of prairie and oil fields and moths dancing in the floodlights, the passion of people that don’t have much else to be passionate about – it’s all here, and it made me really think about America in a different way, because America really is a magical country; it enjoys a mystique around the world that I’ve always found hard to see because I’ve always been so close to it, it’s the core of my experience of government and citizenship, and suddenly I found myself feeling both intensely patriotic but also a far, far distance from what it is to be American, because I don’t know what it’s like to live in America right now, and feel as if I don’t know what America is anymore.  In the middle of reading it, I hosted a brunch for three families, all of whom had small children, and when the kids were playing on the ground and running around my living room, I was suddenly gripped by this sense that we’re all on a continuum – that there are untold generations who have gone before us and felt the same as us, and we’re at this truly unique period in time because it’s NOW, and through children, we stretch into the future, but we’re not the end; we’re just a point on a line stretching backwards and forwards and our moment in time is completely unexceptional.  What was so passionately important for the kids in this book – high school football games in a small city in Texas in the late 1980s – is remarkable simply because with distance, it is entirely unremarkable, yet their experience is our experience, is everyone’s experience.  So I closed this book feeling more American and more insignificant than I’ve ever felt before, which was great.
  • King of the World.  Friday Night Lights made me see history books in a completely different way.  Before, it was difficult to read them and identify with the people in them; I just found it difficult to imagine the situations that were described simply because most history books present facts with little attention to the humanizing details.  Either Remnick is an exceptional writer or my imagination is improving (or both); this was a truly great book about a truly impressive athlete.
  • The Great Gatsby.  I read this every June/July, when the weather is hot and it’s easier to imagine a summer outside of New York City.  Everyone knows the last line – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  But every time I read it, there are a dozen lines, a hundred, that make me think it’s just a long, glorious poem, and when I get to this section I pause and, if I’m alone, read it out loud; otherwise I mutter it under my breath, as I did on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, fighting back the tears:

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening, with a few Chicago friends, already caught up into their own holiday gayeties, to bid them a hasty good-by. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This-or-that’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances, and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That’s my Middle West — not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

At the Amish grocer, Winter, 2013
  • How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.  Work has been a bit stressful recently; reading this every morning before meditating has improved my life dramatically.  I’m calmer, happier, and feel far better about everything in my life.  Just buy it.

And that brings me to 45 books for the year.  Not bad.


And now, Edinburgh is gearing up for party season; our first guest of summer came to stay.  I met Jon in 1997, when he was about to graduate from college and I was just starting.  We served on Student Senate together, knew dozens of people in common, and then I stayed in sporadic contact with him for twenty years or so.  At the same time, he has always been a special person, and a wonderful one, and it was so exciting to be able to welcome him to Scotland.  His visit became two very late evenings of incredible conversation; he studied philosophy, loves David Hume, taught piano for years to pay his way in Los Angeles, and is just breaking out as a big time screenwriter on huge projects.  But more than that, he possesses that magic glow of someone who is comfortable with being uncomfortable, and is confident in himself despite being perhaps too aware of faults he perceives in himself.  I hope that makes sense – I mean it as an exceptional compliment.  He is one of the most wonderful people I have ever known, and it was incredible to be able to spend time with him again.  His legacy: he doesn’t drink.  He said he likes alcohol, but he just doesn’t drink it; no terrible experiences, no history of alcoholism.  It was a choice – informed by, variously, health books, friends, and Ben Franklin.

So I decided to also not drink much anymore, too.  I want to reclaim my evenings, my weekends, my life – not that I feel I had lost them, but I simply wasn’t as effective when drinking as I could have been.  Talking with Jon about deep issues – news, philosophy, ideas, our lives – made me realize that alcohol just dulls me, for the most part, and I can be more interesting and more interested without it.  So thank you, Jon, for sharing your beauty and friendship with us.


Finally, I’ve decided to avoid being in photographs for a year.  I want to experience things, not take selfies of myself experiencing them.  It is a bit awkward – try telling your inlaws that you don’t want to be in their photos – but it has also focused me more in my attention, my mindfulness.

So come to think of it, June 2018 was a pretty good month after all.


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