Archive for August, 2017

In this week’s New Yorker

August 17, 2017


During this deeply disheartening week in American life, I have nourished myself with the feast that is this week’s issue of The New Yorker, with its stellar if dismaying contents.


Two extraordinarily pertinent, deeply reported pieces demand wide attention: Adam Davidson’s “No Questions Asked,” which lays out the evidence that Donald Trump’s real estate dealings have engaged extensively in illegal international money-laundering, and Raffi Khatchadourian’s long but riveting “Man Without a Country,” which incorporates both unusually abundant access to Julian Assange and scrupulous outside reporting to establish that Assange set out very purposefully to do everything in his power to sabotage Hilary Clinton’s campaign for presidency, a desire so red-hot in his heart that it’s possible he allowed himself to be used by Russian cybersecurity experts wanting to influence the election in favor Donald Trump. There will never be a smoking gun that says “The American President is a crook and must be removed from office.” It will take the accretion of carefully reported stories like these and the kind of relentless work of following the money trail that Rachel Maddow has been doing.


In “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” Nathan Heller reviews a bunch of books analyzing the impact of street activism on social and political change, and the conclusions he reaches are uncomfortable but persuasive, especially the ideas presented by Zeynep Tufekci in her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Here’s a key passage:

Tufekci believes that digital-age protests are not simply faster, more responsive versions of their mid-century parents. They are fundamentally distinct. At Gezi Park, she finds that nearly everything is accomplished by spontaneous tactical assemblies of random activists—the Kauffman model carried further through the ease of social media. “Preexisting organizations whether formal or informal played little role in the coordination,” she writes. “Instead, to take care of tasks, people hailed down volunteers in the park or called for them via hashtags on Twitter or WhatsApp messages.” She calls this style of off-the-cuff organizing “adhocracy.” Once, just getting people to show up required top-down coördination, but today anyone can gather crowds through tweets, and update, in seconds, thousands of strangers on the move.

At the same time, she finds, shifts in tactics are harder to arrange. Digital-age movements tend to be organizationally toothless, good at barking at power but bad at forcing ultimatums or chewing through complex negotiations. When the Gezi Park occupation intensified and the Turkish government expressed an interest in talking, it was unclear who, in the assembly of millions, could represent the protesters, and so the government selected its own negotiating partners. The protest diffused into disordered discussion groups, at which point riot police swarmed through to clear the park. The protests were over, they declared—and, by that time, they largely were.

The missing ingredients, Tufekci believes, are the structures and communication patterns that appear when a fixed group works together over time. That practice puts the oil in the well-oiled machine. It is what contemporary adhocracy appears to lack, and what projects such as the postwar civil-rights movement had in abundance. And it is why, she thinks, despite their limits in communication, these earlier protests often achieved more.

I’ve been curious to read Garth Greenwell’s highly praised novel What Belongs to You, so it was great to get a taste of his meticulous prose style in the short story “An Evening Out.” Amanda Petrusich’s piece on Adam Graduciel and his rock band The War on Drugs definitely makes me want to hear their most recent albums. And I’m grateful to Alex Ross for his detailed description of Peter Sellars’ production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Salzburg Festival.

I love being well-informed, culturally enriched, and entertained by the New Yorker — the issue also has a bunch of especially good cartoons.

Quote of the day: BUDDHISM

August 15, 2017

BUDDHISM

Gotama is interested in what people can do, not with what they are. The task he proposes entails distinguishing between what is to be accepted as the natural condition of life itself (the unfolding of experience) and what is to be let go of (reactivity). We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.

–Stephen Batchelor, After Buddhism

R.I.P.: Sam Shepard

August 10, 2017

It’s a very strange experience to write a biography of someone who’s still alive, as I did in 1984 when Sam Shepard was 41 and I was 30 (we were kids! I can say in retrospect). And then it’s even weirder when that person dies. I’ve been tracking Shepard’s artistic career and personal life with varying degrees of intensity for more than three decades, so his death July 27 hit me hard. Like his colleagues and fans, I mourn the world’s loss of an epochal original writer. On a personal level I wasn’t prepared for how keenly I feel the loss of…not so much My Subject but a kind of alter-ego.


When I was asked to write a quickie bio by Dell Books, to capitalize on his Hollywood celebrity (the Oscar nomination for The Right Stuff, the tabloid interest in his nascent affair with Jessica Lange), I took the assignment for two reasons: 1) because I admired the crazy rock-n-roll energy and poetic theatricality of his plays (like The Tooth of Crime) and 2) because I identified with him personally as a guy with a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic military-veteran father. I didn’t meet him in the course of writing the book nor while revising the biography for a second edition, published in 1997 when the Broadway debut of his Pulitzer-winning Buried Child dangled the promise of some new attention to the now-certified movie star’s theatrical body of work.

It wasn’t until 2003 until I finally got to sit down with him in St. Paul, MN, for a nuts-and-bolts interview for American Theater magazine; we talked again the following year in New York when I interviewed him for the Village Voice about his 2004 play The God of Hell. I feel like I know more about his personal life than anyone who’s not a friend needs to know (he was pretty private, and I respect that). I feel like I know a lot about him as an artist, which matters a lot more to me, and what I relate to most is his profound understanding of being psychically split between what happens outside and what happens inside.

In films Shepard reliably represented the many faces of craggy masculinity. It’s no disrespect to say he wasn’t a great actor – he was an economical performer and an iconic presence, which suited most of his film roles. His most memorable performance, for me, was playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Michael Almereyda’s 2000 film. I weep just thinking about the way he pulled Ethan Hawke into his arms and growled into his ear “Remember me!” His best-known stage plays (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, True West, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind) revolve round the relatable subject of family life, presented in all its combative, hilarious, ridiculous mythological depth.


I always preferred his quirkier, stranger, more poetic and absurdist work because I felt him exercising his deepest passions there. (His 2012 play Heartless, above, produced by Signature Theater, is right up there with the wildest and craziest of his plays.) What I learned from meeting and writing about him was that he was profoundly a man of letters, extremely knowledgeable about certain pockets of poetry and international literature. He cared shockingly little about contemporary theater and only late in life delved into Shakespeare and the Greeks. It’s not surprising that Shepard had a lifelong love for horses (raising them and riding them). Much less known is his deep engagement with spirituality and philosophy, especially the teachings of Gurdjieff, a subject so close to his heart that when I interviewed him it was the one thing he wouldn’t discuss. These are the layers and flavors of Shepard’s work that I think will reveal themselves more as time goes by.

Quote of the day: TEENAGERS

August 3, 2017

TEENAGERS

In your work, you mention seven transitions teenage girls need to make as they enter adulthood. What are they?
I’ve boiled it down to parting with childhood, joining a new tribe, harnessing emotions, contending with adult authority, planning for the future, entering the romantic world, and caring for herself.

How did you come up with these?
I supervise the adolescent cases for graduate students in the psychodynamic course at Case Western Reserve University, and often very green graduate students are required to take on vastly more chaotic and underresourced kids than I see in my cozy little private practice. Because the cases were so overwhelming for them, I started to create a checklist of the challenges teenagers are likely to face in their development. The checklist became a way to organize myself to help the graduate students, and for the graduate students to orient themselves to the work.

How did you and your grad students use this tool?
As a student presented a case, we might say, “This kid has parted with childhood: she has friends—a tribe—but she has no affect regulation, so harnessing emotions is one thing we’ll work on. She gets along okay with adults, but has no plans for the future and is making no progress toward achievement in school. We’re hearing nothing about a romantic life, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem area either. And she’s taking decent care of herself.” This evaluation of those major transitions leads the therapist to focus on the areas of affect regulation and planning for the future. Viewing these cases through a clear model helps the therapist not to get overwhelmed while also helping the parents make sense of the chaos that’s often just normal development.

–Lisa Damour, interviewed by Ryan Howes for Psychotherapy Networker

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