I’ve recently returned from a week of vacation in the U.S., which involved 10 hours of free time on a roundtrip trans-Atlantic flight. I won’t say I “caught up” on podcasts, but I made a very small dent in my backlog. My current rotation, which, as ever, features a heavy dose of tech, self-improvement and pop culture:
Automators: As someone who spends a fair amount of time at a computer, I’m interested in off-loading repetitive tasks to the machine. Nevertheless, I’m a novice, and this podcast offers a good introduction with practical tips.
Conversations With Tyler: I’ve been a fan of Tyler Cowen’s since discovering his guide to ethnic restaurants in the D.C. area years ago. He’s an economist with wide-ranging interests whose interviews with similarly smart people rarely disappoint.
The Ezra Klein Show: Another podcast in the category of “smart people discuss the things they know about.” I’ve admired Ezra since his time at the Washington Post, where we overlapped but didn’t meet.
The Incomparable: I’m a nerd/geek who enjoys pop culture, and this is a podcast by nerds/geeks who enjoy pop culture.
Literary Friction: Book talk and recommendations. Good for getting me out of my comfort zone and introducing me to the unfamiliar.
Reply All: The popular celebration of all that’s wacky, weird and wonderful on the internet, with a human heart.
“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.”
— George Eliot, “Middlemarch”
“All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear.”
— Ann Patchett, “Bel Canto”
“Michelle Jones remembers graduating journalism school twenty-five years ago and being warned that the industry was declining because advertisers were pulling out, salaries were dropping and the internet would ruin everything. And that’s pretty much what happened.”
— Devorah Blachor, McSweeney’s, Aug. 25, 2017
I am Michelle Jones.
The drying of laundry “highlights a fundamental cultural [difference] between the US and UK that I’d characterize, broadly, as a British inclination to accept things as they are, versus an American inclination to alter and change them.
“ . . . In the face of illness, loss, or heartbreak, the American insistence on looking on the bright side and fixing the problem can feel heartlessly clueless. Some things cannot be fixed.
“But some things absolutely can.”
— Corinne Purtill, Quartz, July 21, 2017
(For the record, we don't have a combination washer-dryer and have heard enough criticism to never buy one.)
“In the hurly-burly of a newsroom, where even the best reporters have widely varying degrees of grammatical competence, copy editors are the often unheralded guardians of language and common sense. They are the front-line mud soldiers in an endless war against bad spelling, ill-considered sentence construction and factual errors.
They prevent English teachers everywhere from wincing. They save behinds.”
— From the obituary of Bill Walsh, Washington Post, March 15, 2017
Bill was one of the finest — and funniest — editors I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He died last week at the age of 55.
There were two metaphors that stuck with me after this week's class.
First, when discussing the concept of enlightenment, the instructor advised, “Don’t focus on the finger. Focus on what the finger is pointing toward.”
Secondly, there was a discussion of Buddhism as a religion, and the things that separate it from other religions. (Those things are part of what has drawn me to study Buddhism.) One of my fellow students — clearly not as much a novice as me — suggested that, because Buddhism doesn't have a creator a la Christianity or Islam, it’s less concerned with questions of how we got here. He related what may be a common story in the teaching of Buddhism: “It’s like getting shot in the arm with an arrow. You think less about who shot the arrow and more about getting it out of your arm and healing your arm.”
Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die
And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know
You realize that life goes fast
It's hard to make the good things last
You realize the sun doesn't go down
It's just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.
“. . . I’m facing a deadline, in this case, a pressing one. I need to say this (and say it right) while I have a) your attention, and b) a pulse.”
— Amy Krouse Rosenthal, The New York Times, March 3, 2017
I’ve started an introductory course at the London Buddhist Centre; last night’s was the first of six meetings. I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a while, and became more serious about studying it after reading a book while on vacation last year. Its values -- rationality, compassion, peace -- appeal.
At one point last night, the instructor was asked, “How do you know you're making progress?” She explained that, first of all, it’s generally frowned upon among practitioners of Buddhism to discuss the spiritual advances one makes. But if she had to articulate it -- which she seemed at pains to do -- she said that progress meant having a better understanding of what one doesn’t understand.
“Straight as an arrow, exasperatingly thorough, extremely earnest, smart, plain, pragmatic, wonkish. He was a stickler, a self-described curmudgeon.”
David Butler, an editor for Stars and Stripes, was beaten to death almost 17 years ago in Arlington, Va., on his way home after a night shift.
I was in D.C. at the time, and although I never met him, this remembrance has stuck with me, partly because of the horrific nature of the crime, which appears to remain unsolved. But in him I also saw -- perhaps with some self-flattery and a touch of embarrassment -- myself.
His work mirrored my own, hanging around “in case you have to tear up the front page for a nuclear explosion or the death of a princess.”
(Like him, I was in the newsroom on my 30th birthday, which was an election night. Like him, I was surrounded by pizza boxes. Unlike him, I was not in the company of a stripper.)
I was also well familiar with “those strange small hours, our 5 p.m., our quitting time, the world’s middle of the night” and could easily envision the circumstances in which he was killed.
I’ve recently been thinking about David because he sounded like most of the journalists I’ve worked with over a 22-year career in newspapers: dedicated, careful but human, and honestly trying to provide a fair and accurate account of the facts in an often messy world.
“He was, in short, everything you want in the guy who edits your newspaper.”
Carrie and I awoke on the morning of Saturday, 26 November, to the news that Fidel Castro, Cuba’s leader of nearly 60 years, had died at the age of 90. Later that day, we flew to Havana for a pre-planned vacation.
“The British like to see their military history as a succession of scrapes — the Armada or the Battle of Britain, for example — in which they are outnumbered and outgunned and survive by guts and ingenuity. It seems to demonstrate a higher moral purpose. But much of the story of their empire is testament not to moral but to technological superiority. . . . As Hilaire Belloc put it in The Modern Traveller, published that year:
Whatever happens, we have got // The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”
— Jeremy Paxman, Empire
“The financial needs of news companies mean that they cannot afford to advance ideas which wouldn’t very quickly be able to find favour with enormous numbers of people. An artist can make a decent living selling work to fifty clients; an author can get by with 50,000 readers, but a news organization cannot pay its bills without a following larger than the population of a good-sized metropolis. What levels of agreement, what suppression of idiosyncrasy and useful weirdness, will be required to render material sufficiently palatable to so many . . . Wisdom, intelligence and subtlety of opinion tend not to be sprinkled through the population in handy blocks of 20 million people.”
— Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual