Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On "Overcoming the Monster" by Matthew Di Paoli (1509 words) ****

Di Paoli takes a rather laid-back approach to the horror story, which is what makes it so much fun and so funny. But at its heart is a monster who in not being a horror or a full-on grunter actually elicits a bit of sympathy, enough that when we recognize the narrator as a monster himself, we are somewhat saddened by their plights. Read the story here at the Great American Lit Mag.

On “Naked City” by Sharon Zukin *****

The subtitle of Sharon Zukin’s book, “The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places,” puts her work directly in line with Jane Jacobs’s work, echoing the title of Jacobs’s most famous book. Zukin isn’t concerned as much about keeping neighborhoods and towns alive as making them feel alive--making them remain true to their soul. She sees a city’s soul as being bound around the concept of authenticity and worries that towns are becoming less authentic the more that they gentrify.

I have big problems with her idea of authenticity, problems that she herself admits to in her introduction. In defining authenticity, she tries to tie the concept into one of origins. An authentic neighborhood is one somehow in touch with its origins. Thus, a chain store has little to do with a neighborhood and is not tied in with the origins of the people in it and thus not authentic. This seems simple in itself. The issue I have is that what we view as “authentic” is itself a construct, which she admits. Our authentic city is the one that was there when we first lived in the area. Thus, Athens, Georgia, where I live, should have a somewhat derelict downtown on the west side, because that’s how it was when I arrived. Now, fifteen years later, that portion of downtown is thriving--in fact, the entire downtown district is thriving. There are no longer many abandoned buildings, and many of the places I would go--my local friends would go--are gone. In their place are some higher priced alternatives, a few chains, a few stores aimed at younger people (people who are the age I was when I moved here). Go back a generation or two before I arrived, and this portion of downtown was the Hot Corner, an African American sector of downtown, only one of whose businesses still exists (a barbershop). Shouldn’t the “authentic” version of this portion of town then be black? Or could we go back before that, to a time when this sector was housing and not part of a business district at all? What is the “origin”? What is authentic? It’s all a matter of perspective.

Despite that criticism, her critique of gentrification and her observations about it in the case studies she does of neighborhoods in New York is fascinating and shows that there is a certain cause for concern. Gentrification comes at price--and any given sector of town goes through a cycle (one explained years ago in a human geography course I took). Perhaps, the neighborhood is largely one of immigrants from Ireland. As they grow more prosperous, they tend to move out or to change the neighborhood itself. Perhaps, another set of immigrants moves in--Italians. In seeking “authenticity”--some kind of unique experience one can’t get elsewhere in the city--hipsters and artists begin to visit the Italian neighborhood. It’s relatively cheap too, so some move there from more expensive districts. Soon, there’s a thriving hipster/art scene among the architecture forged by previous rounds of immigrant families. As the neighborhood becomes more and more popular, commercial elements begin to move in to be a part of it, eventually making it too expensive for the artists who made the neighborhood thrive. The Italian quotient is long since gone, as is what made the neighborhood actually unique. It’s lost its “soul.” (But are commercial ventures necessarily soulless? I ask. Aren’t bright-lit signs and lots of business a sort of spirit inhabiting a district, making it what it is? And when this grows dull, then the area will lose popularity, and the poor and/or immigrant populations will return, and the cycle will start afresh.)

Williams begins her case study with Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. Once an immigrant district for Poles, it was discovered by musicians and artists and became a kind of haven for them from Manhattan, which had become too expensive. With time, as hipster cafes have populated the area, higher rents and more commercial ventures have moved in and is now beginning to push the artists out. We lost the Polish vibe and now the hipster vibe is losing steam too.

Next, Zukin goes to Harlem, the famous black neighborhood. Here she sees an example of a case where the local community and government agents colluded to actually change the neighborhood. As residents worked to get more businesses to move to the area, the very success of the work has led to them being priced out of the neighborhood. Now, white folks are moving in, enjoying the local/originary soul food as well as the new ethnic eateries that have moved in to take advantage of the wealthier clientele.

She then turns her attention to the East Village, an area that has historically included a number of lower class elements and artistic elements, attracted by the lower cost of living. This vibe has attracted an ever more expensive set of commercial forces, which in turn has caused much of what made the village at any one time its unique self to be shut down in favor of the more well-to-do. The cycle is one that is moving to ever more pricey ventures and to ever more standardization.

In the second half of the book, Zukin looks at ventures more than she looks at neighborhoods. She starts with Union Square, telling its history as a center for social protest and community gathering. The area fell into disrepute, however, sometime after World War II, as the city lacked resources to police it and care for it. Local businesses stepped to the fore and created a business improvement district to take care of the park. For a small fee raised by themselves on themselves and paid to the city but fed back to them for the park, they are able to hire park caretakers and make decisions about how the park should look. The issue is that these caretakers are private businesses, so what was once a public park in some sense is now a private venture. Private security forces decide who should be able to gather and protest; parts of the park are sold off for a restaurant venture that the “public” can enjoy. And so on. We have then the privatization of the commons--but one that makes the park safe again and a place of destination. Which is preferred? A dangerous public park that is open to less-welcome sectors of society or a semiprivate safe one that is closed off to those whose voices already are repressed?

Next we move to an area of Brooklyn where Ikea built a new store and where Hispanic immigrants gather each weekend to play soccer and sell authentic Latin American food. Folks had problems with the traffic Ikea would generate and other ways in which the chain was not “true” to the area. And yet, it has brought with it jobs and interest in a derelict part of town. Meanwhile, the immigrant food stands in the park each weekend offer locals good ethnic cuisine. As time has gone on, however, the clientele has changed. Whereas early on the food was made mostly for other immigrants, now a large chunk of the customers are curious foodies from other parts of the city. And as that has happened, the cuisine has changed as well--to appeal to the new audience. “Authenticity” is slowly being lost. And the city itself is now cracking down on the food makers, insisting they follow regulations.

Community gardens get their share of attention in this book as well. Created often in areas that had little development or were actually becoming dis-developed during New York’s days on the skid, the gardens became centers for local residents to get good local produce. However, not being the landowners, as the city has gentrified and the real estate come under demand, many such gardens have been pushed off the land in favor of redevelopment. Now, the poor are less taken care of; and for those from the middle class who enjoyed the local produce, an “authentic” portion of the community is being lost to high rises.

The overall tendency, Zukin points to, is toward homogenization--at the city level. As cities aim to "brand" themselves as cool places, more and more of them offer similar experiences. Every city of note has a modern art museum, for example. I would contend, however, that that is not necessarily a bad thing. Local residents should have access to similar conveniences and experiences. One should not have to travel to New York City for art. And the differences between art museums would still remain--this city has that artwork, this other city has that other artwork--such that people will still travel to destinations, because there is still difference. There is difference--always--because there are different landscapes and climates. Even if all cities offer skyscrapers and parks, few will find the cityscape of one megatown the same as another.

Zukin's main issue, though, is with chains, insofar as they contribute to that homogenization. As they take over a city district, the mom-and-pop stores disappear, and "authenticity" is lost to more of the same. This is where she departs from Jacobs's views. Jacobs, Zukin argues, was arguing from a particular timeframe of gentrification and could not see the whole picture. Jacobs argued that government was the problem and that the private sector community would do a better job of making for livable areas. She did not foresee sky-high rents being levied on "old" buildings such that only chains could afford old or new buildings. Zukin sees government regulation as a solution, but one that is usually not employed. The issue is that the government is usually in cahoots with the moneyed interests, which means that it encourages homogenization because that's more taxes. Rather than helping out the immigrant eateries or the community gardens, it adds regulations and drives those resources away. If on the other hand, the government zoned and regulated to encourage such endeavours, the soul of cities could be maintained.

I'd said that I see the description of gentrification as being simply the upturn of a cycle that goes round and round, but Zukin's point does have some precedent. There are communities that have banned chain and franchise stores. I think of Sedona, Arizona, where chain stores line the city boundaries (or at least they did back in the late 1980s, when I visited); inside the city there are only mom-and-pop places. In this way, the town is kept "authentic." At the same time, I hate to think of property owners having limitations put on them with regard to what can be put on their land or how much they can accrue from that land. If the community--including landowners--agrees to such restrictions, however, then there is little to be miffed about.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

On "Growing Pains" by Alexai-Budziszewski (4954 words) ***

"Growing Pains" is one of the more complete stories from Galavis-Budziszewski's Painted Cities collection, and as such, it's also one of the stories that resonates more fully. It's about a kid whose grandmother comes to visit his mother and him. The mother fled the grandmother a decade earlier, and the fact that they can't get along is evident on this visit. But so too are the mother's griefs at chances blown. Her friend Birdy comes back for a visit a couple of years earlier, and the mother becomes irate over Birdy's constant teasing about the mother not moving to California when she had the chance (there was a man involved, the narrator's father). The narrator suffers from arthritis--growing pains--though just a kid; it's as if aging happens much more quickly here in the hood, for as we learn, the mother was once part of a street gang that, even though only a decade has passed, is now defunct. Read the story here at CrossConnect.

On "Painted Cities" by Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski ***

This collection focuses on a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. As its strongest, I got a real sense of the neighborhood and the people who lived there, but many of the pieces seem more like vignettes than stories and don't cohere that well. Throughout, we get a feel for a kind of fourth-world place where there are dreams but where there is also a kind of hopelessness that will never let those dreams come into being, save in the form of rare moments of beauty and art, crafted from dreams' destruction.

The first story focuses on daydreams--the way that a kid can dream of places and times in his past with a kind of idealism. Next, we turn to a story about panning for gold in the gutter, which becomes a kind of metaphor for looking for the treasure in life in a lower-class neighborhood, where nights consist of the sounds of fighting and sex and where people come together only when a building goes up in flame--over jealous love--with an entire family inside (not the kids too! they say).

I'm not sure what to make of the title story. Broken into four pieces, each piece focuses on a loss of some sort. The first section is about a graffitti mural. In that mural, a girl's tears turn out to be, when closely examined, reflections of the entire city down to the minutest details. The second section deals with gang shootings of a sort; the third focuses on the loss of a friend to the "underground," as he decides to go visit and live in the old city subway tunnels (one get the feeling we're talking about the underground as a meaphor for death); and the final section focuses on a puppeteer who calls forth dead Ritchie Valens for a mostly nonexistent audience.

One of the more successful stories in the book is "Freedom." It's the tale of two kids who make a rooftop their home--even going so far as to build a house of sorts on the roof. From that perch, they launch rocks at passersby for fun, until one day the rock throwing results in tragedy and their time of freedom comes to an end.

"Childhood" is about kids peeping toms and what results when they are finally caught at it. The story is mixed in with Catholic superstition (the disappearance of the Virgin creates a community stir) and guilt.

Another story split into parts is "Snakes." The first part focuses on folks who climb the El or who slink around in the underground like cave explorers. The next focuses on walls, and the next on what it is like to live in an Arab city. The piece closes with a short piece about proper etiquette at a wedding dance. How these pieces fit together, I was never able to quite figure.

Maximilian focues on three memories about Max (the narrator's cousin), two of them revolving around his fist--that is, fights that Max got into. The last story holds the most power, involving a funeral procession that is interrupted by a driver unwilling to wait. Max takes off after the driver and beats him up once he catches him. Was it worth the trouble?

"God's Country" is one of the better stories in the collection. It revolves around a kid named Chuey, who, as it turns out, has the gift of resurrection: he can raise dead things to life. There is some question as to the reality of this early on, but at the story proceeds, you come to believe in his power. But like a story of fantastic realism, the power is treated almost banally. The kids who gather round him get rather bored of watching Chuey raise dead animals, and even Chuey himself gets tired of using the power. Even miracles, as it turns out, are just a way to kill time during long and boring days as a kid. And coloring the whole story is a tragic event that makes the whole thing seem rather banal--raise the dead, but the neighborhood will kill no matter.

"Sides Streets" is another short piece that doesn't seem to quite add up. It's about different reactions to the death of a gangbanger named Casper: kids reenact his death; his mother disappears; the story moves into myth with no clear single reality.

"Blood" is an advice column--an older man dispensing advice to another kid in the neighborhood about how to be a man. How to act at a bar, and so on. It's an intriguing piece probably most because the form is so rarely used.

"Blue Magic" is the third story split into seemingly unrelated parts. The opening piece is the most intriguing here, explaining how a kid walks along the "edge" of the earth--namely his neighborhood, an area that he never leaves. I remember reading about how some people who grow in the inner city never leave a fairly small radius; it's as if their whole world is the neighborhood, and this story fits in with that kind of world vision.

"Growing Pains" is a complete story that works well, and "Sacrifice" is another strong piece, in part because it is so harrowing. It involves a man and his wife and the man whom the husband killed, the wife's ex-boyfriend. Ironies are packed in this piece--and double identities. The husband is from one side of the neighborhood; the wife and her ex are from the other side of the neighborhood. The child they have is named after the ex-boyfriend; this child is in fact the ex's offspring. The ex stalks the family, gets help from the family. The husband threatens--repeatedly--to do something. He is just trying to protect his family; or was the ex just trying to protect his?

"Supernatural" makes of pollution in a neighborhood canal what most make of something like the appearance of the Virgin Mary. In these last stories, Galavis-Budziszewski moves into a kind of satire. This is the miracle that neighborhoods like this get--a green glow from waste that might just heal someone but that is certainly interesting to look at.

Just like looking at fires is the fun activity in "Ice Castles." Full of old buildings, each night features one of them going up in flames. Father and son head out to watch the firefighters, who are generally less than effective. What glory fills the night sky--and sometimes the morning's ground.

Friday, June 3, 2016

On "The School" by Donald Barthelme (1213 words) ***

This one is about death--and most precisely, about the deaths that children witness and worry about in their lives and in the classroom. It is, in short, about life--and how we learn, or rather how we don't know what we are supposed to learn when confronted with the mystery of death. Read the story here.

On "Civilizing American Cities" by Frederick Law Olmsted **

Essentially a well-organized anthology on Olmsted's thoughts on city planning, the work starts with an introduction to the man himself. As becomes apparent, it is in some ways strange to think that the man most revered in landscape architecture circles was not formally trained in the profession. I'd thought that because he preceded the profession, but in fact there were already men doing such work, Calvert Vaux, under whom Olmsted studied and worked, being one of them. Olmsted was in fact trained more in architecture, but it was his work with Vaux on New York's Central Park that created his reputation, such that he would go on to design many other major cities' central parks. In addition to discussing his personal life, the introduction gives us a sense of the ideas of the man himself, who preferred natural simplicity to artificial naturalness. Hence, he abhorred country houses made of blocks of stone or some kind of primitive stone edifice put up next to a contemporary street curb. Such “nature” is the very antithesis of natural in Olmsted's view.

The first part focuses various aspects with regard to the growth of cities. The first reading of this section is about the history of cities--or to be more precise, the history of roads. I wish I could better remember Lewis Mumford's writing on this subject, because the first part of Olmsted's piece seems more theoretical than real. That may or may not be the case. He talks of how original roads were generally goat paths, cow paths, and foot paths that had been paved over (but I'm reminded that grid systems go back even to the Greeks). He also writes of how some roads were built for military purposes (indeed). And then he turns specifically to the problem of London. Here, he notes how the city expanded without proper roads. Disease and filth proliferated, and the wealthy and whoever else could moved to country estates. In time, as merchants became more important, cities began to attract the wealthy and also the lower classes (looking to better themselves). Olmsted focuses on how people always seemed to want to be away--out in nature, which I'm not so sure to be the case (why be there cities to begin with if so?--we like to be among other people). The London fire provided a great opportunity to lay out a consistent street plan, but landholders rushed to rebuild before the plan could be implemented, creating troubles that would cost London for generations to come. Earlier on, the thinking was largely that the larger the city the more the crime and disease, but this has not proven to be true in the modern world. In fact, as societies have urbanized, people have lived longer, safer, and healthier. But that does not mean that such will always be, Olmsted contends. People need and want access to nature and to sun; as such, it is important to include parks in any city plan, parks that people can easily access, lest the health gained be lost.

Next we turn to the problem of New York. Olmsted largely decries the city's rigid adherence to the grid, resulting in blocks that are too small or too large for purposes other than tenements. He denotes that cities like Paris and London have occasional large blocks that allow for large architectural marvels that can be seen from a distance.

In another essay, Olmsted recounts the history of cities from a cultural angle, arguing that it is women who encourage families to move to the city--for its convenience, its ease of shopping, its tidiness. But Olmsted argues, as he so often does, that man needs nature--and that nature must be brought into these towns, in the form of gardens and parks, or the advantages of the city, especially in regard to health, will be lost. And again, he turns to New York and the building of Central Park, which he'd had to fight various council members and business owners to properly install. And the result has been a profound success, whereas too often many other cities have set aside land that would have gotten little use for building and thus get little use as parks.

The book then provides several essays by Olmsted on individual cities--San Francisco, Buffalo, Chicago, Montreal, Boston, Berkeley, and Riverside (in Illinois). Most of these essays get deep into specifics, and in only a few cases are maps provided. This makes the essays difficult to follow, as they are clearly of their time and place. Had Olmsted written of cities where I've lived and spent a great deal of time, I might have been better able to follow him--and cared to try. But the reading is fairly dry to someone not connected to the time and place.

Olmsted's writing on Boston stands out in some sense for his discussion of art and aesthetics, as it relates to park building and city planning. He talks of how great art stands the test of time--and that good city plans and good parks will as well. The essay on Riverside stands out also because it is essentially a chapter about a planned city--a planned suburb of Chicago. Olmsted argues for curved streets and for lots of greenspace but no parks. The space doesn't lend itself to parks, Olmsted argues, and because plans can be done from the ground up (nothing having been built), lots of space can be allotted for each tract. And so there we have it: the beginning of suburban sprawl. (Olmsted argues that lower density means less traffic--but he doesn't seem to take into account traffic to/from businesses.) I can see why Jane Jacobs would argue that garden city planners did not understand what made cities work (even though, as denoted in some other books, garden city planner ideas actually weren't about sprawl--they were about small dense cities with gardens in between; Olmsted's gardens, when placed in a suburban context, however, seem to fit some of the Jacobs stereotype).

Monday, May 16, 2016

On “Blue Ticket” by Zach Falcon (5433 words) *****

"Blue Ticket" is one of the best stories in the collection. It reminded me a lot of the writing of a grad school friend of mine named Chad Johnson, the way that it focuses on down-and-out characters who struggle to get along, characters with a kind of masculine verve that has fallen by the wayside. The story revolves around two homeless men, one escaped from his ultrareligious family (we get the sense, he did more than just escape) and one who moved to Alaska for summer work and failed to get a job and is now running out of cash. The two men squat in a homeless camp, fishing by day, scrounging for whatever they can manage to eat (or read), facing the wild--not just literal animals but the animals that are the people around them. Read the story here at The Journal.

On "Cabin, Clearing, Forest" by Zach Falcon ****

These stories about Juneau, Alaska, present readers with a microcosm of small-town living in the Great White North. At their best, they are stories about machismo in an age when there is little call for such. Lesser stories (insofar as they seem somewhat familiar) focus on troubles within family and among children.

The first three stories forge the title of the collection. Each of them seems strange in some way and yet I found none of them wholly satisfying. "Cabin" is about a disintegrating marriage from the point of view of the two under-ten children in the family (a Hansel and Gretel-like pair who wander around the woods to avoid home life); I found it a strange story to open with, since its themes seemed so overdone. "Clearing" focuses on a family that goes away to Pennsylvania and returns to stand out on the road nude and then gets arrested; the point of view is from the town's perspective, so we never quite understand what would cause the family to flip out. The real pleasure in this story, however, comes from the descriptions of the town, a place that lets out in summer, becoming a community of sorts, before the hunkering down each winter. "Forest" focuses on another family in trouble--this time the father has gone missing, and the emotional breakdown that the mother suffers puts the kids in charge, though they seem hardly ready. The real heartbreak in this story revolves around a dog that is tied up and not fed.

The shorter stories in the collection also didn't much satisfy me, even more than the three opening tales. They have neat ideas behind them, but the ideas don't seem fully developed, even if the language can often be beautiful. "What This Guy Said One Night" revolves around a grandfather's last wise words captured inside a bottle for posterity. "The Times of Danil Garland" focuses on a beautiful gal and the young men who look to pursue her and then grow up, dying and disappointing along the way. “Sleight” focuses on a family of magicians and a mother's disappearance, but the title seems to suggest the feel of the story itself. “Dendromancy” is probably the most successful of the shorter stories, in part because it is so shocking.

“Blue Ticket,” along with "Bridge to Nowhere," are my two favorites from the book. In the latter an unemployed lawyer in a bit of a depressive state ends up hanging out with Warren, who has some sort of mental disability. The lawyer sees Warren as a means to kill time and to make himself feel good but not as the friend Warren thinks he is. During the course of the story, the lawyer learns that Warren owns a good chunk of old, undeveloped land, and the two decide to go take a look at it, visions of money stirring in the lawyer's brain. As one might expect, Warren turns out to be much more of a friend to the lawyer than he would ever imagine or acknowledge.

“Roost” reads like a well-accomplished workshop story, which is to say that it is very well written if a bit predictable in a literary way. The tale is one about a married couple who buy a painting of a chicken out of a sense of irony. But that pride in the painting leads others to think them fans of chickens, and so over the years chicken collectables pile up. At what point does irony become love? Meanwhile, the marriage falls apart--and (spoiler here) when one chicken item is given away to a young married couple, we get the sense that bad luck is being passed along.

“A Beginner's Guide to Leaving Your Hometown” and “Knots Pull against Themselves” both deal with people trying to escape Juneau but being unable to. The former focuses on a man on his last night (again) in town, drinking it away, talking about how much he hates the place. “Knots” focuses on a young man who has an opportunity to go away to college in the lower forty-eight but who has to rely on his unreliable brother for a ride because he has too little money to pay for a taxi and his mother doesn't want him to leave. Alas (spoiler) he eventually discovers that he misses the town he so wanted to escape.

The last story, “Every Island Longs for the Continent--Kodiak 1973,” is the longest in the book. It is a tale of a man confined to home after contracting hepatitus. Being a hospital worker, he comes into contact with a woman who loses her baby; this same woman ends up being taken in by his wife, who then grows jealous as the woman and the man seem to grow closer together.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

On "Going for a Beer" by Robert Coover (1093 words) ***

Here is life as a trip to the bar. I'm reminded a bit of Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button, not because Coover tells the life backward but because the speed with which the life is recounted seems similar. Here, the man meets his future wife at a bar, the man who steals his wife (or is it he who stole his own wife), the man who congratulates him on being a father, the woman with whom he has an affair, the son, and so on. Read the story here at the New Yorker.

On "The Geography of Nowhere" by James Howard Kunstler ***

James Howard Kunstler does not like sprawl. I was expecting a bit more social commentary early on--and throughout--but Kunstler starts off with history, much of it familiar to me now that I've read several book on the subject of city planning. His focus is the United States, however, so this time around the history is uniquely American.

We start with the Puritans. Their communities were organized along a different line. People were accorded property according to need (e.g., family size) and that was around a common area or field. In this sense, the organization seemed more in keeping with the feudal. But as the colonies began to show more independence, the royal crown took over, putting a stop to this kind of organization and deeding land out in a more modern way. Now, each person had his or her own parcel--and no common center or field was planned. This was the first American adventure into sprawl.

Next, Kunstler focuses on the scummy nature of nineteenth-century cities and the desire of those with money to leave the confines of them. Thus, estates were built outside towns, out in the country. (The country is scary; the city more so. What Americans loved was something in between.) Communities were forged out in these areas, planned even. And as the railroad made spreading out possible, more and more communities like these came online. The railroad, however, meant that these communities lacked a center other than sometimes the rail line itself. The focus was on shuffling people into the city for commerce, living out in the country for independent life. The middle class began to emulate these values, and as the car came online, sprawl multiplied.

Kunstler then takes on modernism in architecture, which he sees as being devoid of community concerns. The Bauhaus movement, among others, saw form as function and disavowed the use of onarmentation on buildings. All people were equal--and so were all buildings. Plain boxes was to be the order of the day. This thinking fit well with socialism, but its popularity in the United States came to be largely via the exporting of intellectuals from Europe during World War II (it helped popularity that Hitler and Stalin both rejected Bauhaus). The form was also cheap, which coincided well with business interests. And thus Le Corbusier's Radiant City--towers in a park--became the design mode for a generation, even though it didn't work. Robert Venturi came along and added flourishes to the box, taking modernism into postmodern irony (the flourishes are cool but it's still a box and means nothing). By this point in the book, I was feeling as if Kunstler likes nothing about America.

That feeling continued into the next chapter, when Kunstler undertook a history of the United States from the point of view of the car. By his contention, economic events from about 1920 on are all related to the car--and most of these have been for the negative. The 1920s, with mass production and growing availibity of the car meant an economic boom, as people bought vehicles and government installed roads, but by the 1930s, that market was saturated, and a Depression followed. (One could follow such a line of logic with just about any society-changing technological development--in my own lifetime, that would be the Internet. Indeed, the 1990s featured a boom that was followed by a bust in the 2000s but one that was not felt so badly until 2008, largely because of government intervention.) War took care of that capacity, both in terms of the need to make weaponry and in terms of the selling of excess materials overseas after the war. But by the 1970s, as America became dependent on foreign oil whose price was manipulated, the United States entered into dulldroms, not emerged from until lower gas prices caused by the end of coordinated efforts of OPEC in the 1980s.

This macro history is followed by a micro one, of Kunstler's adopted hometown, Saratoga Springs, New York. Oddly, he chose this town for himself, it being a wonderful small town, but he then goes on to mostly complain about it. Those complaints seem to have logic and purpose. The town's central business district lies mostly along Broadway. On the outskirts of town, Broadway is a sprawl of parking lots--car sales lots, fast-food places, and other low-density developments. No fan of walking through such areas myself, I can see why Kunstler doesn't like them, but by the same token, I find them somewhat intriguing places in a way. Certainly they were in Pasadena, California. Perhaps that's because they were accompanied by sidewalks. They are not so nice to walk along in Athens, Georgia, where sidewalks are a second thought in most communities. But his real angst starts when talking of the downtown area itself, largely boarded up or redone with parking lots. Old buildings with apartments atop businesses have been replaced with new ones that are single purpose. Meanwhile, a suburban mall hast taken away the various businesses. Except . . . I have been to Saratoga Springs. I have walked its streets. Broadway, as I remember it, in the early 1990s (during which Kunstler was also writing), was a street with lots of nice restaurants, some good used bookstores, and quite a few nonchain retail stores. Maybe that's what's left--"tourist" stuff--but it seemed like a nice downtown to me. I walked it everyday from our hotel to the convention center two miles away. Part of me feels like Kunstler just wants to complain, and that's not fun after a certain number of pages, especially when solutions aren't forthcoming and most of the statements boil down to, "Things used to be better than this."

Kunstler delves into some interesting subjects along the way that don't seem to have much direct connection to his screed against suburbanism. One of them is the history of American residential architecture, which he traces from its fancy for Georgian to Classical (with its attendant pillars) to Gothic to Victorian. While the Classical opened up porches to the outside, the Victorian opened up the whole house--and was also as concerned about the interior as the exterior. But alas, the modern world came along. Frank Lloyd Wright built Asian-inspired flat homes like nothing else before in America, homes that spread out and used too much land. Then Craftsman-type bungalows took over, able to be manufactured from premade components and premade plans and also enabling everyone to have homes. Interestingly, he takes a few swipes of building codes along the way, denoting how they can sometimes contribute to sprawl. In Saratoga Springs, rules regarding parking add to cement around buildings and lower density retail districts. Rules requiring front yards mean that houses can't be built right up to the street, even when its a new home built in a historic neighborhood of rowhouses. Rules regarding maximum height mean that the historic Victorian homes, if ever destroyed, can never be replaced with new ones of the same style since ironically new building codes won't allow homes that tall. Indeed, laws do sometimes make for stupid design choices.

Toward the end of the book, Kunstler takes a good turn, dispensing with so much complaining and looking at some examples of cities, good and bad and why. One chapter is on Schuylerville. It basically recounts the birth and death of a small town. Of course, Kunstler wants to blame it on the car, but I read the example as one of how cities serve a useful purpose for a time and then, if they fail to adapt appropriate or quickly enough, they eventually die. Schuylerville sprang up as a transportation center during the time of canal building in the United States. Being at convenient location for canals had much to do with its success as a transportation hub--and as a hub for a number of other industries that then sprang up around the canal. Eventually, railroads took on a role, and Schuylerville became a stop along the rail line as well, mixing both types of transport. But of course, the evil car came along and killed both industries and thus the town. However, while canals came to serve less of America, the railroad continues to, and as a center of other industries, Schuylerville arguably could have adjusted to better fit the various technological developments. That it didn't is a tragedy--one many other towns have faced. It's sad to read about the death of a town. And it's sad to watch such a death as well.

One of those cities that is currently having such problems is Detroit, which is profiled in the next chapter, along with Portland and Los Angeles. Kunstler takes Detroit to task for being too car centric (even as it was the heart of the car industry). Most interesting in his discussion is his account of the Renaissance Center, which he says was conceived all wrong. Rather than being focused on the street and people around downtown, it was centered on being secure (too few entrances, all the shopping/restaurants inside), and thus it fails to repopulate downtown. The same goes for the People Mover that the city created. It covers too little space--just the periphery of the central business district, or in other words, just the amount of land people could naturally walk to anyway.

Portland is Kunstler's ideal. He likes it because planners decided early on to go green and discourage overdevelopment. They placed moratoriums on building outside a certain zone. They encouraged manageable density (no high towers but also fewer single-family homes). They looked to refurbish older homes for the poor, rather than destroying them. They put in light rail. All of these things certainly would lend to a great city--and Portland's popularity among a certain progressive crowd proves it. I love Portland too, though it's been years since I've been there.

Kunstler has, as one would expect, horrible things to say about Los Angeles. There is much to dislike, I suppose. If one actually does have to drive it (at certain times of day especially), it is not much fun. But having grown up there, I find many of Kunstler's criticisms unwarranted. It is a spread-out city, but on a microscale it is actually more walkable than many other cities I've been too. Los Angeles has actual sidewalks, for example. If you can manage to live close to where you work, it's quite nice. And while Kunstler hates kitschy architecture, he misses the fact that that is actually part of L.A.'s charm. If the world were built as Kunstler wants it, every home would be in some established nineteenth-century style. Sorry. Buildings in the shape of hot dogs are fun. I love that crazy aspect about L.A. Is it too spread out? Yes, I'll agree: driving from the beach to Riverside without every leaving the city (two hours in light traffic) can be dreadful. But by the same token, the culture itself (including the car culture) makes the city one worth visiting. (And these days, the light rail actually can take you places too, if you wish to avoid driving.)

Next, Kunstler covers some imaginary places--Disney theme parks, Atlantic City, and Woodstock, Vermont. These are small towns as we would like them to be, and Kunstler largely complains about them. He hates the way the make kitsch out of what should be normal life. But really, the chapter didn't seem as if belonged in the book.

Finally, Kunstler turns to some solutions that he sees contemporary planners working on. One such example is Seaside, Florida, down in the Panama City Beach area. Kunstler's idealization of this place actually made me wince, because I'd read another book not long ago that was very critical of this place. In Kunstler's views, the planners have done things very well--legislating that buildings must be a certain height, color, style; building a downtown in a central location; making everything within walkable distance; not prioritizing parking. I think the writer who criticized Seaside just hated further development of the panhandle in general, no matter what. Kunstler talks of planners doing similar things on a larger scale, legislating mixed-use areas in cities (with businesses on the bottom, housing above; no front parking or lawns, etc.). And he talks of land trusts, which buy up land from farmers in order to keep the land rural.

While I agree actually agree that American society is too car dependent, and while I'd like to see towns that are more walkable, and while I've tried hard to live a life that caters to those values (it's much harder now, being married, and having to worry about not just me but other loved ones--and the rural and suburban preferences of my wife), Kunstler's text comes across as so negative that I actually ended up feeling as if I should cheer for sprawl. While I don't like much in the urban environment that has resulted from our car-dependent culture, I don't much care for the kind utopian nostalgia that Kunstler engages in throughout. There are reasons that we like our cars. Rather than bemoaning their existence, a better strategy would be to find better ways to work around them.

Monday, April 18, 2016

On "Pivot Point" by Xujun Eberlein (6935 words) ****

This story asks what a moment that changes our life really consists of. The story itself recounts an affair from the point of view of a woman who is rapidly becoming too old to get married in Cultural Revolution-time China. Was the pivot point when she met the man, when she gave him her virginity, when he broke up with her? Read the story here.

On "Apologies Forthcoming" by Xujun Eberlein ****

This book, written by a Chinese ex-patriot, revolves around the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As such, for a person who has not studied greatly into the subject, the work was immensely interesting. When I was younger, I preferred fiction because I felt that it provided me better insight into a given time and place than history books could. Perhaps, if I were back in school and more focused in my reading, fiction would become my favorite genre again--and books like Eberlein's would be key to making that happen.

My one previous reading into the Cultural Revolution was a paper/memoir written by a classmate in an autobiography class I once took. A Chinese immigrant himself, my classmate decided to focus on his experiences then rather than on the fiction early American narrative we were asked. I wish I'd spent more time reading the work for what it was now, rather than being focused on giving feedback and wondering how the memoir fit into the class assignment.

Eberlein's book contains eight stories of essentially even quality. In the opening story, "Snow Line," a man writes a poem that take the nation by storm--a poem that is not explicitly Maoist. The story is a commentary on art amid all-encompassing political idealism. Unlike most of the stories in the collection, the focus seems more on art than on politics. Many of the stories, including "Pivot Point" and "The Randomness of Love," involve innocent and/or adulterous love

"Feathers" is about a girl who tries to hide from her little sister and grandmother the knowledge that her older sister has died while doing Maoist work in the country, going even so far as to hire someone to pose as her older sister coming back for a visit.

In "Men Don't Apologize," a girl goes to work for a bus manufacturer and discovers why bus accidents often occur. She also finds the man who accused her father of being a capitalist during the revolution, but when she tries to bring the two together to bury the hatchet, she discovers that forgiveness does not come easily.

"Watch the Thrill" discusses harrowing events from the point of view of boys who have no understanding of them--who in fact find joy in watching people beat up, chased, and killed, so much so that they actually prevent one man from running to safety after committing a potentially revolutionary act, if not an act of revenge.

"Disiple of the Masses" focuses on a city girl who goes to live in the country to help out farmers. There, she discovers that rather than being an aid, she is a spy.

The collection ends with a tale told in the United States, many years after the events. This look back seems a particularly good way to draw the work to a close.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

On "Me and Miss Mandible" by Donald Barthelme (4192 words) ****

Long before Adam Sandler went back to elementary, long before Brock Clarke wrote about something similar, Barthelme did it in this tale. Here, a man returns to sixth grade, which as it turns out is full of sexual seethings. Women are vying for his attention, but most especially the teacher. Try as he might to convince people that he is not a minor--having served in the military among other life achievements--he is stuck in class, much to Miss Mandible's disadvantage. Read the story here.

On "The City in History" by Lewis Mumford ***

Lewis Mumford tells us about the spiritual and cosmic origins of the city so that we can get a handle on how we can best forge the city of tomorrow. To do that, he must scope out all of Western history, denoting where the city has been and what it could possibly become. All that said, this was a long and often laborious read that has left me in many ways a bit more befuddled than illuminated. Mumford's own words often take off in poetic flights of fancy that are heroic or elegiac; they are beautiful, but such is not something I'm accustomed to reading in serious sociological nonfiction--and it rarely helps to make the message clearer.

The book starts off especially slowly, because Mumford starts essentially at the dawn of man. Most of this information is prehistory, so there's some archeology and anthropology and a whole lot of conjecture. For Mumford, early cities start with death, with graveyards--places where people go to visit their ancestors. It's these ancient rituals that gather people together and make, eventually, for civilization. An interesting theory, but one based largely on the fact that it's graveyards that mostly survive. What of the things that did not survive? And is all human history rooted in such spiritualism? Is the more secular instinct merely one of modern man?

I could not wait for Mumford to get to the time when there were written records, so that I could read about actual city planning and theory. Although he talks a bit about the Egyptians, it is really only when we get to Greek society that such discussion takes off. Here, several different ideas of the Greeks are unfolded. Interestingly, we learn that the Greeks are among the first to have created checkerboard plans for cities, laying out straight streets on a grid pattern. More interestingly, we learn of various ideas that Greek philosophers had about the ideal city, which was not to be more than about five thousand inhabitants (there's is some question as to whether than included women, children, and slaves--probably not); beyond this, the city became too large to manage, unable to serve its purpose. Mumford seems to agree that cities can be too large, that size does not a better city make.

From there, Mumford follows the development of the Roman city, and in one passage writes elegantly of Rome's incredible debauchery (with its coed baths where sex was not uncommon).

But where the book really picks up is with the Middle Ages. It is in the city, as it came to exist after Rome's fall, that Mumford seems to find an ideal. With the destruction of a central government, people looked to the church for protection and to various nobles and dukes that would eventually become kings. The walled city was reintroduced as a means to protect people--to keep people out, to keep people in. But these cities were nicely sized and able to function much better than most historians have given them credit for. Streets were often laid out by function, winding with geography.

It is in the baroque city, what comes after the medieval city, that Mumford begins to find displeasure, for in it he sees the beginning of the modern city. The baroque city came to be as kings gained greater power. With that also came the desire for grand architecture and monumentation. No longer was function the height of city "planning"; rather, it was glory. Streets were straightened or widened to show off military might and government power (and to aid with the quick movement of troops).

We might see similarities to more contemporary cities with their focus on the capitalist and profit-making machine, wherein people are secondary to the function of business. Indeed, modern cities are criticized for just that by Mumford. And for their gargantuan size, which cuts people off from their surroundings.

Mumford sees much hope in Ebenezer Howard's Garden Cities. Rather than letting suburban sprawl eat up all the surrounding land, adding forever to traffic, Howard sets out a plan for smaller towns surrounded by green zones.

Mumford's account of the creation of the suburb is interesting in its own light. It was, of course, founded in the idea of letting people get back to nature. The suburb was at first something for the upper class, so that it could avoid the dirt and grime of the city proper. But like so many things, those desires trickled down to lower classes, and with time, more and more moved to the suburb to be out among nature. This was aided by advances in transportation--first the railway and then the car. But as more people do that, move into the outskirts of the city to be in the trees, the more nature recedes, and the very purpose for which the suburb was founded no longer is fulfilled (sans the creation of new suburbs even further out).

Howard's Garden Cities aim to end this constant growth at the edges. Rather, cities are planned for specific populations of around thirty thousand, enough that there are physical and cultural amenities while still leaving things close enough together that traffic is not a continual muddle. These towns are then surrounded by green space, so that all people can easily leave town to be in the city. And those towns, in turn, are connected across the green space.

Mumford does not think too well of megalopolises either. But he does see potential in sharing culture (interlibrary loan is given as an example, or traveling museum exhibits) across a network of smaller cities. In this manner, culture comes to the city rather than it being hoarded in one large center, and local centers maintain their unique histories and cultural components.

In theory, I like Mumford's ideas and even the concept of the Garden City. Smaller towns are easier to live in from a practical perspective. There is a sense of community. Infrastructure is not overburdened. But scale does seem, to me, to be of some import, even if one town might share with another its various cultural artifacts. The fact is that smaller towns are not always enough of a center to support things that might appeal to obscure tastes, even on an on-loan basis. There is a reason larger cities tend to have arthouse movie theaters and playhouses and museums and sporting facilities and Vietnamese-Mexican fusion cuisine restaurants while smaller towns don't. Sure, one museum might lend part of a collection to another town, but at what cost? And how many people are going to visit the museum to make it worth that cost?

Of course, the Internet has changed many of these concerns. No longer are we as people as dependent on our immediate surroundings for alternative cultural opportunities. But in a sense, that too is a loss, for as we sit in front of our screens engaging the wider world from the limited perspective of our small town, we fail to engage with the immediate community.

Monday, February 22, 2016

On "Metamorphosis" by David Eagleman (575 words) *****

In this short piece from Eagleman's book, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman poses the afterlife as something similar to that created by Kevin Brockmeier's The Brief History of the Dead. Here, people live on until the last memory of them dies out. What's interesting is how Eagleman proposes that afterlife fame may be less wonderful than we normally would imagine. There's the tragedy that we depart just as those we love arrive, but more than this the tragedy of being remembered forever, in a form that increasingly has nothing to do with our actual selves. Read the story here.

On "Sum" by David Eagleman ****

This book's subtitle, Forty Tales from the Afterlives, pretty much sums up the work, but not in the manner in which one might expect, if expecting a standard book of short stories or flash fictions. Eagleman is not as concerned with telling a story in standard fictional form with central characters, rising action, and denouement. Rather, the focus here is more philosophical. As such, I was reminded a bit of Jorge Luis Borges's work, which often eschews standard fictional devices as well. Indeed, there is an element of the strange in macabre throughout much of the book.

What Eagleman does is tell you (the main character) what happens to you after death--forty different versions of this. The best versions of device entail making the reader see afresh his or her own life and the meaning of it. And the early pieces, as new playthings in the mind of the reader, are exceptional. However, as the collection wears on, a pattern begins to emerge, and the stories begin to wear a bit thin. That is, we're told that when we die we go to heaven or hell or that we don't die or that we are reincarnated as something; Eagleman runs through what happens, which turns out to be somewhat unexpected, contrary to what we had thought, and then makes a grand pronouncement at the end that helps us see where we were (are) wrong about our former lives here on Earth.

Some specific stories (spoilers here) revolve around being small beings within a much larger one (essentially the equivalent to bacteria in someone else's body); living again but in discreet units where a lifetime worth of sleeping, eating, reading, toothbrushing, so on is done in a single unit (thus twenty years of sleeping, two days of brushing teeth, etc.); becoming part of a finally egalitarian society that proves to be less-than-satisfying for everyone; wishing to become a simpler being--say a horse--only to discover too late that you are going to miss being able to think about the complexities you wished to avoid; finding that you live on as a computer program, a set of e-mails that have been prewritten to be sent out to people after your death; going to a place where you are kept alive until the last memory of you is expunged and finding that you are luckier than the famous who are never able to disappear or change; finding the key to immortality but not being able to confirm its reality before purchasing it; discovering you are an actor in someone else's life; being yourself simultaneously at all possible ages; being you among all the various incarnations you could have been (successful and unsuccessful, each choice made differently); living your life over but realizing that your memories of it are all wrong and that you understand it as little as you did the first time.

When best written, the stories Eagleman tells really do make you reexamine the assumptions you make about your own life. In that sense, the collection is unique and thought provoking.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On "The Reader" by Robert Coover (1473 words) ****

Here is a fairly standard piece of metafiction for Robert Coover. It is about a writer who creates a reader but who keeps finding his story interrupted by other readers and writers and events. Here the "real" and the imagined keep colliding, as if fantasy cannot ever be fully consummated, just like in life--only this isn't life--this is a story. I'm reminded a bit of the popularity of erotic fiction. Could it be that writers of such material are living fantasies in their imagination that they in turn pass along to readers? And yet, plots of fiction demand conflict--disappointment and trouble keeping us from the ultimate denoument, until the very end. And the readers, like the writers, are often lonely people whose real-life personas would never match those of the stories they are reading/writing. Read the story here at Conjunctions.

On "City Life" by Witold Rybczynski ****

City Life begins with a question that seems almost a complaint: Why aren't our cities (in North America) like Europe's cities? The author is in Paris, and his journey there reminds him of decades earlier when he was in the same place--and it seemed very much the same--the same beautiful old buildings and small streets and grand history. In the United States, by contrast, a city has been torn down and re-erected each decade. The places we treasure are temporal, our cities hardly of historical relevance. The complaint did not seem a worthy one, and this beginning made me think that the book was going to be one focused on why Europe's cities are so much better than ours--theoretical and snobbish.

But the introduction does not do the book justice. Really, Rybczynski is interested in knowing why our cities are not the same, and to answer that, he delves into history. The book, as it turns out, ends up being a history of the city--and of city planning. (And later in the book, he even notes that Europe's cities have begun to mimic American cities, as many of the revolutionary changes that cause our cities to be as they are have happened across the Atlantic as well.)

Rybczynski introduces us to three basic models for the city historically (first denoted by Kevin Lynch): the cosmic, the practical, and the organic. Cosmic cities would include those of the ancient Southeastern Ceremonial Complex and of the Aztecs and Incas. The city was centered around a mound or a temple. Religious practices forge the plan for the city--or governmental practices, as in the case of Washington, D.C. The practical city generally follows a grid created for maximum ease of commerce and expansion. Most North American cities fall into this model. The last model, the organic, would be typical of older European cities whose "grid" goes back to the Middle Ages--streets do not follow a rigid geometric plan. Rather, they grow organically as the population settles. To these three models Rybczynski adds a fourth, the automobile city. Modern spread-out cities with wide, long-curving streets are typical of these sort--Phoenix and Houston.

Rybczynski then turns to the Middle Ages and the concept of open and closed towns, walled and unwalled, and the cause for these differences in time and space--nobles looking to protect their station, serfs seeking protection, merchants looking to sell goods. From there, he goes to the colonial town, created differently for each culture, but for the English in three basic types: organic (informal, winding streets, as in Boston); gridlike with open squares (as in Cambridge); and linear (with one main street, as in Providence).

Grids soon became typical of city planning in the United States, as they were a means to keep towns organized even as they grew at phenomenal rates. After all, squares are easy to parcel out and sell.

Individual chapters cover the early growth and planning of New York and Chicago, the former mostly through the eyes of Tocqueville, on his visit to America, the latter through the eyes of the City Beautiful movement and the Chicago World's Fair. Rybczynski has some very different views on the City Beautiful movement from Jane Jacobs, who largely condemned it. As Rybczynski notes, the founders of that movement actually did pay attention to how cities worked and looked for council among city administrators. The World's Fair, however, had a large impact on the city and on American architecture in general, as its largely classical style was copied for permanent buildings elsewhere, as were the tendency to gather grand governmental structures together in complexes for great display (something Jacobs largely criticizes).

But Rybczynski largely criticizes the Radiant City concept espoused by Le Corbusier, which Jacobs also despised. That plan essentially put towers in the middle of parks. Le Corbusier, as it turns out, was more a philosopher than a planner, and he spoke a good, conceited game without having a lot of actual knowledge. Nevertheless, his ideas were put into practice in some places to disastrous effect, as in some public housing in the Chicago area, where crime has run rampant since. Part of this dynamic is social (the ACLU sued to prevent those who ran the complex from interviewing possible renters with the idea of managing proper diversity among the units; once that happened, increasing problems became part of a downward spiral); however, part of it rests in Jacobs's own ideas--if there isn't a crowd of people on the street and a diversity of use for parks, an area is less attractive and often less safe.

From there, Rybczynski delves into the growth of the suburb, which is largely due to the car. As people could settle farther out, in the country, they did so, and city centers began to decline. Suburbia is complex. In many cases, suburbs themselves end up with centers of their own, so that work doesn't always happen in the city. Also, with the advent of the car, shopping malls sprang up, placing all retail in a single location that people could drive to and then walk around within. Of particular importance here was the supermarket, allowing people to shop for a week or two rather than shopping for a day or two at a time. I was surprised to learn how recent the (indoor) shopping mall really is--going from about eight in the nation in 1950 to thousands by the 1960s. That malls are privately owned raises social questions as well, since unlike public downtown streets, limitations can be placed on free speech and assembly.

Cities themselves are largely growing smaller as their surroundings fill out, creating larger and larger metropolitan areas (both in land and population). The complex mix of cities and edge cities is the future.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

On "Game" by Donald Barthelme (1916 words) *****

An absolutely wonderful story by Barthelme, this one involves two men with the joint key to world destruction--the key to a nuclear bomb in a silo. Day in, day out, they keep tabs on each other, in case one of them does something crazy. They have the means to annihilate the other if something goes wrong. It is a perfect metaphor for the Cold War at its height. Read the story here.

On "The Five Love Languages" by Gary Chapman ****

Long referenced in sermons, marriage counseling, dating situations, and general conversation, this book is one I have intended to get around to for a while. The problem is that I could not get it from the library, and I didn't want to put forth the money to buy it. I'd taken the test; I sort of knew where I fell. I understood the concepts. I wasn't sure the book would offer me that much more insight. And really, it did not, though I appreciate that my wife spent the money to buy it for me, and it was a fun read.

That said, I felt as if the book could have been summarized in a twenty-page paper or so, but to fill out the text and sell it, the author added a number of anecdotes. Anecdotes aren't bad, but for me to feel the gravitas of the text, I would have preferred something a bit more analytical--surveys and tests that would more scientifically back up the author's claims.

Still, as a professional marriage counselor, the author has a lot of experience to offer--and I'm sure that his insight into the love languages has paid dividends that show the absolute usefulness of the theory. I myself can see its usefulness, just in the little I have learned.

As self-help-type books are prone to do, however, this one seems so centered on its theory that a reader is made to feel as if the main cause of marriage unhappiness is a lack of speaking the same love language and that by mastering this one thing, we can bring back the love. Important, no doubt, but the work comes across as simplistic--probably more than the author intends.

The five languages are acts of service, quality time, gifts, physical touch, and affirmative words. Each person uses primarily one or two of these languages. Relationships often fall apart, according to the author, after the initial euphoria, because the two people aren't speaking the same love language. Mastering the other person's love language can reap dividends for restoring the relationship.

The author claims that we give and receive in the same love language. That's something I have wondered about--whether that is necessarily so. He also claims that we have the same love language throughout life, which is something I'm also uncertain about. I think one's love language can depend greatly upon the situation. Why? Because when I took the book's test as a single I had differing results from when I took it as a married person. And in fact, some questions on the test were hard for me to answer, as the answer would greatly depend on my mood.

As a single I tested for quality time and affirmative words. As a married person I tested for quality time and acts of service. I've always felt more comfortable showing love by doing things for others, but I don't find that such acts always make me feel closer to another person. Still, this time around, I realized that things my wife does for me are probably appreciated by me more than most other things she can give me.

Words were important to me as a single but less so as a married person. I'd say that this is probably because I have a tank that needs to be filled up with each language, and as a single, that tank was less often full. As a married person, my wife constantly says nice things, so I don't end up appreciating them as much as I did when those nice things were rare gems.

The same can go for quality time, once extremely important. It's still important for me. But I remember as a single how four to eight hours with a person in a given week was often enough to fill up my tank; however, I rarely got those hours from a person. Now, again, that tank is usually full, so I end up appreciating time together less that I would. (With my wife off at grad school, however, time is much more appreciated again than when we were living together.)

Touch--I don't particularly like touching strangers or like being touched. But my mate? My lover? That's different. It rates highly now, whereas it barely registered when I was single.

What I'm saying is that it seems to me that how love is shown to us and what we need, or feel a lack of, with regard to how it is demonstrated seems to me contextual. Time seems more important when it is harder to get and give; touch seems more important when it is possible to get and give; and so on.

All that said, I'm left feeling a bit daunted by the tasks before me: showing more love to my wife. Her languages seem centered on all five. I really don't know where to concentrate--but I do know that I come up short on words and gifts, which tend to be my weakest areas for showing love. More work to do.