Sunday, October 30, 2016

On "I Asked My Mother" by Lesley Dormen (1113 words) ****

"I Asked My Mother" focuses on obsessive compulsive shopping. It's a short piece but exquisitely put together, the middle story in Dormen's excellent collection. Really, it's about how a mother and daughter communicate and how the weaknesses of one become the weaknesses of the other. Read the story here at Five Points.

On "Contagious" by Jonah Berger *****

The subtitle of this book promises much--it says the book is going to tell readers "How Things Catch On." And Berger does a great job doing just that, combining conversation recountings of studies and analysis and setting out a book of interest both to psychologists and marketers.

The book reads like many a self-help or marketing guide, a trade book. But what makes this one different is that the author really knows his stuff--the load of examples and the use of footnotes shows it.

Basically, Berger points to what some things go viral or catch on as being related to six factors. Viral things will sometimes have all six going for them but not always; however, they will always have some of these factors going for them.

The first factor is social currency. The idea here is that people like to appear hip or knowledgeable. Being able to talk to someone about an oddball restaurant or a cool movie shows that you are a person worth talking with--one who has something to share. An interesting example is a bar modeled after a speakeasy called Please Don't Tell Anyone. You have to go through the back of a hot dog stand and dial a special phone; only seventy or so people are allowed in each night. There isn't any advertising other than word of mouth. This does indeed sound like a cool secret folks would want to hear about. I was left, however, wondering how such a place starts. If secrecy is your gimmick, how is it those first hundred or so customers find you in order to spread the secret? I suppose an invitation to a select crowd might work to get the buzz going.

The second factor is triggers. These are essentially items that remind you of something that is being marketed. The key here is frequency and the context. If somehow you can align what you're selling with something that folks think about regularly, you're more likely to stay on their minds. Write a song about Fridays, for example, and you'll probably be on folks' minds once a week. And that in turn will spur word of mouth.

A third factor is emotion. People are more likely to share things that stir particular feelings. Interestingly, Berger finds that contentment and sadness do not cause people to want to share. However, emotions that stir people a lot are anger and awe. That makes sense, though, when I think about articles that I might myself want to talk about with someone else: something unjust or something amazing.

A fourth factor is something Berger calls public--or making the private public. I'd call this the sheep or crowd factor. Basically, we are more likely to try something or to use a certain product if others are doing so as well. Hence, if there are two restaurants to choose from and one is crowded and one empty, we're more likely to think the crowded one is better, irregardless of the actual quality. So many people, we think, can't be wrong. This is, I've long thought, one of the most frustrating facts about marketing--success breeds more success. It's like money: the more you have, the easier it is to make more. Much of the chapter focuses on how brands attempt to get their logos and message out for folks to see. Berger looks particularly at the "residual" effect--we might look at them as souvenirs. These are things like bags we take home from a store and then reuse, which then show off the product's identity to others. The crowd factor might seem contradictory to the social currency factor, but it isn't when one really thinks about it. Take something as popular as the Super Bowl. If one watches it or the ads that run during it, one has the ability to discuss them with folks then next day. Being knowledgeable, even about something that most people already know about, still makes for one being a potentially good conversationalist.

A fifth factor is practical value, which is exactly what it sounds like. If something is useful, it's more likely to catch on. I guess my big question here would be why some things seem to be more useful than others. That, I suppose, comes down to ability or technique and also to branding. If you create something that is easier to understand than other things that do the same, your instructions or product will get more use--or so the theory would go. But branding has much to do with success here too--people will gravitate toward practical products from others who are already familiar. That's the reason for the success of the Dummies books, though some such books are better written than others. Much of Berger's chapter, however, focuses on price points and how we tend to buy things contrary to actual sense. If something is “on sale,” for example, we more likely buy it--even if it's not actually discounted. For products under one hundred dollars, it's best to give a percentage for how much one is saving; for over that amount, it's best to give a dollar figure. Ten percent seems a lot more than five dollars, for example; but $200 seems a lot more than five percent.

The last factor is story--basically, products are best marketed as some sort of narrative. When one looks at the first five factors, word of mouth is most likely to spread if a good story is attached to the technique involved. Hence, we tell someone about the great deal we got on something or how amazing some product is or something like that. Some attention here is given to advertising and how that can be counterproductive if the story told as part of the ad is not inherently connected to the product. You might catch someone's eyes with dancing penguins, for example, but if you're selling laundry detergent, the two narratives likely won't have much of a connection and thus won't remain part of the same story. It's essential that the attention grabber and the product have some relation so that they both become part of the story told.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

On "The Party" by Donald Barthelme (1648 words) ****

Some stories demand to be read closely, and this is one of them. The language is incredibly dense. But what a joy to listen and watch along with the narrator of this social gathering. Read the story here.

On "They Shoot Horses Don't They" by Horace McCoy *****

I first read this book a decade or so ago while reading a list of pulp mystery novels, a list that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. McCoy's book stood out because of the extended metaphor and its reference to a historical phenomenon I had not been familiar with. Less a mystery than just plain pulp, the book tells the story of a couple who go to make some money, to survive, during the Great Depression, by joining a dance marathon.

Dance marathons were popular for some time during the 1930s. Essentially contests in which couples danced for as long as possible, until they were the last couple standing, they were entertainment spectacles. Here, however, the marathon is a metaphor for life--a tough and grueling life. The couple can't leave the floor; it has to remain to eat (food is provided) and to have a chance at the thousand-dollar prize that will give them a new start in life, if they want it, that is, for the woman, Gloria, has already given up on life: she just wants to die, if only she had the guts to do herself in.

And that is the gist of the book, how her dance partner is finally convinced to kill the woman as a favor to her, as the dance marathon moves forward despite petty crime, crooks hanging out in disguise, affairs, better morals society protests, and so on.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

On "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick (ca. 9000 words) ***

Made into the movie Total Recall twice now, the original story features aspects that are picked up in both films but goes in a different direction by its end. The opening of the story is somewhat similar to those films: a man leading a humdrum life discovers that he was once a secret agent. In this case, he was an agent on Mars, though of course, that is the very memory he's gone to Rekal Inc. to have implanted as a means of escaping his humdrum life--to fulfill his dream of going to Mars. From there, the story becomes a trip. Is the memory real or implanted? And now that his life has been changed--or returned to what it was?--how does he solve the problem that he is supposed to have lost this secret agent identity? The story has a number of great themes, but it feels forced in terms of the quickness with which it is told. The dialogue serves the plot more than the character. The tale feels as if it need to the breathing space of a novel. But Dick here is writing pulp, and it serves that purpose well. Just as it served well as the basis for a couple of movie versions, which feel like they have the breathing space required. You can read the story here.

On "Becoming Justice Blackmun" by Linda Greenhouse ****

This biography of a Supreme Court justice grabs most of its information from Blackmun's own papers and diary. It presents the story of a justice who moves from the right side of the political spectrum to the left during his time on the bench. It also tells the tale of two men whose friendship draws to a close as this transformation takes place.

Blackmun grew up in Minnesota and went to school with another Supreme Court justice, Warren Berger. The two were, thus, long-time friends when they ended up on the Supreme Court together, though their paths to the Court differed. Although Blackmun went to a top law school, he found himself in the middle of the class, after having excelled in college, much to his displeasure. Such is the experience of most law students, I have found out, via my wife.

He then went to work for a nonprofit medical organization, the Mayo Clinic. Berger, meanwhile, went to Washington to clerk and then eventually to serve in the government, before being elevated to the appeals court. Blackmun turned down several opportunities to go work for big law and for D.C. government, but eventually he succumbed, taking a job for the appeals court out in the Midwest.

Berger becomes Chief Justice, and when an opening comes up under the Nixon administration, he suggests Blackmun. The old buddies end up living and working in D.C. together. Both moderate conservatives from Minnesota, there's some expectation that they will vote together on various cases. And that's largely how their time on the Court starts.

Blackmun's big decision was Roe v. Wade, which he wrote for the 7-2 majority. That case, as it turns out, was largely one meant to protect doctors from prosecution and Blackmun's thinking was affected heavily by his time at the Mayo Clinic. However, as time went on, the case became more and more about the Constitution's inferred "right to privacy" and women's rights.

Blackmun's defense of Roe became more and more about these latter things but also, it seemed to me, about protecting his legacy. When new conservative judges such as Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy, and William Rehnquist came on to the Court, Roe seemed likely to fall--and barely survived. The former two, however, over the years, would move to the left as well and eventually uphold Roe in some later cases.

Blackmun went from voting about 90 percent with conservatives to 90 percent with liberals over his years on the Court, moving from the right to the left. Berger did not move as much accordingly, but more than that, as Blackmun became his own man on the Court, not simply taking Berger's same positions, the relationship became strained. One reads as the correspondence between the two grows slimmer and more strained, such that mention of Berger in Blackmun's diary at the time of the former's death is just that and not much more. It's a sad thing to witness.

I was told that Blackmun said that it wasn't he that changed but the Court, that it grew more conservative. But reading the book, I came to feel that in fact it was not just the latter. The Court may have gotten moderately more conservative, but it seems to me that Blackmun moved to the left too (as made evident by the justices with whom he largely voted). Why the shift? Faced with real situations, it was hard to remain an idealist, Blackmun said. Certainly, I can see how one's views could change when faced with real people whose lives may be affected.

Monday, October 10, 2016

On "King of Jazz" by Donald Barthelme (1226 words) *****

One of my favorite comic pieces by Barthelme, this one is about hipsters battling it out to play the coolest jazz in town. There are solos and riffs, and who will come out on top is not really the point. The point is getting there. Read it here.

On "The Next American Metropolis" by Peter Calthorpe ***

This was not exactly the book that I was thinking I would be reading. The title suggested something futuristic, dealing with changes in how we view cities and how technology would change our cities. Instead, the book is mostly an urban-planning guide, full of photos and practical points. By now, having read several books of urban theory, I do not find Calthorpe's ideas all that intriguing or different from what is general accepted best practice. Essentially, Calthorpe takes the ideas of Jane Jacobs and discusses how to put them into practice. And he criticizes Le Corbusier and the Garden City movement for its ideas. For Calthorpe, though, the most important defining element of a city is that it is walkable, something I can highly agree with. His ideas than are focused on making things pedestrian sized and friendly: denser communities, buildings facing streets instead of parking lots, creating mixed-use transit hubs, and so on.

What struck me most while reading Calthorpe's introduction was how, if so many are agreed that these are the best practices, other organization continues to happen. Calthorpe dives into this a little. The main issue appears to be that our planning happens piecemeal, and no one wants to give up their piece of control. Private landholders don't want to be told how to develop; towns create no-growth initiatives that essentially have the opposite effect by pushing development outside the no-growth zone and drive up sprawl; efficiency standards are passed for vehicles but people drive more miles as bigger highways are built to allow for more cars, and so on.

But this is, of course, part of the issue with democracy. We all want our large piece of land when we have a family, our piece of country. Or if we own property, we don’t want to be told what we can and can't do with it. Urban planning requires that individuals give up control over their own desires for the greater benefit of all. That's a tough sell on an individual level.

Calthorpe is also big on mixed-use planning, something he says most zoning laws discourage. He isn't talking just about shops under homes; he's also talking--and he goes on about this at length--about homes with in-law suites. The idea is that if we have a family home with an extra apartment, that extra apartment contributes to density--an adult family member can use it or it can be rented out to a single. The greater density would encourage the creation of transit hubs ("transportation-oriented developments"--places where public transport meet with multiuse commercial districts--child care, post offices, grocery stores), which in turn would encourage walking and the use of public transport rather than the use of private vehicles.

And it is this turn toward the private--private roads, private homes, private cars--that kills off our sense of community and actually makes us feel less safe, and thus encourages further isolation.

Calthorpe throws a set of statistics at readers with regard to car use. While population in the states went up between 1970 and 1990 by 20 percent or so, vehicle miles traveled went up 80 percent or so. Sprawl is causing us to drive more and to spend more time in our vehicles. While in Europe, the auto accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of travel, in the States, auto accounts for 86 percent of travel (walking and biking, 33-50% vs. 11%; public transit, 11-26% vs. 3%).

He looks also at certain plans that were proposed by a group that put together a book called Sustainable Communities. This text focused on making ecology part of planning, and it placed nature a bit too front and center, compromising on density. With another set of experts, Calthorpe helped to create another plan that uses what he terms "pedestrian pockets." Here, nodes of retail and transport and greenery make for walkable communities, where said nodes can be found within one-quarter mile of residences. Later, the incorporated a broader plan that allowed for single-family low-density homes. What has been found even more practical, however, is a return to a grid model, where said nodes fit within the grid, rather than a suburban model where residential neighborhoods of cul de sacs feed into single arterial streets. The issue with the latter plan is that traffic on said streets becomes overbearing, as there are few other ways to get around a town. A grid allows multiple means to reach one destination. (The lack of grid and the use of arteries is something that bothers me about Athens, Georgia, where essentially only one street really goes through the town center from the town's edges. This means that one essentially is confined to the one street or to the loop to get around town. It's a mess, and it would be even messier if the town were larger. What gridding exists is in older parts of town but doesn't lead anywhere much after one gets out of the older core.)

Calthorpe turns to the practical means of making plans--forging regional plans, more local plans, zoning, and so forth. He then sets out a set of guidelines. As one might expect from such a set, the reading here is rather dull--essentially laying out in more didactic form much of what has gone before, telling readers exactly how to forge transit-oriented developments: how much land should be devoted to commerce versus residence, how parking should be on the backside of buildings, how land use should be multiuse, and so on. Much emphasis is placed on making areas walkable: keeping traffic slow (less than fifteen miles an hour), sheltering pedestrians with tree shade and street-side parking, providing sidewalks, ensuring walkways go with the flow of traffic and not away from streets, and so on.

The last section provides concrete examples of where the plan has been put into place or will be. Most of the areas are in California (mostly Sacramento and San Diego), with one in Brooklyn and one in Washington State. Unfortunately the urban planning images are generally too small to fully detail what the author is talking about, meaning that readers have to rely on the captions and the general description to sort of get a sense of the plans. As a whole, the book ends up reading like a government manual and failed, for me at least, to fulfill a lot of its potential. Granted, the work was written two decades ago, but other than contemporary planning and design, the author doesn't really go into what metropolises will look like--the title, in other words, was misleading.

Self-driving cars and the like offer us now an opportunity to reconfigure the city. It'll be interesting to see what happens. On one hand, one could envision less space given over to vehicles, because folks won't need personal ones; on another level, one could see more space given over to such vehicles (parking lots of cars waiting for renters), much like rent-a-bike lots.

Monday, October 3, 2016

On "Sororally by Gary Lutz (1334 words) ****

Essentially the story of a work relationship--or date--that ends up going nowhere, the real charm in this piece is the language. "Eyes chance ambitiously" onto another's. Tasks are inherited from one day to the next. It's the beauty of the verbs and the occasional surprising descriptor. You can read the story here at Web del Sol (scroll down to the second piece).

On "Stories in the Worst Way" by Gary Lutz ***

All these pieces are short, and all have been, it feels like, edited down from something much larger. Lutz is one of those practitioners of the sentence, which means that every line counts--and virtually every line is something totally original. People don't just sit. They uncrack their bones into a repository. That sort of description, while beautiful (and actually, that's not a quote--it's just something akin to what Lutz would do), makes for difficult reading if one wants to go quickly. But it's worth slowing down and savoring the work.

Not that the stories themselves, beyond the language, always hold up something that original. Quite often, they're more or less slice of life pieces without much of a climax or epiphany. In "Sororally," a man goes out with a coworker, but a relationship doesn't work out. In "Waking Hours," a man stumbles through life at a job, spending time with the kid from his former marriage, and looking for gay lovers. In "Street Map of the Continent," a man deals with the fallout of a wife who leaves him (or dies). The latter story ends on a strange, seemingly unrelated tangent, as do many of Lutz's other pieces. In that sense, they remind me a bit of Lydia Davis's work, which has a fan base and its critical followers but of which I have not been one.

In "Slops," a man considers some events affected by his constant bouts with colitis. "Devotions" recounts marriages; "When You Got Back" involves a man in a relationship with a high school senior who goes out for a walk and meets another man with laundry that has been done but that doesn't look it (perhaps some kind of comment on the man's own behavior?).

"Esprit de L'Elevator" breaks what is already a short story up into even smaller pieces. The man at its heart meets four people in his apartment building each day. He begins writing a book for them--and then excerpts of said book are quoted. It's as if Lutz is just having fun with the little snippets here, whatever neat thing might strike his fancy.

In "Education," which seems vaguely set in some eighteenth-century world but also in our own, a man goes to "educate" a young miss for her mom and grandma. The story revolves around geography (learning town names) and, as one would sort of expect, sex and innocence.

"Certain Riddances" involves a man's life at an office and is full of fun and interesting asides--how names weigh us down with expectation. But like so many of the tales, it peters out with information that has seemingly little to do with anything that has gone before it, focusing on the man's life at home. The story could be about the way in which our relationships are in many ways anonymous, how we don't know people even when we do, and how what we do know impinges on our ability to connect. So taken in by words and occasional grand ideas is the writer, throughout this piece and others, that one rarely feels much for the characters or situations.

"Pavilion" is about marketing or public speaking or family relationships or all of them. A man speaks about forging families to others, forges one of his own sort of--and others. The last line here is memorable enough that it demands reading of the story itself to get to.

In "Recessional" a man lives with a divorced woman and her daughters. It's one of the longer stories in the collection, and as such, Lutz spreads out a bit, and that is in itself curious to see. A large amount of space is given over to the man emptying his pocket out on a dresser while his wife talks. I've never read so brilliant of a description for something so mundane.

"The Preventer of Sorrows" focuses on rooms--a woman's various rentals. Rooms with roommates and rooms alone, rooms with partners and husbands. Rooms in rowhouses and attic rooms. This manner of telling a story, not unlike Susan Minot's "Lust" is often compelling, but Lutz brings with it his own skewed vision such that the piece is something very different from anything Minot wrote. The piece ends with a profound line about how a place can overnight become something else. It makes you think about how we assign meaning to the places we go.

"Onesome" is about the struggle of staying in such relationships and how we in some ways subordinate our own lives in order to continue on with these others who have become part of us.

"Not the Hand but Where the Hand Has Been" covers much the same ground as many of the other stories, especially the early ones--a failing marriage, a set of jobs. Here, the focus becomes indexing, and the story itself features an index, and the narrator throws more and more of his life into categories (and into the jobs that he has).

The collection is full of so many stories, so many short ones, that it would be ponderous to recount all of them. Instead, one notices common themes and settings--offices, relationships, teaching, a kid. The pieces often feel as if part of a dream, given that the situations seem random and often the happenings go off on seemingly nonsensical tangents, even as they remain generally oh-so-commonplace. But Lutz's real strength in the sentence itself--so many beautiful lines. They get stacked up so much that his stories are probably better savored one at a time than read in a collection like this, where they tend to overwhelm and where the thread of the narratives gets lost.