Tag Archives: books

Grief: Deraniyagala, Barnes, Johnson, Oates, Didion

There’s a book out called “Wave”, by Sri Lankan writer Sonali Deraniyagala. When the tsunami struck, on Boxing Day 2004, she lost her husband, her two sons and her parents. “Wave” is her memoir – there’s an fascinating review of it here in the New York Times.

The review also has the following quote, from Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, talking about grief and the attendant feelings and sensations that come with it:

“And you do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.”

He paints a powerful picture. It’s a particularly visceral allegory. So I did a little digging to see what else Barnes has said on the subject – he’s a fantastic writer – and scraped together some extracts from a piece he did in The New York Review of Books. It’s a long comparison/review of two different books – A Widow’s Story, by Joyce Carol Oates, and The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Here’s an edit:

In his essay “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow,” Dr. Johnson identifies the dreadful uniqueness of grief among the human passions. Ordinary desires, virtuous or vicious, contain within them the theoretical possibility of their satisfaction:

The miser always imagines that there is a certain sum that will fill his heart to the brim; and every ambitious man, like King Pyrrhus, has an acquisition in his thoughts that is to terminate his labours, after which he shall pass the rest of his life in ease or gaity, in repose or devotion.

But grief, or “sorrow,” is different in kind. Even with painful passions—fear, jealousy, anger—nature always suggests to us a solution, and with it an end to that oppressive feeling:

But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.

Unless we have a religious belief that envisages the total resurrection of the body, we know that we shall never see the lost loved again on terrestrial terms: never see, never talk and listen to, never touch, never hold. In the quarter of a millenium since Johnson described the unparalleled pain of grief, we—we in the secularizing West, at least—have got less good at dealing with death, and therefore with its emotional consequences. Of course, at one level we know that we shall all die; but death has come to be looked upon more as a medical failure than a human norm. It increasingly happens away from the home, in hospital, and is handled by a series of outside specialists—a matter for the professionals. But afterward we, the amateurs, the grief-struck, are left to deal with it—this unique, banal thing—as best we can. And there are now fewer social forms to surround and support the grief-bearer.

Very little is handed down from one generation to the next about what it is like. We are expected to suffer it in comparative silence; being “strong” is the template; wailing and weeping a sign of “giving in to grief,” which is held to be a bad way of “dealing with it.” Of course, there is the love of family and friends to fall back on, but they may know less than we do, and their concerned phrases— “It does get better”; “Two years is what they say”; “You are looking more yourself”—are often based on uncertain authority and general hopefulness. Death sorts people out: both the grief-bearers and those around them. As the survivor’s life is forcibly recalibrated, friendships are often tested; some pass, some fail. Co-grievers may indulge in the phenomenon of competitive mourning: I loved him/her more, and with these tears of mine I prove it. As for the sorrowing relicts—widow, widower, or unwed partner—they can become morbidly sensitive, easily moved to anger by both too much intrusiveness and too much distance-keeping. They may even experience a strange competitiveness of their own: an irrational need to prove (to whom?) that their grief is the larger, the heavier, the purer (than whose?).

A friend of mine, widowed in his sixties, told me, “This is a crappy age for it to happen.” Meaning, I think, that if the catastrophe had happened in his seventies, he could have settled in and waited for death; whereas if it had happened in his fifties, he might have been able to restart his life. But every age is a crappy age for it to happen, and there is no correct answer in that game of would-you-rather. How do you compare the grief of a young parent left with small children to that of an aged person amputated from his or her partner of fifty or sixty years? There is no hierarchy to grief, except in the matter of feeling. Another friend of mine, widowed in a moment after fifty years of marriage—the knot of people by a baggage carousel in the arrivals hall turned out to be surrounding her suddenly dead husband—wrote to me: “Nature is very exact in the matter. It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Joan Didion had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years when he died in mid-sentence while on his second pre-dinner whisky in December 2003. Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith had been together for “forty-seven years and twenty-five days” when Smith, in hospital but apparently recovering well from pneumonia, was swept away by a secondary infection in February 2008. Both literary couples were intensely close yet noncompetitive, often working in the same space and rarely apart: in the case of Didion-Dunne, for a “week or two or three here and there when one of us was doing a piece”; in the case of Oates-Smith, no more than a day or two.

The similarities continue: in each marriage the woman was the star; each of the dead husbands had been a lapsed Catholic; neither wife seems to have imagined in advance her transformation into widow; and each left her husband’s voice on the answering machine for some while after his death. Further, each survivor decided to chronicle her first year of widowhood, and each of their books was completed within those twelve months.

That both Didion and Oates limit their books to the first year of their widowhoods is logical. Long-married couples develop a certain rhythm, gravity, and coloration to the annual cycle, and so those first twelve months of widowhood propose at every turn a terrible choice: between doing the same as last year, only this time by yourself, or deliberately not doing the same as last year, and thereby perhaps feeling even more by yourself. That first year contains many stations of the cross. For instance, learning to return to a silent, empty house. Learning to avoid what Oates calls “sinkholes”—those “places fraught with visceral memory.” Learning how to balance necessary solitude and necessary gregariousness. Learning how to react to friends who mystifyingly decline to mention the name of the lost partner; or colleagues who fail to find the right words, like the “Princeton acquaintance” who greeted Oates “with an air of hearty reproach” and the line, “Writing up a storm, eh, Joyce?” Or like the woman friend who offers her the consolation that grief “is neurological. Eventually the neurons are ‘re-circuited.’ I would think that, if this is so, you could speed up the process by just knowing.

The intention is kindly; the effect, patronizing. Oh, so it’s just a question of waiting for those neurons to settle? Then there are practical problems: for instance, the garden your husband lovingly tended, but in which you are less interested; you may enjoy the results, but rarely joined him in visits to the garden center. So do you faithfully replicate the same work, or do you unfaithfully let the garden look after itself? Here, Oates finds a wise third way: where Smith planted only annuals, she replants with nothing but perennials, asking the nurseryman for “anything that requires a minimum of work and is guaranteed to survive.”

Which is the problem confronting the widow: how to survive that first year, how to turn into a perennial. This involves surmounting fears and anxieties for which there is no training. Previously, Oates rated as “the most exquisite of intimacies” the ability to occupy the same space as Ray for hours, without the need to speak; now, there is a quite different order of silence. “What I am,” Oates writes, “begins to be revealed now that I am alone. In such revelation is terror.”

Oates excellently conveys the disconnect between the inwardly chaotic self and the outwardly functioning person (and she is functioning again with remarkable rapidity—correcting proofs and working on a story within a week of Smith’s death, back on the literary road within three). She is certainly less in control than she seems to outsiders, but probably more in control than she feels to herself.

Smith’s opinions on the relationship between the sexes are somewhat unusual:

To a woman, the quintessential male is unknowable, elusive.

In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious—unless it was unavoidable.

Women are inclined to console men, all women, all men, in all circumstances without discretion.

The ideal marriage is of a writer and her/his editor.

A wife must respect her husband’s family even when—as it sometimes happens—her husband does not entirely respect them.

A wife must respect the otherness of her husband—she must accept it, she will never know him fully.

This sounds like shyness raised to marital principle; and it brings with it the danger that when the wife becomes a widow and goes through her husband’s papers, she will find out things she barely suspected. In Ray Smith’s case: a nervous breakdown, a love affair at a sanatarium, a psychiatrist’s description of him as “love-starved,” and further evidence of a difficult, distant relationship with his father. “For all that I knew Ray so well,” she concludes, “I didn’t know hisimagination.” Nor, perhaps, did he know hers, given that he rarely read her fiction. But he was “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man.”

In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria. The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief. Phrases like “Friends have been wonderful inviting me to their homes” are platitudes; but grief is filled with platitudes. The chapter headed “Fury!” begins:

Then suddenly, I am so angry.
I am so very very angry, I am furious.
I am sick with fury, like a wounded animal.

If a creative writing student turned this in as part of a story, the professor might reach for her red pencil; but if that same professor is writing a stream-of-consciousness diary about grief, the paragraph becomes strangely validated. This is how it feels, and what is grief at times but a car crash of cliché?

Grief dislocates both space and time. The grief-struck find themselves in a new geography, where other people’s maps are only ever approximate. Time also ceases to be reliable. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, describes the effect on him of his wife’s death:

Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.

And this unreliability of time adds to the confusion in the sorrower’s mind as to whether grief is a state or a process. This is far from a theoretical matter. It is at the heart of the question: Will it always be like this? Will things get better? Why should they? And if so, how will I tell? Lewis admits that when he started writing his book,

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.

Probably, it needs both at the same time. We might try to pin it down by saying that grief is the state and mourning the process; yet to the person enduring one or both, things are rarely clear, and the “process” is one that involves much slipping back into the paralysis of the “state.” There are various markers: the point at which tears—regular, daily tears—stop; the point when the brain returns to normal functioning; the point when possessions are disposed of; the point when memory of the lost one begins to return. But there can be no general rules, nor standard time-scale. Those pesky neurons just can’t be relied upon.

What happens next, when the state and the process are, if by no means complete, at least established and recognizable? What happens to our heart? Again, there are those confident surrounding voices (from “How could he/she ever marry again after living with her/him?” to “They say the happily married tend to remarry quickly, often within six months”). A friend whose long-term lover had died of AIDS told me, “There’s only one upside to this thing: you can do what you fucking well like.” The trouble is that when you are in sorrow, most notions of “what you like” will contain the presence of your lost love and the impossible demand that the laws of the universe be repealed. And so: a hunkering-down, a closing-off, a retreat into the posthumous faithfulness of memory? Raymond Smith didn’t much like Dr. Johnson, finding him too didactic, and preferring the Doctor of Boswell’s account to that of his own writings. But on sorrow, Johnson is not so much didactic as wise, clear, and decisive:

An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference, is unreasonable and vain. If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention; but since however we may debar our lives from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets, and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.

So what constitutes “success” in mourning? The ability to return to concentration and work; the ability to rediscover interest in life, and take pleasure in it, while recognizing that present pleasure is far from past joy. The ability to hold the lost love successfully in mind, remembering without distorting. The ability to continue living as he or she would have wanted you to do (though this is a tricky area, where the sorrowful can often end up giving themselves a free pass). And then what? Some form of self-sufficiency that avoids neutrality and indifference? Or a new relationship that will either supplant the lost one or, perhaps, draw strength from it?


When Dr. Johnson wrote “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow” he was not yet widowed. That event was to occur two years later, when he was forty-three. Twenty-eight years afterward, in a letter to Dr. Thomas Lawrence, whose wife had recently died, Johnson wrote:

He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.

William Whyte and the social life of small spaces

Extract from Leo Hollis’s excellent blog “Cities are good for you“. This, coincidentally, is also the title of his forthcoming book. Visit his blog to find out more, then advance order his new book.

In 1956 William H Whyte, the executive editor of ‘Fortune’ magazine, wrote of The Organisation Man. In his devastating analysis, Whyte suggested that the post-war generation had been encouraged into conformity, happy to exchange their own individuality for participation into the corporate dream, that not only dictated how they worked but also offered them the banal ideal of a secure life, the comforts of suburbia, the steady accumulation of unnecessary things.

His conclusion claimed that the culture of Organisation Man, the surrender of self to the mythic corporation, was the very opposite of the rugged individualism that once built America.

Whyte’s fascination in how the planning of the new suburbs satisfied the every need of Organisation Man ignited a passion in the role of planning and architecture in shaping American social life. In an essay in 1953 ‘How the New Suburbia Socialises’ he used his own neighbourhood of Forest Park outside Chicago to show how the design of play areas, driveways and stoops affected interactions; how keeping the front lawn clean leads to strong ties to neighbours across the road rather than over the back yard fence; why owning a house that was built in the early stages of the development can make you more popular. In time, however, Whyte began to focus his attention away from the suburbs onto the city centre.

It would be almost a decade before Whyte put his ideas into practise, when the New York Planning Commission hired him to develop a new approach to thinking about the city. Whyte began by looking at previous best practise but was surprised to find no research on the efficacy of any of the most recent projects; he was stunned that there were ‘no person on the staff whose job it was to go out and check whether the places was being well used or not, and if not, why.’ How could a city improve if it could not learn from its mistakes, or even find out if it had made any mistakes?

He hired a group of sociology students from nearby Hunter College to start conducting serious studies on how people actually used places; and so begun ‘the street life project’, probably the first time that rigour and method was brought to bear on the ballet of the streets. The results were revelatory. From this study of the street ‘the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center’, Whyte built up his new idea of how the city really worked.

How do people walk down the street? How often do they bump into friends? Where do people stop to chat? Does bustle or a quiet space make a happy place? How much space should you leave as you pass someone? Who can you touch and what kinds of gesture are acceptable in public? Does a vendor get more business, or a busker more change, on a narrow street or a wide thoroughfare? Far more than the philosophical or aesthetic musings of visionaries, these are the real life questions that can transform a city. Whyte produced his results in two books ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ in 1980 and ‘City: Rediscover the Centre’ in 1988.

In both books he saw the decline of the city as a reflection of the changing economic relationship between people; as our lives became increasingly mediated, we were less likely to interact, to bump into each other, and as a result the city was losing its most fertile function: the place where strangers meet. First, studying the street, then making a series of observations on the social life of our public plazas, Whyte explored the ways how these public spaces were used, how they developed their own ecology, what worked and what caused problems. Thus he set out some opening observations on how people used the street:

Pedestrians usually walk on the right. (Deranged people and oddballs are more likely to

  • go left, against the flow.)
  • A large proportion of pedestrians are people in pairs or threesomes.
  • The most difficult to follow are pairs who walk uncertainly, veering from one side to another: they take two lanes to do the work of one.
  • Men walk faster than women.
  • Younger people walk somewhat faster than older people.
  • People in groups walk slower than people alone
  • People carrying bags or suitcases walk about as fast as anyone else
  • People who walk on a moderate upgrade walk about as fast as those on the level
  • Pedestrians usually take the shortest cut. . .
  • Pedestrian form up in platoons at the lights and they will move in platoons for a block or more.
  • Pedestrians often function most efficiently at the peak of rush hour flows.
  • In a similar fashion, Whyte also looked at how and why people used the public squares and plazas of the city. He was surprised to note, watching the flow of human traffic outside Saks on Fifth Avenue that most people stop to talk either on the street corner in the centre of the flow, or right outside the shop entrance.

    He also observed lunchtime in Seagram Plaza and how the spaces of the plaza was populated – men more likely to sit closer to the pathways and on benches while women preferred more secluded places; lovers rarely hiding themselves; if there are moveable chairs they tended to be dragged in all directions, each new occupant preferring to find their own site; particular groups are likely to rendez vous in the same places. In his most memorable phrase he concluded: ‘what attracts people most is other people. Many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true.’

    Whyte proved that people used the city in different ways than the experts thoughts and often did the exact opposite of what the planners intended.

    And THAT, my friends, is how you design a book cover.


    The Guy Quote – Michael Herr (a must-read)

    Before he co-wrote and contributed to Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, Michael Herr wrote a book called Dispatches.

    Published in 1977, it is a memoir of his days as an Esquire journalist in Vietnam in 1967, where he witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

    He had originally gone with no real brief, no real deadlines, intending to write a series of monthly articles for the magazine, but gave up when he realised the idea was simply “horrible”. It took him ten years to gather his thoughts.

    Dispatches pioneered a new form of journalism – the nonfiction novel. Pick it up if you see it, the writing is honest, engrossing, truthful. No wonder Jean Le Carré called it “the best book on war and men in our time”.

    The Heath Anthology of American Literature has this to say: ‘As Herr tells it, the Vietnam War was very much a 1960s spectacle: part John Wayne movie, part rock-and-roll concert, part redneck riot, part media event, and part bad drug trip. Herr’s style, so perfectly grounded in the popular culture of the time, pulls at the reader with great power and unmistakable authenticity. After a particularly terrible battle, a young Marine glared at Herr, knowing he was a writer, and snarled: “Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here, you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man.” And so Herr did.’

    When I was about 13 I bought a copy in a second-hand book shop. I liked it because it had a picture of a helmet on the front and I’d never seen a book cover with white space like that. Platoon was out in the cinema and me and my best friend Nicky Boas were listening to a lot of Deep Purple and The Doors.

    I was engrossed from the second I opened it. I read it and re-read it until the spine cracked and it fell apart. Re-reading some of it now, I’m amazed how much of it has stuck with me too. Dispatches introduced me to all sorts of writers – a gateway to Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and more. Its words, its ethos – well, all of it really – is just as relevant, just as powerful today as it ever was.

    NB – please click here to see more “The Guy Quote” pieces

    [apologies in advance if any of these aren’t from Dispatches – let me know and I’ll correct in a jiffy, but I’m fairly sure they’re all good]

    “In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in begin to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality, and death, death itself, hardly an intruder.”

    “I had the I Corps DTs, livers, spleens, brains, a blue-black swollen thumb moved around and flashed to me, they were playing over the walls of the shower where I spent my half-hour, they were on the bedsheets, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I was laughing at them, what could they do to me?
    “I filled a water glass with Armagnac and rolled a joint, and then started to read my mail. In one of the letters there was news that a friend of mine had killed himself in New York. When I turned off the lights and got into bed I lay there trying to remember what he had looked like. He had done it with pills, but no matter what I tried to imagine, all I saw was blood and bone fragment, not my dead friend. After a while I broke through for a second and saw him, but by that time all I could do with it was file him in with the rest and go to sleep.”

    “Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it.”

    “There’s no way around it, if you photographed a dead marine with a poncho over his face and got something for it, you were some kind of parasite. But what were you if you pulled the poncho back first to make it a better shot, and did that in front of his friends? Some other kind of parasite I suppose.”

    “All the wrong people remember Vietnam. I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it.”

    “I think Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.”

    “Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden adrenaline you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed.
    “Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love war and hate it inside the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High On War, like it said on the helmet covers. Coming off a jag like that could really make a mess of you.”

    “‘I’ve been having this dream,’ the major said. ‘I’ve had it two times now. I’m in a big examination room back at Quantico. They’re handing out questionnaires for an aptitude test. I take one look at it, and the first question says, How many kinds of animals can you kill with your hands?’
    We could see rain falling in a sheet about a kilometre away. Judging by the wind, the major gave it three minutes before it reached us.
    ‘After the first tour, I’d have the goddamndest nightmares. You know, the works. Bloody stuff, bad fights, guys dying, me dying… I thought they were the worst,’ he said. ‘But I sort of miss them now.’”

    “Levels of information were levels of dread, once it’s out it won’t go back in, you can’t just blink it away or run the film backward out of consciousness. How many of those levels did you really want to hump yourself through, which plateau would you reach before you shorted out and started sending back the messages unopened?”

    “I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras… We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult.”

    “…if that energy could have been channelled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for a thousand years.”

    “I met this kid from Miles City, Montana, who read the Stars and Stripes every day, checking the casualty lists to see if by some chance anybody from his home town had been killed. He didn’t even know if there was anyone else from Miles City in Vietnam, but he checked anyway because he knew for sure that if there was someone else and they got killed, he would be all right. “I mean, can you just see *two* guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?”

    “The crew chief was a young Marine who moved around the chopper without a safety line hooked to his flight suit, so comfortable with the rolling and shaking of the ship that you couldn’t even pause to admire his daredevil nerve; you cut straight through to his easy grace and control, marveling as he hunkered down by the open door to rig the broken seat up again with pliers and a length of wire. At 1,500 feet he stood there in the gale-sucking door (Did he ever think about stepping off? How often?), his hands resting naturally on his hips, as though he were just standing around on a street corner somewhere, waiting. He knew he was good, an artist, he knew we were digging it, but it wasn’t for us at all; it was his, private; he was the man who was never going to fall out of any damn helicopter.”

    “How many times did someone have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice?”

    “Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. […] I knew one 4th division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. “They sure give you the range,” he said.”

    “Maybe nothing’s so unfunny as an omen read wrong.”

    “You know how it is, you want to look and you don’t want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had when I was a kid looking at war photographs in Life, the ones that showed dead people or a lot of dead people lying close together in a field or street, often touching, seeming to hold each other. Even when the picture was sharp and cleanly defined, something wasn’t clear at all, some repressed that monitored the images and withheld their essential information. It may have legitimized my fascination, letting me look for as long as I wanted; I didn’t have a language for it then, but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first porn, all the porn in the world. I could have looked until my lamps went out and I still wouldn’t have accepted the connection between a detached leg and the rest of the body, or the poses and positions that always (one day I’d hear it called “response-to-impact”), bodies wrenched too fast and violently into unbelievable contortion. Or the total impersonality of group death, making them lie anywhere and any way it left them, hanging over barbed wire or thrown promiscuously on top of other dead, or up into the trees like terminal acrobats, Look what I can do.

    “Supposedly, you weren’t going to have that kind of obscuration when you finally started seeing them on real ground in front of you, but you tended to manufacture it anyway because of how often and how badly you needed protection from what you were seeing, had actually come 30,000 miles to see. Once I looked at them strung from perimeter to the treeline, most of them clumped together nearest the wire, then in smaller numbers but tighter groups midway, fanning out into lots of scattered points nearer the treeline, with one all by himself half into the bush and half out. “Close but no cigar”, the captain said, and then a few of his men went out there and kicked them all in the head, thirty-seven of them. Then I heard an M-16 on full automatic starting to go through the clips, a second to fire, three to plug in a fresh clip, and I saw a man out there, doing it. Every round was like a tiny concentration of high-velocity wind, making the bodies wince and shiver. When he finished he walked by us on the way back to his hootch and I knew I hadn’t seen anything until I saw his face. It was flushed and mottled and twisted like he had his face skin on inside out, a patch of green that was too dark, a streak of red running in bruise purple, a lot of sick gray white in between, he looked like he’d had a heart attack out there. His eyes were rolled up into his head, his mouth was sprung open and his tongue was out, but he was smiling. Really a dude who’d shot his wad. The captain wasn’t too pleased about my having seen that.”

    ‘Bob Stokes of Newsweek told me this: In the big Marine Hospital in Danang they have what is called the “White Lie Ward”, where they bring some of the worst cases, the ones who can be saved but who will never be the same again. A young Marine was carried in, still unconscious and full of morphine, and his legs were gone. As he was being carried into the ward, he came out briefly and saw a Catholic chaplain standing over him.

    “Father,” he said, “am I all right?”

    The chaplain didn’t know what to say. “You’ll have to talk about that with the doctors, son.”

    “Father, are my legs okay?”

    “Yes,” the chaplain said. “Sure.”

    By the next afternoon the shock had worn off and the boy knew all about it. He was lying in his cot when the chaplain came by.

    “Father,” the Marine said, “I’d like to ask you for something.”

    “What, son?”

    “I’d like to have that cross.” And he pointed to the tiny silver insignia on the chaplain’s lapel.

    “Of couse,” the shaplain said. “But why?”

    “Well, it was the first thing I saw when I came to yesterday, and I’d like to have it.”

    The chaplain removed the cross and handed it to him. The Marine held it tightly in his fist and looked at the chaplain.

    “You lied to me, Father,” he said. “You cocksucker. You lied to me.”’

    What Makes Men Tick – Gold dust in the Reanimation Library 1

    The Reanimation Library is a small, independent public library in Brooklyn. It collects books that have fallen out of routine circulation and keeps them for their visual content. Outdated and discarded, they have been culled from thrift stores, stoop sales, and throw-away piles, and are given new life as a resource for artists, writers, cultural archeologists, and other interested parties.

    The catalogue on their website has scans from some of the more interesting books. Among them, this 1972 bad boy, What Makes Men Tick. It is, now more than ever, an essential guide for all women on how to best serve as a dutiful wife *ahem*.

    The man who has it all

    Excellent old school infographic

    Yup, that’s exactly what “we” do

    Best. Caption. Ever.

    First lines of novels…

    …harder than you might think. These aren’t all my favourites (some are other people’s) but they’re all good. Bit of  shock, a dash of reversal and you’re hooked.

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984, George Orwell

    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

    If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

    Mother died today. L’Etranger, Albert Camus

    It was the day my grandmother exploded. The Crow Road, Iain Banks

    All this happened, more or less. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

    There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis

    It was a pleasure to burn. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

    In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

    He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad

    He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Scaramouche, Raphael Sabatini

    In a similar vein, spoke with someone yesterday who was saying the trick to blockbusting book titles, at least according to Martin Amis and some of his buddies, is to pick someone else’s bestseller and just change one word.

    The Science of Sleep

    Jeff Warren is the author of a fantastic book called The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. In it, he describes twelve unique states of mind that are available to us over a 24-hour day. Some occur with strict regularity, others are more rare. It’s particularly interesting if, like me, you daydream at night, snooze in the day and occasionally feel like you don’t quite know what’s going on.

    It helps mental health too, mainly because by explaining and eulogizing a state of mind, he takes the fear, worry and stress out of sleeplessness. A bit like when people say: “you’re not afraid, you’re excited”. But better. Here is a piece on insomnia he wrote for Huffington Post:

    Holidays are over and money is tight. But you still need a vacation, a break from the everyday routine and the everyday mind. Consider a head trip, the ultimate in bargain getaways. Most of us think of awareness as a kind of binary proposition: we’re awake and then we’re asleep. But the real mind is far more variegated and textured. Every 24 hours we move through a number of overlooked but still exotic states of consciousness. Some of these destinations are inevitable, others take a bit of work to get there. They all have insights to offer the open-minded traveler.

    First stop: the middle of the night. Most of us wake up half a dozen times a night, at the end of every REM period. Usually these wake-ups are so short we forget they ever happened. But sometimes, especially as we get older, they’re longer. We wake blinking in our beds and stare at the dark ceiling. We listen to the sound of our bed partner’s regular breathing, of the occasional car passing outside, of the wind in the trees. Sleep, for the moment, is out of reach. At this point, though few of us realize it, we are actually confronted with a choice. Choice A – the one most people make – goes something like this: “Oh man, I can’t get back to sleep. I have insomnia. I have to be up early tomorrow, I’m going to be a zombie at work. I’m dead. I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead” followed by hours of agonized tossing and fretting and staring at the LED bars on the clock radio in abject despair. This is the dark night of the soul route, a bit extreme perhaps but nonetheless a scenario many will find familiar.
    But there is another choice – choice B. Choice B draws on some fascinating historical and scientific research that challenges the consensus view of sleep as a continuous, consolidated 8-hour block of time. When University of Virginia historian A. Roger Ekirch began researching sleep in pre-industrial societies he was surprised by hundreds of references to something called “first sleep” and a second or “morning sleep.” It seems as though before the advent of mass artificial lighting – with its attendant suite of late-night consumption opportunities – much of the Western world slept in two sections: once in the early evening, and once more in the early morning. In between our ancestors woke for several hours to a curious state of consciousness that had no name, other that the generic “watch” or “watching.”
    Ekirch’s historical evidence aligns with scientific findings from the respected National Institutes of Health chronobiologist Thomas Wehr. For one month Wehr had a group of volunteers spend the full duration of a 14-hour winter’s night in bed. Every one of the volunteers lapsed into a segmented sleep pattern. Although it took a succession of long winter nights to provoke this kind of sleep, when Wehr published his findings he speculated that segmented sleep may be the default physiological pattern for humans in general – certainly it matched similar patterns observed in modern forager cultures. Sleep, it seems, is more plastic than most of us realize. It can be pressed and squeezed and shaped by culture. Perhaps, Wehr speculated, as we age this older segmented pattern begins to reassert itself.
    A final bit of background for Choice B. During the wakeful portion of the night the brains of Wehr’s subjects showed “striking” chemical correlates. Levels of prolactin rose to twice their daytime levels, a hormone associated with lactating mothers and peacefully roosting chickens. The volunteers described an altered state of “quiescent rest,” a peaceful awareness where time passed very quickly. When Wehr told some of his older friends and colleagues about his findings it apparently changed their whole experience of being awake at night. “It’s amazing,” Wehr told me, “one’s attitude can determine whether the Watch is experienced as a disorder or part of the natural sleep rest cycle.”
    Now let’s return to our scenario, one I relate from personal experience. We wake in the night to the sound of our partner’s breathing, an occasional car driving by outside, the wind in the trees. Fresh from a period of REM, the mind is filled with dream images. “This is natural,” we think. Alertness mixes deliciously with drowsiness. At once heavy and buoyant, we luxuriate in bed and ponder our dreams, looking inside but also out. In Wehr’s words, we are situated in a unique “channel of communication” between dreams and waking life that has been gradually closed off by our productivity-obsessed culture. The Watch is a protected window into the myth-saturated world of dreams. It is a time for prayer and contemplation, of lying in our warm beds and seeping in rare atmospheres. It is, in sum, a kind of wakefulness that should be celebrated, not simply endured.
    So. You’re awake in the night. Tomorrow will come regardless. Why not enjoy the trip?

    The book is as much a journey of self-discovery as anything else. Warren practices lucid dreaming at a retreat in Hawaii, tries to meditate in Scotland (hoots), and mixes the whole things up with digests of psychological literature and interviews with various boffins on the subject.

    It hasn’t had quite as much attention as it deserves, because sometimes the whole ‘altered states’ thing is often seen (including, if I’m honest, me from time to time) as a bit beardy weirdy, not proper science. But sleep? Well, we spend a third of our lives doing it. Who knows what we could be missing out on.

    The picture above is animated on his website and explains the full cycle, but until you get there, here are some of the states of mind he discusses. Some of them may sound pretty familiar:

    • Hypnagogic: a transitionary state before we go to sleep when we often experience mild hallucinations.
    • Slow wave sleep: deep sleep when our body grows and repairs itself. We do seem to dream a little in this state, but the dreams themselves are usually unspectacular. People woken for this phase report dreaming about getting ready for exams and other mundane activities.
    • The ‘watch’: a period of ultra-relaxed wakefulness occurring in the middle of the night that is mainly experienced by cultures whose rest and activity patterns follow the sun.
    • REM dreams: A lighter type of sleep where we do our most creative dreaming. This is where all the bizarre stuff happens.
    • Lucid dreaming: this state is difficult to enter, but magic if you can do it. Suddenly you control everything: you can do what you want and it all seems absolutely real, not like a normal dream at all.
    • Hypnopompic: the mirror image of the hypnagogic – a transitionary stage after we wake up when, again, we can experience mild hallucinations.
    • Trance: well-known to anyone who’s seen a hypnotist in action.
    • Sensorimotor rhythm: a goal of neurofeedback ‘brain training’ that is thought to help people such as those with attention disorders to concentrate. Creates a clear, calm and focussed state of consciousness.
    • The Zone: also called ‘flow’ by psychologists. A high arousal, high concentration state when everything clicks. The Holy Grail for people playing sports.
    • Pure conscious event: very hard to articulate. This is a highly focussed state usually achieved through meditation where the brain’s continuous chatter is dialled right down to nothing and we can just be.

    Nothing on snoring, I note. Still, tireless in my scientific enquiry, I managed to dig up this gem:

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