Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is Literature?

There are three major theories associated with the definition of literature: mimetic, expressive, and didactic. Literature is conceived as holding a mirror to nature and is thus considered mimetic. The expressive theory regards literature as stemming from authors inner being, and hence similarly depends on a notion of mirroring, though here literature reflects the inner soul rather than the external world of the writer. The didactic theory sees literature as a source of knowledge, insight, wisdom, purgation, and perhaps prophecy, and is compatible with both the mimetic, and the expressive theory i.e., literature can depict external and internal realities while at the same time, disseminating valuable knowledge and clarifying emotions.

The Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism suggests that the dominant view of literature as mimetic and didactic is alive today and it rose with ancient Greeks, and was later challenged by the Romantics and then the moderns. Hence, it is important to develop a historical perspective on the idea, activity and definitions of literature.

The idea of literature from the Renaissance onward has for the most part focused on two issues: the moral worth of literature and the nature of its relationship to reality. At the end of the 16th century Sir Philip Sydney argued in The Defense of Poesie that it is the special property of literature to express moral and philosophical truth in a way that rescues them from abstraction and makes them immediately graspable. Matthew Arnold also asserted that the cultural role of literature should be to take over the sort of moral and philosophical functions that had previously been fulfilled by religion. Then we have William Wordsworth's notion that the object of poetry is "truth carried alive into the heart by passion." Besides, John Dryden in Of Dramatick Poesie (1668) put forward the less idealistic view that the business of literature is primarily to offer an accurate representation of the world "for the delight and instruction" of mankind.

The idea of delight sounds fine but when literature encompasses "instruction," it becomes problematic. Perhaps that is why the writers and theorists during the 19th century often felt that to justify literature by pointing to its accuracy and realism was to put it in competition with the sciences, social sciences, journalism, and photography---a competition they believed it could not win. However, by emphasizing the literariness of literature, they would accord it a distinctive and elevated aesthetic status over competing fields and domains, ensuring its survival and dignity in challenging times.

The later 19th century saw a development towards an aesthetic theory of literature, i.e., literature for literature's sake. Literature has also been conceptualized in the light of critical and theoretical literary perspectives which were in vogue at various points in history. In formalist theory of literature or poetics, neither depiction of external or internal reality nor knowledge about existence or refined emotion distinguishes literature from ordinary and scientific discourse: instead literariness (or poeticity) renders literature distinctive and special. This kind of definition of literature was a turn away from the notion of literature as simply a reliable recorder of nature (mimetic); or as stemming from the author's inner being/soul (expressive); or as a source of morality (didactic).

The premise of the New Critics school of literary theory, on the other hand, was that a work of literature should be studied as a separate and self-contained entity, which set the New Critics in opposition to biographical criticism and to those schools of criticism such as Marxist, psychoanalytical, historical -- that set out to examine literature from perspectives external to the text.

Modern theorists often insist that the language of literature, unlike that of newspapers and science, foregrounds (i.e., a position of prominence, as opposed to background) poetic effects (particularly tropes and figures) that range from alliteration, assonance, metaphor, and paradox of rhythm and rhyme.

Hence, the question, “what is literature?” can be answered by imagining literature with such terms as representation, expression, knowledge, poetic or rhetorical language, genre, text, or discourse. As in most situations and contexts, it is always helpful to be more specific about the self, the text, and the culture, when it comes to defining literature.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: Introduction

Reading literature skillfully is a complex and crucial endeavor but Thomas Forster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor makes it lively and entertaining. In an accessible and non-academic prose, Foster creatively engages a variety of genres of literature (novels, short stories, plays, poems, movies, song lyrics, and cartoons), focuses on diverse literary models (Shakespeare’s plays, Greek mythology, fairy tales, the Bible) and enlists some of the major narrative devices (form, irony, paradox, plot, symbol, simile, metaphor, among others) to make reading of literature a gratifying and educational experience.

Please join us on Brooklyn Book Talk and share your approach to reading as we explore this widely acclaimed and insightful guide to literary education.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hoarding and the Holidays

This will be my final post about Stuff. I spent much of yesterday morning discussing the recent spate of crime on Black Friday by crazed bargain hunters. While I spent little time discussing hoarders who are also compulsive shoppers in previous posts, Frost and Steketee do talk about them in the book. Some people are addicted to the high that they get when they make a purchase. Other people are obsessed with how the item will make their life better, or help them to prepare for some kind of disaster. F & S encourage the shopper/hoarder to take non-buying trips to shopping malls and analyze how long it take him/her to get over being upset when s/he does not buy an item. This treatment is a form of desensitizing the hoarder so that s/he will not be driven to buy so easily.

As we all know, American society is obsessed with bargains and shopping. After 9/11, our government essentially asked us to strike a blow against terrorism by hitting the mall. We are told that spending money will help the economy to revitalize itself.

As we enter the 2011 holiday season, it might be a good idea for everyone to reflect and regroup. Look at the possessions that you own, and decide whether you need more, or whether you can donate some to others who have less. Look at your bank account, and reflect on how much happier you will be with less debt and more money saved. Think about whether people really should spent their holidays selling items in a mall rather than with loved ones. While this won't cause hardcore hoarders to have an epiphany, it is a good start for the rest of us.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hoarders and Enablers

I just finished reading Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean about her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding by Jessie Sholl. Sholl's mother was a nurse who worked many hours of overtime, was distanced from both her birth family and children, and was a shopoholic addicted to thrift stores. During Jessie's attempts to clean out her mother's house, she would find unopened bags from thrift stores containing multiples of the same item.

Despite Jessie's attempts to declutter her mother Helen's house and her attempts to persuade her mother to keep the house uncluttered, she was not successful. She even tried to encourage Helen to go to therapy for her hoarding, but Helen refused. Eventually Jessie learned to separate herself from her mother and to lead her own life, not to continue to clean up after her mother.

Ironically, Jessie was confronted by one of Helen's neighbors, who implied that Jessie's neglect was causing Helen to live in squalor. When Jessie eventually joins the site "Children of Hoarders", she meets a woman online who had a similar experience. This woman realized

"after years and years of pleading with her mother, and after countless unsuccessful cleanup attempts - each involving verbal abuse (and threats of physical abuse) by her mother- Starlene has finally given up. As difficult as it is, she knows that she has to detach emotionally. She has to give up the hope of saving her mother in order to save the one person she can: herself." (Dirty Secret, p. 226-7).

Both Jessie and Starlene realized that their mothers needed to make the decision to get help, not them. They also had enough sense to move to other states and reduce contact with their mothers in order save themselves. In Stuff, Frost describes attending a social services-mandated decluttering in Manhattan. The coop to be decluttered was owned by an elderly widow. She lived there with her adult son and her elderly sister. While the widow's husband was alive, he had banned her brother, Daniel, from visiting. Once the husband died, Daniel moved in; his own apartment was so filled with clutter that it was unliveable, and he moved on to cluttering up his sister's apartment.

Frost's description of the apartment was out of a nightmare. When he first approached it, the doorframe was completely covered by roaches because Daniel hoarded objects that he found on the streets of NYC. The owner took a nap on the coach one day, and found herself completely encased in a wall of junk that Daniel had built around her as she slept. The apartment was decluttered four times by city orders, and still she allowed Daniel to return with his clutter.

Do family members enable the hoarders by walking away and allowing them to hoard undisturbed?

Do they enable them by staying and cleaning up after the hoarders, again and again and again?

Is it fair that the burden of decluttering frequently falls on local government?

Is the local government responsible because it is too difficult (and unsafe) for family members to get their loved ones treatment and aid?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hoarding and Security

A re-occuring idea in Stuff is that hoarders hoard as a way of creating a safe environment. Frost and Steketee have one patient who had been sexually assaulted in her own home. She began to fill up the room where the assault had taken place with hoarded items. Eventually the room became so full that she no longer could enter it, and moved onto other rooms. She married, had children, and sought help only after her house was too crowded for her family.

Madeline, Ashley's mother, began to hoard after her own mother threw out items in an attempt to clean up Madeline's room. When Madeline first married Ashley's father, she rented a studio apartment where she stored her hoard. After Ashley's father divorced her, Madeline could no longer afford the studio. Instead, she filled her house with her items. When Ashley went on vacation, Madeline took over Ashley's room, and Ashley returned to find it full of hoarded material that she could not move. Ashley was forced to sleep with Madeline until she could get away to college; Madeline then stored more clutter on Ashley's side of the bed.

Both these examples demonstrate that the hoarder needs her/his hoard to be secure. The hoarder views these items as treasure, and feels a sense of security within the hoard. The needs of other individuals, whether children, spouses, or pets, are immaterial in relation to this need to feel secure.

American society places a great emphasis on possessions. Back in the 1980's t-shirts emblazened with "He who dies with the most toys wins" were popular. What you own defines your worth as a person. One of the most horrifying moments (to me) in the wildly successful first "Sex and the City" movie was when Carrie was given a closet larger than my studio apartment to hold her designer shoes; she was successful because she could not only afford dozens of pairs of pricey footware but could also house them in style. While most hoarders are not piling up designer handbags or clothing, they do define themselves by their possessions, even if the value of these items is not apparent to anyone other than the hoarder.They are what they hoard, and having it around them makes them feel secure.

Animals and Hoarding - Part 2

I find myself wondering if animal hoarding is something that developed in the 20th century. No one could have hoarded animals in the Middle Ages. They could not have afforded to feed the animals. Most people lived in a communal space with relatives who would not have tolerated hoarding. Also, any woman with 200 cats in her hovel would probably been executed as a witch along with the cats.

Why do people hoard animals? Frost and Steketee profile some people who feel that love from animals is purer than that of people. Some do it because they view it as a humanitarian mission. Others feel that they have a psychic bond with animals that draws them to needy animals. Oddly enough:

"One of the most puzzling features of animal hoarding is the lack of recognition of a problem that is way out of control. Many animal hoarders can be standing amid their sick and dying animals, with feces covering the floors and walls, and still insist that nothing is wrong. This type of assertion, in the midst of clear evidence to the contrary, suggests a distorted belief system- a delusional disorder. Delusional disorders are usually highly specific and do not accompany distorted thinking in other area's of the person's life. Perhaps animal hoarding represents a delusional disorder with a special, almost magical connection with animals as the predominant theme." (Stuff, pp. 131-132).

While I am not an expert on hoarding, I wonder if animal hoarding really represents an ability to depersonalize the animal, to turn it into a thing rather than a living animal. Dogs and cats would prefer to be in homes or free in colonies, not stacked into piles of cages. The better animal shelters try to get the animals adopted because they know that a long time in a cage is psychologically destructive for the animals.They also know that large free-ranging packs of animals can become destructive to themselves. Perhaps animal hoarders mentally turn the animals into objects that they can then stack around themselves for protection.

About a year ago, I read an article in an ASPCA publication about how they were working with an animal hoarder. They began by getting him to relinquish a few animals, then analyze how he felt about them being gone. They also worked on cleaning his apartment and getting him pyschological treatment. After reading Stuff, I realized that the ASPCA agents were using a modified version of the decluttering methods further detailed by Frost and Steketee in Buried in Treasure. The ultimate goal by the ASPCA was to get the hoarder down to a few animals and to make sure that he no longer hoarded them in much the same way that treatment of non-animal hoarders hopes to get them down to few possessions and no future build-up.

More from the ASPCA at:

http://onlinedigitalpubs.com/publication/?i=68523&p=2  (article on page 8).

Animals and Hoarding - Part 1

An entire chapter of Stuff is devoted to an animal hoarder. The woman profiled by Frost and Steketee struck me as a somewhat unusual hoarder. She had been going to a therapist for a number of years. The therapist hoarded cats (she ended up with over 200 in cages) and gave the woman free therapy in exchange for cat care. The woman herself ended up hoarding cats and was eventually raided by the ASPCA.

Animal hoarding has received much publicity in recent years. In addition to New York hoarding/torture cases, a non-kill shelter was recently shut down because the caretakers could not care for the large number of animals. There is a TV show on Animal Planet:


that profiles pet hoarders. The ASPCA has even begun an intervention program to identify hoarders, get them to relinquish their animals, and go for treatment for themselves:


While I have have owned multiple cats over the past 20 years, as have members of my family, I'm not a hoarder. I've rescued kittens and cats and adopted them out to good homes. My own cats receive individual attention, medical care, and a clean living environment.

My only personal experience with someone who I would view today as an individual with hoarding tendencies occurred over 10 years ago. I went to visit a friend in another state.She and her boyfriend were living with eight cats. One of the cats was an adult cat who had been trapped from a feral colony. He had an extremely difficult time adjusting to life as an indoor cat away from his colony, and spent all day crouching in the bathroom behind toilet. He did not interact with the two "owners" or with the other seven cats in the apartment. It was clear to me that the cat would have been happier neutered, ear-tipped, and returned either to his original colony or to a new colony. His "owners" seemed to think that all he needed was food, water, and an indoor shelter in order to have quality of life. They viewed the animal as an abstract rather than as a cat who deserved some quality of life. They had rescued him from the streets - he didn't need anything else.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hoarding and Creativity revisited

"Maybe hoarding is creativity run amok."(Stuff, p. 211)

" "She's like a savant", Ashley said. "Her brain can see things mine can't. I can see the beauty in objects, but it's like she sees the atoms of objects. She sees more than anyone I know and attaches more meaning to each piece of it." "(Stuff, p. 221)

A common characteristic of hoarders in Stuff is their creativity. Alvin, Irene, and Madeline all have the ability to make rich connections between people and objects. Daniel saved items in the hopes of someday building with them. Madeline made "stuff structures" - three-dimenional art, out of how she left her clutter.

Unfortunately, hoarders never make final creations with their clutter. They are able to conceptualize in their head but not act upon their creative ideas. Something causes a disconnect between the desire and the will.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Apology for not posting recently

I will post on both hoarding and creativity and hoarding and safety by tomorrow morning.

Please be sure to check back on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hoarding and Creativity

Several of the hoarders mentioned in Stuff were creative people. In one chapter, the daughter of a hoarder described how thanks to her mother, she was able to see the beauty in tree bark; her mother had rapsodizedabout the blues and red of the milk cartons that she hoarded. The two brother hoarders had strong aesthetic senses and hoarded art. Even Daniel hoarded items because he saw their creative potential,although he never utilized them.

All of these people possesed strong, creative impulses that they instead channeled into hoarding. In a sense, hoarding became an expression of their creativity. Once again, I found myself wondering what these people might have done in the MIddle Ages. Irene could have become a librarian in a convent or monastery, and spent her copying books and organizing them in the convent library. The girl's mother could have become a weaver or embroiderer, which would have let her use her strong sense of color. Daniel's ability to find potentially useful objects could havebeen utilized by a military quartermaster. Is it possible that the emphasis on consumerism in American society, missing in warlier societies, helped encourgage these people to hoard because they lacked the willpower to focus on their art instead of consuming and buying? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Hoarding and the Middle Ages - Part 2

Baumeister and Tierney start off Willpower with the comment that

"We have no way of knowing how much our ancestors exercised self-control in the days before beepers and experimental psychologists, but it seems likely that they were under less strain. During the Middle Ages, most people were peasants who put in long, dull days in the field, frequently accompanied by prodigious amounts of ale. They weren't angling for promotions at work or trying to climb the social ladder, so there wasn't a premium on diligence (or a great need for sobriety). Their villages didn't offer many obvious temptations beyond alcohol, sex, or plain old sloth. Virtue was generally enforced by a desire to avoid public disgrace rather than by any zeal to achieve human perfection. In the medieval Catholic Church, salvation depended more on being part of the group and keeping up with the standard rituals rather than on heroic acts of willpower." (p.4)

While I am not a scholar of the Middle Ages, this struck me as somewhat simplistic. A key feature of the Middle Ages was war - in the Holy Land, among the Italian city-states, against the King of France by his vassals, among different claimants for the throne of England. At any point in time, men could be called up to fight for their liege lord, or endure armies trampling their crops and looting their houses.

Farming itself is stressful. A drought, too much rain, or a freak hail storm could quickly destroy a crop, create hunger over the winter, and lead to deaths from starvation or disease brought on by malnutrition. It is also physically taxing in a time when there were few ways to relieve pain from arthritis or poorly-set broken limbs. A simple cut could fester and cause death. A cold could bring on pneumonia. Childbirth fever killed many women.

What may have made a difference in the Middle Ages was diet. Everyone ate unprocessed, organically grown, local food. Peasants could afford few sweeteners (such as honey) or sweet fruits, and subsisted almost entirely on whole grains. If they did eat meat, it was from a free-range, organically fed animal. They may have had little food, but it was healthy. The lack of sugar, the quality of the carbohydrates, and the protein would have led to fewer glucose spikes. This would have led to less depletion of willpower due to inadequent glucose. Diet, not lack of stress in daily life, could have given our medieval ancestors more willpower.

There were few material goods in the Middle Ages. The average person wore home-made clothes, ate home-grown food, and rarely set foot in a shop or even browsed at a marketstall. Members of religious orders were sworn to poverty. The emphasis in society was not on consumption, in part because of religious teachings and in part because resources were so limited. A person who hoarded rocks might find that family members confiscated the rocks to mend walls in pastures. A woman who hoarded cats would be prosecuted as a witch (along with the cats).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Procrastination and Health

One of the constant themes in Willpower is the fact that willpower is depleted when a person's glucose level gets too low. Baumeister's lab tests involve giving people sugar-filled drinks to boost their glucose levels quickly to help with the study results. Outside of a lab, he suggests "it's better to use protein. Get some healthy food into your body, wait an hour, and then the decision won't seem so overwhelming" (p. 247).  

Baumeister also reviews studies done on the health of extreme procrastinators. At the beginning of the studies, the procrastinators were healthier than the non-procrastinators, but the situation reversed as deadlines approached (p. 242-3). Interestingly enough, procrastination has increased over the last four decades, and about 20% of the international population describes itself as procrastinators (p.240).

Many hoarders have kitchens so cluttered that they cannot cook or eat in them. This would definitely impact their ability to eat healthy food as most takeout (in my experience) is considerably less healthy than what people cook at home. As such, hoarders through cluttering may have created situations that acerbate their inability to decide what to discard. If the hoarder views him/herself as a procrastinator, this could affect his/her health, which would once again affect decision-making. If you know that you have trouble making decisions, and putting them off is affecting your health, the lack of energy may cause you to put them off even further.

Strategies to Unclutter

Frost and Steketee offer some strategies for hoarders to use to declutter in Stuff. However, their second book, Buried in Treasures, is a workbook for hoarders and the family, friends, and social workers who want to help them declutter. In both books, the authors encourage the hoarder to sit down with a helper. The hoarder then begins to decided whether to keep and item or to discard it. At the beginning, each decision is very time-consuming for the hoarder, but eventually, as the hoarder declutters, s/he can spend more time decluttering with less time spent on each decision.

An earlier commenter on a post suggested that one reason hoarders don't declutter is because s/he overestimates the amount of time spent on the decluttering process. Frost and  Steketee's exercises are a good way to develop a more realistic idea of how long it will take to declutter. In addition, the exercises are also a good way to build willpower.

Baumeister and Tierney devote an entire chapter in Willpower to the famed explorer Henry Stanley (of Stanley and Livingston fame). Stanley early in life came up with some habits (such as shaving daily even while trecking through a rain forest) that enabled him to lead a disciplined and successful life. While others in his party were going crazy, starving to death, or getting killed in the bush, he perservered. Baumeister and Tierney eventually concluded that you should "use your self-control to form a daily habit, and you'll produce more with less effort in the long run"(p.159).

An ingrained habit requires no decision, and thus uses no willpower. If Irene, for example, spent a month separating her mail into bill and recycle on a daily basis, she will eventually not have to think when she opens those envelopes - she will instinctively start to sort. This will conserve her willpower and let her made additonal decisions.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hoarding, Willpower, and Possibilities Revisited

In their chapter on  decision fatigue, Baumeister and Teirney revisit the idea that people have trouble making decisions because to do so eliminates options. "This reluctance to give up options becomes more pronounced when willpower is low. It takes willpower to make decisions,and so the depleted state makes people look for ways to postpone or evade decisions" (Willpower, p. 99)

Several of the hoarders profiled in Stuff hoard because they see creative possibilites in the things they hoard. When they look at an egg carton, they see a craft project. When they look at a six-foot stack of magazines, they see decoupage materials. Some of them, such Daniel in Stuff, take it to extremes and appear to view everything as of potential creative use. Frost and Steketee give a horrifying description of Daniel's sister's coop, which is overrun by roaches from the garbage that Daniel is hoarding in it; he has already filled his own, and is now taking over her apartment.

For the creative hoarders, throwing something out means a loss of a creative opportunity. They think of themselves as potential artists or inventors or handymen. To thow out the stuff that they have collected means that they have admitted that they are not artists or inventors or handymen. They cannot bring themselves to face this impact on their self-image, this loss of an option of self, so they hoard.

Hoarding, Willpower, and Decision Fatigue, Part 2

As I discussed in my previous post, many hoarders appear to be complex thinkers. When they think A, they then think B, C, D,and E. Irene in Stuff, for example, was unable to throw out her mail because she broke it down into over a dozen categories (instead of bills to pay and to recycle) which tired her out so much, she could not finish deciding what to do with the resulting categorized piles
According to Willpower:
"The link between willpower and decision making works both ways: Decision making depletes your willpower,and once your willpower is depleted, you're less able to make decisions.If your work requires you to make hard decisions all day long, at some point you're going to be depleted and start looking for ways to conserve energy. You'll look for excuses to avoid or postpone decisions. You' ll look for the easiest and the safest option, which is often to stick with the status quo: Leave the prisoner in prison."

Complex thinkers make decisons all the time because sorting through their mind is so complicated. This in itself is tiring. As a result, their willpower is depleted very quickly. It is not to decided about clutter, and to leave it alone. When Frost and Steketee work with hoarders, they have the hoarders declutter for small amounts of time and work their way up to longer periods in order to avoid decision fatigue.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Hoarding, Willpower, and Decision Fatigue Part 1

Several of the hoarders profiled in Stuff display what is described by the authors as "complex thinking". One hoarder, Alvin, complained:

"that his mind was "too difficult to navigate." He went on, "I'ts like a tree with too many branches.Everything is connected. Every branch leads somewhere, and there are so many branches that I get lost. They are too thick to see through." He said that his thoughts came so rapidly and spun from topic to topic so fast that he couldn't keep things straight." (Stuff, p.201)

Frost and Steketee observe that this "getting lost in the complexity of his thoughts is common among hoarders" (p. 202). They seem to more attentive to details, and to retain the details longer than non-hoarders. Irene commented "I'm a detail person, not a big-picture person, but I've been saving the details for so long. I need to put them together" (p. 202). This complexity of thinking also manifested itself in long, rambling speeches, not just in hoarding.

In Willpower, Baumeister and Tierney discuss something called "The Zeigarnick Effect" (p. 80-84). According to a possibly mythical story, a group of researchers went to a restaurant and placed an order with a waiter who remembered their large amount of complex orders perfectly without writing them down (in my personal experience very rare - I usually get nervous if I don't see an order pad). One of the group went back to the waiter after the meal, and he admitted that he didn't remember any of the researchers or their meal. Once the party was served, he forgot them.

Zeigarnick was intrigued by this and began experimenting with this situation. She eventually came up with the Zeigarnick Effect - "Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one's mind. Once this task is completed and the goal is reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop" (Willpower, p. 81). Addition studies on the Zeigarnick Effect have shown the person does not actually have to complete the task - just make a plan. The unconscious mind accepts the plan of action, and lets conscious mind move on (p.83-4).

What if hoarders are somehow trapped in a Zeigarnick effect gone wrong? Are they unable to make a plan, to process the details into the big picture, so that they can move on?

In the second part of this post, we will explore decision fatigue.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hoarding, Willpower, and Possibilities

One of the individuals (Irene) studied in Stuff has trouble throwing things away because to do so would be to limit her possibilities. Frost and Steketee admit that when they experiment in how treat her "one goal of the experiment was to teach her how to tolerate uncertainty regarding unrealized opportunities"(Stuff, p. 42). She needed to learn to accept the fact that she could not take advantage of all possible opportunities. Eventually, Irene learned to give up items although when she did so, she told a story of why she had kept the items. For Irene, "often just telling that story loosened her connection to it and allowed her to let it go"(Stuff, p. 43).

In Willpower, Baumeister and Tierney devote an entire chapter to the to-do list. One of the people they consult for this chapter is man named David Allen, who has come up with the "Getting Stuff Done" method, for which he apparently charges thousands of dollars from celebrity clients like Jim Carrey. According to Allen:

"'When we're trying to decide what to do with our stuff or what movie to see,' Allen says,"we don't think to ourselves, Look at all these cool choices. There's a powerful thing inside that says, If I decide to do that movie, I kill all the other movies. You can pretend all the way up to that point that you know the right thing to do, but once you're faced with a choice, you have to deal with this open loop in your head: You're wrong, you're right, you're wrong, you're right. Every single time you make a choice, you're stepping into an existential void." (Willpower, pp. 86-87).

Each choice will create a new timeline, space/time continuum, etc. In order to choose, people either have to deliberately stay unconscious of the consequences of their choice, or accept them.

  • Is it possible that hoarders are more attuned to this existential void?
  • Are they just more aware of the consequences of their choices?
  • Or, as Stuff seems to imply, are they are unable to distinguish between consequential and inconsequential choices, and treat all of them as consequential?

Hoarding and Willpower - Part 2

Bauermeister and Tierney discuss, in Willpower, the results of years of study on this subject. What they've discovered is that everyone has a certain amount of willpower, which the person then proceeds to use up during a day. If you use up lots of willpower trying to get through the day at a job that you hate, you will have less willpower at other times of the day.

One study followed college students at finals time. The college students (not surprisingly) wore dirty clothes, ate junk food, and neglected to bathe or clean their room. Instead, they either studied or wasted time procrastinating before studying. The exam preparation took all their willpower, and did not leave enough for them to maintain more reasonable standards of cleanliness.

Other studies dealt with decision fatigue. People forced to make many decisions(such as deciding what to add to their bridal registry) tended to finally break down in fatigue. They broke down even more so if they have nothing invested or lacked real control in the answer.

Finally, Bauermeister and Tierney looked at the effect of possiblity on willpower and decisions. I will discuss this more in the next post.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hoarding and Willpower - Part 1

Frost and Steketee also mention that Irene has trouble making decisions about what to keep and what to discard. While everyone has the problem at various times, it is an extreme problem for Irene and other hoarders. One of the ways that the authors train the hoarders who come to them for help is to teach them to make decisions. They have the hoarder analyze how s/he feels after s/he discards an object. S/he rates her level of anxiety immediately after s/he discards the object, then at various times over a week. The hoarder eventually realizes that while s/he initially cannot live without the discarded object,s/he will get over it quickly. This realization is an incentive for her/him to discard more items.

I was recently listening to WNYC and heard a segment about a new book called
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. While my initial reaction was dubious (it seemed to justify dumping sugar in my coffee as well as the muscular Christianity of the Victorians), I soon realized that Baumeister is a reputable social psychologist who based his theories on many different studies. Chapter 4 of his book is entitled "Decision Fatigue", a problem that is affecting most Americans and not just American hoarders. The WNYC discussion can be found here:


I draw parallels between Stuff and Willpower in my next post.

Hoarding and Associations

Frost and Steketee's first subject is a woman named Irene. Irene, a librarian by occupation, came to them for help. She was in the middle of a divorce, and was afraid that her cluttered house would lose her custody of her children. The two authors spent much time with Irene. It became apparent that every item that she saved had some kind of strong association for her. Because she was an extremely social woman, Irene often kept these items because she wanted to give them to other people. In some cases, she thought the items could eventually become useful.

To Irene, every item represented an opportunity, either for her or a friend. Throwing away the item would destroy the opportunity, elimimate a potential life path. Since each item contained such potential, it was difficult for Irene to discard it because to do so would be to also discard a possible future. Frost and Steketee hypothsized"perhaps the idea of a potential opportunity...was better than the reality..." (p.37) Irene also had trouble sorting through mail because she became too involved into sorting it into categories rather than reading it or recycling it.

What I found interesting was that Irene could remember so many associations for the items that she saved. She apparently had an excellent memory, and was capable of creating a complex series of connections for the random objects in her house. By saving clutter, she was building a literal memory palace in her house or a giant scrapbook. The difference between Irene and the average scrapbooker is that she took it to an extreme, and didn't throw in funky colored paper, stickers, or little charms.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

DId people hoard in the Middle Ages?

I chose Stuff for this online book discussion nearly two months ago. During this time, I've had numerous discussions with friends about hoarding. Questions that came up were:

  • has the number of hoarding cases increased in the past decade or is hoarding just recognized and reported more?
  • did hoarding really exist prior to industrialized society?
  • if so, what did people hoard?
  • was hoarding bad in pre-industrialized societies, or viewed as necessary for survival?
Stuff begins with a quote from Dante, where he describes hoarders and wasters battling it out in The Inferno. Although I am not an expert in medieval & Renaissance history, I am assuming that Dante is referring to the wealthy aristocrats and merchants, who accumulated lands and goods in order to advance their families, reward their followers, and who would have been horrified by family wastrals. Nevertheless, did ordinary people hoard before consumerism became the driving force behind society? If not, what drove them to begin doing so? Was the hoarding impulse precipitated by changes social class and structure?

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O.Frost & Gail Steketee

Introduction to Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding
and the Meaning of Things by Randy O.Frost & Gail Steketee:

I am not a hoarder, but I several relatives who are hoarders. As a child, I was terrified of our family basement. It was dark, damp, cold, and crammed full of books, old toys, unused construction material, garish china animals, and furniture belonging to relatives who had moved to Florida and died. I was afraid to let my kitten go down into it because there was a chance that he would never return. One day, my mother gazed upon this disorder in horror from the safety of the stairs, uttered the immortal line “I see dead people’s furniture,” and donated most of the clutter to charitable institutions.

Over the years, I’ve spent much time assisting family members with clutter removal and organization. As a result, I’ve become overly conscious of the amount of type of possessions that I do own; I knew I had a problem when my movers told me, as I paid them off, to go buy some furniture. I became fascinated with why some members of my family hoard, and other are neat and minimalistic.

Frost and Steketee revolutionized not only the study of why people hoard, but also how to treat hoarders. While Stuff was written for the general public, they also co-authored a second book, Buried in Treasures that is a workbook for hoarders, their family members, and anyone who wants to help a hoarder declutter. The case studies in Stuff reveal the positive impulses behind the actions of hoarders – impulses that ultimately become twisted and potentially hazardous. This October book discussion will focus on issues – both biological and environmental in origin - raised about hoarders in Stuff.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Politics of the Armed Lifeboat

Early on in Tropic of Chaos, Parenti identifies the two main strategies by which human civilization must confront the effects of climate change: mitigation and adaptation. He writes, "the watchwords of the climate discussion are mitigation and adaptation - that is, we must mitigate the causes of climate change while adapting to its effects." (10)

Mitigation entails the reshaping of the political economy of energy production in order to drastically cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as well as a shift away from carbon-based forms of energy toward renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and tidal power. "It means closing coal-fired plants, weaning our economy off oil, building a smart electrical grid, and making massive investments in carbon-capture and -sequestration technologies." (10)

By contrast, adaptation entails exactly what you might think it would - changing the patterns of everyday life in order to deal with the effects of climate change that are already happening or are going to happen in the short to medium term. Parenti distinguishes between two basic forms of adaptation - technical adaptation and political adaptation.

Technical adaptation "means transforming our relationship to nature as nature transforms: learning to live with the damage we have wrought by building seawalls around vulnerable coastal cities, giving land back to mangroves and everglades so they can act to break tidal surges during giant storms, opening wildlife migration corridors so species can move north as the climate warms, and developing sustainable forms of agriculture that can function on an industrial scale even as weather patterns gyrate wildly." (10) A recent story in the New York Times highlighted some of the ways in which Chicago is already taking steps to prepare itself for a climate future that will make it feel much more like Baton Rouge than the cold, windy city it is today. City planners are beginning to plant trees native to the South, adding vegetation to roofs, and replacing concrete and asphalt with more permeable, reflective pavements that will allow the city to breathe easier and trap less heat.

Political adaptation, on the other hand, poses a far bigger challenge to states and societies around the world. It will entail, Parenti writes, nothing less than "transforming humanity's relationship to itself, transforming social relations among people. Successful political adaptation to climate change will mean developing new ways of cintaining, avoiding, and deescalating the violence that climate change fuels. That will require economic redistribution and development. It will also require a new diplomacy of peace building." (10-11)

The alternative to such adaptation is what Parenti calls, in a pungent phrase, the "politics of the armed lifeboat." One can easily imagine the rich countries of the Global North respond to the climate crisis by repressing and excluding climate refugees from the Global South and carrying out long-term, open-ended counterinsurgency operations to contain the fallout produced by failed states and societies. While it does not explicitly address the climate crisis, the essential 2006 film Children of Men offers a chilling depiction of what this kind of society might look like.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Somalia and "The Catastrophic Convergence"

In a world filled with crises, the current conflict-exacerbated famine in Somalia is perhaps the most dire. The entire Horn of Africa - Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti - is in the throes of an historic drought that threatens the lives of hundreds of millions throughout the region. But no country has suffered worse than Somalia, where the effects of the drought have been made drastically worse by the ongoing conflict between a barely functional central government and an Islamist militant group known as the Shabab. According to reports, tens of thousands of Somalis have already died, and an estimated 500,000 children are on the verge of starvation. As the New York Times reports, Somalis are faced with the kind of Hobson's choice that will become more prevalent in an era of climate change:

This leaves millions of famished Somalis with two choices, aside from fleeing the country to neighboring Kenya or Ethiopia, where there is more assistance. They can beg for help from a weak and divided transitional government in Mogadishu, the capital. Just the other day there was a shootout between government forces at the gates of the presidential palace. “Things happen,” was the response of Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, Somalia’s new prime minister.

Or they can remain in territory controlled by the Shabab, who have pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and have tried to rid their areas of anything Western — Western music, Western dress, even Western aid groups during a time of famine.

While the entire region struggles to confront the drought, two areas controlled by the Shabab are the only two in the region where the United Nations has declared a famine. Somalis report that the militants are diverting rivers away from poor villages to farmers who pay them taxes, and have forced many to live in camps outside Mogadishu. According to reports, the camps are violent, squalid places almost completely cut off from international food aid.

The disaster unfolding in Somalia is a prime example of what Christian Parenti calls "the catastrophic convergence":

Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis. The current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence. I call this collision of political, economic, and environmental disasters the catastrophic convergence. By catastrophic convergence, I do not merely mean that several disasters happen simultaneously, one problem atop another. Rather, I argue that problems compound and amplify each other, one expressing itself through another.

Societies, like people, deal with new challenges in ways that are conditioned by the traumas of their past. Thus, damaged societies, like damaged people, often respond to new crises in ways that are irrational, shortsighted, and self-destructive. In the case of climate change, the prior traumas that set the stage for bad adaptation, the destructive social response, are Cold War-era militarism and the economic pathologies of neoliberal capitalism. Over the last forty years, both these forces have distorted the state's relationship to society - removing and undermining the state's collectivist, regulatory, and redistributive functions, while overdeveloping its repressive and military capacities. This, I argue, inhibits society's ability to avoid violent dislocations as climate change kicks in. (p. 7-8)

Somalia and the Horn of Africa was ground zero for the Cold War struggle between the U.S. and the Soviet bloc (with the Cubans playing a key role) in the late 1970s. The dueling powers intervened war between Somalia and Ethiopia, now on one side and now on another, in an attempt to set up a sphere of influence in a strategically important region. Parenti details the history of the war, the machinations of the superpowers, and the disintegration of the Somali in Chapter 7 of Tropic of Chaos.

Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence

While a band of hardcore denialists continues to question the existence of human-induced climate change, almost all scientists agree global warming is real, that it is driven primarily by human activity, and that it threatens the stability of the ecological systems that sustain life on Earth. Many climatologists concur that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide above the level of 350 parts per million (ppm) is the threshold at which disruptive and irreversable climate change becomes very likely. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) estimates that we have reached 390 ppm, the highest concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 10,000 years, far higher than the approximately 280 ppm the atmosphere contained before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. With so much carbon dioxide in the atmopshere, a rise in the planet's temperature and the ecological disruptions that will accompany it may already be locked in place.

As Christian Parenti warns in Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, a very grim future awaits humanity if the current carbon-based global energy economy is not radically changed, starting now.

This month at Brooklyn Book Talk, we will use Parenti's book as a starting point to discuss the climate crisis, how climate change threatens to make existing political, economic, and social conflicts even worse, and what our country and the world need to do in order to avoid potential catastrophe.

Brooklyn Public Library currently has one copy of the book in circulation, so if you'd like to read it you will have to place the title on hold through our catalog.

Christian Parenti has written widely on this topic, so while you are waiting for your copy of the book, check out some of his other publications and appearances on the Internet. He recently appeared on Democracy Now! to promote the book and talk about climate change:

He's also been on the excellent Against the Grain radio program on Berkely's KPFA 94.1, in addition to the also excellent Behind the News program on WBAI 99.5 in New York.

Friday, July 29, 2011

How to Interpret Literature: The Future

In the twentieth century, several new approaches to the study of literature have challenged some of the most enduring philosophical assumptions behind literary criticism that had persisted since Plato and Aristotle.

Some of the major new approaches are: Structuralism, Formalism, Semiotics/Linguistics, New Criticism, Feminism, Marxism, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Hermeneutics, Reader-Response/Reception, Psychoanalytic, Archetypal/Myth, Deconstruction, Post-Structuralism, Post-Modernism, Avant- Garde/Surrealism/Dadaism, New Historicism, Post-Colonialism/Race/Ethnicity, Gay/Lesbian/Queer, Cognitive Poetics, Ecocriticism/Green Studies, Ecofeminism, Genre Criticism, Autobiographical, Stylistics, Narratology, Travel Theory, and Cultural Studies.

Julian Wolfreys in Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide, notes that “now different voices could be heard, different identities come forth other than those implicitly understood (Christian, humanist, western, male, European) in the conventional institutional approaches to literary study.” Diverse approaches to literary studies, claims Wolfreys, have developed themselves not without some often bitter struggles which still persist, as a means of comprehending, acknowledging and respecting heterogeneity and difference, rather than seeking to reduce the difference to one identity which is either a version of ourselves, or otherwise as an other which cannot be incorporated into a single identity; in the face of modern literary theory, adds Wolfreys, it is impossible to maintain a calm, undisturbed vision of a ‘single community.’

Wolfreys also cites Michael Payne who points out that theoretically informed approaches to literature have led to both the broadening of the literary canon, the texts we study, and to the raising of questions, concerning race, class, creed, color, gender, sexuality, national identity, which previously had not been asked—which could not be asked because of the implicit ideological and philosophical assumptions behind the study of the “great literature.” Payne points out that forty years ago it would hardly have been appropriate to raise the issue of either Shakespeare’s or Dickens’s depiction of Jews or women.

All questions of what has been termed ‘literary theory’ come down therefore, as Martin McQuillan suggests in the above mentioned anthology--to “questions of reading.”
Claims McQuillan: “Reading suggests a manner of interpreting our world and the texts which comprise that world. No one single manner of reading will do, so heterogeneous is the world, so diverse are its peoples and cultures, so different are the texts, whether literary, cultural or symbolic by which we tell ourselves and others about ourselves, and by which others speak to us about their differences from us, whether from the present, from some other culture, or from the past, from whatever we may think of as our own culture.”

Similarly, the most current edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism suggests that “this transaction which we provisionally call ‘reading’ or ‘interpretation,’ typically involves such activities as personal response, appreciation, evaluation, historical reception, explication, exegesis, and critique. Not surprisingly, the master words interpretation and reading are themselves debatable.”

The Norton Anthology also offers selections which differ markedly in how they characterize interpretation and reading: “Friedrich Schleiermacher draws a detailed account of interpretation both as historically informed grammatical explication and as psychological identification with the author. His view contrasts with the perspective of Fredric Jameson, who advocates an elaborate three-phase process of interpretation focused specifically on ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts. And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a mode of exegesis wherein the reader's rewriting or restaging of the text replaces the original with an interpretive allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes ‘misreading.’ That highly competent theorists can propose completely different models of reading fuels continued theoretical debate about interpretation.”

The complexity of literary phenomena is not easy to tame but what Plato suggested about an unexamined life, not only provides an enduring article of faith for all philosophers but also for all true lovers of literature.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How to Interpret Literature: The literary legacy of ancient Greece

Scholars of literature suggest that one can find instances of literary criticism as far back as we can find poems such as epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and the lyric poetry of Alcaeu and Sappho in ancient Greece. Homer began his epics with an invocation to the muse, thereby acknowledging that they were written with the help of “divine inspiration”—an idea which will play a considerable role in subsequent history of poetics. Instances of literary criticism can also be identified in critical remarks of Greek dramatists and rhetoricians such as Simonides, Solon and Pindar (that poetry is instructive, that it comes natural to a genius, that it has to be learned by art, that it consists of clever use of words), or in the dramatic festivals of Athens (500 B.C.), which were organized as contests requiring an official judgment about the best drama.

The Athens of 500 B.C. is also the period of great dramatists Euripedes, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, and the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the schools of rhetoric, and the rise of Athenian democracy and power. In one contest, Aeschylus’ drama is pronounced victorious as it “embodied a peculiar kind of intelligence required for the art of tragedy,” which is deliberately contrasted with the “idle talk” and “fine-drawn quibbles” of the philosopher Socrates. The quarrel between poetry and philosophy is as old as classical Greece, which also means that the considerations of truth and beauty, emotionality and practicality are issues of much contention in matters literary. Pascal was right: “The heart has its reasons, which reason knows not.”

Thought, motive and emotion, indeed are fused in complex (conscious and unconscious) ways in literary creation and criticism. The creative act itself, argues Habib, is a critical act, not only involving inspiration but some kind of self-assessment, reflection, judgment and social pragmatics. In composing his poetry, a poet would have made certain judgments about the themes and techniques to be used in his verse, and what reaction they might evoke in a particular audience.

The Greeks, however, were not entirely focused on the purely technical dimensions of a given text. They wanted to know why a text was written, for whom it was written, and what religious, moral or political purposes motivated it. They also considered historical and cultural circumstances implicit in the text, in addition to issues of its style, language, structure, and the deployment of rhetorical and literary techniques. Literature for them was an important element in the educational process and its ramifications extended over morality, religion, and the entire sphere of civic and political processes. Moreover, in the Greek democratic process, only the adult male citizens were eligible to participate in the decision-making process while women, resident aliens, and a vast number of slaves were permanently excluded. The "creatively conflicting" literary theories of Plato and Aristotle were shaped in the context of these specific epistemological, ethical, political and economic struggles in ancient Greece. The legacy of the two great philosophers still endures in one form or another, which made Samuel Taylor Coleridge say that "one is born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How to Interpret Literature: Introduction

In our world, where political propaganda is wide spread in all cultures, it has become increasingly more important that we read and interpret more critically, and be progressively more mindful of the self and the world, the text and the context, the conscious and the unconscious, the past and the present, and their inevitable inter-connections.

As M.A.R. Habib in his critically acclaimed book, A History of Literary Criticism and Theory, claims: "To study the Bible, Plato, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, or Roman Law, to study Jewish of African American History, to examine the Quran and the long history of the Western world's fraught engagement with Islam, is to study the sources of the conflicts and cultural tendencies which inform our present world.”

To evolve our understanding of the self, the texts, and the world, it is therefore imperative that we look skillfully and critically, at the multitude of underlying texts--religious, economic, historic, cultural, social, political, literary, aesthetic—and especially those which furnish our identity, our worldview, and not infrequently, our significant reading choices. The dangers of misreading, miseducation and misinterpreting can not only lead to personal stagnation but sometimes cultural conflict and world wars.

And I would argue that identity, reading choices and interpretations, are quite frequently intertwined. We are what we read, and often, we read what we are. Mark Twain, one of the keenest observers of humanity at large, noted the relationship (sometimes unconscious) between identity and reading choices:

"If you know a man's nationality you can come within a split hair of guessing the complexion of his religion: English--Protestant; American--ditto; Spaniard, Frenchman, Irishman, Italian, South American, Austrian--Roman Catholic; Russian--Greek Catholic; Turk--Mohammedan; and so on. And when you know the man's religious complexion, you know what sort of religious books he reads when he wants some more light, and what sort of books he avoids, lest by accident he get more light than he wants. In America if you know which party-collar a voter wears, you know what his associations are, and how he came by his politics, and which breed of newspaper he reads to get light, and which breed he diligently avoids, and which breed of mass-meetings he attends in order to broaden his political knowledge, and which breed of mass-meetings he doesn't attend, except to refute its doctrines with brickbats. We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after truth. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen."

But since reading choices, and hence, identities can evolve--from egocentric, ethnocentric to worldcentric--so can the interpretations of texts and the world. Evolution of consciousness means evolution of meaning and vice versa. Human history is saturated with mostly identity-based (ethnocentric meaning system) conflict and our species is still spending trillions on technologies of violence across nations, at the expense of health, education and well-being of all. And in most cases, not without the consent of the majority of its citizens (even Hitler was democratically elected). And consent is usually based on some interpretation of the texts and rhetoric deployed which "in-form" and empower the will. Whether one believes in "free will" or not, the propaganda chief of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering was uncannily predictive when he stated: “Naturally the common people don't want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along to fight a war. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

War has been a constant in history and modernity, which verifies Goering's hunch about humans. Hence, it should be indisputably clear that learning to interpret more critically and think more humanely, is no longer a luxury but a necessity, which could be vital to the survival of the human race. As African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates recently said, "the challenge of mutual understanding among the world's multifarious cultures will be the single greatest task that we face, after the failure of the world to feed itself."

Gates challenge can only be adequately met with a truth-seeking, tribe-transcending, growth-oriented (rather than identity-fixated), and planetary-conscious education across-cultures. No matter what identity one subscribes to, or what philosophy one follows, in the end what really matter is: "has human consciousness evolved?" An educated mind is difficult to define but perhaps a capacity to think critically and compassionately, and a willingness to apply multiple perspectives on matters meaningful, regardless of one's political, ethnic, national or religious identity, should be among its major attributes.

So please join us for an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and open minded exploration of some of the major literary theories and their influence on interpretation and education. Excerpts and insights will be posted from some of the major texts on literary theory and criticism.

"We cannot be good citizens,” stresses Habib, “either of a particular country or of the world--by succumbing to the endless forces operating worldwide that encourage us to remain ignorant, to follow blindly, whether in the form of blind nationalism, blind religiosity, or blind chauvinism in all its manifold disguises. One of the keys to counteracting those forces which would keep us in darkness lies in education, and in particular in the process of reading, of close, careful, critical reading."

Acquiring the knowledge, practicing the skills, and continually cultivating the attitude to read diverse texts more openly and critically, could not be more urgent. Hope to hear from you--the why and the wherefore of your reading choices, values and interpretations.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Gentrification & Illegal Conversions

One of the themes in the book (which is is that illegal conversions are the start of gentrification. In one chapter, the author describes how she lived in an illegally converted loft, and lied to inspecting firemen. In another section, businesses complain how families living in illegal conversions are driving them out of the neighborhood because the renters complain about noise and truck exhaust.

This was an interesting contrast to recent local news articles about illegal conversions in the outer boroughs. Due to a lack of affordable housing, many homes in Queens and Brooklyn are being broken up into illegal SRO's or multiple-person apartments which lack suitable fire exits. Several of these houses have recently burned down, killing tenants and endangering firemen. as a result, there is great public outcry for crackdowns on illegal conversions:

Is the proliferation of outer borough illegal conversions a sign that the outer boroughs are gentrifying? Or are they a sign that housing has become so expensive that they are no legal alternatives for people who want to have a place to live off of the street? Please comment.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Street Fairs

One example of suburbanization put forward by the book is the blandness of NYC street fairs. These fairs are apparently run by a few companies and tend to showcase the same merchants. This is why last weekend, when I went to the Union Square street fair, I saw three booth selling fries, arepas, grilled corn, etc. Most fairs don't have local merchants because they aren't hired by the fair organizers. The sole exception at the fair that I attended was a small cannolli booth run by Williamsburg's famous Fortunato Brothers (I bought a chocolate one).

Street fairs were originally run by churches and local groups, such as block associations, to raise money for these organizations. People who lived in the neighborhood arranged the event, reached out to local artists and vendors, and actually worked tables. The money was then spent locally by the organization and by the vendors. Now that they are being contracted out, much of the money from the fair goes to the street fair company, and less to the organization and the vendors.

There are still some more locally oriented street fairs throughout NYC. A listing of a few, as well as ideas of how to revitalize the street fair are contained within this report by The Center for an Urban Future:


How do you feel about street fairs? Do you love them, hate them, avoid them, enjoy the fires? Please comment.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Help - my neighborhood is changing!- The Rise of Real Estate and the Decline of the Industrial City - Part 2

A commentor on my previous post mentioned that gentrification problems were not just confined to cities. Noel Perrin wrote an essay called "The Rural Immigration Law" (reprinted in his collection Best Person Rural) about this very problem. He describes a hypothetical couple named Don and Sue who move to a small New Hampshire village where previously they and their children had spent weekends in their summer house. After a short period of time:

"But there are some problems. The first one Sue is conscious of is the school. It's just not very good. It's clear to Sue almost immediately that the town desperately needs a new school building -and also modern playground equipment, new school buses, more and better art instruction at the high school, a different principal. ...only about 40 percent of the kids who graduate from that high school go on to any form of college. The rest do native things, like becoming farmers and mechanics, and joining the Air Force.

Pretty soon Sue and Don join an informal group of newcomers in town who are working to upgrade education. All they want for starters is the new building (2.8 million dollars) and a majority of their kind on the school board." (p52.)

While Perrin aims his comments at rural gentrification, the same process takes place during gentrification in cities. While it is currently chic to raise chickens in the city and start rooftop farms, noisy uncullled roosters, the smell of unclean pens, and an future avian flu epidemic could lead to an eventual anti-farming backlash.

Oddly enough, one of the first anti-gentrification backlashes is coming from Greenpoint and Williamsburgh, which may stop issuing liquor licenses in an attempt to prevent those neighborhood from taken over by bars and drunken partiers (as opposed to crowing roosters and pooping hens):


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Help - my neighborhood is changing!- The Rise of Real Estate and the Decline of the Industrial City

Matthew Schuerman discusses in this chapter how industrial areas (such a Williamsburg's Schaefer Landing, which the Royal Wine Company wanted to use for its expansion) were turned into residential housing. This comes at a price, since small businesses are being displaced and luxury housing is being built where they used to stand. Often these small businesses (like Royal Wine) leave the state, taking with them jobs and NYC tax revenues. Others, like the businesses that will be displaced by the Willets Point project, may go under.

Small businesses in NYC are endangered by developers who want to turn their land into condos or malls. They are also endangered by the expectations of the people who move into the gentrifying neighborhood:

"After a few years of illegal conversions and BSA gerrymandering, the manufacturers that remain in these areas start fielding complaints from the neighbors - idling trucks, bad smells, noises late at night - and parking tickets suddenly increase. City planning commissioners then jump in with a broad rezone, arguing that they are merely codifying what is already taking place on the ground." (p.133)...'The cop writing a ticket for one of your trucks is just doing his job. He doesn't know that the person who called to complain is upstairs in an illegal conversion." (p.136)

Back in 2002, I read an article about how the gentrification of its surrounding neighborhood was causing troubles for the Gillies Coffee Company roasting plant. Apparently the people who had moved into the neighborhood were shocked to find that the coffee plant was causing the air to smell like coffee.



Since I lived across from three power plants, one known officially as the most polluting power plant in NY State, and my air was smelling more and more like something burning, I envied the Gillies neighbors. I would have loved to smell coffee.

I was also somewhat stunned to find that one of reasons that the Fulton Fish Market was moved to the Bronx was that they tourists complained about the smell of the fish:


My questions:

Is the city actually encouraging illegal conversions (currently a hot topic) by reducing its industrial and increasings its residential zoning in areas where this is prevalent?

Should people be expected to do some research before they move into a neighborhood?

Please comment!

The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World's Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? Ed. Jerilou Hammett and Kingsley Hammett (and happiness)

For the past month, I have been reading about, blogging about, and discussing happiness. One of the factors that contributes to happiness is a sense of place. New York City has traditionally been a city where people have tried to find happiness through a sense of belonging. Some people emigrate from small towns in the search of endless sources of culture, or acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Other people emigrate from another country in the hopes of leading a more fulfilling life.

I moved back to NYC in 1994. In the seventeen years that I have lived in the city, I have seen many changes in not just Brooklyn, but also in Queens and Manhattan. The essays in this book are not only personal accounts by people about how they have seen "their" New York change, but also analyses of how forces within the city have caused the city to change. For the next month, we will discuss how the changes in the city are increasing and decreasing its inhabitants senses of happiness.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Ever After - Happiness & the Royal Wedding

Nick Duerden, a Guardian UK reporter (and twenty-first century dad) is upset over the message being sent to his daughter by the upcoming Royal Wedding.


His daughter is in her princess phase, when she spends her free time reading about princesses, dressing like a princess, watching movies about princesses, etc. He appears to be waiting it out for her to grow into a sane phase. Unfortunately, her princess phase is coinciding with the Royal Wedding.

Why do girls think that becoming a princess will help them to live happily ever after? The unhappy life and tragic death of Princess Diana and the high rate of divorce in the British royal family alone is evidence that marrying into royalty does not lead to happiness. Other royal families don't seem to have better marital track records.

The most frightening part of the article was when Duerden discussed an American woman who runs a very pricey princess camp for American pre-teen girls. Her students might be better off taking an American etiquette course to help them in the American business world (for starters, we handle a knife and fork differently than a European). Their chances that they will have to support themselves are much higher than their chances of marrying into royalty. After watching Fergie fall into major debt, these girls would be better off if they got decent jobs and found a fiscally responsible partner. I was raised to believe (possibly erroneously) that as American citizen, I don't curtsy to royalty; I find it very disturbing that these pre-teens are being taught to do so.

In fact, even these princess camp attendees face a possible future of poverty. According to the many publications on the non-profit Wiser Women's website:

a large number of American women have not saved enough for retirement, are postponing retirement, and face lives of poverty after they stop working. Many of these women lacked the financial knowledge and impulse control needed to build up retirement savings and to keep themselves out of debt. They had expected their husbands to provide them with financial security.

Why do women pay to attend princess camps? Should parents support their daughters' princess phase, or try to cut it short? Please comment.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Buy Some Happiness- Indulge in a modest splurge

When I when went on line today to post, I noticed an artcle written by Katherine Rosman, a Wall Street Journal Finance writer:


The author's husband had criticized her need to incorporate a $4.00 latte into her daily commute. My initial reaction was the daily latter could fall into Rubin's suggestion of "Indulge in a modest splurge" (p.174) However, Rosman's husband calculated that she was spending $1000/year on lattes. This moved the latte out of the modest splurge category and into the somewhat pricey passion category.

As I read the article, I realized that in addition to the drink, the whole Starbucks experience was important to the writer. It was, in a minor way, her equivalent of going to the mythical "Cheers" to buy a drink. Entering the Starbucks, being waited on, possibly even that caffeine jolt made up for her grueling morning commute. She wasn't spending money on the item but on the experience.

All the books that I've read about happiness assert that spending money on experiences, not objects, will bring you more happiness. Can little indulgences, like coffee, be viewed as experiences rather than as material consumption? Or will the author ultimately be happier if she put that money aside and invested it monthly in an IRA rather than spend it on a decadent beverage?

Please comment.

Happiness is Pursuing Your Passions

In September, Rubin decides to find happiness by pursuing a passion. In her case, her passion is reading:

"Although reading was one of my most important priorities and certainly one of my greatest pleasures, I never really gave it much thought. I wanted more time to read-more books, with more enjoyment. To do so, I gave myself permission to read at whim." (p.228)

She decided to stop reading a book if she finds it uninteresting, rather than force herself to finish it. She weeds her bookcases, and donates unwanted books. She realizes that she hates books about people who have been unjustly accused, and resolves that she won't read them.

This chapter had a great impact on me. For years, I have felt guilty for reading books when I am not commuting. I have always felt that my time off a train should be spent more productively - i.e. socializing, vacuuming (a big need in recent years), doing laundry, balancing my checkbook, etc. Whenever I did read a book, I always had a thought in the back of my mind about what I should be doing instead of reading. Now that I view it as pursuing a passion, I am definitely happier.

Rubin also inspired me to weed my books. While I do this annually, I realized that I still owned many books that I hadn't read in years but did not want to get rid of because to do so would be to admit that my priorities have changed. I have become a different person, one who is NOT going to rereadthe several dozen books currently sitting in a corner of my living room. I'm just not that interested in the Kalevala or Greek philosophy or certain kinds of medieval poetry. Admitting this does not mean that I am a bad person or that my brain is rotting - I've just changed. While I am not happy about the effort that it will take to lug the books into to my branch so that BPL can sell them online to earn money, I am happy that they will be gone soon and not silently reproaching me whenever I sit on my couch.

Last weekend, I helped my sister with her final decluttering. Today, I urged another sister to go through her books and donate them to declutter HER house. I realized that getting rid of books is a way to become a new person. I give myself permission to move away from past interests in order to pursue new ones. I also give myself more free time since I now longer have to dust the books.

Why do people feel guilt over getting rid of books? Is it because of respect for the written word and the ideas they contain? Or is it a refusal to admit that they have changed and moved beyond these books? Please comment.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Joy of Work

Yesterday's New York Post had an article about the joy of working: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/why_we_love_the_rat_race_93i0tIPOA4TF5t9cuRMiCK

According to the author (who is reviewing a book called "Rush: Why you need and love the rat race" by Todd Buchholz), Americans are actually happiest when they are at work. This is because work gives them a buzz - they get into a flow that amkes them happy. He contrasts this with men in France, who are more likely to be retired in their 60's and whose cognitive function has decreased as a result of not working.

Rubin also discusses the "flow " concept (taken from Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow." However, she ties it into the creative process. The NY Post author seems to view any intellectually engaging work as causing "flow." One of thereasons that I found this article interesting is that I am currently reading Robert B. Reich's "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future".

Reich does not appear to be a fan of the rat race:

"The harder we worked to buy these things, the less time and energy we had to enjoy what we bought. American culture sent an increasingly mixed message: Work like mad but enjoy life to the fullest...The argument on behalf of hard work has always been premised in something of a lie. People are led to believe that one day they will find satisfaction, if not in the work itself, when they have finally worked hard enough to afford and accumulate what they desire. But that day never seems to arrive." (p. 87).

Reich's premise is that people will never be satisfied because the economy is stacked against the middle class. The middle class has developed an idea of how should live to be happy. Unfortunately, the growing class divide, and the outsourcing or elimination of jobs will prevent the middle class from reaching these standards. As a result, people will work themselves to death and die, miserable, unable to achieve their perceived economic goals.

Buchholz, in return, is encouraging people to work just for the joy of working. While this sounds puritanical, Buchholz may just be a practical guy. More and more baby boomers are having to postpone their retirement because of the recession. Why not make it a virtue (a way to keep your brain healthy) rather than as a necessity.

Yet more decluttering

On Saturday, I helped my sister with her final decluttering. We drove a huge carload of clothes, craft supplies, and school supplies to a family shelter in Queens. They were somewhat staggered by the amount of donated items, but they seemed happy.

Then today, I read one of my favorite blogs by an author named Vivian Swift:

Vivian also decluttered, but did it with much more style. She donated her items to an animal shelter thrift shop, then went for a hike with a shelter dog, and then bought loads of tasty Dutch baked goods. I knew we should have celebrated our final decluttering trip with a coffee run. Vivian's commenters have some interesting ideas about what makes them happy (it isn't always decluttering).

Monday, April 11, 2011

Happiness & Decluttering

As part of her project, Rubin decided to declutter her apartment. She started with her own closet and gradually worked her way through her house. The decluttering actually provided her with a great deal of satisfaction. The visual emptiness of the space cleared her mind. She also felt as if she had more clothes since she had kept only the ones she lived and wore, which she could easily find.

I am a big fan of decluttering. Over the years, I've assisted family members in decluttering their houses and apartments. Every time I do so, I then return home and do a quick declutter of my apartment. Every season, I go through clothes and donate unwanted ones. However, I do think decluttering can be taken to an extreme. I always wait a day before I finally donate or discard an item to see if I'll change my mind.

The perceived need to live in a spartan environment can cause as much unhappiness as living in an overly cluttered one. Sometimes we need some clutter or disorder to humanize our environment. One of the few places where I've seen this need acknowledged is on a voluntary simplicity blog that I follow: http://www.choosingvoluntarysimplicity.com/less-stuff-doesnt-equal-happiness-either/

During the course of Rubin's decluttering, She offers to clean out the closets of her friends. At one point, her husband even chastises her for immediately offering to declutter the apartment of their dinner hosts.While I think that it is great that Rubin wants to share happiness with her friends and loved ones, she also might want to look at the several compassionate and sensible posts on decluttering in that voluntary simplicity blog.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Memories and Happiness

One of Rubin's happiness resolutions involved creating "a treasure trove of happy memories". Since she is apparently an extremely organized person as well as a devoted mother, she creates memory file boxes for her daughters. She builds her own scrapbooks with lulu.com. She hires a professional photographer to take family portraits.

I am not photo person. With the exception of my brother and some friends who are talented photographers, I can tolerate very people who show me large amounts of personal photos. My happy memories are triggered by a certain angle or shade of light, by music, and by food.

However, I realize that (in the US at any rate), I am abnormal. Many Americans greatly value family movies, photos, and scrapbooks. Whenever I walk into a Michaels, I am dazzled by the complexity of American scrap booking. My photos are tossed into a plastic milk crate on a high shelf in a closet. As I read Rubin's book, I found myself wondering if I am missing out on the happy memories because I am not a photo person.

My questions are:

  • do people actually use these keepsakes to remind themselves of happy memories?

  • are tangible treasure troves needed to create memory treasure troves?

  • is the need to always catch that moment a cause of unhappiness for some people?

Please comment. My next post will be on decluttering.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Money & Happiness

Rubin's July chapter, "Buy Some Happiness", focuses on the relationship of happiness and money. She looked at studies about the subject and concluded: "...studies show that people in wealthier countries do report being happier than people in poorer countries, and within a particular country, people with more money do tend to be happier than those with less. Also, as countries become richer, their citizens become less focused on physical and economic security and more concerned with goals such as happinesss and self-realization. Prosperity allows us to turn our attention to more transcendent matters - to yearn for lives not just of material comfort but of meaning, balance, and joy." (p.166)

Back in 2008, I led a discussion on this blog about Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss. Two of the happiest countries in the book, countries who actually had Gross National Happiness Indexes, were Nepal and Thailand. Neither country is rich, and their inhabitants make considerably less than Americans, who scored much lower on the happiness scale in Weiner's book. This may be connected to Rubin's finding that people are happier when they live in a neighborhood with people who make similar salaries and have a similar level of job achievement. Like is apparently happier with financial like.

Rubin eventually concludes that "both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness." (p.169) She also decided that indulging in a modest splurge will help increase her happiness provided that she spent it in a way specifically designed to do so, but that eventually the happiness buzz will wear off and she will have forgotten about it.

I personally don't agree with Rubin about some of her conclusions about money and happiness. I spent a number of years living in a cheap studio apartment in a very nice (but still inexpensive at the time) neighborhood. I paid little rent. I also had almost no natural light due to a dearth of windows. When I moved to my current apartment, I was overwhelmed by actually seeing sunlight. Every day, I feel happinees and gratitude over the fact that I had enogh money to move to an apartment with more than one window. I have friends who years afterwards still talk about how moving to their current (and more expensive) apartment changed their life for the better. None of us are living in luxury, but our current abodes are much better than our old ones. We are still grateful for the fact that we had enough money to move.

In July, Rubin decides to spend her money on needful things that will make her happy. For example, she buys some new shirts that are her dream shirts. This lets her have a small number of clothes that she wears regularly rather than many that she ignores because they aren't right. She also buys an expensive blender, which she uses ever day. In short, she tries to spend on quality items that will also improve her quality of life.
However, she also seems to focus mostly on how these things and consumption in general cause happiness.