Sunday, January 17, 2010

Breakfast Reading, and "Inversions"

Breakfast out on weekend mornings is usually about more than just getting food. I usually make my way to my favorite spot in Frenchtown very early--around 7:00 in the morning, because the place is usually filled by 7:15 or 7:20. In the wintertime it's a little quieter, but not much; in the summertime, there are lines of people waiting outside to get in, even though I could count at least three other breakfast places within a half a mile--two of them in the same vicinity as the cafe. There's something special about the place--some combination of good food, ambiance, and service. I took my sister to visit this place when she came from Los Angeles; when we left, she said, "I can see why you make the effort to come here." Even if I don't talk to anyone while I'm there, I somehow feel like I'm among friends. It's a bit hard to explain.

The breakfast trip always requires reading material if I'm not meeting anyone there. I usually haven't been awake for very long when I'm getting myself together to leave, so I'm often staring at the bookshelves with bleary eyes. Lest you, like some folks, think I am odd for heading out to a restaurant on my own with a book--if I stay in the cafe long enough, I find myself looking at a row of people at the counter having their breakfast--all with books in their hands. It's hardly a unique phenomenon. I also see couples do this--they get a table, pull out the New York Times or Philadelphia Inquirer, and start going through the Sunday paper. No eye contact, no conversation. But I imagine this is what they do at home. Isn't that what many families do at home? You sit around and read the paper with your coffee on Sunday morning, debating over who gets what sections first. Why not go out and let someone else worry about making breakfast?

This morning, I can't decide if I want to read something fictional, something poetic, something non-fiction, something serious, or something light. Lately I don't read the same book two weeks in a row; I start one book, and the following week I decide it's too much for a breakfast visit. Like Jungian Psychiatry by Heinrich Karl Fierz--interesting book, but I can't delve too much into that kind of theory before I've eaten. I don't want anything too light this morning, either. I decide on a nifty little (OK, not so little--464 pages) volume called "Inversions" by Burt Alpert. I discovered Inversions via an old "magazine", typed and glued together on pretty paper, called Booklegger Magazine. It was a little renegade librarian's journal from the early 1970s; I discovered it while I was helping with a serials consolidation project where I work. When I saw it, I had to sit down and go through the issues; they just don't make magazines like that anymore.

Booklegger had a review of Inversions that was so compelling I had to try to locate the book. I was fortunate to find it on Amazon for about five bucks. It's all typed, and very long, and I will confess I have not gotten all the way through it. I am sure as I make my way through it, you will hear more about it on this blog.

According to the author, an "inversion" is the transformation of reality into irreality: when we call a relaxed person "lazy", an easygoing person "sloppy", a self-assertive person "uppity", a spontaneous person "impulsive", someone perceptive "paranoid...also, when we call repression "temperance", rigidity "order", ritual "etiquette", and compulsion "efficiency". He feels our whole consciousness as a society is an inversion against what is actually real. I'm already fascinated by the idea, so I read on. The first chapter is his argument that "dropping out" (as in "tune in, turn on, and drop out", a common notion in the Sixties) is actually a sign of commitment, not the opposite, as young people of that time were sick of living "dead" lives. He is also opposed to the heroic idea, and the notion of sacrifice--why, in order to live, does one have to resist, to embrace some kind of death?

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I agree that most people are walking versions of the dead--they are only interesting in making money, having material things, perhaps having a family--and that's all part of what we've been raised to believe our goals should be. The revolutions of the Sixties didn't do much to change that, and it's hard to know which way the pendulum is swinging in our current economic state--will we become more compulsively materialistic, or less materialistic? I am in favor of the notion that life is about more than these things, but the sad fact is that you need money to live. Alpert doesn't mention the fact that a lot of those who "dropped out" in the Sixties came from wealthy families--if you're still living with your parents and they're still paying your way, it's very easy to drop out, though your parents may not like it much. It's more of a challenge to make a living and live at the same time. I think living has more to do with your passions--you should be able to dedicate yourself to the pursuits that are the most meaningful to you. But I don't think anyone who is not independently wealthy has been able to avoid the experience of working in dead-end jobs, or uninspiring jobs, just to make ends meet. The good news is that you do have choices, and if your situation is desperately awful, there is always a window somewhere to get out. It may not open right away, but if you are determined to find it, you will. People are either unmotivated with regard to looking, or they just don't know where to look, or that they CAN look.

The world of the "Establishment"(to use the author's term--funny how that term has gone out of vogue) is never going to be the "answer". But you can't run a society without a structure--the more people that are in it, the more the natural human tendency to develop hierarchies and power structures (and to struggle for power) takes over. It sucks, but solving that would mean changing our basic human nature, and that's not likely to happen anytime soon. There will never be a perfect job--even in jobs where you are fortunate to have good, competent people in charge that you enjoy working for, there is still the OAIEO principle to deal with (One Asshole In Every Office). You're always going to face at least one difficult person. So what do you do? Quit your job? And go to another one where there will be another resident asshole? Maybe more than one? You're not going to solve your challenges by walking away from them. They'll just come back to get you somewhere else. That said, if you are very stressed out by your work and don't enjoy it, then you need to look for something else--there is no need to ruin your life for a job. It may take time to find another job or career, but that doesn't mean it will never happen and you are stuck.

I'm not giving up on this book based on any mixed feelings about the first chapter. While some notions may be able to be discarded, that doesn't mean everything should be discarded, and if I recall my last attempt to get through this book, he does have a lot more to say on different subjects, so I will keep plodding on.

Outside, the weather is quite warm, at least compared to the brutal temperatures and winds we had previously. If I could ditch the sinus headache that's been plaguing me for a week, I think I'd feel much better, less distorted. If you could see the screen of my mind right now, it looks like a program on an old TV set with rabbit ears that is more static than program because the signal is not being clearly picked up. But maybe that's not a bad thing. I think too much--I could probably use a bit more static.

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