Said and read – April-May 2021

Standard

“It is on your back you feel the loss. Your front can keep up appearances. If nothing else, your face can face itself in the mirror. It’s the nape of your neck that is lonely. You can embrace your stomach and roll yourself round it. But your back remains, alone. That is why sirens and djinns are portrayed with hollowed-out backs—no one ever presses a warm stomach from behind against them. The carving chisel of loneliness works there instead. You don’t meet loneliness. It comes from behind and catches up with us.” –“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European GenocideSven Lindqvist

Previous book reports: 2021 – March, February, January. 2020 – December, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for April and May 2021

On a tear, reading book after book, the frenzy eventually comes to a screeching halt. I was instructed to read a book that was so bad, and so misplaced as a work of fiction, that I just couldn’t read. Anything. Not the book I was supposed to be reading, and not the books I wanted to be reading. It was a complete block to all motivation to read. I would get through two or three pages of the book before I just had to stop. It took weeks to finish. And once I finished the dreaded book, I ended up feeling unmotivated to read for a while. But now I am back to normal.

All of this to explain that my April and May reading chronicles are combined into one because May was a complete wash.

Now… how do I keep this as brief as possible when my list of notes is over 60 pages long? I don’t even have a sense of how to organize these things.

I apologize… it’s as random as the last two years have been.

Recommended

*Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European GenocideSven Lindqvist

“I read Conrad as a prophetic author who had foreseen all the horrors that were to come. Hannah Arendt knew better. She saw that Conrad was writing about the genocides of his own time. In her first book, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she showed how imperialism necessitated racism as the only possible excuse for its deeds. “Lying under anybody’s nose were many of the elements which gathered together could create a totalitarian government on the basis of racism.”

I read this book after watching director Raoul Peck’s series of the same name, which was based on observations from this book. The book offers insight, but the series brought it together cohesively, turning visual expectations around on the viewer, narrated in Peck’s ominously gravelly but reassuring voice (it was part of the draw, really). Underpinned by a common European assumption that racism is a part of its past, and really only an American problem in the present, Peck illustrates in stark, sometimes shocking terms, that none of what we experience now would be possible without European colonialism. The aftershocks continue to shake the foundations of the society we live in – and who controls it.

“This became a new epoch in the history of racism. Too many Europeans interpreted military superiority as intellectual and even biological superiority.”

““As I see the matter, Europeans are a curse throughout the East. What do they bring worth bringing, as a general rule? Guns, gin, powder, and shoddy cloths, dishonest dealing only too frequently, and flimsy manufactures which displace the fabrics woven by the women, new wants, new ways and discontent with what they know … these are the blessings Europeans take to Eastern lands.””

“But in this debate no one mentions the German extermination of the Herero people in southwest Africa during Hitler’s childhood. No one mentions the corresponding genocide by the French, the British, or the Americans. No one points out that during Hitler’s childhood, a major element in the European view of mankind was the conviction that “inferior races” were by nature condemned to extinction: the true compassion of the superior races consisted in helping them on the way.”

“Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested.”

*Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese PsycheHaruki Murakami

“My conjecture is this. The Aum “phenomenon” disturbs precisely because it is not someone else’s affair. It shows us a distorted image of ourselves in a manner none of us could have foreseen. The Hare Krishnas and all the other new religions can be dismissed at the outset (before they even enter into our rational mind) as having no bearing on us. But not Aum, for some reason. Their presence—their appearance, their song—had to be actively rejected by an effort of will, and that is why they disturb us.”

I read most of Haruki Murakami’s output, but always feel that the book I read first (or that anyone read first) is the pinnacle of Murakami’s literary achievement, and everything read thereafter feels like a pale imitation. Yet, when Murakami dives into non-fiction or autobiographical writing, it’s more interesting. His book on why he runs offered insight into why he (and many runners) run; this book tries to unpack what led the Aum Shinrikyo cult to perpetrate Sarin gas attacks on Japanese subways.

“To quote from the Unabomber manifesto, published in The New York Times in 1995: The system reorganizes itself so as to put pressure on those who do not fit in. Those who do not fit into the system are “sick”; to make them fit in is to “cure.” Thus, the power process aimed at attaining autonomy is broken and the individual is subsumed into the other-dependent power process enforced by the system. To pursue autonomy is seen as “disease.” Interestingly enough, while the Unabomber’s modus operandi almost exactly parallels Aum’s (when, for instance, they sent a parcel bomb to Tokyo City Hall), Theodore Kaczynski’s thinking is even more closely linked to the essence of the Aum cult. The argument Kaczynski puts forward is fundamentally quite right. Many parts of the social system in which we belong and function do indeed aim at repressing the attainment of individual autonomy, or, as the Japanese adage goes: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.””

*Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male AmericaIjeoma Oluo

“How can white men be our born leaders and at the same time so fragile that they cannot handle social progress?”

“And when I say “white supremacy,” I’m not just talking about Klan members and neo-Nazis. Blatant racial terrorists—while deadly and horrifying—have never been the primary threat to people of color in America. It’s more insidious than that. I am talking about the ways our schoolrooms, politics, popular culture, boardrooms, and more all prioritize the white race over other races. Ours is a society where white culture is normalized and universalized, while cultures of color are demonized, exotified, or erased.”

None of what Ijeoma Oluo writes should come as a surprise to anyone who is paying attention. And with every conversation I have with men – mostly mediocre, white men for whom the world is designed – Oluo’s point is further driven home.

“…we continued talking about these white men and their unchecked anger, fear, and irresponsibility—this phrase kept popping into my head: works according to design. I thought about the white men who talked over me in meetings. I thought about the white male lead in a movie who sits in his cubicle and laments his lot, bemoaning that he was supposed to be so much more. I thought about the white men wearing swastikas in Charlottesville, angry about their own failures and shouting about the people they blamed for them.”

Moreover…

“White male mediocrity seems to impact every aspect of our lives, and yet it only seems to be people who aren’t white men who recognize the imbalance.”

“white male mediocrity is a baseline, the dominant narrative, and that everything in our society is centered around preserving white male power regardless of white male skill or talent.”

“The rewarding of white male mediocrity not only limits the drive and imagination of white men; it also requires forced limitations on the success of women and people of color in order to deliver on the promised white male supremacy. White male mediocrity harms us all.”

There’s so much more to this book that should be read in total, not just quoted piecemeal the way I do here. I have found myself getting angrier about the white male dominance as I get older, not just because I have lived longer and seen more examples of this but also because I live in a society where this phenomenon is least in evidence. It makes the idea Oluo highlights of “rather than risk seeming weak by admitting mistakes, white men double down on them” all the more clear when I see it. (The entire current UK Tory government, anyone?)

“The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with. And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes. This patriarchal elevation of incompetence has a special flair, however, in capitalist and individualist societies like the United States. When wealthy white men hoard power among themselves, they also need a cost-efficient way to keep the masses from threatening the status quo. How do you keep the average white male American invested in a system that disadvantages him?”

“Nothing says “American” like a boy making a woman struggle so that he can seem independent.”

My only problem with this book is that there were several points where Oluo writes something like, “Studies say…” or “Many studies reveal…”, but then it’s not immediately clear what studies Oluo is referring to.

*The Forgotten Cure: The Past and Future of Phage TherapyAnna Kuchment

I’ve become a bit obsessed with phage therapy the last couple of years and now read everything about it I can. It’s a fascinating alternative to antibiotics, although it’s more complex to find just the right phage therapy to apply. It has to be more specific than antibiotics to work… and sometimes it’s the last-resort solution.

When I talk to friends in the medical profession, they often have never heard of (or have only heard of in casual passing) phage therapy. When I mention it to non-medical people, I’m greeted with skepticism, as though I am sharing science fiction as fact. But phage therapy has been alive and well, particularly in the republic of Georgia (and in the former Soviet Union) for a very long time.

“Unlike antibiotics, bacteriophages make more of themselves as they work, eventually outnumbering and eradicating the bacteria they were sent to destroy. But, while antibiotics are effective against a wide variety of bacteria, each phage is specific, meaning that microbiologists must spend days and sometimes weeks in the lab identifying the bacteria in a patient’s tissue sample and finding a phage that will eradicate it.”

“But phages are no magic bullet. Critics point out that they can cause disease as well as cure it; by mingling their own genes with those of bacteria, phages have given rise to some of our worst killers, including diphtheria and food poisoning caused by E. coli 0.157. And, just like antibiotics, they breed resistance, though phage researchers say isolating a new phage is faster and cheaper than synthesizing a new antibiotic. Rapid genetic sequencing techniques help keep out so-called “lysogenic” phages that can pass dangerous genes to bacterial cells. While some still see phage therapy as a cultish phenomenon backed by weak science, the current crop of biotech startups is beginning to prove them wrong.”

I’ve spent a lot of the last ten years studying chronic wounds, and this book addresses exactly how bad chronic wounds are.

“Infected wounds are highly resistant to antibiotics, and not always because of the presence of superbugs. Once microbes penetrate a skin ulcer, they coat themselves in a protective layer that makes it difficult for antibiotics to reach them. This sugary coating, called biofilm, is a body-armor-like mesh that lets in nutrients for the bacteria but keeps out white blood cells, antibodies and, in most cases, drugs. “Everyone is so worried about [superbugs like] MRSA and VRSA,” says Wolcott. “But the biofilm is, like, orders of magnitude of that problem, and nobody is talking about that.” Chronic wounds have a cure rate lower than that of breast, prostate, and colon cancer: around 50%. Thousands of these patients are quietly living out their lives across the United States, virtually immobilized and in unrelenting pain.”

*McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist SpiritualityRonald Purser

“Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.”

Mindfulness as a practice has overrun the western world. Can you attend a corporate seminar or read a self-help book – or anything else – without someone recommending mindfulness or forcing you to participate in some kind of mindfulness exercise?

“Mindfulness is sold and marketed as a vehicle for personal gain and gratification. Self-optimization is the name of the game. I want to reduce my stress. I want to enhance my concentration. I want to improve my productivity and performance.”

Ronald Purser’s book explores a far deeper connection between how capitalism has co-opted any real truth or value from mindfulness, being reduced to “trickle-down mindfulness” as a “cover for the maintenance of power”. It results in, as we can all see if we’re paying attention, “an obsessive self-monitoring of inner states, inducing social myopia. Self-absorption trumps concerns about the outside world.”

“The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”

*Wild Is the Wind: PoemsCarl Phillips

Carl Phillips. Poetry. What more do you want?

*What Can a Body Do?: How We Meet the Built WorldSara Hendren

“Disability reveals just how unfinished the world really is, in its mundane forms and in its most aspirational politics—a contemporary reality tested most acutely under conditions of global pandemic, requiring fundamental shifts between our bodies and the world, and mutual trust despite deep uncertainty.”

What makes this book important is how well it centers the things we don’t see or notice. The world is built for the able-bodied, at specific “average” sizes, useful for the typical norm (which is most often the average, white, able-bodied man). And for everyone else, everything is an adaptation.

Whether or not a person is like a lecturer called Amanda, as described in this book, who forces us to ask the question: “Who is the world designed for?” Amanda calls herself disabled, as a person with dwarfism, and stands well under five feet tall. She is asking a design class to create a portable lectern for someone of her size and scale. Unless we see the world from Amanda’s perspective, would we think of these kinds of considerations as a designer?

“The idea of normalcy—a normal, average body or mind—is so ubiquitous and mundane that it’s settled into sleep in much of our collective cultural imagination. But its history as an idealized standard for human life is much more recent than you might imagine.”

“When the average is laden with cultural worth, everything changes: what was common began to be seen as what was “natural,” and what was “natural” came to be seen as right. The cult of normalcy reached its ugliest…”

*The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to DieKatie Engelhart

“Here we were, in the country that spends more per capita on healthcare than any other in the world, and people were begging for a veterinary solution.”

I think a lot about the right to die/death with dignity. The US states that have passed assisted suicide laws have quietly adopted these laws into practice without much debate or fanfare once they came into force. The right to die has not led to, as the author explores, a slippery slope: “the right to die would evolve, by tiny and coercive steps, into a duty to die—for the old, the enfeebled, and the disabled”.

“What does this all mean? This hunger for absolute control—or maybe just a shred of control—at the end of life, and this revolt against the machines that sometimes sustain a spiritless version of it? It is about the desire to avoid suffering. It is about autonomy. In the American legal tradition, it is also about the right to privacy and the negative right to not be interfered with. But for most of the people I met, choosing to die at a planned moment was principally about “dignity.”

The issue continues to be one of great debate in countries where assisted suicide isn’t legal but is up for discussion. For me it’s not a debate: the option is one of mercy and choice.

*How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final ChapterSherwin B. Nuland

“But the fact is, death is not a confrontation. It is simply an event in the sequence of nature’s ongoing rhythms. Not death but disease is the real enemy, disease the malign force that requires confrontation. Death is the surcease that comes when the exhausting battle has been lost. Even the confrontation with disease should be approached with the realization that many of the sicknesses of our species are simply conveyances for the inexorable journey by which each of us is returned to the same state of physical, and perhaps spiritual, nonexistence from which we emerged at conception. Every triumph over some major pathology, no matter how ringing the victory, is only a reprieve from the inevitable end.”

“The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it. This is a form of hope we can all achieve, and it is the most abiding of all. Hope resides in the meaning of what our lives have been.”

*Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on PerformanceAtul Gawande

“Each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, two million Americans acquire an infection while they are in the hospital. Ninety thousand die of that infection. The hardest part of the infection-control team’s job, Yokoe says, is not coping with the variety of contagions they encounter or the panic that sometimes occurs among patients and staff. Instead, their greatest difficulty is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections: wash our hands.”

There are a lot of fascinating insights in this book – I am endlessly fascinated by the work of surgeons and physicians. While everything was riveting, what struck me most of all was the emphasis on basic things that we take for granted or don’t do, like hand-washing. It has taken a pandemic to make people wash their hands more. To understand that there isn’t a ready-made medical solution for everything.

A second point Gawande makes, which is relevant of course for medical professionals but equally so for everyone else, is the idea that our lives are about talking to strangers.

“MY FIRST SUGGESTION came from a favorite essay by Paul Auster: Ask an unscripted question. Ours is a job of talking to strangers. Why not learn something about them? On the surface, this seems easy enough. Then your new patient arrives. You still have three others to see and two pages to return, and the hour is getting late. In that instant, all you want is to proceed with the matter at hand. Where’s the pain, the lump, whatever the trouble is? How long has it been there? Does anything make it better or worse? What are the person’s past medical problems? Everyone knows the drill. But consider, at an appropriate point, taking a moment with your patient. Make yourself ask an unscripted question: “Where did you grow up?” Or: “What made you move to Boston?” Even: “Did you watch last night’s Red Sox game?” You don’t have to come up with a deep or important question, just one that lets you make a human connection. Some people won’t be interested in making that connection.”

*Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect ScienceAtul Gawande

“In medicine, we have long faced a conflict between the imperative to give patients the best possible care and the need to provide novices with experience.”

How do doctors learn to be doctors, and how is it we think it’s fair to hold them to an entirely different standard when it comes to learning? Everyone makes mistakes, but when it’s a doctor, these mistakes can be life or death.

“How often does my intuition lead me astray? The radical implication of the Swedish study is that the individualized, intuitive approach that lies at the center of modern medicine is flawed—it causes more mistakes than it prevents.”

“To much of the public—and certainly to lawyers and the media—medical error is fundamentally a problem of bad doctors. The way that things go wrong in medicine is normally unseen and, consequently, often misunderstood. Mistakes do happen. We tend to think of them as aberrant. They are, however, anything but.”

“This is the uncomfortable truth about teaching. By traditional ethics and public insistence (not to mention court rulings), a patient’s right to the best care possible must trump the objective of training novices. We want perfection without practice. Yet everyone is harmed if no one is trained for the future. So learning is hidden, behind drapes and anesthesia and the elisions of language. Nor does the dilemma apply just to residents, physicians in training. In fact, the process of learning turns out to extend longer than most people know.”

“As patients, we want both expertise and progress. What nobody wants to face is that these are contradictory desires. In the words of one British public report, “There should be no learning curve as far as patient safety is concerned.” But that is entirely wishful thinking.”

*The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern SurgeryWendy Moore

I walked past the Hunterian Museum on the campus of the University of Glasgow every day, and never once thought about who it was named after. Then I read this book. While the Hunterian is named after Dr. William Hunter, a famous Scottish anatomist, this book is about William’s younger brother, John. John Hunter is perceived widely as the father of the scientific method in medicine, the value of observation (“early distrust of the written word would make him forever skeptical of classical teaching and the slavish repetition of ancient beliefs. He always preferred to believe the evidence of his own eyes rather than the recorded views of others”) and careful anatomical studies. He was also ahead of his time in devising surgical methods.

“But through Hunter’s pervasive influence, the future practice of surgery would be based largely on the doctrine of observation, experimentation, and application of scientific evidence. When Edward Jenner tested his smallpox vaccine on an eight-year-old boy in 1796, thus establishing the practice of vaccination, which would save millions of lives, he was studiously following his tutor’s principles. When Joseph Lister tried out his carbolic-soaked lint on eleven patients in 1867, thus launching antiseptic practices that would prevent countless deaths, he was purposefully adopting his hero’s methods. And numberless pioneering surgeons down the years would similarly follow Hunter’s scientific principles in helping to render surgery safe and effective.”

Other interesting stuff

*Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys across a Changing RussiaLisa Dickey

The writer makes three cross-country trips across Russia, each ten years apart. What struck me was a very deep hatred for Barack Obama expressed throughout Russia during the writer’s last trip. It was fascinating to read about Dickey’s observations, and made me long for a time when I wanted the kind of adventure she pursued. I have still never even been to Russia.

*The MileCraig Smith

I enjoyed this because I enjoy anything that’s Scottish and focused on the independence question. But I do wonder if anyone else reading this would really like it. I’d like to think so. It’s brief but still imbues its characters with life and crisp dialogue. One wee problem; I like it when people discuss other small countries and their adaptability, their ability to thrive in independence, but lauding Iceland for halving unemployment and jailing bankers … that’s not quite the case:

“Small ships are easier to turn around Euan.” Ian said. “It’s easier for them to adapt to change. Iceland’s already halved unemployment, and what did they do? Bail out the bankers? Look after their friends in high places that fund their fucking election campaigns? No, they jailed the fuckers and invested in the people. Norway, discovered oil at the same time as us. Did they fritter it away like Westminster? No, they invested it in an oil fund that’s now worth billions!” He took another drink. A bit early for this, he thought, but might as well strike while the iron’s hot. “And look at Denmark, year after year, it tops the ‘happiest fucking country in Europe’ list. So what’s so different about us?”

A high note, though, is poking fun at the English:

£66, not bad, he thought. But every time he saw that number he was reminded of the fucking English and the World Cup win they would never, ever, shut up about.”

*Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected SolutionsJohann Hari

“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people, he said—it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.”

The heart of Hari’s book lives here, exploring how suffering, grief and the general malaise that sometimes stalk the range of human emotion. It has, like death, become medicalized and medicated. And yet it’s all a part of the complete human experience that we are trying to dull and silence, often in ways that create more problems than they solve.

“The grief exception revealed something that the authors of the DSM—the distillation of mainstream psychiatric thinking—were deeply uncomfortable with. They had been forced to admit, in their own official manual, that it’s reasonable—and perhaps even necessary—to show the symptoms of depression, in one set of circumstances. But once you’ve conceded that,4 it invites an obvious follow-up question. Why is a death the only event that can happen in life where depression is a reasonable response?”

“But this blasts a hole in the rudder of the boat the psychiatrists writing the DSM have been sailing in for so long. Suddenly, life—with all its complexity—starts to flood into diagnosing depression and anxiety. It can’t just be a matter of chemical imbalance, as verified by checklists of symptoms. It would have to be seen as a response to your circumstances.”

“If we started to take people’s actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety, Joanne said, it would require “an entire system overhaul.” There are many good and decent psychiatrists who want to think in this deeper way, she stressed, and can see the limits of what we are doing right now. Instead of saying our pain is an irrational spasm to be taken away with drugs, they see that we should start to listen to it and figure out what it is telling us.”

“Thinking like this, Joanne told me, makes her believe that “we’re such an utterly disconnected culture, we just don’t get human suffering.” She looked at me, and I thought of everything she has gone through, and the wisdom it has given her. She blinked, and said: “We just don’t get it.””

Much of this revolves around the lack of connection, becoming more isolated from a sense of community or sharing.

“Protracted loneliness causes you to shut down socially, and to be more suspicious of any social contact, he found. You become hypervigilant. You start to be more likely to take offense where none was intended, and to be afraid of strangers. You start to be afraid of the very thing you need most. John calls this a “snowball” effect, as disconnection spirals into more disconnection. Lonely people are scanning for threats because they unconsciously know that nobody is looking out for them, so no one will help them if they are hurt. This snowball effect, he learned, can be reversed—but to help a depressed or severely anxious person out of it, they need more love, and more reassurance, than they would have needed in the first place. The tragedy, John realized, is that many depressed and anxious people receive less love, as they become harder to be around. Indeed, they receive judgment, and criticism, and this accelerates their retreat from the world. They snowball into an ever colder place.”

“It made me realize: we haven’t just started doing things alone more, in every decade since the 1930s. We have started to believe that doing things alone is the natural state of human beings, and the only way to advance. We have begun to think: I will look after myself, and everybody else should look after themselves, as individuals. Nobody can help you but you. Nobody can help me but me. These ideas now run so deep in our culture that we even offer them as feel-good bromides to people who feel down—as if it will lift them up.”

*The Political Thought of Abdullah Öcalan: Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution and Democratic Confederalism Abdullah Öcalan

“Another ideological pillar of the nation-state is the sexism that pervades entire societies. Many civilised systems have employed sexism in order to preserve their own power. They enforced women’s exploitation and used them as a valuable reservoir of cheap labour. Women are also regarded as a valuable resource in so far as they produce offspring and allow the reproduction of men. Thus, a woman is both a sexual object and a commodity. She is a tool for the preservation of male power and can at best advance to become an accessory of the patriarchal male society.”

“On the one hand, the sexism of the society of the nation-state strengthens the power of men; on the other hand, the nation-state turns its society into a colony through the exploitation of women. In this respect women can also be regarded as an exploited nation.”

“All the power and state ideologies stem from sexist attitudes and behaviour. Woman’s slavery is the most profound and disguised social area where all types of slavery, oppression and colonisation are realised. Capitalism and nation-state act in full awareness of this. Without woman’s slavery none of the other types of slavery can exist, let alone develop. Capitalism and nation-state denote the most institutionalised dominant male. More boldly and openly spoken: capitalism and nation-state are the monopolism of the despotic and exploitative male.”

“ALL SLAVERY IS BASED ON HOUSEWIFISATION Ever since the hierarchical order’s enormous leap forward, sexism has been the basic ideology of power. It is closely linked to class division and the wielding of power. Woman’s authority is not based on surplus product; on the contrary, it stems from fertility and productivity, and strengthens social existence. Strongly influenced by emotional intelligence, she is tightly bound to communal existence. The fact that woman does not have a visible place in the power wars based on surplus product is due to this position of hers in social existence.”

“Gender discrimination has had a twofold destructive effect on society. First, it has opened society to slavery; second, all other forms of enslavement have been implemented on the basis of housewifisation. Housewifisation does not only aim to recreate an individual as a sex object; it is not a result of a biological characteristic. Housewifisation is an intrinsically social process and targets the whole of society. Slavery, subjugation, subjection to insults, weeping, habitual lying, unassertiveness and flaunting oneself are all recognised aspects of housewifisation and must be rejected by the freedom-morality. It is the foundation of a degraded society and the true foundation of slavery. It is the institutional foundation upon which the oldest and all subsequent types of slavery and immorality were implemented. Civilisational society reflects this foundation in all social categories.”

*Wee White Blossom: What Post-Referendum Scotland Needs to Flourish (Viewpoints)Lesley Riddoch

“Culture, oil, politics, history and size. Scots have as many reasons as any other restless nation to consider independence, although in 2014 the No argument finally proved more persuasive – or less frightening.”

This book is exactly what it purports to be: a book on what Scotland needs post-independence referendum… and what it might take to move toward independence again. The present moment is the strangest and most painful: how anyone can want to stay a part of the broken union is beyond my comprehension.

“Betwixt and between, the average Scot does not know the best of times or the worst of times. So we settle too readily for something in between. This is not to blame anyone. Social segregation means we almost all live in ghettos – quite unaware of how other people live across the great divides of class, gender, geography, occupation and sometimes religion. The referendum though has made one thing abundantly clear.”

Riddoch’s book pulls together different viewpoints, particularly those pertaining to social justice and equality, and how Scottish society mostly embraces the idea of the basic good, which is part of what is pushing it further away from the fraying ‘united’ kingdom of which it is a part.

*Stolen: How Finance Destroyed the Economy and Corrupted our PoliticsGrace Blakeley

“If the logic of capitalism is based on extraction from people and planet today, then finance-led growth is based on extraction from people and planet today and tomorrow, until the future itself has been stolen.”

Yeah, this is as horrifying as it seems. Capitalism has always been an extractive enterprise designed to feed short-term gains/profit and little else.

“Financialised capitalism may be a uniquely extractive way of organising the economy, but this is not to say that it represents the perversion of an otherwise sound model. Rather, it is a process that has been driven by the logic of capitalism itself. As their economic model has developed, the owners of capital have sought out ever more ingenious ways to maximise returns, with financial extractivism the latest fix. In many ways finance-led growth represents capitalism’s most perfect incarnation — a system in which profits seem to appear out of thin air, even as these gains really represent value extracted from workers, now and in the future.”

“The central argument of this book is that, having gorged themselves before the crash, today’s capitalists are running out of things to take. We are currently living through the death throes of finance-led growth.”

*Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and AloneSarah Jaffe

“The ideals of freedom and choice that neoliberalism claims to embrace function, paradoxically, as a mechanism for justifying inequality. The choice is yours, but so are the costs for choosing wrong.”

“Exploitation is not merely extra-bad work, or a job you particularly dislike. These are the delusions foisted on us by the labor-of-love myth. Exploitation is wage labor under capitalism, where the work you put in produces more value than the wages you are paid are worth. Exploitation is the process by which someone else profits from your labor. This is true whether you’re a nanny making $10 an hour, allowing your employer to make much more money at her higher-paid job, or a programmer at Google making $200,000 a year while Google rakes in over $7 billion. The labor of love is just the latest way that this exploitation is masked. But increasingly, workers are stripping away that mask.”

“Turning our love away from other people and onto the workplace serves to undermine solidarity. Thatcher’s statement that there was no such thing as society came after she had crushed labor unions, those vehicles not just of shop-floor action but off-the-clock sociality. If workers have a one-on-one love relationship with the job, then the solution for its failure to love you back is to move on or to try harder. It is not to organize with your coworkers to demand better. Collective action is unthinkable; the only answer is to work harder on yourself or to leave.”

*Synthesizing Gravity: Selected ProseKay Ryan

“It is easy to be sentimental about memory because of its powers to intensify. If something is remembered, it has been selected by the mind, out of an almost infinite pool of things that might have been remembered but weren’t. The thing remembered thus becomes important, simply because it has been remembered.”

I have loved Kay Ryan’s poetry, and this book of selected prose also offers gems.

“The poem is a space capsule in which impossible combinations feel casual. The body of the capsule is of necessity very strong to have broken out of gravity. It is the hard case for the frail experiments inside. Not frail in the wasted sense, but frail in the opposite sense: the brief visibility of the invisible.”

*Frangipani Célestine Hitiura Vaite

I kept this in the reading list just because you don’t hear often about Tahiti and certainly not Tahitian literature. I can’t say I cared for the book much, but I enjoyed the novelty of it.

*The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of MedicineThomas Morris

“How long did the unfortunate John Marsh survive? Horrified and fascinated in equal measure, I could not stop reading. The answers proved to be just as intriguing. When the cartwheels had passed over Mr. Marsh’s belly, they had done so with such force that his intestines were squeezed through the inguinal canal, a narrow passage between the abdominal cavity and the scrotum. With his guts now competing with his nuts for scrotum space, as it were, the physicians had a simple task: Get them back where they belonged.”

A book of strange medical mysteries – we look back on what was standard practice and find it abhorrent. But we will undoubtedly look back and find that things that are standard practice now will appear abhorrent in the future – if you recall the scenes in the film Star Trek IV in which Bones exclaims in shock at the barbaric conditions of “modern medicine”, such as dialysis, in 1987.

*The Art of Cruelty: A ReckoningMaggie Nelson

The “compulsion to repeat” the trauma—be it in art, nightmare, or waking life—is the organism’s attempt to master the surplus anxiety that the original incursion produced. Of course, these attempts typically fail, often to catastrophic effect—in which case art can be seen as a relatively innocuous arena in which to showcase the failure—to enjoy, as Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has put it, our symptoms.”

Our capacity to be cruel, and to absorb cruelty without reaction, is endless. The book explores different depictions of cruelty (and of course makes reference to Stanley Milgram, who appears constantly across pop culture references).

“As if a test were needed of how much sadism reality television participants, audiences, and producers are willing to indulge, on March 17, 2010, French TV broadcast something called Le jeu de la mort, or The Game of Death, a faux game show which re-performed the Milgram experiment on eighty unknowing contestants. The contestants had been told that they were taking part in a game-show pilot, in which they were to administer electric shocks to other contestants when they answered questions incorrectly. A smiling host and vociferous studio audience, rather than a taciturn guy in a lab coat (as was the case in Stanley Milgram’s experiment), urged the behavior on, but the results were remarkably similar: sixty-four of the eighty contestants were willing to deliver shocks that could have killed their recipients, had there been any actual receivers.”

*Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our FuturesMerlin Sheldrake

“Our perceptions work in large part by expectation. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch. It is our preconceptions that create the blind spots in which magicians do their work. By attrition, coin tricks loosen the grip of our expectations about the way hands and coins work. Eventually, they loosen the grip of our expectations on our perceptions more generally. On leaving the restaurant, the sky looked different because the diners saw the sky as it was there and then, rather than as they expected it to be. Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.”

And once more a lovely and surprising connection with a Star Trek reference.

“IF ANYONE KNOWS about going fungal, it’s Paul Stamets. I have often wondered whether he has been infected with a fungus that fills him with mycological zeal—and an irrepressible urge to persuade humans that fungi are keen to partner with us in new and peculiar ways. I went to visit him at his home on the west coast of Canada. The house is balanced on a granite bluff, looking out to sea. The roof is suspended on beams that look like mushroom gills. A Star Trek fan since the age of twelve, Stamets christened his new house Starship Agarikon—agarikon is another name for Laricifomes officinalis, a medicinal wood-rotting fungus that grows in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve known Stamets since I was a teenager, and he has done a lot to inspire my own interest in fungi. Every time I see him I’m met with a flurry of electrifying fungal news flashes. Within minutes his mycological patter picks up speed, and he leaps between bulletins almost faster than he can talk, a ceaseless torrent of fungal enthusiasm. In his world, fungal solutions run amok. Give him an insoluble problem and he’ll toss you a new way it can be decomposed, poisoned, or healed by a fungus.”

“Not long before I arrived, Stamets had been contacted by the creative team behind the TV series Star Trek: Discovery, who wanted to know more about his work. He had agreed to brief them on the ways that fungi could be used to save worlds. Sure enough, Star Trek: Discovery, which premiered the next year, was laced with mycological themes. A new character was introduced, a brilliant astromycologist called Lieutenant Paul Stamets, who uses fungi to develop powerful technologies that can be deployed to save humanity in a fight against a series of terminal threats. The Star Trek team has taken plenty of license, though they hardly needed to. By tapping into intergalactic mycelial networks—“an infinite number of roads, leading everywhere”—(the fictional) Stamets and his team work out how to travel in the “mycelial plane” faster than the speed of light. Following his first mycelial immersion, Stamets comes to, dazed and transformed. “I’ve spent my whole life trying to grasp the essence of mycelium. And now I do. I saw the network. An entire universe of possibilities I never dreamed existed.””

*Men Who Hate Women: From Incels to Pickup Artists: The Truth about Extreme Misogyny and How it Affects Us AllLaura Bates

 “Except…those two parallel claims—“not all men” and “it’s all accidental”—are directly contradictory. Either it’s “not all men,” in which case we must infer that it is only a small, specific group of men, deliberately committing acts of harassment and assault (a conclusion with which I broadly agree). Or this is all about poor, blundering men, making innocent missteps in a world in which behaving perfectly respectably risks being misinterpreted beyond one’s control, in which case, presumably, we are talking about all men, since the specific implication is that it could happen to anyone. So once again, the logic falls apart.”

A disturbing but unsurprising book about incels and extreme misogyny.

““Incel logic seems to reveal a hopeless contradiction: women are simultaneously reviled for sleeping with men and for refusing to do so. One user, for example, described women as “greedy selfish evil crazed sluts, who prevent decent hard working men, from achieving their biological purpose.” But things become clearer when viewed through the lens of the most basic incel belief. At its simplest, the argument goes like this: if women’s sexual autonomy has given them wicked and tyrannical control over men’s lives, then women’s liberation is at the root of all male suffering. Therefore, the obvious remedy is to remove women’s freedom and independence and to use specifically sexual means (like rape and sexual slavery) to do so. In other words, the problem is not women having sex but women having the choice of whom to have sex with.””

*Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenSusan Faludi

“There’s a name for that: backlash. We witnessed the same dynamic in the 1980s: the more women speak up and demand their rights, the more a threatened male populace lashes back.”

As a corollary to the book on male anger, entitlement and incels, we revisit Susan Faludi’s classic.

“To blame feminism for women’s “lesser life” is to miss entirely the point of feminism, which is to win women a wider range of experience. Feminism remains a pretty simple concept, despite repeated—and enormously effective—efforts to dress it up in greasepaint and turn its proponents into gargoyles. As Rebecca West wrote sardonically in 1913, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.””

Truly awful reads

*The BBC: Myth of a Public ServiceTom Mills

I thought this book would be interesting, and it was a dry, dull slog that pained me to get through.

*The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like DirtRobert I. Sutton

You would think that a book about assholes treating you horribly would at least make you think. But this book was rather terrible.

*The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Digital Disruption, Redshirts, and Overthrowing the Ancient Powerful OrderGene Kim

Hands down, one of the worst books I have ever read. It’s meant to be fiction but doesn’t have fleshed-out, well-developed characters. It’s just surface-level vehicles who deliver information about how we might develop software better. This didn’t need to be – or try to be – fiction. It was so painful to read that it took me more than six weeks to read it.

Lunchtable TV talk: Mrs America – Beginning to see the light

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A decade and a half ago, when I hastily enrolled in an MA in gender studies program, I didn’t get very far because I wasn’t entirely convinced that the discipline was right for me. But I also wondered, foolishly, “Why do we need this discipline?” Although at that point I had done a lot of things in many different places in the world, my own life was untouched by the issues core to the equal rights cause. Or so I naively thought. First of all, it’s folly to think that the fight is ever over. It’s an ongoing tug-of-war, demanding vigilance. Secondly, it isn’t a fight only about me (duh). It’s a fight to maintain and build on what women who came before fought for and won, and a fight to gain ground — both in the fights that have yet to be won (equal pay, guaranteed rights to reproductive freedom, which are always in jeopardy, etc.) and in elevating the needs and voices of all women. Previous generations of feminism focused on white (and often heterosexual, middle class) women, ignoring or outright excluding women of color and trans women — completely failing to embrace intersectional feminism. In maintaining a narrow framework for gender equality, the movement has harmed and held back all women, doing the most damage to those ignored by this narrow focus.

As far back as the 1960s and 70s, the roots of this divide were obvious; its lack of inclusion, to some extent, paved the way for the defeats the movement suffered and provided a generous opening for more regressive and conservative forces in the form of anti-feminist backlash, ERA opposition and the right-wing hypocrisy of people like Phyllis Schlafly.  Following the turbulence of the 60s and 70s, Schlafly and co were quietly active, poised to ride the great conservative wave that characterized the 1980s, ‘defending’ the family, “traditional values” and a woman’s place in the home. I came to realize that my own dismissal of and indifference to gender studies and feminist theory parallels the careless and selfish approach Schlafly took to feminism, i.e. if it didn’t affect her, it was not a concern. (Never mind that it’s a fallacy to claim that these issues affected neither of us.)

In the recent TV production, Mrs America, which depicts the fight for, and ultimate defeat of, the Equal Rights Amendment, we’re introduced to Schlafly — an educated married mother — who ends up crusading against the ERA and growing an organization of other conservatives who supported her aims. Probably more interested in national defense and arms control policy, Schlafly’s first passion doesn’t seem to have been opposing women’s rights; she had hoped to be an active adviser on defense issues but was never appointed to the kinds of positions she sought.

Her ambitions, if not ironic, at least demonstrate her position of privilege: even if she left the home to campaign and left child rearing to hired help, she still claimed to “have it all”, demonizing women who didn’t aspire to do the same (that is, she espoused the primacy of family and home — and the freedom to work if time and husband permitted it). Her myopia failed to account for the myriad situations in which women — even those of her own conservative persuasion — found themselves. Why, after all, should a woman take a job from a man, or need a salary equivalent to a man, when she should be relying on a husband to provide? (Unless of course, like Schlafly, one considered herself uniquely qualified.) As Mrs America deftly portrayed: many of the women in Schlafly’s organization were struggling with abusive spouses, fear and self-doubt and an ambivalence toward the all-or-nothing interpretation of women’s equality. How would, or could, Schlafly’s worldview allow for  these differences?

Admittedly, this was my problematic thinking, too, which I’ve spent years working to undo. As humans, we’re often short-sighted and blinded by our own experiences and surroundings (as well as by those we do not have or have not seen). It makes us too comfortable and too ready to insist that if I don’t see it, it isn’t happening. It’s not as simple as that; I never claimed that women were not struggling or facing inequality. Yet I didn’t perceive that I experienced it — and this was both self-centered and wrong. I did experience it, but I was so indoctrinated into the norms of an unequal society that I didn’t see it clearly. Despite how sensitive I had considered myself to be, the feminist struggle — and feminist theory — felt superfluous. When I realized this bias, it became a mission to understand and empathize with the lived experiences and struggles of others and see the world and its challenges through those lenses in addition to my own. What a different world it is when seen this way. This is reason one why gender and feminist studies are essential: we must see beyond ourselves and build a community of action to move forward. We can’t do this if we don’t understand the history and what’s at stake for everyone — not just ourselves.

In Mrs America, I saw parallels to the 2016 presidential election and the Democratic Convention. The electric exuberance and humanity of the Hillary supporters created this false idea that passion and appearance would carry the day, and right up until the announcement of Trump’s victory, everyone was convinced Hillary Clinton would win in landslide to become America’s first female president. We all know what happened. Mrs America showed this kind of hubris in the feminist group, which underestimated both Schlafly and the mood of the American people. Ratifying the ERA seemed like a no-brainer, but the overconfidence bias gets us time and again. Passion does not make one’s desired outcome inevitable, particularly when one side has dismissed the other as unthinkable. In the US today, heading into the 2020 election, we’re in a similar place: it does affect us all, even the people who are mostly untouched by the daily disasters of the Trump administration.

Mrs America (and Cate Blanchett‘s outstanding performance) managed to humanize Schlafly and even show her hypocrisy as personal struggle without making her likeable. It also gave voice to many of second-wave feminism’s leaders, such as Betty Friedan (a fantastic Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Gloria Steinem (a surprisingly effective Rose Byrne), and Shirley Chisholm (superb turn by Uzo Aduba), whose names and work I’m very familiar with but was shocked to find that the vast majority of people I meet, both my age and younger, have never heard of these women unless engaged in feminist studies. This is the second reason gender and feminist studies are desperately needed. This history and these names are not well-known enough outside of small academic and movement-related circles, and we can see how quickly rights gained can be threatened or stripped away, particularly in volatile social and political times.

The most remarkable achievement of Mrs America is in showing the journey of Sarah Paulson‘s character, Alice, a Schlafly friend and ardent supporter, who begins to see some of the hypocrisy and near the end of the series meets a number of the women on the pro-ERA side. Wandering through their “camp”, she is treated respectfully, kindly — she is surprised by the women’s humanity. She is also surprised, after belting out a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land“, to learn the origins of the song:

Flo Kennedy (Niecy Nash): “You were up there belting out a Marxist song.”

Alice: “No it isn’t. It’s patriotic.”

Flo: “Exactly.”

Alice also realizes that she has been living in Schlafly’s shadow and in fear… While both sides claim to have advocated for a kind of choice (pro-ERA for total equality and anti-ERA for letting women retain their “rightful place as protected homemaker”), it becomes clear that the latter does not account or advocate for women who do not have the luxury of choice, and would offer them no options in making a decent living for themselves. Alice wakes up: she begins to find her voice, gets a job and revels in the fact that it was her choice — finally grasping that women’s experiences are not the universally white, middle-class, married, privileged scene she’s taken as the norm. No, in fact, the diversity of women’s experience necessitates having the freedom to choose.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

 

Said and read – May 2020

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“Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realized. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.”” Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

Image by S Donaghy, April 2020

We’re heading into another month of a pandemic that more and more people choose to ignore as though it’s over, while tensions simmered and civil unrest exploded, like a pressure cooker. It occurs to me more clearly than ever that the problems, addictions, insanities, lack of control that defined people’s lives before the various levels of quarantine not only remain but become outsized, as though studied under a microscope. If you are an aggressive, angry person prone to lose your temper, all of this feels likelier to boil over in these pent-up conditions. If you are an addict, attempting to run from yourself and the pain and anxiety that ail you, there is no worse time than being trapped in your home, alone with your thoughts.

I suspect we’re in for many more months of uncertainty; people’s anger at having made sacrifices (particularly in the face of loss) while their ‘fearless leaders’ did not leads to deeper and more fractious divides. People’s anger at the ineptitude of a federal government and its refusal to act at all during a pandemic, coupled with increasing anger about the abundant inequalities of the criminal justice system (e.g., how many black people must be murdered by police before something changes?), has made clear the brokenness of the United States, long in the making, a catastrophic implosion precipitated … protests, riots, and … what more? We don’t yet know the outcome, but it hurts to say that I fear things will go on being exactly the same or worse.

So, I read. I read so much that I find it difficult to find time to catalog my thoughts on the previous month’s reading. But I try. Each month I only capture here the things that struck me in some way, but this is never a complete rendering of all the things I’ve read.

I’ve ended up finishing these ramblings so far into June that it’s already my birthday; therefore, I’ve lived to pulse ocho for another year.

Here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for May:

Highly recommended

*The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

“Some will object, that a comparison cannot fairly be made between the government of the male sex and the forms of unjust power which I have adduced in illustration of it, since these are arbitrary, and the effect of mere usurpation, while it on the contrary is natural. But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” –The Subjection of WomenJohn Stuart Mill

I dreamt of writing something thoughtful about John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women. I found, however, that I become too frustrated and angry to properly formulate thoughts. The fact that this was written in 1869, followed by very slow change, almost immovable thinking, and a continued cultural conditioning about women’s inferiority, infuriates me. On reflection, there are material differences between what women could do in 1869 and now, but the underlying value assigned to women, their bodies, their experiences, their contributions continues to be underestimated, if considered at all. I urge careful reading and re-reading of this. And then reflect on the age-old arguments on nature and nurture. That is, recognizing the “eminently artificial” nature of women created by “forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others”, and the assertion that women, being physically weaker, are somehow unequal to men, and for it to be otherwise would be “unnatural”, although “unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural.”

“If anything conclusive could be inferred from experience, without psychological analysis, it would be that the things which women are not allowed to do are the very ones for which they are peculiarly qualified; since their vocation for government has made its way, and become conspicuous, through the very few opportunities which have been given; while in the lines of distinction which apparently were freely open to them, they have by no means so eminently distinguished themselves. We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule; though many of them have occupied the throne in difficult periods. It is remarkable, too, that they have, in a great number of instances, been distinguished by merits the most opposite to the imaginary and conventional character of women: they have been as much remarked for the firmness and vigour of their rule, as for its intelligence.”

*Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

“My own lived experience was the guide here, and all I needed was a willingness to meet it, to allow myself to ask certain kinds of questions and be willing to hear the answers that might follow, no matter how disconcerting those answers might be. This, then, was the real test of faith—not whether I was willing to change my beliefs but, rather, whether I was willing to give language to that which I had already begun to experience as truth.” –Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ReligionDanya Ruttenberg

Much like Ruttenberg as a young woman, I was never religious. I’ve never actively claimed to be an atheist, but because I don’t believe it’s possible to know (which is why we call it faith) for certain, religious and spiritual questions have rarely engaged me in more than a cursory and academic way. But faith and religion are powerful markers of identity and community, making them inspirational topics for thought and research, but also fascinating in grappling with the grittiest questions about oneself. I continue to come back to the big questions myself, particularly in terms of how I’ve lived and how I want to live, and this is tightly wound with ideas of community, isolation (self-imposed or societal), intention and compassion.

“What religion changes is not just our identity, our relationships, our politics, our sense of what the world is and how we move in it, but also, potentially, every small decision that we make. What religion changes, if we let it, is not just ourselves, not just our smaller home culture, but the world as a whole and the power structures that run it.”

Throughout my life, despite not being Jewish, I have been drawn time and again to progressive interpretations of Judaism and, for inexplicable reasons, I identify with this particular faith more than any other. Ruttenberg herself outlines succinctly exactly why it speaks to her, and it happens to apply just as well to me (and probably to many others who choose to be Jewish, whether they are actively embracing the faith into which they were born or adopt it much later as a conscious and conscientious choice):

“I can find a lot of different ways to explain why I was drawn to Judaism. There’s a strong ethical tradition, but also a tremendous awe for the transcendent. It’s a faith that is comfortable with debate and a diversity of opinion—of five thousand legal disagreements recorded in the Talmud, only fifty or so are settled on the page, leaving open the possibility that the “right” answer isn’t so obvious.”

This sense of needing to know about and experience Judaism has grown over time, and it has only been in the last few years that I have recommitted to exploring this feeling more seriously. I started this journey half-jokingly, half-curious in my youth, attending various courses at a Reform synagogue near where I grew up. But I didn’t take it further until recently, when I started studying psychology, then the psychology of religion, and then theology in the context of peace and conflict.

And while I frequently jest that I would like to become a rabbi, it would certainly help if I were first Jewish.

And before taking any conversion-related steps, I needed to dive deeply into the literature and truly understand what I feel and might want to be a part of. Happily, somewhere in this neverending journey, I stumbled across a lengthy reading list compiled by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and I’ve been making my way through it. This particular book, her own, was on the list, and I found that the rabbi had undergone a spiritual transformation herself, during which she dabbled in atheism and studied philosophy, and voiced many of the same complaints I’ve always had about my own academic aspirations, e.g. “I found that I was perfectly capable of unpacking Hegel or Hobbes, but that it just wasn’t all that much fun once the big ideas became too abstract, too disconnected from human lives.”; “Religious studies, on the other hand, was philosophy and anthropology and literature and history all rolled up in one.” This is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that has driven most of my scholarly and life choices. Where some might see a dilettante who can’t commit (and I do self-flagellate on this), I see someone whose curiosity cannot be contained. Where some might see a lack of willingness to dive deeply into the minutiae of one thing, I see someone who cares more about the human and person-centered roots of almost every discipline. It’s always about getting back to humanity.

When it comes to religious faith and practice, it can be deeply individual, particularly when its nascent and uncertain. And yet in some ways, at some point, it may become very public (if you begin to practice in a community). This can pose a barrier, but again, it is about getting in touch with humanity.

“Thomas Merton talks about the “tremendous, agonizing embarrassment and self-consciousness which [those new to religion] feel about praying publicly . . . The effort it takes to overcome all the strange imaginary fears that everyone is looking at you, and that they all think that you are crazy or ridiculous, is something that costs a tremendous effort.”

First you must decide whether your pursuit is satisfying a curiosity or is actually driven by something deeper. Then, should you decide that it’s deeper, you must overcome the idea that you’re an impostor, that you’re “doing it” or “believing” wrong. And finally when you can start to let down the walls, softening yourself to hear and accept answers you needed to hear — but only after doing the sometimes painful and arduous work of waking up truly.

“Years down the road, I would learn how hard it could be to follow my intuition, to feel whatever was buried deep within my fettered heart, to try to meet God without denial. But I would discover that fear and pain were a hundred thousand times better than this unconscious sleepwalking through parties and distraction—that even when it was harder, I would prefer to be awake, and alive. But that was all later.”

Perhaps most powerful here, and there were a lot of resonant ideas, was Ruttenberg’s call to action, which aligns with so much of what I’ve been reading (and writing about here): transformation and change, social justice, community, and the detached ways we live today. We can defy the way our culture aims to commoditize humanity, innoculating us against the idea that our community and true spirituality can feed us in ways that consumerism and individualism cannot.

“The dominant culture depends on our sense of isolation. As long as spirituality remains an individualized, personal experience, chances remain good that the inherently revolutionary potential of religious work will sit forever inert and untapped. That is to say, those who practice their spirituality without community are much less likely to demand change in and upheaval to the status quo, or feel that they have the power to do so.”

“More often than not, the places where it’s necessary to mobilize for transformation in religion reflect our contemporary understanding of morality and compassion.”

*Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

“Real, evidence-driven analysis, they believed, would overturn one of modernity’s most deeply held principles: that science will tell us which individuals and groups are naturally smarter, abler, more upstanding, and fitter to rule. Their response was that science pointed in precisely the opposite direction, toward a theory of humanity that embraces all the many ways we humans have devised for living. The social categories into which we typically divide ourselves, including labels such as race and gender, are at base artificial—the products of human artifice, residing in the mental frameworks and unconscious habits of a given society.”

“…in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. Culture, as Boas and his students understood it, is the ultimate source for what we think constitutes common sense. It defines what is obvious or beyond question. It tells us how to raise a child, how to pick a leader, how to find good things to eat, how to marry well. Over time these things change, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. Yet there is no more fundamental reality in the social world than the one that humans themselves in some measure create.” –Gods of Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth CenturyCharles King

The development of anthropology as a discipline isn’t something I gave a great deal of thought to until I started studying communication for development, which focuses on the so-called “developing world” (and queries whether it should even be called “developing world”). Later my psychology and theology studies crossed into anthropological territory, but it still never occurred to me to look more carefully at its theoretical and historical origins.

An anthropological quest crosses multiple disciplines: linguistics, sociology, psychology, theology, among others, and like most fields of academic inquiry, its methodology, its merit, its subjects have shifted alongside the people within the field and the cultures to which they belong. At its core, according to its founding proponents, such as Franz Boas, cultural anthropology required acknowledging one’s own ignorance and one’s own worldview and preconceived ideas, placing oneself in unfamiliar surroundings and observing in as scientific and objective a way as possible. It provided, as anthropology pioneer Ruth Benedict put it, “illumination that comes of envisaging very different possible ways of handling invariable problems” and demanded the realization that nothing about culture is universal, i.e. cultural relativity.

“…no society, including our own, is the endpoint of human social evolution. We aren’t even a distinct stage in human development. History moves in loops and circles, not in straight lines, and toward no particular end. Our own vices and blind spots are as readily apparent as those of any society anywhere.”

I greatly enjoyed this book, and could endlessly ramble about it — but won’t. It’s worth reading, and in particular its discussion on Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological work shines a light on her journey as a folklorist and writer in a new context; she is the most fascinating among the book’s “characters” and, while not orthodox or organized in her methodology and data collection, she captured the most living, breathing, startling accounts and observations in her anthropological work, such as in Haiti, which ring true through American society today:

“FREDERICK DOUGLASS, WHO SERVED as the U.S. minister and consul-general in Haiti, once said that tracing the country’s history was like following a wounded man through a crowd: you just needed to follow the blood.”

“The key to understanding zombies, Hurston concluded, lay not in finding a secret potion or in debunking another people’s mythology. It was actually believing in them. Felix-Mentor wasn’t a person who was said to be a zombie. She wasn’t a make-believe one, like her fictional counterpart in a Hollywood film. She really was one. If you could twist your brain into seeing that fact, then you had taken a giant step toward seeing Haiti—and most important, its spirituality—from the inside.”

“A woman disappeared—conveniently, for her brother and her husband—and then reappeared and started causing trouble until she was put away in a mental institution, cowering, distraught, wordless, no longer herself, alive yet dead. Religions survive not because people love the faith of their fathers but because they help us navigate the world as we find it.”

“Magical thinking was as close to a human universal as you could imagine, and it existed in modern societies, too. Gambling, the stock market, even the concept of private property—the belief that I can expand my sense of self to include an inanimate object, the loss of which would induce deep displeasure and anxiety—all depend to a degree on magical belief systems. They are ways of summoning the unlikely and the invisible in order to control the tangible world.”

““Gods always behave like the people who make them,” Hurston wrote in her notes from Haiti. A boisterous spirit could say the thing a peasant couldn’t. A person mounted by a loa could curse a field boss or a pith-helmeted American. Possession by unseen forces, escaping into a kind of death, could be a way of being truly, deeply alive, especially in places where it was hard to speak the truth in any other way. That was the real story of Felicia Felix-Mentor. Put away, disregarded, institutionalized, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labor camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.”

*The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

“The gentrification mentality is rooted in the belief that obedience to consumer identity over recognition of lived experience is actually normal, neutral, and value free.” –The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost ImaginationSarah Schulman

I can’t explain why, but this book almost immediately had me in tears. I think it’s attributable in part, once more, to the inevitable dilution of historical events. Things that were intense, painful, sweeping — things I can’t even describe in words, such as the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s — have become anodyne footnotes accompanied by inoffensive elevator music. I was a child during this epidemic, but watching it unfold affected me at such a fundamental level that I still cry uncontrollably watching footage of protests juxtaposed with images of the march of slow, excruciating and senseless death. As I say, I was a child. I can’t begin to imagine what this period was like for people most affected by it, those like Schulman and her community in New York at the height of the crisis.

“Bizarrely, this very day is the twentieth anniversary of AIDS. Decontextualized by palm trees, I listen. The announcer is discussing events that I know intimately, organically, that have seared the emotional foundation of my adult life. And yet there is a strangely mellow tone to the story. It’s been slightly banalized, homogenized. This is the first time I’ve heard AIDS being historicized, and there is something clean-cut about this telling, something wrong. Something…gentrified. “At first America had trouble with People with AIDS,” the announcer says in that falsely conversational tone, intended to be reassuring about apocalyptic things. “But then, they came around.” I almost crash the car.”

Thus I comprehend her bewildered reaction: “But then, they came around“?!

What!?

When did “they” ever come around? Had, as Schulman pondered, her community – what remained of it – failed to show exactly how much they had suffered, how much they had lost? What the world, in fact, lost, to this epidemic that was “caused by governmental and familial neglect”?

Schulman’s book deals mostly with the gentrification process — but not just the material gentrification we can see in cities like New York, but rather a brainwashing of sorts: the gentrification of the culture, and the gentrification of the mind. It is woven into the institutionally sanctioned happiness-industry culture we are a part of in which we willingly become a part of a herd and ignore what we give up to be a part of that — both on an individual level and as a society. Individually we — this is truer for some than others — may, for example, as Schulman writes, come to expect that one’s “teacher does not remember them, even after intimate direct conversations in class about their lives and work” because somehow the individual is not important enough to remember, particularly if they have always been part of a marginalized group. Societally, we find ourselves acting against the community and its interests because we are encouraged and incentivized to participate in a culture that endlessly craves manufactured happiness and comfort — and the only way to achieve this, according to the rules of this society, is to compete or step on someone else, or in some cases, merely tolerate injustices that we see but don’t speak out against.

“Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. Sometimes we do know that certain happiness exists at the expense of other human beings, but because we’re not as smart as we think we are, we decide that this is the only way we can survive. Stupidity or cruelty become the choice, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. After all, people and institutions act on and transform each other. So, it’s not happiness at the expense of the weaker versus nothing, right? And yet we are led to feel this way.”

Schulman is writing from her own experience and taking back the narrative that homogenizes the AIDS struggle, but her theses are widely applicable in terms of discussing gentrification, privatization, privilege and — of course — the commodification of humanity and individual identities. Everything about this book commands attention and compels… action. Action toward empathy, compassion and intervention.

“Autobiographically, the AIDS experience may be where I came to understand that it is a fundamental of individual integrity to intervene to stop another person from being victimized, even if to do so is uncomfortable or frightening.”

“Gentrification culture makes it very hard for people to intervene on behalf of others. The Nasdaq value system is and was a brutal one. Being consumed by it and being shut out of it are both deadening and result in distorted thinking about private sectors, economic and emotional. Gentrification culture is rooted in the ideology that people needing help is a “private” matter, that it is nobody’s business. Taking their homes is called “cleaning up” the neighborhood. ACT UP was the most recent American social movement to succeed, and it did so because AIDS activist culture of the 1980s was the opposite of Gentrification culture.”

“Gentrification culture was a twentieth-century, fin de siècle rendition of bourgeois values. It defined truth telling as antisocial instead of as a requirement for decency. The action of making people accountable was decontextualized as inappropriate. When there is no context for justice, freedom-seeking behavior is seen as annoying. Or futile. Or a drag. Or oppressive. And dismissed and dismissed and dismissed and dismissed until that behavior is finally just not seen. Every historical moment passes.”

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

“A criticism that needs to insist that literature is not only “universal” but also “race-free” risks lobotomizing that literature, and diminishes both the art and the artist.” –Playing in the Dark : Whiteness and the Literary ImaginationToni Morrison

This is a unique moment to survey Morrison’s work on literary criticism and African-American literature. She calls out the “polite” color blindness of the dominant cultural system and exposes it as a thick layer of white paint that has for so long covered over necessary calls to consciousness, assessment and action. Today it is embodied in Black Lives Matter, and this must be named, seen, and understood by those who cannot understand it because the responsibility rests with them, i.e., the most dangerous being the white liberal self-proclaimed “ally” who nevertheless never questions and furthers systems of what Morrison refers to as “intellectual domination”.

“Above all I am interested in how agendas in criticism have disguised themselves and, in so doing, impoverished the literature it studies. Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well; it can dismiss the difficult, arduous work writers do to make an art that becomes and remains part of and significant within a human landscape. It is important to see how inextricable Africanism is or ought to be from the deliberations of literary criticism and the wanton, elaborate strategies undertaken to erase its presence from view.”

“One likely reason for the paucity of critical material on this large and compelling subject is that, in matters of race, silence and evasion have historically ruled literary discourse.”

“It is further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture. To notice is to recognize an already discredited difference. To enforce its invisibility through silence is to allow the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”

Violence against black bodies is the most immediate emergency, of course, but as a reflection of a comprehensively racist system, we must also dig into things as esoteric as literary criticism to understand the depth of the problem.

“Like thousands of avid but nonacademic readers, some powerful literary critics in the United States have never read, and are proud to say so, any African-American text. It seems to have done them no harm, presented them with no discernible limitations in the scope of their work or influence. I suspect, with much evidence to support the suspicion, that they will continue to flourish without any knowledge whatsoever of African-American literature. What is fascinating, however, is to observe how their lavish exploration of literature manages not to see meaning in the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy—an informing, stabilizing, and disturbing element—in the literature they do study. It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts.”

*Pale Colors in a Tall Field: PoemsCarl Phillips

Poetry, of course.

*The FallD. Nurkse

More poetry. Always poetry.

*The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

My life was a story, dry as pages. Seems like he should have known/enough to like them even lightly with his thumb/ But he didn’t. /And I have to admit I didn’t much like the idea/of telling him how.” –The Kingdom of Ordinary Time: PoemsMarie Howe

And yet more poetry. Every day is poetry.

Good – or better than expected

*Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

“The opposite of addiction, I have learned, is not sobriety but choice.” –Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of AddictionJudith Grisel

All I can say about Never Enough is that it balances the author’s own experience with addiction with the neuroscience behind addiction. It reinforces what much of science and social science instructs about addiction: addiction often escalates when faced with a lack of acceptance and community – seeing no alternatives or no possible way out – in a judgmental society that criminalizes addiction and in which some substance abuse (particularly alcohol) is second nature and not seen at all as abuse or troublesome (until it is). Grisel’s account states:

“Though there were several turning points in my trajectory, it seems profoundly significant that the material change began a few months after the ghost-in-the-mirror episode, when my father inexplicably changed course and took me out for my twenty-third birthday. Federal agents, friends’ deaths, expulsions and evictions, physical withdrawal, and myriad other tragedies weren’t enough to propel me to change; instead, it was human love and connection. My father’s willingness to be seen with me and to treat me with kindness split open my defensive shell of rationalizations and justifications. It broke open the lonely heart that neither of us knew I still had.”

She never claims that this turning point made her choice easy, but it was about choice — and it required connection and compassion to reach that stage. Having some meaning seems to be a deciding factor for many addicts, which is backed up by work from both Dr Gabor Maté and Dr Carl Hart, who also specialize in addiction. A unique part of the book is that it covers different categories of drug and in some cases proposes ways we might mitigate some of the pitfalls of use — that is, make alcohol-free spaces more common, find ways to cope with and treat pain, see others with compassion and look at what can be done rather than what cannot.

“So, who’s to blame for the epidemic of addiction? The truth is no one is to blame, but we are all responsible. Our collective shadow supports addiction because we must have a scapegoat even as we deny, or embrace, the many strategies of escape we employ ourselves. We support the tools of addiction, including pathological individualism that leads to alienation, widespread and enthusiastic endorsement of avoidance, and a smorgasbord of consumptive excess and self-medication. Though any search for a cause (or a cure) is bound to fall short, one source of this epidemic is our unwillingness to bear our own pain, along with our failure to look upon the suffering of others with compassion.”

*Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

“The triumph of exchange values over experiential values changed the world both for the better and for the worse. On the one hand, with the commodification of goods, land, and labor came an end to the oppression, injustice, and wretchedness of serfdom. A new concept of freedom was born, along with the possibility of abolishing slavery and the technological capability to produce enough goods for all. On the other hand, it prompted unprecedented new forms of misery, poverty, and potential slavery.” –Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works – and How It FailsYanis Varoufakis

After reading Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-century Economist last month and continuing to think about the up-and-down waves of collapsing capitalism, Varoufakis’s simplified take on economics and capitalism would be a good addition to the basics, boiled down to the simple premise: ““My reason for writing it was the conviction that the economy is too important to leave to the economists.” This is much the same argument that guided the research and thinking behind Doughnut Economics.

“Today’s economic experts are not much different. Whenever they fail to predict properly some economic phenomenon, which is almost always, they account for their failure by appealing to the same mystical economic notions that failed them in the first place. Occasionally, new notions are created in order to account for the failure of the earlier ones.”

How far removed from human life and needs can economics — ostensibly the study of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, which are produced, distributed and consumed by people — get?

“With time, I recognized something else, a delicious contradiction about my own profession that reinforced this belief: the more scientific our models of the economy become, the less relation they bear to the real, existing economy out there. This is precisely the opposite of what obtains in physics, engineering…”

Very much aligned with the questions I continue to ask myself as I make reading and study choices: what are my values, what are society’s collective values? And Varoufakis does the same, hitting the nail right on the head — we live in a time in which experience holds no value, and everything is commodified and assigned a market value. People fall right into this — from assigning a salary, fair or not, to their time and labor (which do, in fact, belong to them) to turning people themselves into products and market experiments (how can we influence consumers, how much can be extract from them either in the form of direct consumption or in the data they generate and unwittingly share with us)?

“Oscar Wilde wrote that a cynical person is someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Our societies tend to make us all cynics. And no one is more cynical than the economist who sees exchange value as the only value, trivializing experiential value as unnecessary in a society where everything is judged according to the criteria of the market. But how exactly did exchange value manage this triumph over experiential value? The commodification of everything…”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

“If Gandhi despised one thing more than cowardice, it was cowardice wrapping itself in the mantle of nonviolence.” –What Gandhi SaysNorman Finkelstein

No stranger to controversy, Finkelstein provides analysis of the tenets for which Gandhi is best known globally… not diving too deeply into the more controversial and troubling aspects of Gandhi the man. Finkelstein focuses squarely on Gandhi’s words and their constant contradictions, emphasizing Gandhi’s predilection for action over consistency of expression. While other readings I’ve highlighted here suggest that inconsistent expression is a hallmark of the dictator, I doubt anyone would claim Gandhi had dictatorial aspirations, even if it seems he had a control-freak streak (and preoccupation with sex and attempting to control it). In fact, according to Finkelstein, Gandhi’s commitment to acting on non-violent resistance came from the need to throw off colonial chains and rulers, not to grab power for himself once these occupiers were successfully resisted.

“Gandhi devoted the whole of his adult life to organizing the powerless 99 percent against the greedy 1 percent. He aspired in the first place to end the British occupation of India, but he also recoiled at the prospect of a corrupt clique of native Indians replacing the foreign occupiers.”

“He was convinced not only that the old world could be extirpated and a new world be brought into being nonviolently, but also that unless it was done nonviolently, the new world would hardly differ from the old world it superseded.”

Finkelstein attempts to show that Gandhi was not passive, and did not advocate being passive. He in fact would advocate violence if and when there were no other alternative.

“The real Gandhi did loathe violence but he loathed cowardice more than violence. If his constituents could not find the inner wherewithal to resist nonviolently, then he exhorted them to find the courage to hit back those who assaulted or demeaned them.”

The unfortunate problem here is that one cannot rely on the judgment of an individual that there “was no alternative”. We can see, despite the very different conditions and circumstances, that a number of police officers in the United States justify murder because they claim to have had no other recourse, and felt that their own lives were threatened. Never mind that they are in positions of power, authority and are armed. I use this example only to illustrate the subjectivity of the perceived alternatives.

Finkelstein also explores the limitations and contradictions of Gandhi’s teachings, which makes this book a worthwhile endeavor.

*Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

“All animals need time, experiences, practice, and failure to become mature adults.” –Wildhood: The Epic Journey from Adolescence to Adulthood in Humans and Other AnimalsBarbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

Oh, adolescence.

“It seems tragically counterintuitive that the most vulnerable and underprepared individuals would be thrown into the riskiest possible situations. But facing mortal danger while still maturing is a fact of life for adolescents and young adults across species.”

Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers explore the fraught period of human and other species adolescent period, which is fascinating overall but a few key points stand out, in particular the question of what happens to humans once old risks are eliminated, when there is capacity to manage more than just basic survival.

“What happens when brains and bodies that evolved in environments full of predators and other threats find those dangers removed? A similar question was posed thirty years ago by a British epidemiologist who noticed a rise in autoimmune diseases like lupus and Crohn’s. David Strachan wondered what happens to immune systems that evolved in environments with many varied pathogens when the world gets cleaner. The “hygiene hypothesis” suggested that human immune systems, unchallenged in overly clean environments, turn inward and begin to attack their own bodies, mistaking normal tissue for pathogens. Might a similar process be driving anxiety in modern adolescents and other individuals? Lars Svendsen, a Norwegian philosopher at the University of Bergen who studies fear, thinks yes. He believes that many modern humans have a “surplus of consciousness” that gets directed into imagining risks.”

“Safer than ever before, with more “brain space” to devote to thinking about risks that don’t pan out, we live in a state of what Svendsen calls “permanent fear.” Permanent fear, believes Svendsen, isolates individuals and creates anxious, lonely societies because “living a life of fear is incompatible with living a life of happiness.””

“Adolescents and adults who seem to have it all still get sad, sometimes even truly depressed. A human being’s internal self-perception can be very different from how others see them. Social experiences during adolescence shape individuals’ views of their status in ways that sometimes continue into adult life. The happiness that might come from success in adult life may be blunted by the enduring effects of social defeats during adolescence.”

Another key point, which seems obvious, but isn’t — based on how critically “sexual compliance” is handled in society. Overt threats are not required in a world that does not believe women, does not understand the subtlety of covert threats, and in which violence is glorified and some people feel entitled to “take”. That is, as Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers share:

“Sex between two animals that appears to be non-coerced, because physical force is not observed, may actually be coercive in a less visible way if the female has been harassed into submitting. Some males may persistently badger unreceptive females for sex, preventing them from foraging and feeding—a phenomenon documented in dolphins, sheep, quail, and coho salmon. Sexually harassed elephant seals, fallow bucks, and female tortoiseshell butterflies ultimately relent, submitting to sex simply so they can go about their lives. An uninformed observer, who sees no resistance or physical restraint, might not recognize these encounters as the coercive events they are. This is especially true because the intimidation and threats of violence may take place hours or even days before the sexual encounter.”

“Conventional wisdom of the time held that fertile female chimpanzees were choosing the mates they preferred. But Wrangham and Muller realized these females weren’t choosing; they were complying.”

*The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

“The timing of my new mustache—ten days after my wife miscarried, a week after I injured my back in a car crash, and two weeks after my father found out he had inoperable cancer—couldn’t have been better. Instead of talking about Dad’s chemo or my wife’s hospitalization, I could divert all small talk to the thick tuft of facial hair growing above my upper lip. And whenever anyone asked, “What’s with the mustache?” I had the perfect answer, and it was even mostly true: “It’s for the boy.” A mustache is not just a great distraction device; it’s also an excellent icebreaker. It’s amazing how many people who see a new mustache in the middle of a familiar face are happy to share their own private mustache stories.” –The Seven Good YearsEtgar Keret

I discovered Etgar Keret by accident – happy surprise, entertaining fiction, clear voice. That’s all.

“In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth.”

*Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

“Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E. M. Forster in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” in which he imagined a future where people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged—“Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs—except the need for human contact. One young man, Kuno, pleads with his mother via a Skype-like technology, “I want to see you not through the Machine. I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”” –Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last TalesOliver Sacks

Most of what Sacks produced is worth reading, and while this was not his best collection, I was mostly struck by his references to how public everything is now. Privacy, as we all know, is dead. And now that we lead almost entirely public lives, we have created identities for others to consume, and we create data that makes us consumable. An endless cycle of (false?) identity creation followed by someone mining that false or aspirational identity data followed by someone trying to sell or selling us something based on that data followed by the consumption and use that lends credence and authority to the identity we created for public consumption, reinforcing the whole cycle repeatedly. Do we consider the trade-offs? It is too late to opt out. How do we want to be — whom do we want to be — in this world we’ve created and submitted to?

“Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

*The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

“But when you stop and really think about it, conventional life advice—all the positive and happy self-help stuff we hear all the time—is actually fixating on what you lack. It lasers in on what you perceive your personal shortcomings and failures to already be, and then emphasizes them for you.” –The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good LifeMark Manson

While not surprising, and leaning a bit heavily on the mild shock value of its profanity-inspired title, this book more or less catalogs the complaint I, and many others, have had about the always-booming self-help industry. Not only does it create and inflate unrealistic expectations within the very population (usually vulnerable) that can least afford to sink a bunch of money and misguided hope into snake-oil in repetitive mantra form, it does, as Manson clearly broadcasts, project that “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience”. YES.

Sure, I know I’ve been chastised and criticized for my “negativity” pretty much all my life. But I don’t care because I’m content, I’m realistic, I’m pragmatic. I have enough, and I am not on an endless and probably fruitless quest for “happiness”, which has become entirely meaningless because being “happy” has been warped by BS ideas about consuming, having, owning and usurped by the constant need for more. Happiness is different from meaning derived from experience, where I see great value. Manson quotes Albert Camus and Charles Bukowski in an admonishment not to seek out happiness; equating happiness with conformity and need to succeed or perform according to society’s arbitrary standards is probably what Camus, Bukowski and Manson would refer to as “giving too many fucks”.

“Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”

Not giving a fuck is not about indifference; in fact, it is having the fortitude, maturity and strength of identity to be able to stand alone, to weather difficulties and to be comfortable with uncertainty and with being oneself, even if that means going against the rest of the herd (perhaps by trying, however futile it is, to opt out of the always-on public life).

*Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

“Life contains these things: leakage and wickage and discharge, pus and snot and slime and gleet. We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” –Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversMary Roach

An irreverent look at the body once it becomes…uninhabited. Unlike Bill Bryson’s book on the anatomy and functions of the human body, Roach dissects (not literally) the things that may happen to a human body after death.

Yes, irreverent.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with just lying around on your back. In its way, rotting is interesting too, as we will see. It’s just that there are other ways to spend your time as a cadaver. Get involved with science. Be an art exhibit. Become part of a tree. Some options for you to think about. Death. It doesn’t have to be boring.”

Yes, oddly filled with chicken-adjacent stories.

“The human head is of the same approximate size and weight as a roaster chicken. I have never before had occasion to make the comparison, for never before today have I seen a head in a roasting pan. But here are forty of them, one per pan, resting face-up on what looks to be a small pet-food bowl. The heads are for plastic surgeons, two per head, to practice on.

The heads have been put in roasting pans—which are of the disposable aluminum variety—for the same reason chickens are put in roasting pans: to catch the drippings.”

“Eventually the taxi pulled up outside a brightly lit fried chicken establishment, the sort of place that in the United States might proclaim “We Do Chicken Right!” but here proclaimed “Do Me Chicken!” The cabdriver turned to collect his fare. We shouted at each other for a while, and eventually he got out and walked over to a tiny, dim storefront next to the chicken place and pointed vigorously to a sign. Designated Foreign-Oriented Tourist Unit, it said. Well, do me chicken. The man was right.”

*Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.” –Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari

As I ponder throughout this post, history is a moving target, and one experience is not representative of all, or universal, experience. This book manages somehow to be an example both of attempting to fit all of history into a single interpretation while also calling out how a multiplicity of experiences shelter under different umbrellas. After all, a book purporting to be a history of humankind will by necessity take a broad perspective. A dense and fascinating overview, it covers expansive ground, from money to religion, from the pace of change (the social order is in a state of “permanent flux”) to the accumulation of wealth and whether change and wealth have made us happier or more relaxed or “advanced”. It asks questions I wouldn’t (and Harari probably wouldn’t, based on the final words quoted below) expect of a book of this kind.

“But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry? Historians seldom ask such questions.”

Perhaps most appropriate and more specifically, Harari explores the always-controversial (although it should not be) debate (and it should not be one) about determining what is biological and what is “justified through biological myths”. An example here is the tendency to discuss concepts like race and gender in quite general, overarching terms while not completely making them reductive.

“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realise some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children – some cultures oblige women to realise this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another – some cultures forbid them to realise this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition. No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise, women to run faster than the speed of light, or negatively charged electrons to be attracted to each other. In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’.”

“Different societies adopt different kinds of imagined hierarchies. Race is very important to modern Americans but was relatively insignificant to medieval Muslims. Caste was a matter of life and death in medieval India, whereas in modern Europe it is practically non-existent. One hierarchy, however, has been of supreme importance in all known human societies: the hierarchy of gender. People everywhere have divided themselves into men and women. And almost everywhere men have got the better deal, at least since the Agricultural Revolution.”

I took many points away from this book, but it’s this last point — about the gender hierarchy — that struck me most of all. I find myself getting angrier about gender inequality as I get older, and the historical record justifies this anger. There is no biological basis for relegating women to a position of inferiority, and yet, throughout societies the world over, that’s exactly where women exist.

“How did it happen that in the one species whose success depends above all on cooperation, individuals who are supposedly less cooperative (men) control individuals who are supposedly more cooperative (women)? At present, we have no good answer.”

*The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

“…and for years the Balkans faded into our collective memories. No one ever said: “Remember the man who filled up the car in Pec?” or, “Remember the field by that cement factory called General Jankovic?”—because the Balkans were peaceful in those times, and we had no compelling reason to think of them.” –The Fracture ZoneSimon Winchester

I didn’t love this book but tend to read everything about the former Yugoslavia, its breakup, and different “western” takes on “Balkan drama”. I don’t generally buy into a lot of the analysis, but I nevertheless feel compelled to be steeped in it, if only to have close-to-the-skin reminders of what it was like to be there (by “there” I mean Bosnia, not so much Kosovo, as Winchester does) in the post-war period: the “fixers” that would get hired to act as… well, fixers, drivers and interpreters, even though their real jobs were as engineers, students or farmers, the Turkish-style coffee, the mélange of foods (I lived on shopska salad myself), people, styles, a kind of clash of old and new world (a man driving his horse and buggy along the same road down which a cadre of Bosnian politicians gunned their motorcade of brand-new Audi A8s while making a campaign stop), the random marriage proposals from strangers who simply sought an easy exit, intermittent electricity, random security evacuation exercises, and civil sector bureaucracy.

Reading this and similar accounts of the end of Yugoslavia, I can’t help but feel my age, but much more acutely, I feel the squeeze of insignificance… how diluted historical events become with time. I wouldn’t claim that I knew a lot of people outside certain circles who felt concerned about the situation in former Yugoslavia even at the time, but now, with the war well outside the living memory of young adults, I meet many young people who have never heard of Yugoslavia at all and had nebulous notions, if any idea at all, that a war was fought in this place that they associate vaguely (again, if they have any associations whatsoever) with the filming locations for Game of Thrones (Croatia) and coastal holidays.

*Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

“Your credibility arises in part from how your society perceives people like you, and we have seen over and over again that no matter how credible some women are by supposedly objective standards reinforced by evidence and witnesses and well-documented patterns, they will not be believed by people committed to protecting men and their privileges. The very definition of women under patriarchy is designed to justify inequality, including inequality of credibility. Though patriarchy often claims a monopoly on rationality and reason, those committed to it will discount the most verifiable, coherent, ordinary story told by a woman and accept any fantastical account by a man, will pretend sexual violence is rare and false accusations common, and so forth. Why tell stories if they will only bring forth a new round of punishment or disparagement?” –Recollections of My NonexistenceRebecca Solnit

Referring again to the idea that some people (men, white) have unlimited space to tell stories and be believed, few voices chronicle the struggle to be taken seriously, to be heard and to be respected as well as Rebecca Solnit. The ways women’s experiences have been distorted by the collective voice of dominance insisting that women are “crazy” have enabled the control men continue to have over women — and society as a whole. We can read about (and feel) the injustice of this in all kinds of discourse — some even dating back more than 150 years (see The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill, listed above), and some much more recent, such as Sapiens, listed below, by Yuval Noah Harari.

“It was a kind of collective gaslighting. To live in a war that no one around me would acknowledge as a war—I am tempted to say that it made me crazy, but women are so often accused of being crazy, as a way of undermining their capacity to bear witness and the reality of what they testify to. Besides, in these cases, crazy is often a euphemism for unbearable suffering. So it didn’t make me crazy; it made me unbearably anxious, preoccupied, indignant, and exhausted. I was faced with either surrendering my freedom in advance or risking losing it in the worst ways imaginable. One thing that makes people crazy is being told that the experiences they have did not actually happen, that the circumstances that hem them in are imaginary, that the problems are all in their head, and that if they are distressed it is a sign of their failure, when success would be to shut up or to cease to know what they know.”

*Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

“Tyrants trust no one, least of all their allies. Duvalier disposed of friends and foes alike, striking down anyone he thought was too ambitious or might develop a separate power base. No one was indispensable.” –Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth CenturyFrank Dikötter

We’re living through a time in which we are surrounded by a number of would-be dictators. For this reason alone, a chronicle of the lives of dictators in the 20th century is both timely and instructive. I could list off the present-day dictator wanna-be candidates, and I could list off their slogans. But we don’t need to amplify these names and their dictates further.

The takeaway here is confirmation of the many traits we can associate with and by which we can identify tyranny and tyrants: narcissism, penchant for performance/spectacle, ‘govern’ by slogans, practice and encourage inconsistency, personalize their power (“I alone can do…”), surround oneself with sycophants and ass-kissers and dismiss and discredit anyone who goes against you. The true believers will, like cult members, drink the Kool Aid, no matter what a tyrant does, and for everyone else, who sees the reality, a tyrant will “sow confusion, to destroy common sense, to enforce obedience, to isolate individuals and crush their dignity” to ensure that he isn’t credibly threatened by being removed.

Dikötter writes of Mussolini’s regime; sound familiar?:

“People had to self-censor, and in turn they monitored others, denouncing those who failed to appear sufficiently sincere in their professions of devotion to the leader. Underneath the appearance of widespread uniformity, there was a broad spectrum, ranging from those who genuinely idealised their leader – true believers, opportunists, thugs – to those who were indifferent, apathetic or even hostile.”

“For almost two decades Mussolini had encouraged the idea that he alone could be trusted and could do no wrong. He had used the cult of the leader to debase his competitors, ensuring every potential rival in the Fascist Party was edged out of the limelight. Those who remained were united in their devotion to the Duce, sycophants determined to outdo one another in praising his genius. They lied to him, much as he lied to them. But most of all, Mussolini lied to himself. He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth’ in the words of his biographer Renzo de Felice. He knew that those around him were flatterers who withheld information that could provoke his ire. He trusted no one, having no true friends, no reliable companion to whom he could speak frankly. As the years passed Mussolini isolated himself from others, becoming a virtual prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Venezia.”

*Transforming Glasgow: Beyond the Post-Industrial CityKeith Kintrea and Rebecca Madgin, editors

“Ours is a city which perhaps more than any other of our size, shaped the Industrial Revolution, along with all of the great positive and negative forces that it unleashed.”

I binge and gorge on all things Glasgow – even urban planning and its history. I don’t expect others to care for this in the way I did, so it’s not exactly a recommendation unless you’re obsessed with Glasgow and the post-industrial transformation of once-heavily-industrialized cities.

On the other hand, many works I read this month, and more generally, deal with impoverishment of the urban landscape, de-industrialization with nothing to replace it, meaning that poverty almost inevitably travels hand-in-hand with some of these economic upheavals. Glasgow was once the “Second City of the Empire“, but you’d never know it if you were to witness the parts of the city hammered hardest by poverty and dilapidation that came with de-industrialization and privatization. Photographer Raymond Depardon captured this side of Glasgow in 1980 (it’s worth looking at the photos). To some degree, Glasgow has experienced many of the growing pains and tragedies that other cities have and do – and much of it boils down to misguided attempts at “modernizing” (in Glasgow’s case, people were moved out of the city to live in giant, horrible tower blocks and manufactured “communities” – and in so doing, much of Glasgow’s storied architecture was lost, and more appallingly, communities were torn apart. I’d argue that while Glasgow has not been as deeply affected by the powers of gentrification (essentially a destructive force masquerading as progress) as cities like New York (which is dealt with in Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind above), it is nevertheless a factor in Glasgow’s drive to redefine and reshape itself.

*Where the Wild Cooks Go: Recipes from My Travels in Food and MusicCerys Matthews

Not much to say here except that this was an enjoyable mix of recipes and music from all over the world; a nice tonic for not being able to travel anywhere.

*Salt HousesHala Alyan

“Easier, she thinks, to remember nothing, to enter a world already changed, than have it transform before your eyes. In the palaces, the grandparents must sit in their extravagant rooms, remembering sand. Nostalgia is an affliction.”

A beautiful book – evoking the pain and suffering of human memory and nostalgia.

“Poor innocent things, he thinks. What is a life? A series of yeses and noes, photographs you shove in a drawer somewhere, loves you think will save you but that cannot. Continuing to move, enduring, not stopping even when there is pain. That’s all life is, he wants to tell her. It’s continuing.”

*I Will Never See the World Again: The Memoir of an Imprisoned WriterAhmet Altan

“Forgetting is the greatest source of freedom a person can have. The prison, the cell, the walls, the doors, the locks, the problems and the people – everything and everyone placing limits on my life and telling me “you cannot go beyond” is erased and gone.”

The pain of memory, the relief of erasure. A different kind of freedom.

“There is a cure for everything. Except longing.”

Turkish political prisoner and journalist Ahmet Altan writes of being imprisoned and the conditions within the country that enabled his imprisonment. Sometimes with humor, fearlessly, and sometimes sparking emotion — both sadness and anger.

“While the policemen searched the apartment, I put the kettle on. “Would you like some tea?” I asked. They said they would not. “It is not a bribe,” I said, imitating my late father, “you can drink some.” Exactly forty-five years ago, on a morning just like this one, they had raided our house and arrested my father. My father asked the police if they would like some coffee. When they declined, he laughed and said, “It is not a bribe, you can drink some.” What I was experiencing was not déjà vu. Reality was repeating itself. This country moves through history too slowly for time to go forward, so it folds back on itself instead. Forty-five years had passed and time had returned to the same morning. During the space of that morning which lasted forty-five years, my father had died and I had grown old, but the dawn and the raid were unchanged.”

*The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

“As with so much else, you experience the world that your brain allows you to experience.” –The Body: A Guide for OccupantsBill Bryson

I have never liked the self-satisfied and judgmental Bill Bryson, and some of his books betray these personality defects more than others. I include The Body here in spite of its writer, as I think the book simplified the human body in an engaging way — exploring anatomy through relatable language and analogies. Some interesting language and analogies, even if not new, included:

  • Color isn’t a fixed reality but a perception
  • “The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet. It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, “It’s a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.””
  • “It will not have escaped your attention that the mouth is a moist and glistening vault.”
  • the antibiotic crisis is already here – it’s not a looming crisis
  • ““You can make a real mess of yourself, but you are very likely to survive. Killing yourself is actually difficult.”
  •  “A meta-analysis showed that for older people the risk of a heart attack was raised for up to three hours after sex, but it was similarly raised for shoveling snow, and sex is more fun than shoveling snow.”
  • “It’s remarkable that bad things don’t happen more often. According to one estimate reported by Ed Yong in The Atlantic, the number of viruses in birds and mammals that have the potential to leap the species barrier and infect us may be as high as 800,000. That is a lot of potential danger.” (We’re seeing this now, aren’t we?)
  • “When I met Washington University’s Michael Kinch in St. Louis, I asked him what he believed was the greatest disease risk to us now. “Flu,” he said without hesitation. “Flu is way more dangerous than people think. For a start, it kills a lot of people already—about thirty to forty thousand every year in the United States—and that’s in a so-called good year. But it also evolves very rapidly, and that’s what makes it especially dangerous.”
  • “Two things can be said with confidence about life expectancy in the world today. One is that it is really helpful to be rich. If you are middle-aged, exceptionally well-off, and from almost any high-income nation, the chances are excellent that you will live into your late eighties. The second thing that can be said with regard to life expectancy is that it is not a good idea to be an American. Compared with your peers in the rest of the industrialized world, even being well-off doesn’t help you here.”
  • Your lifestyle is the most likely thing to kill you, and many of the cultural and socioeconomic inequalities facing society now contribute to this. “IN 2011, AN interesting milestone in human history was passed. For the first time, more people globally died from non-communicable diseases like heart failure, stroke, and diabetes than from all infectious diseases combined. We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle. We are in effect choosing how we shall die, albeit without much reflection or insight.”
  • “It is an extraordinary fact that having good and loving relationships physically alters your DNA. Conversely, a 2010 U.S. study found, not having such relationships doubles your risk of dying from any cause.”

Coincidences

*Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

“M. sometimes referred to our shared memory palace, where the two of us had invented our own times of day (he always found a different way to bring up “The Invention of Midnight”). The rooms of this building, he said, which contained replicas of the most unremarkable sights, had turned into treasures.”

“This idea of a palace has stayed with me, even if I believe it is too neatly constructed to shed light on the devious ways of memory. Its innocent sleight of hand is only in the amplification of what is remembered, when the truth has so much more to do with hiding and forgetting.” –Walking on the CeilingAyşegül Savaş

In asking ourselves questions about who we are as individuals and in relation to others, and how we are woven into, or fraying at the edges of, the wider tapestry of our familial and social circles, and more broadly into society, we may neglect to look at a lot of factors because they seem far removed from our own daily realities. Depending on who we are, these factors could include socioeconomic class, race, gender, our relationship to faith or religion, geography, and our place in the culture in which we live, even if we feel that we are not included in it. These considerations generate deeper questions that, even if painful, begin to free us to find out who we really are – outside the rules of traditional economics, outside the boundaries of consumer culture, outside of our relationships with others.

While Walking on the Ceiling did not delve into any of these questions, its inclusion in this list comes as a kind of meeting point among the uniting themes of the other works that influenced me this month. We are examining and re-examining the stories we’ve told ourselves as cultures and nations, and there’s a reckoning underway: who has the voice and privilege to define and decide what these stories are? Who will re-contextualize incomplete, one-sided histories? Who creates and enforces collective memory and how? For example, as the nefarious US attorney general, Bill Barr, alarmingly stated not long ago, “History is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who is writing the history.” Or, as musician Sam Phillips wrote, “History is written to say, ‘It wasn’t our fault, wasn’t our fault…”, which inevitably means that someone is on the other side of that equation taking the blame.

For more than two centuries of US history at least, history has been created (yes, created, because it is an interpretation) by those with the loudest voices, ownership, most to protect/lose – power – and this has in many cases become a kind of brainwashing-induced mythology by which Americans define their identities and their so-called “freedom”. But this history is not every American’s story, not every American’s history. Perhaps this is changing now, as at least large swathes of the population begin to confront the ugliness of history and how it continues to pervade, influence and oppress other large swathes of the population who have been systematically disenfranchised, ignored or abused. Even if memory, which underpins what we call history, is perhaps challenging and deceptive, and susceptible to corruption, it still cannot be erased or debased en masse. There can always be a counterbalance to the dominant retelling of the story. If, as Savaş insists in Walking, “…people lived their whole lives telling stories, and by story he meant something like delusion. Everyone, he said, had a story of themselves. They told it again and again, at every chance they got”, we should always have multiple narratives and voices to help define the story – and history, Bill Barr and his ilk be damned.

As a side note, I highlighted this book in the first place as coincidental because it featured the “memory palace” (method of loci) concept that also came up in tv’s Dispatches from Elsewhere.

Biggest disappointment

*The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

“What a mistake it had been to close off the meaning of my existence in the rites that Mario offered with cautious conjugal rapture. What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life. What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

While I didn’t hate this book, my lack of appreciation probably represents a kind of fatigue after reading too much Ferrante in short succession. It’s not even that this book is bad – perhaps it is more my dislike for the shrill and shallow nature of the main character, who comes completely undone when her husband reveals he has been unfaithful and is leaving her. Over the course of the story more hurtful details emerge about the infidelity, and indeed cause the character near-breakdown-level grief.

I think what was remarkable about the book and its characterization this breakdown – filled with angst, regret, anger, jealousy and the whole gamut of (sometimes contradictory) emotions people feel when a relationship ends – is how well it describes what one must confront in the face of such a rupture. Over the course of a long relationship, one doesn’t see clearly how intertwined their life has become with that of the other. And sometimes, as was the case here – that life is not even combined or co-lived but is lost within and subsumed by the life and desires of the other.

When these realizations hit, it’s powerful, painful and starts an examination of the past, when the only way forward is to think instead of the future. While there’s not necessarily anything wrong with having merged two lives together, the loss of identity (which I recently highlighted as a theme from tv’s imaginative and unusual Dispatches from Elsewhere) is crushing, all the more because its erosion is so gradual one doesn’t realize it until reality is shaken. Infidelity, as explored by Esther Perel in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is complex: it violates not only the sense of self and security of the “betrayed” (“being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy is the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, for it confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all“), but can also reflect the fragmentation of the “betrayers” identity (“Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves“). Coming to terms with what was thought to be reality versus what actually was can create deep estrangement from…everyone, including oneself, and create obstacles to moving forward.

I didn’t enjoy this book in a standard way, but appreciate that Ferrante has captured in visceral color what it feels like to go through this.

“No, I thought, squeezing the rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. To immediately redo the grammatical tenses.” –The Days of AbandonmentElena Ferrante

*Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

Interesting book – but not as interesting as I had hoped. Some interesting ideas here, for example citing Jared Diamond’s hypothesis that intercontinental inequality has more to do with plants, animals and agriculture than with culture. Culture, meanwhile, doesn’t explain everything.

“Is the culture hypothesis useful for understanding world inequality? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that social norms, which are related to culture, matter and can be hard to change, and they also sometimes support institutional differences, this book’s explanation for world inequality. But mostly no, because those aspects of culture often emphasized—religion, national ethics, African or Latin values—are just not important for understanding how we got here and why the inequalities in the world persist. Other aspects, such as the extent to which people trust each other or are able to cooperate, are important but they are mostly an outcome of institutions, not an independent cause.” –Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and PovertyDaron Acemoğlu

finger blame

Standard

I just watched a series of MOOC lectures on bitcoin and cryptocurrency technologies, and the instructor just said, “…now you have to worry about the fact that they’re supplying code that has its grubby fingers on your bitcoins…”. 

Ah, yes, fingers. I guess my fingers are deceptively large. Or my hands are larger than they look. I was recently reminded of this … optical illusion when someone commented on my awkward, off-kilter hand gestures, citing how non-authoritative it looks when I use my index finger to scold someone (jokingly or otherwise) because my hands are “so small”. But I put my palm flat against his, which left him shocked to discover that our hands are basically the same size. And then when the time came to demonstrate dexterity and strength, I was able to stretch my hand across the top of a large can of paint and lift it. He was not able to do the same. In some small way this was an emasculating act, and I have been doing this same kind of thing my entire life by being physically stronger than most of the men I’ve been around (even when we’re only talking about fingers and hands).

And being as conditioned as we are, I end up being the one ‘blamed’ and shamed for how ‘unfeminine’ this is.

And to this, I erect a deceptively small – or deceptively large – middle finger.

Rousing sessions, furious responses

Standard

“Part of what interests me is the impulse to dismiss and how often it slides into the very incoherence or hysteria of which women are routinely accused.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

When not enunciated clearly, “betrayal” and “portrayal” sound very much the same. And in reality, they are.

Applicable in many situations, it seems most apt when thinking about the portrayal women must give so often in the world, consciously or not, in the workplace, in their private lives, even in their friendships. And in giving this portrayal (or portrayals), she performs or reflects a kind of betrayal – of herself, other women and even the truth of what women are or can be. I wrote a bit about this – or about false feminism – or carrying the flag of feminism only when it is convenient or aligns with one’s own individual conception of feminism. But I can think of very little that betrays oneself and womankind – and does the least amount of good for all of humanity – than the idea of portraying a role, fitting into a mold, being or showing some unreality to the world and perpetuating it. At the same time, though, it is so ingrained as the expectation that it’s hard to do otherwise. After all, no one appears ready to take a woman at her word.

“I told you, but what does the proverb say? A woman’s prophecy is always taken lightly until it comes to pass.” –The Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

At face value

I think of this often: we don’t take what women say at face value. Even if we believe them, and even if what they tell us bears out, e.g. Bill Cosby’s many accusers, Cosby’s own admissions of what he had done (without accepting any culpability, i.e. “I did it but it wasn’t wrong; it was consensual”), we still don’t apply the logic or truths of what women say, we still don’t hold anyone accountable for what women endure, reinforcing the idea that we might as well just shut up or contentedly portray our role.

“If we could recognize or even name this pattern of discrediting, we could bypass recommencing the credibility conversation every time a woman speaks. One more thing about Cassandra: in the most famous version of the myth, the disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god. The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along. But with the real-life Cassandras among us, we can lift the curse by making up our own minds about who to believe and why.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Crazy label: Unspoken message

“As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.” –Cane, Jean Toomer

I read this week about Sylvia Plath, and how she is widely regarded in academia and in general as a gifted but troubled woman. Clearly if you’d commit suicide, you must have been crazy. She was just a jealous woman who had been cheated on, like so many before her, and could not handle it. Unhinged. Hysterical. But is any story or person that simple? It’s so easy to dismiss her this way because this is what evidence we have; this is the narrative that her ex-husband sought to craft in her death. Not to preserve her reputation as a literary voice but to protect his.

The article I read asks: “Why are we so unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?” The “crazy label” assigned to her (which, granted, is not hard to assign when a person kills herself and is therefore left defenseless; any written evidence she left behind was destroyed by the aforementioned ex-husband) automatically makes her an unreliable witness to her own existence, all the more so because she was a woman. The hushed-up, unspoken message is clear: You don’t need to listen to a woman if she’s crazy, and much of the language used to describe women and their behavior (as if it can be so easily classified and compartmentalized) makes all women seem crazy in some way. All women then are unreliable or biased witnesses. When an individual woman’s own situation becomes unbearable and visible to others, it is demanded: “But why didn’t you say anything?” Answer: “I did and no one listened/believed me” or eventually, “Who would have believed me?” When their prescience comes to prove itself, later people ask, “But why didn’t anyone say anything?” Well, we did. It went unheard until it came to pass.

Uncontrollable circumstances, self-blame

As Dorthe Nors writes in So Much for that Winter, “and it is woman’s weakness to believe it’s because she isn’t good enough that things don’t go according to plan (and it is woman’s weakness that things should go according to plan).” Perhaps it is this near-built-in inferiority coupled with the idea that somehow you (as a woman) should be perfect that makes one seem crazy. Even though this is exactly the portrayal women are asked to give every single day.

Meanwhile, as Alice Munro writes on men in Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage:

“Men were not like this, in my experience. Men looked away from frightful happenings as soon as they could and behaved as if there was no use, once things were over with, in mentioning them or thinking about them ever again. They didn’t want to stir themselves up, or stir other people up.”

(Wo)man with a plan

It’s overly simplified and not universally true (in other words: here are some sweeping generalizations for you), but in very broad strokes, women plan and then feel guilty and inadequate when that plan does not work precisely, dwelling on the consequences (even if they often have also performed risk assessment and made contingency plans even for the simplest of maneuvers). Men do not plan, and walk away without a second thought when the things around them fall apart, feeling no connection at all to the consequences.

Or, men’s and women’s idea of what constitutes a “plan” are fundamentally different: A man makes a plan, points A through Z. He rarely seems to follow the threads of what happens if any of those alphabetical points does not go to plan, which is where many women excel. She is thinking about point A1, and the contingency plans A2, A3 and how those interact and meet with the next possible steps in the plan, points B-Z and their subplans. If she thinks this way, how can she not foresee and foretell pitfalls and disasters? It’s a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but without any real surprises. A bit like a woman’s life at times: chaos and silence, ignoring and being ignored and many rousing sessions and furious responses that lead nowhere.

The single woman: Alone with strangers

Standard

“I started to think about how people say that the trouble with two strangers getting married isn’t necessarily that the woman has to marry someone she doesn’t know but that she has to learn to love someone she doesn’t know…But I think it must be easier for a girl to marry someone she doesn’t know, because the more you get to know men, the harder it is to love them.” –Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk

“But how was one to be an adult? Was couplehood truly the only appropriate option? (But then, a sole option was no option at all.)” –A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Changing space and place

In writing an earlier post, The silent woman, about being middle-aged, or just being a woman who is trying to make her voice heard in the world we live in (it’s easy for me to forget that this is difficult, but then the news turns up some corporate jackass says women talk too much or one of the only hard-charging questioners, Senator Kamala Harris, was repeatedly interrupted by men at Jeff Sessions’s session in the hot seat at recent US Senate Intelligence Committee hearings), it started off with my thinking about the choices we, as women, have. The choices I, as an individual have – as a woman, as a middle-aged woman, in the position, station and circumstances in which I find myself now. I am fortunate; I cannot complain. I may always have been somewhere near invisible, but I’ve oddly been able to do most things my own way. I have never been railing against a system that is stacked against me. I run afoul of many of society’s expectations and have never cared what other people thought.

So when considering a woman’s place, a woman’s ‘requirement’ to marry or to bend to the conventions of society, I have never felt bound to these ‘norms’. Many of Erica Jong’s assertions in Fear of Flying, which may well have been the norm in 1973 (and in many cases remain so today), were thus memos I shredded in favor of doing whatever I wanted.

She wrote:

“Solitude is un-American. It may be condoned in a man—especially if he is a “glamorous bachelor” who “dates starlets” during a brief interval between marriages.”

Bullshit. Solitude may well be un-American, maybe even inhuman. But I prefer solitude and embraced it.

She also wrote:

“…be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah. There is simply no dignified way for a woman to live alone.”

Perhaps as a function or fact of the time, this was true. But I failed to embrace this.

She further wrote:

“Her friends, her family, her fellow workers never let her forget that her husbandlessness, her childlessness—her selfishness, in short—is a reproach to the American way of life.”

This is also not something that remains intact as fact today. Yes, a few people regard me as selfish for my lack of marriage and lack of children, and I occasionally confront the pity people direct toward me for these things I lack. But I understand in equal measure the envy that people also feel that I am free, and always have been. It’s a mixed reaction going both ways.

But then it’s not all about me. I am fully aware that I can only speak for myself and my own rather non-linear and unique experience. What Jong experienced and wrote about 40+ years ago is something different from what we have today, even if we can all cite 1,000 moments each day that we individually experience or witness more of the bitter sameness of obliquely discriminatory behavior. It is easy to dismiss what Jong, mid-20th century feminists or even my older female colleagues when I first joined the corporate workforce write or say as passé because many of us no longer experience the overt discrimination they exposed and fought against. But we see evidence every day, often not overt, but nevertheless pervasive, that there is still plenty of need for feminism and awareness-building. For society and for individuals and their choices.

Feminism, though it can be individual, is largely not about an individual perspective or experience. Each individual may need to define what feminism is for her, but on a more universal level, we are all responsible for making the world safe for women to make those self-determinations. Even if that choice is to follow a prescribed societal view of her own place and space. That means that sometimes we are not going to be on the same page just because we are women, e.g. some of the most vocal anti-choice activists are women; Donald Trump would not have become US president if it weren’t for white women in the United States. Do I agree with those women’s views? No. But do I feel that their right to believe what they believe is valid? Yes, insofar as it does not infringe on others’ rights (which, unfortunately, it often does).

Keeping pace: The marriage question – But who am I, and who are you? Who knows?

Many of Jong’s suppositions are tied to the search for love and the ultimate ‘subjugation’ of marriage. But most of us are not required to marry or pair off for material reasons or other obligations. Yet we do. By choice.

How, then, with all these communication-based minefields in our paths do we reach a point that it makes sense to us to marry? Who and where are we as individuals that we think, Yes, this makes perfect sense? I get it – feelings and lust and all these other heady things cloud our logical judgment. It’s not that marriage and companionship are wrong or troublesome. They can be pleasurable, supportive and all kinds of other good stuff. But what is the need, at a certain point? Maybe it is not a question of need any more, unlike for example, the scenes described in Fear of Flying:

“Damned clever, I thought, how men had made life so intolerable for single women that most would gladly embrace even bad marriages instead. Almost anything had to be an improvement on hustling for your own keep at some low-paid job and fighting off unattractive men in your spare time while desperately trying to ferret out the attractive ones.”

No, instead of ‘need’, I see a few clear paths people take. Among them (and these are only examples):

Those who don’t find a voice or identity, so seek a voice in another. One is essentially alone with a stranger – but that stranger isn’t the person she has coupled up with, but herself. And in some cases (leaving aside the equality of Scandinavian countries, which is atypical of the rest of the world), it is the preference. She may want to subsume her half-baked identity in the identity of another. (“But I have lost my being in so many beings” -Sophia de Mello Breyner.) Maybe she still, in this day and age (and again, outside Sweden this stuff may still be true), buys into the myths:

“What all the ads and all the whoreoscopes seemed to imply was that if only you were narcissistic enough, if only you took proper care of your smells, your hair, your boobs, your eyelashes, your armpits, your crotch, your stars, your scars, and your choice of Scotch in bars—you would meet a beautiful, powerful, potent, and rich man who would satisfy every longing, fill every hole, make your heart skip a beat (or stand still), make you misty, and fly you to the moon (preferably on gossamer wings), where you would live totally satisfied forever. And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career—you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.” –Fear of Flying

Then there are those who find someone who loves and cherishes the voice and identity she has cultivated for herself. Something akin to two complete and fulfilled people trying to enhance their lives with the presence of someone else who, by all accounts, understands and appreciates them in a way that no one else does. Illusion? Maybe. After all, understanding may be an illusion:

“What elaborate misconceptions form other people’s understanding of us! The joy of being understood by others cannot be had by those who want to be understood, for they are too complex to be understood; and simple people, who can be understood by others, never have the desire to be understood. Nobody achieves anything … Nothing is worth doing.” –The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

The single misunderstanding

Perhaps these pursuits are doomed to be fruitless, but we can delude ourselves. Quite happily, maybe for a lifetime. We may never understand another and maybe we do not need to, completely, to find a kind of fulfillment in another.

“…is always myself that I seek in other people—my enrichment, my fulfilment. Once everyone grasps this, the logic of ‘every man for himself’, carried to its logical conclusion, will be transformed into the logic of ‘all for each’.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem

And further, we may not discover or know ourselves, but fool ourselves that we have; we may not truly connect with another – because we are not really listening, not really seeing, but marry anyway, probably blind, often miserable, perhaps someday concluding that we are marrying strangers, or living with the stranger that is ourself, or something similar to what Pessoa cautions:

“Have you ever considered, beloved Other, how invisible we all are to each other? Have you ever thought about how little we know each other? We look at each other without seeing. We listen to each other and hear only a voice inside ourself. The words of others are mistakes of our hearing, shipwrecks of our understanding. How confidently we believe in our meanings of other people’s words. We hear death in words they speak to express sensual bliss. We read sensuality and life in words they drop from their lips without the slightest intention of being profound.” -Fernando Pessoa

The silent woman

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“The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women.” —D. H. Lawrence

“It has taken me most of my 40 or so years as a conscious person to realize: I don’t owe anyone an explanation.” – Me

Today I read an article by Danish writer Dorthe Nors on the invisibility of middle-aged and older women. She writes: “A middle-aged woman who’s not preoccupied with handling herself or taking care of someone else is a dangerous, erratic being. What is she up to? And what’s the point of her being up to anything?” It fell in my lap at the right time, seeing as how I’m sidled right up to middle age, and have always been a bit invisible anyway.

In that sense I, perhaps wrongly, feel like I can see this clearly and objectively, but I doubt this is true. Perhaps it is, as one dear friend commented when I shared this article, “I think middle age must come as much more of a shock to women who fit the current standards of beauty. For someone to whom men have never paid much attention, there is not much difference in how we are considered in middle age. While difficult to deal with when young, you are forced to find your self-worth outside of a man and man’s view of you at an earlier age.”

This article arrived at a moment when I was otherwise contemplating commitment and choice. We are led, at least by the media, to believe that our choices become ever-more limited, and scarcity rears its terrifying head – in the workplace, in terms of potential relationship or sexual partners, even in our friendships. I don’t think any of this is as acute as we’re told, but it is also not universal. It depends on you, where you are, what you are doing, what you want and all kinds of other factors. In the midst of all the infernal thinking, someone said to me, referring to more specific things than I thus applied it to, “There are still a number of points ahead of you at which your life branches off in multiple directions. You still have options, choices.” Logically I know this but a combination of inertia and grief, and a soupçon of fear, has stopped me in my tracks. I feel a bit like I have been shaken awake and have no time to lose.

But a lot of sluggish meandering through literary contemplations on women, communication, relationships and marriage had to happen first.

Finding a voice

For a lot of women, finding their voice – the voice that represents them truly, not just the voice and content she uses as a conciliatory mediator, but the voice and content as the one who gets labeled as a bitch or troublemaker or a roadblock simply because she actually is the smartest one in the room, knows what she is doing and has thought through all the potential outcomes and problems. The voice that is not just a cushion, a boomerang, a mirror for something a man says or does, but the voice that is not afraid of or concerned with how she is perceived. This is mined with risk. It is all easier said than done. It’s not just having the knowledge and eloquence to hold forth on a given subject, it’s as Rebecca Solnit posits, just being able to assert the right or space to say anything at all:

Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

I am not sure how much of my own difficulty in asserting myself is rooted in age-old shyness (as opposed to my being female). But, as an adult, I also live in Sweden, so I don’t find that men are quite as domineering, particularly when they have sought out my expertise in my own field. Right after I wrote that sentence I happened to see this opinion piece by Paulina Porizkova on feminism. She realized when she moved to Sweden as a child that suddenly “my power was suddenly equal to a boy’s”. In the Swedish world, “the word ‘feminist’ felt antiquated; there was no longer a use for it”; after all, “Women could do anything men did, but they could also — when they chose to — bear children. And that made us more powerful than men.”

It was only later, in comparing the roles of women in her native Czech Republic, in Sweden, in France and finally the United States that she could embrace the need for feminism:

“In the Czech Republic, the nicknames for women, whether sweet or bitter, fall into the animal category: little bug, kitten, old cow, swine. In Sweden, women are rulers of the universe. In France, women are dangerous objects to treasure and fear. For better or worse, in those countries, a woman knows her place.

But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.” –Paulina Porizkova

I also tend to have the upper hand in business dealings because everyone else is using English as a second or third language, and it’s my first. But I certainly recognize that battle of trying to gain the right to speak. And the ability to say what I want or need to say without being interrupted or talked over or “mansplained to”. This isn’t scientific, my observations/thoughts. But being this insular, shy person for my entire life, while teeming with vociferous opinions, thoughts and ideas, I experience the ongoing struggle, but then I also experience this with louder, more domineering women who stubbornly want to hear the sounds of their own voices and repetitive thoughts (they’ve probably learned to behave this way because they too are fighting for a space for their voices). I also keenly feel that these communication difficulties (not mine specifically but more general, gender-related mismatches) have informed my opinions on male-female communication, relationships, and have contributed a lot to my desire to be alone.

It often takes us such a long time as people to find our true voices, to be ourselves, that it’s a shame that it’s twice as hard for women of all ages under most circumstances, and that by the time we as middle-aged women find our voice and claim the agency to speak openly and freely and to demand the floor, so to speak, we are silenced by this invisibility (or as Alex Qin explains in her SkillShare TechSummit 2017 keynote, linked above, being hypervisible and invisible at the same time).

Make manifest the hypocrisy

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“Should I be a killjoy now and point out that we are objectifying all these people?”

Not two days after two acquaintances were railing against gender inequality, the continued need for active and vigilant feminism and the gross objectification of women, insisting that we are not heard and are constantly interrupted, not only did they interrupt and talk over each other, they wheeled out loads and loads of pictures of people active in CrossFit and started commenting on their muscles, their bodies, their appearances, and their preference for “muscular women who don’t appear muscular in clothes”. Normally I would not care – this would be something I’d happily and easily ignore because this kind of commentary is not my thing, but this time, suddenly I was thinking, “What the hell is this?” It’s somehow okay to objectify people (granted, these people have public, visible Instagram accounts where their muscles are on display) and critique them like it’s the fucking Crufts Best in Show? As I say, I don’t care in theory – this is just what we do as people, even if I don’t participate, but the muted hypocrisy defied reason, smacked of inconsistency and screamed ‘double standard’.

I’d argue that most of us are objects and objectifiers in one way or another. It’s how we make sense of the world and the people in it. I’m hypersensitive to it and, at the same time, questioning my own blind spots. Whom am I objectifying, overlooking or generalizing about without knowing it?

En garde: Gotta be vigilant and police the self.

Short Time
-Gavin Ewart

She juliets him from a window in Soho,
A 'business girl' of twenty.
He is a florid businessman of fifty.
(Their business is soon done.)

He, of a bright young man the sensual ghost,
Still (in his mind) the gay seducer,
Takes no account of thinned and greying hair,
The red veins webbing a once-noble nose,
The bushy eyebrows, wrinkles by the ears,
Bad breath, the thickening corpulence,
The faded, bloodshot eye.

This is his dream:  that he is still attractive.

She, of a fashionable bosom proud,
A hairstyle changing as the fashions change,
Has still the ageless charm of being young,
Fancies herself and knows that men are mugs.

Her dream:  that she has foxed the bloody world.

When two illusions meet, let there not be a third
Of the gentle hypocrite reader prone to think
That he is wiser than these self-deceivers.

Such dreams are common.  Readers have them too.

Difficult to please

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Yesterday someone told me, in a list of things, that I appeared to be ‘difficult to please’ (or that this was the version of me he had created in his mind). It was all in light conversation, but it made me think about the things I have heard all my life, about all the things I read – about all women – particularly this week when International Women’s Day hit.

“She’s so difficult to please.”
“Really? Do you even know what she wants? Did you ask? Did you, more importantly, listen? Did you even try?”
Somehow, dude, just by existing in the world you didn’t please her. Imagine that.

My Facebook feed and other online outlets were filled with stuff about women’s day, women’s strength and the fight for equality. (We’ve got a long way to go as long as sexist buffoons like Polish politician Janusz Korwin-Mikke exist.)

I had and really still have almost nothing to add to any of it. I wish none of this ever needed to be discussed. International Women’s Day was always one of those things that seemed like such a big deal everywhere except America (where I was educated). I only knew of its existence at all through my Russian studies, when it became clear that women’s day was supposedly such a big deal in Russia. Little did I know it was ‘big’ everywhere. It figures that it doesn’t register with me even now, after almost 20 years away. “What? It’s women’s day? So?” It doesn’t register with me – not because I don’t think it should exist. Not because I don’t believe in feminism or equality. Of course I do. But it’s like with all days set aside to “honor” some group, accomplishment or … even love itself, it sequesters it. Sure, it’s meant to shine a brighter light on something (or sell more greeting cards and flowers), but does it excuse everyone from thinking about women and equality the other 364 days a year?

It’s obvious to say these things – and it is obvious that it is so much more complex than being reduced to memes and 10,000 articles on variations of the same theme, as the women’s-day-dominated internet was. Subtly discriminatory practices and ripples of inequality are insidious – they are everywhere (and this, of course, is applicable to the ‘enlightened’ northern European world I live in – I can’t speak for anywhere else). And they live every single fucking day.

After reading what was meant to be a comical take on women/feminism (a primer for men, I guess), I questioned what is actually wanted/desired versus what people say they want. As long as a woman is called out for “being difficult to please” because she has preferences and reasons for them, we’re still far from total parity.

“Our ultimate aim, when it comes to men, is to find an amusing mate we can have sex with, then sit on the sofa with, watching re-runs of Seinfeld and eating a baked potato. Discount all that Christian Grey/abs of steel/”bad boy” shit. Our priorities are: 1) Kindness; 2) Jokes; 3) High tolerance of carbs.”

If this is true, why is it that women as a huge, whole, general population have this reputation for “being difficult”? (Surely some other part of the article, such as “Periods”, cannot account for all of it.) Could it be that things that are perfectly logical to women, such as having a closet full of clothes yet still have nothing to wear, sound illogical until you take the full picture into consideration (as the article’s author does): “What we mean is, “I don’t have anything to wear for who I need to be today.” Most men will never live with the same kind of scrutiny women do for how they look and what they wear and what it says about them. All these decisions are loaded for women.

I guess what I am trying to say is that these things that seem frivolous and vain are often informed by so much societal and cultural baggage – if you’re not a woman, you are not going to get it. Or at least if you do get it, you’re going to get it intellectually only because you’re probably never going to experience anything in the same way. I’m sure we appreciate that you try to ‘get it’, but there are experiences all of us can never have and lenses through which we can never see.

I read a recent interview with Allison Crutchfield in which she touches on this – men are never going to understand the woman’s reality (any more than we will understand theirs), but there is a certain self-congratulatory strain in some men, which wouldn’t be half so bad if they did not proceed to hijack the discussion:

AVC: You say in the song, “You assume you understand because your voice is the loudest while you borrow our reality.” How often do you see men adopting these ideologies and then using it as a means of asserting dominance?

AC: I think it happens all the time. I can only speak to my experience, but I think that I had a few different relationships with people—platonic or romantic—that inspired this song. I’m happy to say that those relationships have all kind of ended, slightly because of this. But that line is specifically about just actually having a conversation or a discussion about feminism, and about my experience as a woman, and literally being talked over by a man who had not had that same experience. And that was really difficult for me.

I feel a little bad calling him out on this, but I had a really hard time watching that show Master Of None. I like Aziz Ansari, but the feminism episode of that was so hard for me to watch. It didn’t necessarily inspire this song, but that is something I can point to where it’s like, Aziz Ansari just gets feminism all of a sudden and is just yelling about it from the rooftops. I feel like a lot of people, a lot of men, want this pat on the back for correctly identifying how they feel about feminism, how radical they’re being and how much they “get it.” That is just really gross to me. That’s what that line comes from. It’s about feeling like I’m surrounded by these people who really think they’re doing the right thing but they’re completely socialized to scream over women who are trying to talk to them about their actual experiences and also sort of borrowing the reality of a woman’s experience.”

In fact, as a case in point, a lovely former colleague (a man) shared:

“Well, that didn’t take long.

Staff chat about International Women’s Day descended into a group of men mansplaining why any institutional solution to the shortage of women in tech is mathematically bad and undermining the goals or equality.

The actual women in tech who weren’t being listened to mostly dropped out early and got back to work.”

I am no expert on this subject. My own attempts to undertake formal education in gender studies ended in frustration when many of the readings were just slightly less venomous than Andrea Dworkin’s infamous “sex is just rape embellished with meaningful glances” comment. My only claim to being able to talk about this, and it should be enough to have an opinion, is that I am a woman. Rambling on about this is not an edifying experience; it’s just that this stuff is so virulent but often just beneath the surface.

Am I difficult to please? No more than any other woman who wants to be heard and have choices.

Photo (c) 2017 astoller used under Creative Commons license.