Said and read – July 2020

Standard

“Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.” The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

Image by S Donaghy

Right up until the 20th of July time seemed to fly. Then, inexplicably, it slowed. There’s no accounting for this shift. Is it that so many other people are on holiday? Is it that the passage of time is an illusion subject to how preoccupied (or not) we are? This slowdown at least afforded me the opportunity to reflect a bit earlier than I have in previous months on the month’s reading. I thought this would make for a more timely book report, but it hasn’t. It’s already almost mid-August. I’ve failed to write about July reading or even read much so far in August.

Previous book reports: 2020 – 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 July:

Highly recommended

*Scots: The Mither TongueBilly Kay

One of the most debilitating phenomena of Scottish society is the false notion that to get on you have to get out. English hegemony is so all pervasive in our society that a sign of success and sophistication among some is to attempt to erase signs of Scottishness from their public persona. The implications of such an attitude for Scottish culture are drastic, not to mention wrong-headed. The linguistic tension is often not resolved at one particular time and can be an ongoing choice throughout one’s life.

By far my favorite book this month. I love this kind of thing. It’s all about the Scots language, its status, its diversity and it use, and how it is essential to the linguistic, national and cultural history of Scotland. Historical and linguistic hostility at its persistent use and existence continues — but the language itself has become a subject of vivid study and much-needed focus.

If using your first language is classed as the equivalent of sticking your tongue out at the teacher, there is little ground for fruitful dialogue. Educationalists often refer to the ‘inarticulate Scot’ as if it were a hereditary disease, instead of the effect of shackling people to one language when they are much more articulate in another. The omnipotent standard of having one correct way of speaking colours our society’s attitude and results in false value judgements about people. These value judgements are made in every sector of society, not just in education.

“Politics, in support or suppression, are central to the fate of languages. Yet political support at a given time is not in itself enough to guarantee a language’s survival if the historical process which has eroded it has been unrelenting over centuries and has pushed the language to a geographical and psychological periphery in the nation’s consciousness. That is certainly the case with Irish and until recently was certainly the case with Gaelic. The principal reason why Welsh is in a much stronger position than Scottish Gaelic today is that the Welsh had not posed a political threat to the British state for hundreds of years, while Gaelic was the language of the Jacobite forces which almost overthrew the state in the rebellions of the eighteenth century.”

If you’re interested in the way propaganda, linguistic subjugation, politics and other factors convince people their language is wrong, is dying and is not important, this is a great, and entertaining, study.

Being an honorary Glaswegian who thinks of Edinburgh a bit as “England number two”, the passages about Glaswegian gave me particular joy.

“The huge Edinburgh middle class tends to speak Standard English or Scottish Standard English. Scots is there too; a friend who was born and bred in the Southside speaks good Scots, so much so that people presume she is not a native of the city. Edinburgh is so dominated by the values of the middle classes, that working-class culture and speech had very low prestige even among the working class. This has changed in recent years due to the phenomenal success of Irvine Welsh’s brilliant novel Trainspotting and the movie that emerged from it. The Edinburgh dialect now had street cred, but that is something the weejies of the west have always had in abundance. West Central Scots Whereas in Edinburgh the working class are defined by the predominant middle-class culture, in Glasgow the opposite prevails and the professional classes have some of the street wisdom and gallusness of the predominant working-class ethos of the city. The result of this is that almost everyone from Glasgow is recognisably Scottish in speech. In Edinburgh, it is sometimes difficult to tell if someone is Scottish or English by their accent; in Glasgow, that confusion rarely exists. The middle classes may not like the Glasgow dialect but they are influenced by it. Years ago, when I lived in South Carolina, I often heard elderly white gentlemen apologise for the fact that their speech had been influenced by their close associations with the blacks. The inhabitants of Glasgow’s leafy suburbs are in a similar relationship with the speech of the masses. Glaswegian has enormous internal prestige.”

“The ultimate test of a dialect’s worth is its ability to communicate, and there are few more extrovert communicators than Glaswegians.”

*The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of TraumaBessel A. van der Kolk

“Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

A fascinating exploration of how trauma visits and expresses itself in a person’s physiology and psychology and can change “the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive”.

Trauma appears to never disappear and the traumatic event (or events) live on, triggered for decades after (and epigenetics indicates that trauma lives on in the genes)… but a complete understanding of this, while continually emerging, is incomplete.

“The body keeps the score: If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heartbreaking and gut-wrenching emotions, in autoimmune disorders and skeletal/muscular problems, and if mind/brain/visceral communication is the royal road to emotion regulation, this demands a radical shift in our therapeutic assumptions.”

*One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: EssaysScaachi Koul

“Plenty of us are fighting for structural changes, but a firmer solution has more to do with correcting human behaviour in general. No one learns how to be mean at twenty-five. No one actually becomes a hardline racist in their thirties. These are beliefs and behaviours we inherit from our bloodlines, from the people who raised us, and the internet is just another way to put those beliefs to work. The troubling part is not that there are people online who feel comfortable—vindicated and strong—in calling me a cum-bucket. What scares me is that those people go out into the world, holding these convictions secretly or otherwise, and exist around me physically. I see them at the bank and they go to my dentist and I might end up working with them. What they say to me online is the purest distillation of the rage they feel—statements that would get them fired or arrested in real life but get them a moderate fan base or begrudging attention online.

I didn’t expect this collection of essays to be as engaging as it turned out to be.

I happened to read this book first while sitting in a grocery store parking lot waiting for it to open and then while binge-watching the tv show Shrill. This reading was timely — so much of what the book addresses was being elevated in the popular media — from race and privileged spaces (as Koul writes about all kinds of groups: “All of us struggle towards whiteness”) to chemical skin whitening products in South Asia (“Fair & Lovely is a popular brand of skin-whitener in South Asia, marketed with crummy little ads where a girl gets the guy after she slathers these chemicals on her face and turns into some ghost-like version of her former self. You can buy it for your face or your body, creams to remove “facial discolouration or brown spots,” or to lighten all the skin you have, one big body-wide brown spot.”), from the deceptive idea of Canada as a multicultural haven (“The white majority doesn’t like being reminded that the cultural landscape is still flawed, still broken, and while my entry into something like Canadian media, for instance, hasn’t been an easy ride, it has been made more palatable for other people because I am passable. I’m not white, no, but I’m just close enough that I could be, and just far enough that you know I’m not. I can check off a diversity box for you and I don’t make you nervous—at least not on the surface. I’m the whole package!”) to immigration (“So much of immigration is about loss. First you lose bodies: people who die, people whose deaths you missed. Then you lose history: no one speaks the language anymore, and successive generations grow more and more westernized. Then you lose memory: throughout this trip, I tried to place people, where I had met them, how I knew them. I can’t remember anything anymore.”).

The Shrill parallels come up when Koul writes about the identities we forge online. This opens us up to all manner of abuse, which is something Lindy West, the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, has written about extensively both in Shrill and the more recent The Witches Are Coming, which discusses the MeToo movement in great detail. It’s all on display, illustrated in the tv adaptation of Shrill, in which the lead character, Annie, experiences monumental levels of (violent/threatening) online trolling. Treading similar ground, Koul writes:

“I sometimes try to understand how people formed their identities in eras before the internet existed. What did teenagers do to carve out a sense of self in the world? So often, the people screaming at me online seem to derive their selfhood from being internet aggressors, and the more time I spend on any given online platform, the more my identity is marked by defending myself.”

“We love to talk about the web as if it’s a limitless resource, like the only barriers we put on it are what the government will allow, what money will buy, what manpower can create. But all things built by humans descend into the same pitfalls: loathing, vitriol, malicious intent. All the things we build in order to communicate, to connect, to find people like us so we feel less alone, and to find people not like us at all so we learn how to adapt, end up turning against us. Avoiding human nature at its most pure and even at its worst is pointless. No one deserves your attention, but no one has earned your withdrawal.”

Every message we receive — both online and in real life (as women, but particularly for women of color) is that we are not good enough, in one way or another, and something about us needs to change. We are objects, and that is why the rape culture, which Koul writes about with both clarity and rage, is pervasive. Once women have been objectified, they are easier to surveil and monitor and take advantage of. Rape culture likes to blame women for being in the wrong place, wrong time, wearing the wrong thing,  and drinking the wrong amount. It blames the victim (we all know this). Koul points out something that society as a whole doesn’t talk about even if all women know it:

“Surveillance feeds into rape culture more than drinking ever could. It’s the part of male entitlement that makes them believe they’re owed something if they pay enough attention to you, monitor how you’re behaving to see if you seem loose and friendly enough to accommodate a conversation with a man you’ve never met. He’s not a rapist. No, he’s just offering to buy you a beer, and a shot, and a beer, and another beer, he just wants you to have a really good time. He wants you to lose the language of being able to consent. He’s drunk too, but of course, you’re not watching him like he’s watching you.”

It is not an accident. It has all been carefully planned.

“And yet, being surveilled with the intention of assault or rape is practically mundane, it happens so often. It’s such an ingrained part of the female experience that it doesn’t register as unusual. The danger of it, then, is in its routine, in how normalized it is for a woman to feel monitored, so much so that she might not know she’s in trouble until that invisible line is crossed from “typical patriarchy” to “you should run.””

“The mistake we make is in thinking rape isn’t premeditated, that it happens by accident somehow, that you’re drunk and you run into a girl who’s also drunk and half-asleep on a bench and you sidle up to her and things get out of hand and before you know it, you’re being accused of something you’d never do. But men who rape are men who watch for the signs of who they believe they can rape. Rape culture isn’t a natural occurrence; it thrives thanks to the dedicated attention given to women in order to take away their security. Rapists exist on a spectrum, and maybe this attentive version is the most dangerous type: women are so used to being watched that we don’t notice when someone’s watching us for the worst reason imaginable. They have a plan long before we even get to the bar to order our first drink.”

*Confession of the LionessMia Couto

“Every morning the gazelle wakes up knowing that it has to run more swiftly than the lion or it will be killed. Every morning the lion awakens knowing that it has to run faster than the gazelle or it will die of hunger. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle: When the Sun rises, you’d better start running. —AFRICAN PROVERB”

I can’t really tell what it is about Mia Couto’s work that I find so compelling. Something about Couto’s writing style generally draws me in.

“Genito Mpepe was a tracker—he knew all the invisible signs of the savanna. He had often told me: Only humans recognize silence. For all the other creatures, the world is never silent and even the grass growing and the petals opening make a huge noise. In the bush, the animals live by listening. That’s what my father envied at that moment: He wished he were an animal. And far from human beings, to be able to return to his lair and fall asleep without pity or guilt. I know you’re there!”

In Confession, a small (fictional) village in Mozambique, Kulumani, is gripped with fear by a sudden spate of lion attacks on the village women. A hunter is employed to kill the lion, with a writer accompanying the hunter to chronicle the ‘adventure’. But there are other forces at work, and like much of Couto’s writing, lines between the literal and figurative are blurred. Women characters talk of themselves as though they are already dead — or are animals living within human bodies, while the language used to describe how events unfold hint at the possibility that there have been no lions at all attacking women, and perhaps something more mundane, but more horrible, such as men killing women, is happening. No definitive answers appear, but answers aren’t important. It’s more the setting of the scene and realizing what years of civil war and violence have done to the people and the place that make up this work.

*A Black Women’s History of the United StatesDaina Ramey Berry

Black women are at the core of – and key to – American history. This book explains how. Also included in my “Confront head-on our white racist BS” reading list.

*Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

“The skin around his eyes tightened. He shook his head. “Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from their heaven, it is this.””

The story of a boy who, almost by chance, manages to escape slavery on a Barbados sugar plantation. I am not sure what I expected when I started reading this, but it was so much more than I imagined. It was engrossing.

“Death was a door. I think that is what she wished me to understand. She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free. That was the idea that had come to her with the man in white, like a thread of poison poured into a well.”

*The Housekeeper and the ProfessorYoko Ogawa

“I remembered something the Professor had said: “The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. Of course, lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem.”

“The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers. This gave us confidence even when our best efforts came to nothing.”

A young housekeeper is assigned by her agency to clean and care for a mathematician who, due to a brain injury, loses short-term memory every 80 minutes (if I recall correctly). Each day when the housekeeper turns up for work, the whole introduction begins again. At some point she begins to bring her son along to work with her because the professor has insisted, and there develops an unusual kinship among the three. There isn’t necessarily a deep plot here, but it was still engaging.

“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world.”

*Angela’s Ashes: A MemoirFrank McCourt

I didn’t expect to be including Angela’s Ashes among the things I found best during July. By the time I got around to reading it, it had, of course, already hit best-seller lists and been adapted into a film (which I’ve never seen).

It’s one of those things I wouldn’t normally read, but for some reason I did. It’s an easy read in the sense that one can tear through it quickly because it’s that readable; on the other hand, the subject matter is difficult in that it describes abject poverty and people trying to live in the midst of that. What makes it readable and compelling is the fact that McCourt has told it from the perspective of a child. Despite the fact that this is a brutal account of growing up in extreme poverty in Ireland – and misery pervades — it’s in some ways so innocent, such as when the narrator recounts everything from having mustard for the first time (and uses “sangwidge” to write “sandwich”, which is one of those things I’ve always found cute among Glaswegians as well), to, more broadly, the matter-of-fact way of reporting daily realities and speech.

“There are Thursdays when Dad gets his dole money at the Labour Exchange and a man might say, Will we go for a pint, Malachy? and Dad will say, One, only one, and the man will say, Oh, God, yes, one, and before the night is over all the money is gone and Dad comes home singing and getting us out of bed to line up and promise to die for Ireland when the call comes.”

*I’ll Be Gone in the DarkMichelle McNamara

I remember many years ago having a very brief conversation with a Dutch guy, and when I told him a bit about myself and my youth growing up around Seattle, I happened to say a few words about the proliferation of serial killers from the area (both Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway – the Green River Killer come from there). The guy I was talking to flipped out and decided I was “sick” for talking about such things so casually and for knowing so much about serial killers in the first place. It struck me as a strange overreaction, but I didn’t really know anyone else who had an academic interest in serial killers. But this was the dawn of the internet true crime genre — before Michelle McNamara and others like her took to the internet to write about and discuss these cases and mysteries ad nauseam. Through McNamara’s work, I think a lot of people realized that they were not alone.

“The truth, of course, was much weirder: I was foregoing a fancy Hollywood party to return not to my sleeping infant but my laptop, to excavate through the night in search of information about a man I’d never met, who’d murdered people I didn’t know.

Violent men unknown to me have occupied my mind all my adult life—long before 2007, when I first learned of the offender I would eventually dub the Golden State Killer. The part of the brain reserved for sports statistics or dessert recipes or Shakespeare quotes is, for me, a gallery of harrowing aftermaths: a boy’s BMX bike, its wheels still spinning, abandoned in a ditch along a country road; a tuft of microscopic green fibers collected from the small of a dead girl’s back.

To say I’d like to stop dwelling is beside the point. Sure, I’d love to clear the rot. I’m envious, for example, of people obsessed with the Civil War, which brims with details but is contained. In my case, the monsters recede but never vanish. They are long dead and being born as I write.

The first one, faceless and never caught, marked me at fourteen, and I’ve been turning my back on good times in search of answers ever since.”

That said, I’ve never been that passionate about the subject. I have a passing interest in true crime – and my knowledge of and interest in Bundy and Ridgway were “local interest” stories more than any fascination with rapists and killers. It’s similar to my passing interest in the bizarre story of the Enumclaw animal-sex case in which a bunch of men were having sex with horses until one of the men died. The story is horrible, and I am not interested in the details — it’s just that that was a local stomping ground, so it was of interest when it was an anonymous blurb in the local paper as much as when it became a national story and eventually a documentary called Zoo. I read the stories; I saw the documentary. But I won’t be visiting or starting any online communities dedicated to that or serial murderers.

With all of that background out of the way, though, let’s just take a moment to revel in Michelle McNamara’s glorious voice. Voice is one of the most challenging things to tackle in writing – but she had a distinctive, powerful, clear voice that was recognizably hers. In the parts of the book that she had painstakingly written, the strength of her inimitable voice shone through. Her blog had always showcased this, but writing a book is different. So much more scrutiny, deadlines, expectation. I imagine that some of this pressure and perfectionism is what led to her overuse of the drugs that eventually took her life. And that perfectionism is what made everyone around her miss all the signs that something was wrong. I didn’t know her, but both her writing — and the accompanying documentary about the book and her life — make it clear that she was meticulous. You would only see what she wanted you to see, and if she was even aware of how dependent she had become on various pharmaceuticals, she would have downplayed it (as her husband Patton Oswalt described in the docu).

*The Poems of Octavio PazOctavio Paz

*Hotel InsomniaCharles Simic

*Beautiful False Things: PoemsIrving Feldman

*Where Now: New and Selected PoemsLaura Kasischke

All poetry. All necessary.

Good – or better than expected

*Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of OccupationRaja Shehadeh

“Clothes are like houses, objects we cover ourselves with and often dwell in so as to create an impression for others and not just for the comfort they provide. My different lives are represented by the different clothes I have worn, as by the homes located in different parts of the city where I have lived. To this day I have my writerly clothes and my lawyerly ones, some from when I started my career thirty-seven years ago – shirts, belts, trousers and jackets.”

A journey through Ramallah in the West Bank – emotional but almost journalistic. I happened to read this at the same time as I watched several Israeli TV shows that inevitably depict aspects of the occupation… and how it is a central function, or determinant, of Palestinian life.

“My jar is now whole again. You can see the individual pieces when light shines through the holes which I failed to fill, but you can appreciate the effort of rebuilding the whole after the disastrous breaking. Perhaps one day this will be the fate of Palestine too. It will become whole again, far more appreciated after going through wars and massacres before being reconstructed kintsugi-style.”

“How extensive has been Israel’s success. This woman who now lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank is working in the department that exercises so much power over us and determines which Palestinian can or cannot live in the city of their birth with their spouse. Not only have we failed to end the occupation, but every year it seems to be ever more entrenched. Almost daily now we hear of killings of young men who attempt to stab Israelis.”

*Last Night in NuukNiviaq Korneliussen

Unusual, brief book delivering a slice of life look at young life in Greenland. Perhaps it’s not perfect – drags on a bit in places, and the stream of consciousness style and point-of-view changes don’t always lend a lot to the story, but it’s a debut novel that shows promise and gives us a glimpse into something we never hear about – life in Greenland.

*Born in SarajevoSnježana Marinković

I will read almost anything I find about the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent war and forming of new states. This is a memoir both of the breakup of the country and disintegration of a family told through the eyes of one girl experiencing what became a familiar story as Yugoslavia split and violence ensued. The story itself was very personal but could at times be frustrating.

*Gravel HeartAbdulrazak Gurnah

“‘No one bid the British to come here,’ my mother’s father said. ‘They came because they are covetous and cannot help wanting to fill the world with their presence.’”

A boy grows up in a changing Zanzibar and doesn’t, as a child, understand why his father has abandoned the family or why his mother makes seemingly selfish decisions. He is sent to live with his shady uncle in London, and his life completely changes. He doesn’t get the answers he seeks until much later in life… too late to completely make amends.

“Everything is complicated and questions simplify what is only comprehensible through intimacy and experience. Nor are people’s lives free from blame and guilt and wrong-doing, and what might be intended as simple curiosity may feel like a demand for a confession. You don’t know what you might release by asking a stupid question. It was best to leave people to their silences.”

*Several books by Israeli-Arab writer Sayed Kashua, e.g. Let It Be Morning and Dancing Arabs

I read several books by Sayed Kashua, and in reading about him stumbled on this lovely but heartbreaking letter exchange between Israeli author Etgar Keret and Kashua after Kashua left for a sabbatical in the US.

*A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing NinetyDonald Hall

“You are old when you learn it’s May by noticing that daffodils erupt outside your window. You are old when someone mentions an event two years in the future and looks embarrassed. You are old when the post office delivers your letters into a chair in your living room and picks up your letters going out. You are old when you write letters.”

The best parts of this book were excerpted liberally upon publication and around Hall’s death. But there were nevertheless a few important thoughts that still gave this book something extra. Perhaps it is just that one feels Hall’s observations naturally, inevitably, as one ages: the speed of time but the slowing down of so many of life’s things (and the value of that slowness), the coming of old age, the growing delight of solitude that is interrupted only by those moments when another’s presence brings momentary relief…

“I look forward to her presence and feel relief when she leaves. Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.”

“When I was sixteen I read ten books a week: E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Henry James, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck. I thought I progressed in literature by reading faster and faster—but reading more is reading less. I learned to slow down.”

“An athlete goes professional at twenty. At thirty he is slower but more canny. At forty he leaves behind the identity that he was born to and that sustained him. He diminishes into fifty, sixty, seventy. Anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage and My LifeAyelet Waldman

I have read many books by Waldman – some I’ve liked more than others, but overall there is such a needy quality to her, particularly when she writes autobiographically — like this book. Her insistence on writing about her near-obsession with her husband seems…troubling. This book chronicles day by day her experience with a total of 30 days of microdosing with LSD to see if it would help her moodiness and near-debilitating depression. It seems like it helped, and there are interesting passages in the book about the discovery and possibilities of LSD for clinical use. But the book overall was hard to get through, mostly because of this aforementioned neediness and intense… reliance on one’s spouse for a sense of self-worth (while also seeming to — probably due to depression — behave… badly toward that spouse. I get it — sort of. But I guess it just doesn’t make good reading for me. But it probably is great for someone — as I said, there is a lot of good information here. Just hard to sort it out from the rest.

*Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War IISvetlana Alexievich

“I am a person without childhood. Instead of childhood, I had war.”

Children will witness war and suffer just as adults do – prematurely losing the innocence associated with childhood. Alexievich’s ability to bring a variety of people’s recollections and stories to life is remarkable and makes even difficult subject matter easy to read and feel.

“What do I have left from the war? I don’t understand what strangers are, because my brother and I grew up among strangers. Strangers saved us. But what kind of strangers are they? All people are one’s own. I live with that feeling, though I’m often disappointed. Peacetime life is different…”

Told from POV of children and adolescents as they realized war was happening, what that meant to them. It’s heartbreaking (as most of Alexievich’s books are).

*Women, Race & ClassAngela Y. Davis

Davis’s take on the women’s movement and how it has been slowed by the lack of acknowledging intersectional concerns.

“This bears repeating: Black women were equal to their men in the oppression they suffered; they were their men’s social equals within the slave community; and they resisted slavery with a passion equal to their men’s. This was one of the greatest ironies of the slave system, for in subjecting women to the most ruthless exploitation conceivable, exploitation which knew no sex distinctions, the groundwork was created not only for Black women to assert their equality through their social relations, but also to express it through their acts of resistance. This must have been a terrifying revelation for the slaveowners, for it seems that they were trying to break this chain of equality through the especially brutal repression they reserved for the women. Again, it is important to remember that the punishment inflicted on women exceeded in intensity the punishment suffered by their men, for women were not only whipped and mutilated, they were also raped.”

*Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War IIDouglas A. Blackmon

“Beginning in the late 1860s, and accelerating after the return of white political control in 1877, every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws essentially intended to criminalize black life.”

Since the end of slavery, we’ve lived in an era of “neo-slavery” — the creation of a new form of enslavement that is enshrined in the legal system, corporate greed, suppression of black citizenship and participation. Very clear manipulation of the system to engineer continued oppression of an entire group of people and a consistent supply of free labor on which capitalism relies.

“A world in which the seizure and sale of a black man—even a black child—was viewed as neither criminal nor extraordinary had reemerged. Millions of blacks lived in that shadow—as forced laborers or their family members, or African Americans in terror of the system’s caprice. The practice would not fully recede from their lives until the dawn of World War II, when profound global forces began to touch the lives of black Americans for the first time since the era of the international abolition movement a century earlier, prior to the Civil War.”

*TriesteDaša Drndić

“History, an ornate lady who does not die easily, dresses again and again in new costumes, but keeps telling the same story. History as Dracula, History as the Vampire, the vampiric fate of history, History the Bloodsucker, that great mistress of humanity.”

I think if I had been in another frame of mind when I read this, it would have been one of my favorites of the month. But I read it at the wrong time, and it struck me as dense and fascinating… and worth a second read.

“Conversations about the past are like little confessions, like unburdenings, after which the soul returns to the present on angel wings, fluttery and luminous.”

In Trieste, Drndić grapples with history — examining 20th century events almost like a historian while weaving in storytelling about victims and villains. And sometimes how history is elastic — it is eroded enough that it’s not fully erased. We might be able to trace it and find surprising things hidden in the faded past.

“Haya learns of Tom Stoppard, too. She hears that Stoppard was born Tomás Straussler in the town of Zlin, Moravia, where Bata sets up his famous shoe factory. She learns that until 1999 Tom Stoppard has no clue he is Jewish; then (by chance) he finds out that he is. Tomás’ father Eugene Straussler works at the factory hospital as a physician. Immediately after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, in 1939, Mr Bata decides to save his employees, including the physicians, by sending them off to the branch offices he owns all over the world. The Straussler family relocate to Singapore, but before the Japanese occupation, Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage) leaves with her two sons and goes first to Australia, then to India, while Eugene Straussler boards a ship full of refugees somewhat later. The Japanese shell his ship and with it sinks Eugene. In India, Marta Straussler meets a British officer by the name of Stoppard who asks her to marry him. He gives her boys his last name and together they return to his homeland, England, where they live happily ever after, as if their earlier life had never happened, as if there had never been a family, a war, camps, another language, memories, not even a little Czech love. In 1996 Marta Beck (Straussler by marriage, Stoppard by marriage) dies, and at that moment Tomás, no longer a boy, born Straussler, re-born Stoppard, starts digging through his past now that he is tired of writing plays or now that his inspiration has dried up—who knows?—and time unfolds before him. In the Czech Republic Tomás learns that his grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts, cousins, all of them disappeared as if they had never lived, which, as far as he is concerned…”

*Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You HaveTatiana Schlossberg

I think more than I should about the invisible things we do that have incredible environmental footprints. One thing is the constant use of the internet – especially now that we are streaming all of our entertainment. This requires a shocking amount of energy — but it’s not as conspicuous or easy to calculate as the carbon debt we run up when we drive a car or take a flight somewhere. No, much of the physical infrastructure of the internet and what makes it run is hidden from site and euphemistically called “the cloud”. But the infrastructure — and all its energy-thirsty demands still exist. And we’re adding to that consumption every day.

“…the physical things we interact with every day and lots of our daily activities don’t exist in a vacuum—they’re much more connected to each other, to global climate change, and to each one of us than we think. The story of climate change—and all of our stuff—is actually a story about everything: science, health, injustice, inequality, national and international politics, the natural world, business, normal life. Climate change affects everyone constantly, but, until very recently, we usually only talked about it for a few days when some natural disaster happened or a particularly scary report by government scientists came out—if then—before we moved on to something else.”

Schlossberg takes on the less obvious energy and resource guzzlers in this book, looking in some depth at everything from ICT costs to the staggering costs of the fashion industry, among others.

*Superbugs: The Race to Stop an EpidemicMatt McCarthy

Any book on a superbug or virus… I tend to grab and read them all. I’ve been thinking a lot about antibiotic resistance for years, although this important and ongoing crisis tends to be forgotten and overshadowed when we find ourselves in times of more urgent crises, e.g. coronavirus. But, as McCarthy points out: More than 20,000 people die in the United States each year because of an antibiotic-resistant infection. And there are not enough new antibiotics in the pipeline to keep up with the growing ineffectiveness of the antibiotics we do have. Most tellingly – and this will surprise no one in our capitalist societies – antibiotics are expensive to develop, don’t have a long life (because we wear them out to the point of resistance) and are not money makers. Even with active antibiotic stewardship programs, where infectious disease experts make determinations about antibiotic prescriptions, there aren’t enough antibiotics now or in the offing.

A few crossover points with current events and other reading… McCarthy’s discussion on the shortage of infectious disease specialists makes us appreciate Dr Anthony Fauci even more (he is, of course, mentioned in this book):

“Infectious diseases specialists have become a dying breed in some parts of the country, cast aside by modern medicine. Most doctors are now compensated based on the types (and cost) of procedures they perform, and infectious diseases doctors don’t really perform procedures. Ours is a cognitive specialty, providing expert consultation, and reimbursement schemes haven’t figured out how to keep up with the tremendous demands of the work. The field is experiencing a brain drain, and every year, it gets a bit worse. Specialists still flock to big cities on the coasts, but the middle of the country has been hit hard by the changing economics of medicine. Young doctors are less interested in infectious diseases than their predecessors were, and this presents a problem: once lysin is approved, there need to be specialists who know how to use it.”

Also, McCarthy writes:

“Pharmaceutical research and development has the highest failure rate for new products of any industry, which raises important questions: How far should we go to incentivize the production of new drugs?”

This ties in with another book I read this month:

*Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions  — Richard F. Harris

Not only are there limited private funds for certain kinds of pharma research (no one wants to fund research for drugs that won’t turn a handsome and relatively quick profit), but public taxpayer funded research isn’t easy to come by.

“Taxpayers fund medical research – but what good is it, how effective is that spending – if most of the science produced – or how results are interpreted – turns out to be skewed to support the goals of the researchers rather than finding actual answers?”

“The ecosystem in which academic scientists work has created conditions that actually set them up for failure. There’s a constant scramble for research dollars. Promotions and tenure depend on their making splashy discoveries. There are big rewards for being first, even if the work ultimately fails the test of time. And there are few penalties for getting it wrong.”

Similarly,  despite peer review, there does not seem to be adequate oversight or rigor (hence the book’s title) required to make research results reliable — and replicable. Replicability of results is a major crisis across the disciplines — as the book highlights, one study with faulty (but “positive”) results can often go undetected when other scientists begin citing those research findings even without testing for themselves to see if they can reproduce the same results or find the same significance.

“There she saw one big problem with cancer research: scientists were not approaching many studies with enough rigor. Each scientist had his or her own way of working, but those were not standardized or often repeatable. That’s the culture of biomedical science today—researchers are individual entrepreneurs, each attacking a small piece of the problem with gusto. Barker says that unfortunately the quality of the work is all over the map—and there’s typically no way to tell which studies you can believe and which you can’t, especially when scientists try to add together results from different laboratories, each of which has used its own methods.”

And this is…well, again, it’s in the title: sloppy at best, and a waste of tens of millions of research dollars at worst.

“Begley said one of the studies he couldn’t reproduce has been cited more than 2,000 times by other researchers, who have been building on or at least referring to it, without actually validating the underlying result.”

Harris lays out the stark choice scientists are often forced to make: reporting rigorous results openly to advance medical science OR do what’s best for their career, which may require secrecy, fudging of results (or willfully deceiving oneself about the results or how to report them). And, as Harris reports, the time to make this choice is now:

“Arturo Casadevall at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shares that sense of alarm. “Humanity is about to go through a couple of really rough centuries. There is no way around this,” he said, looking out on a future with a burgeoning population stressed for food, water, and other basic resources. Over the previous few centuries, we have managed a steadily improving trajectory, despite astounding population growth. “The scientific revolution has allowed humanity to avoid a Malthusian crisis over and over again,” he said. To get through the next couple of centuries, “we need to have a scientific enterprise that is working as best as it can. And I fundamentally think that it isn’t.””

*Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and WantNicholas Epley

And so, with the obvious benefits that come from social understanding, you and I and nearly every other human being on the planet have become so well practiced at reading the minds of others that our sixth sense operates almost invisibly. As philosopher extraordinaire Jerry Fodor has written, “Commonsense psychology works so well, it disappears.” Only at the rare times when it is stretched beyond its limits, or is proven to be profoundly mistaken, does its existence come back into view.”

I kind of expected this book to be a surface-level, self-help, best-seller type thing, so I didn’t think I’d invest a lot of effort into reading it. It turned out to be a little bit like what I expected but it dives into much more. First and foremost – addressing the overconfidence people have about their ability to read and understand others (particularly those they are closest to).

“Getting to know someone, even over a lifetime of marriage, creates an illusion of insight that far surpasses actual insight.”

And at the root of this is understanding oneself — Epley writes that the disconnect between what people think about themselves and how they actually behave is one of the most common things found about perceptions of self when studied by psychologists. One of the most prominent studies, though largely seen as unethical by today’s standards, is the Milgram experiments. I’ve written about this SO MANY times before because it comes up in virtually every psychology textbook, course and discussion, whether it’s on experimental design and ethics, about obedience to authority or about the sense of self. It is cited in all kinds of pop culture, including tv shows like Law & Order SVU. You can’t escape Milgram.

And in Epley’s book it is a good illustration of exactly how misaligned our own ideas about ourselves are with what we actually do. In the Milgram experiment, most participants would likely have classified themselves as nice/good people who would never cause intentional harm to anyone else. But the experiment pushed the limits of what people were willing to do if they were being given instructions by someone who appeared to be in a position of authority. More than 60% of participants in Milgram’s study willingly pushed a button that they were told would shock a person in another room (even to the point of death) because they were “just following orders”. We are seeing things play out similarly in society right now — people who love to claim that they would have resisted Nazi terror are at best silent now and at worst buying into patently fascist and dictatorial moves in US politics.

Epley shows time and again, in different ways, that we are not who we say or think we are. One way we all do this is through “the planning fallacy”. Most of us underestimate how long it will take to get things done. Do we really just not know how long tasks take or are other factors at play? We all struggle with this at times, but some people are much more likely to fall prey than others (to my frustration).

“What’s surprising is how easily introspection makes us feel like we know what’s going on in our own heads, even when we don’t. We simply have little awareness that we’re spinning a story rather than reporting the facts.”

Fascinating book that simplifies some of the constructive work the brain is always — and almost effortlessly — doing. And how the effortlessness of that work can fool us until thinking we know a great deal more than we actually know.

*They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child SoldiersRoméo Dallaire

I did not “enjoy” this book – in fact it’s very disturbing. But we need to remind ourselves, or in some cases learn for the first time, about the atrocities of the world, of recent history. I know plenty of people who blindly ignore these kinds of things because they don’t want to see the darkness of the world – the true darkness. But how can we prevent further such atrocities if we don’t come to terms with their existence and how horrific they actually are? Recently I had a number of long discussions about ethnic cleansing and civil wars that almost no one seems to remember (Sierra Leone, Rwanda, etc.). The 25-year anniversary of Srebrenica recently passed, and I cannot count the number of people I mentioned it to who claimed never to have heard of it. These are brutal, gruesome events in recent history, but for some, these are relics of a long-distant past… and for others, things that never registered for them in the first place. I find the indifference and ignorance… more than painful.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*A Confederacy of DuncesJohn Kennedy Toole

I could barely get through this. I don’t know why it’s so widely lauded. I could be missing something. I might have read it at the wrong time and not given it enough time to land. But every time I sat down to read, I wanted to give up. And that doesn’t usually happen to me.

*Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters – And How to Get ItLaurie Mintz

You’d have to be totally uninformed to find this book informative. Then again I am constantly surprised by how mysterious people find their own bodies, so how could a partner find another’s body any less so? The book does at least acknowledge that much of this ignorance comes from the misinformation and a lack of education that exist around female bodies, sex and orgasms … both formally and in the media and cultural realm. But I am not sure it delivered on the promise of the title. Does it really explain why its author believes “orgasm equality” matters?

*Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s PainAbby Norman

“I’ve often found it curious that when a woman is suffering, her competence is questioned, but when a man is suffering, he’s humanized. It’s a gender stereotype that hurts both men and women, though it lends itself to the question of why there is a proclivity in health care, and in society, to deny female pain.”

I was keen to read this book because the title promised something. There are a lot of voices in the media and even in medicine speaking up about the imbalance between how men and women are treated by the medical system. This ranges from how clinical trials are run to how drug dosing recommendations are made. Because men are always seen as the default, everything comes back to them. On an individual level, there are countless stories of women whose pain is discounted, disbelieved and dismissed. In this story, the writer keeps fighting back. As you discover as you read, she has very little choice but to keep advocating for herself, despite how her life otherwise falls apart.

“…she glanced down at my notepad where I’d scribbled something about the patriarchy of medicine. She pointed to it and just gave me a simple, but bold and resounding, “Yes.” “I think perhaps my biggest take as a woman is that I have so many people come to me who are willing to tolerate so much, or they have tolerated so much,” Dr. Marin began in our discussion of female pain. “Either because no one was willing to listen to them, or just because they thought it was normal, or that was the price of being a woman—that they don’t have to tolerate.””

“The problem with a woman’s “blood” was really not the problem at all: vaginas were the problem. To extrapolate, women’s sexuality was the problem. Women having agency of their bodies was the problem.”

Still, even with all this background, and the timeliness of the theme, I thought this book would be a lot more interesting. Of course I don’t want to criticize the author. I believe in her pain and the ordeal she went through to get diagnosed, to get treatment, to live without pain, and most of all, to be believed. The book probably needed excruciating detail of everything she went through to show how far women have to go to find relief. But I guess I’m hypersensitive to people’s illnesses and propensity to never stop talking about them, which should lead me away from reading books like this. But here we are.

Said and read – June 2018

Standard

I can’t explain why, but June, despite having had some vacation time, wasn’t filled with as much reading as I’d have liked. This disappointing sentence seems to be a variation on my opening sentence for every single one of these monthly posts. I may finish about 20 (or a few more) books by the end of the month, which of course is shy of the book-a-day pace I’d (however unintentionally) set through most of the early part of this year. I realize it’s not about quantity, but somehow having neglected reading for so many years, I feel as though I am playing catch-up. And I know I will never ‘catch up’. Catch up to what exactly?!

…I’d prefer to begin with some riveting tale about how I feel that too much can be read within a person’s eyes – it’s out of their control and completely unguarded, and each time I try to tell myself to be more open, don’t judge anyone by what their eyes immediately tell me, my initial reaction to a person’s eyes seems accurate. I wish this were not the case. These stories, too, about people’s eyes betraying their true nature, might be more interesting than how I start these chronicles of my random reading.

It might also be more interesting to go on wild tirades about the tyranny and insanity of several world governments at the moment, but what can I really add to that collective outcry? Many books have been and are being written about related subjects – last month I unabashedly recommended Sarah Kendzior‘s The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, for example; Peter Temin‘s The Vanishing Middle Class is another good one that illustrates that the US is not the ‘best country in the world’, as it boasts in the loudest, most bellicose, violent way possible but is rather a developing country. There are really too many to count.

I can also calmly reaffirm my great love for Scots and how it sounds. A friend shared The Allusionist podcast about my beloved Scots language with me, and I think it’s worth sharing onward.

Dig further into what I was reading, liking, thinking, hating in May, April, March, February and January, if you’re curious.

Thoughts on reading for June:

Highly recommended

*StonerJohn Williams

I did not know what to expect from Stoner – first mentioned to me by a friend not long ago, which caused me to add it to my to-read list. I was never sure when I’d get around to reading it. Some books, after all, linger aimlessly and endlessly on this expansive list (in many cases because the books are not available as e-books or because they are entirely out of print and not easy to get my hands on).

But the simplicity of the narrative – the heartbreaking simplicity and humanity – make Stoner an enduring, if under-the-radar, classic. William Stoner, a farm boy in Missouri who has modest aims and wants, goes to college to study agriculture, and ends up pursuing literature and philosophy and becoming a professor. His life is beset by the troubles and pains of … the average. He never sought much, and his modest needs and wants ensured that he had a life of contentment, marked by his principled nature, even if there were professional struggles, domestic unpleasantness and a brief but intense love affair that ends. It’s almost sad for its/his lack of striving, or at least never striving beyond what he could reach (apart from early on breaking away from a future in farming). Hard to describe what is so compelling, which is largely why it’s a must-read.

“And it might be amusing to pass through the world once more before I return to the cloistered and slow extinction that awaits us all.”

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”

“Then he smiled fondly, as if at a memory; it occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there.”

*Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequencesEdward Tenner

The last book I read in June, and also the one that put me at 200 books for the year so far. Like many books I find myself immersed in, this was a random choice, a recommendation sourced through some other article. It’s hard to say exactly why I enjoyed this book. I think on the surface of it, it is interesting because it chronicles the unintended consequences of some of the most ingenious inventions and innovations (some good, some bad… some positively catastrophic), but at a deeper level, it coaxes the reader to think more holistically about how anything and everything can have unintended consequences and almost prompts one to think in a different or more careful way about planning and implementation of virtually anything, while at the same time, pointing out the folly of believing that even the most careful of risk assessments and examinations of ‘domino effects’ can foresee all the consequences.

“Doing Better and Feeling Worse.” This phrase from a 1970s symposium on health care is more apt than ever, and not only in medicine. We seem to worry more than our ancestors, surrounded though they were by exploding steamboat boilers, raging epidemics, crashing trains, panicked crowds, and flaming theaters. Perhaps this is because the safer life imposes an ever-increasing burden of attention.”

*FuelNaomi Shihab Nye

Poetry. Need I say more?

*Anything by Donald Hall

US Poet Laureate Donald Hall died near the end of June, and it was the perfect opportunity to revisit his poetry. I re-read a few volumes and don’t have one single book to recommend but think you’d do well to start with any.

When he died the other day, I reread and shared this piece about solitude and loneliness, moved anew by the love for solitude but the possibility of finding solitude while still coming together with another person, as Hall did with his partner, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, with whom, as he wrote, he shared “the separation of our double solitude”, and from which each day they would emerge to be together as it suited them.

*Olive KitteredgeElizabeth Strout

I had long ago seen the HBO film adaptation of Olive Kitteredge, so it was hard to form new ideas about the characters (e.g. Richard Jenkins as Henry and the formidable Frances McDormand as Olive… impossible to erase while reading). Still, I had forgotten so much of what happened in the film that the book was almost like a new experience, and I was carried away by the beautiful, fluid writing, the vivid characters and their lives (and stages of those lives) and by how moving the entire thing was overall.

“Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became. People thought love would do it, and maybe it did.”

Good – really good – but not necessarily great

*What is the WhatDave Eggers

Dave Eggers isn’t really the story – he’s just the writer of the story. And the story is a heartbreaking and challenging story based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese child refugee who migrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program.

“Humans are divided between those who can still look through the eyes of youth and those who cannot.”

*IndignationPhilip Roth

I came late to reading Roth (the last two years), and I don’t love everything he wrote. That said, there’s still quite a lot for me to read. I don’t want to recount the plot of Indignation, but there were some thoughts that I took away that have stuck with me for several days, which is, I suppose, one of Roth’s hallmarks: planting thought-provoking seeds, however little or much they have to do with the story.

“I persisted with my duties, determined to abide by the butcher-shop lesson learned from my father: slit the ass open and stick your hand up and grab the viscera and pull them out; nauseating and disgusting, but it had to be done.”

“If you ask how this can be—memory upon memory, nothing but memory—of course I can’t answer, and not because neither a “you” nor an “I” exists, any more than do a “here” and a “now,” but because all that exists is the recollected past, not recovered, mind you, not relived in the immediacy of the realm of sensation, but merely replayed. And how much more of my past can I take?”

“Because other people’s weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength. A person so unstable is a menace to you, Markie, and a trap.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Order of TimeCarlo Rovelli

I don’t know what I can write about Rovelli and the way he presents physics and complex concepts in … elegant and beautiful ways that make them transcend the page and provoke thought, imagination and curiosity indefinitely.

“How does one describe a world in which everything occurs but there is no time variable? In which there is no common time and no privileged direction in which change occurs?”

“The difference between past and future, between cause and effect, between memory and hope, between regret and intention . . . in the elementary laws that describe the mechanisms of the world, there is no such difference.”

Coincidences

* Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 QuestionsValeria Luiselli

In keeping with what I wrote above about all the books that chronicle our difficult times, in the most timely fashion, coinciding with the Trump administration’s child-migration concentration camps (I cannot even believe I am writing those words), I read the brief but important Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, in which Valeria Luiselli writes about the legal crisis and cruelty facing children who come to the US from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc. She wrote her reflections before the latest nightmare (detention camps filled with children put in cages, separated from their parents), but it was nonetheless stark and painful in the narrative it painted. Who would have imagined it could get worse?

“From the beginning, the crisis was viewed as an institutional hindrance, a problem that Homeland Security was “suffering” and that Congress and immigration judges had to solve. Few narratives have made the effort to turn things around and understand the crisis from the point of view of the children involved. The political response to the crisis, therefore, has always centered on one question, which is more or less: What do we do with all these children now? Or, in blunter terms: How do we get rid of them or dissuade them from coming?”

We have also seen the resurgence of old books that foretold the kind of rise in tyranny and dictatorial rule that we’re seeing in chilling abundance now, such as Sinclair Lewis‘s hastily written 1930s/Depression Era *It Can’t Happen Here. As he himself writes, “The hell it can’t.”

And when I just can’t take more of the timeless and timely old warnings (yes, somehow the US avoided becoming a fascist/Nazi state in the 1930s, but just as well might not have, as Lewis imagines, or as the recently passed Philip Roth envisioned in his alt-future imagining, The Plot Against America. Having resisted these tendencies once certainly doesn’t inoculate one from future tyranny. The same concerns and fears seen, for example, in the 1930s, have echoed in the present day and led to a dictatorial moron to the WH. Despite some brilliant passages and predictions in Lewis’s book, the book itself was not smooth reading and felt both like it was rushed and dragged out at the same time.

“(but)… that couldn’t happen in America! Why, where in all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!

“Why are you so afraid of the word ‘Fascism,’ Doremus? Just a word—just a word! And might not be so bad, with all the lazy bums we got panhandling relief nowadays, and living on my income tax and yours—not so worse to have a real Strong Man, like Hitler or Mussolini—like Napoleon or Bismarck in the good old days—and have ‘em really run the country and make it efficient and prosperous again.”

*My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace Ehud Barak

It does not exactly qualify as a coincidence so much as it was a random fluke that I decided to read this autobiographical account of Ehud Barak’s life. I never would have considered it except that one morning while heading out for a coffee in Oslo with AD, we ran into one of her acquaintances (because it’s impossible to go anywhere in Oslo without running into at least one person she knows). This particular acquaintance, squinting into the sun on one of Oslo’s blazing, and unusually, hot early June days, immediately started telling us how he was reading this particular book, and if I may say, sort of mansplained Israel, (cultural) Judaism, kibbutz culture and military strategy and Ehud Barak’s role in all of the key moments of Israel’s brief history. Yes, I suppose I have often complained about Norwegians knowing nothing about Judaism, so someone having a clue is surprising – but having a man (however ‘enlightened’ and committed to equality Scandinavian men are purported to be, middle-aged men of all nationalities seem particularly keen on demonstrating their knowledge… maybe in some bid to seem important, intelligent, relevant?) try to explain Judaism and Israel to me is not a surprise but is completely laughable.

Nevertheless, having heard him recount much of the book himself, I decided to read the book. Mostly I could have done without it, although there were a few key passages that capture, I think, fairly succinctly many of the strategies and ways of thinking behind Israeli military actions (not recent actions, as the country has moved further and further right). That’s not to say I would concede that any of the actions made sense – just to say that it was interesting to get the insight.

Overall the book itself could be skipped. Heavy on detail of Barak’s life running in parallel with the birth and development of the state of Israel and his role in it. Maybe a bit more detail than I needed at times, but, as I said, a valuable POV of someone who was inside the fateful moments and decisions in Israel and the Middle East as a whole – including some circumspection. Not perfect but … worth the read if only for the epilogue alone, which was oddly moving.

“The cause to which I’ve devoted my life—redeeming the dream of Zionism in a strong, free, self-confident, democratic Jewish state—is under threat. This is not mainly because of Hizbollah or Hamas, ISIS, or even Iran, all of which I feel confident in saying, as a former head of military intelligence, chief of staff, and defense minister, are real yet surmountable challenges. The main threat comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded, and messianic government we have seen in our seven-decade history.”

Biggest disappointment (or hated/disliked)

*War & WarLászló Krasznahorkai

I didn’t despise anything I read, but for some reason had had high hopes for War & War, but it ended up being disappointing. I suppose this is because expectations always betray us. It was not a bad book – it just didn’t hold my interest.

“16. Should we die, the mechanics of life would go on without us, and that is what people feel most terribly disturbed by, Korin interrupted himself, bowed his head, thought for a while, then pulled an agonized expression and started slowly swiveling his head, though it is only the very fact that it goes on that enables us properly to understand that there is no mechanism.”

Images by SD 2018

Random gum: Halloween 2017

Standard

The Good Goo of Random Gum – Halloween 2017
The Last Toast to the World & Cosmos

So, even though we are a full month out from Halloween, I have been extraordinarily organized and have finished putting together my Halloween CD mix for this year quite early. The mailings have begun going out in the post.

And, as I have written in the note that accompanies the CD, the time has come at last – this will be the last of my random gum CD mixes. At least of the physical, postal-mail variety. As technology has rendered the CD a useless would-be Frisbee, I am looking for another solution for sharing music (other than Spotify playlists at least). I may still send cards/greetings by post because I’m still old-fashioned like that. But continuing this effort is fruitless. It has been a roller coaster of randomness these 13 years that I’ve been making and sending these mixes. And to reflect an end as random as this gum has always been, I’ve chosen fittingly strange and random music.

Although I have not expressed these sentiments in the letter I included with the CD, I do feel like I am shedding a skin – or some kind of layer(s) – again – as though I am preparing for something else. I don’t know what it is. But I have largely left behind my TV addiction, my baking addiction, and now this (and most of my postal letter writing in general). I don’t know why these things no longer interest me the way they used to, except to say that my disconnection from feeling and indeed, often, from actually living, has dissipated. The end of the embargo against living, I suppose, means that new things and new people occupy my time and, more importantly, my heart.

Until I do find a better and personal sharing solution, you can follow me on Spotify and also find the full track listings and descriptions on my blog. Normally I seek out and post the YouTube video of these tracks, but instead… here is the list.

01 Aliza Gabbai – “Mimigdal Shalom”
Israeli pop from the 1960s. Too cute
02 Rola Saad – “Min Bein Alkoul”
Because Lebanon
03 DIANA – “What You Get” …Echo comes back to your lonely room/Said my head, my heart, I can’t take it anymore…
Stuck so much in 2017 on the concept of place – real, imagined; in the world or in the mind
04 Savoy Motel – “Souvenir Shop Rock”
Nashville is for dancing
05 Tindersticks – “My Sister” …Here I am, this is me/I am yours and everything about me,/everything you see,/If only you look hard enough/I never could…
Had this spun up but was unsure til I talked to a Norwegian in the mountains who was listening to Tindersticks. “Our life was a pillow fight…”
06 Trio Esperança – “Filme Triste”
Yummy 50s-60s Brazilian pop. Can you see where we’re going here?
07 Dean & Britta – “Night Nurse” …I am the night nurse, I am the most/I am the visitor, you are the host…
08 Blouse – “1000 Years” …I move the furniture around/And trick you into lying down…
“I would never hurt you/Or disappear/I’ll love you for a thousand years”
09 Jillian & the Giants – “Mr Airplane” …I don’t even mind…
Up in the air. “Here we go again, sure was nice for a little while/That rosy pink glow/turns red hot when you go/Too high into the other side”
10 Aquaserge – “Virage sud”
Vive la France
11 Connie Kim – “Lý Luận Tình Yêu”
Vietnam. The 70s. What more can one say?
12 Snail Mail – “Thinning” …I don’t think there’s anything wrong…
13 The Horrors – “Sea Within a Sea” …So you might say/The path we share is one of danger/And of fear/Until the end…
For J, the sea within my sea – a sea of constant gentle waves interrupted with the occasional giant waves
14 Lindstrøm – “I Feel Space”
For me, it’s Norway meets Chicago
15 Melike Demirağ – “Hasret”
Türkiye!
16 Meshell Ndegeocello, Sinéad O’Connor – “Don’t Take All Night”
For the love of all that is good in the world
17 Weyes Blood – “Names of Stars”
Places like beauty, simplicity and the cosmos
18 U.N.P.O.C. – “Beautiful to Me” …From time to time I think I must be going blind…
The dear, green place that is Glasgow
19 Evinha – “Vou Seguindo”
Year 2000! Goin’ to Rio! (Naomi)… and our ears take us back to some other time (SD: “I’ll get a job some other time!”)
20 Palace Winter – “Soft Machine”
Not frequent that I get to include Denmark (especially with a dose of Australia). “Acting so obscene/Well by all means/Now that you and I are free/And I’m off my knees”
21 Kristin Hersh – “Nerve Endings” …We’re idiotic optimistics/Rubbing salt into my wrists/Till I feel almost nothing…
So far from soft-eject beige
22 Damien Jurado – “QACHINA”
Seattle. “I lost my mind, so I stepped out for a time/Went for a walk on a long road to unwind”
23 Khruangbin – “Ma Be Ham Nemiresim”
Texas, if you can believe it
24 Destroyer – “Hey, Snow White” …When the company goes public, you’ve got to learn to love what you own…
Oh, Canada…
25 Solar Bears – “Cosmic Runner”
Ireland
26 First Hate – “The One” …You treated me so carelessly/You kept imagining the one…
Copenhagen… another Danish set… so much like the 80s
27 Lea Porcelain – “Out Is In”
My sort of cities (Berlin/London)
28 Moon Duo – “Cold Fear”
Portland
29 Monomono – “Tire Loma Da Nigbehin”
Nigeria… and memories of Billy, Travis and me in happening Årjäng
30 Luna – “Chinatown”
Winter 2017
31 Suburban Lawns – “Flavor Crystals”
Sounds sort of fresh but is almost as old as I am; everything old is new again
32 The Breeders – “Fortunately Gone” …I wait for you in heaven/On this perfect string of love…
It’s so good those days are gone. The past, too, is a place. Both distant and near
33 Richard & Linda Thompson – “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight”
34 Mary Timony – “Return to Pirates”
Lost in the particular Mary Timony sound. “I cannot love you more/Said the doctor to the whore/I wanna be in the garden of love/Led by a lamb and a little white dove/I know you can/But I don’t think I can/Swim in your river/And sleep on your sand”
35 Miss Universum – “Fertilize” …I need a man, I need him quick/I need his sperm, I need his dick/I do not need to be seduced/I just need to be reproduced…
When I first heard this, I didn’t really expect it to be Swedish.
36 Hand Habits – “All the While”
“Bring me to the deepest pit/You can push me right off the edge/And when I show up in your dreams/You got away with it”
37 Eefje de Visser – “Ongeveer”
Dutched up. Almost convinced Dutch could be pretty…
38 Mark Eitzel – “The Last Ten Years” …Spent the last ten years/Trying to waste half an hour…
39 Aimee Mann – “Labrador”
“Daisy, you/shouldn’t do the things you do/but you’re just so incapable of changing/you lie so well/I could never even tell/what were facts in your artful rearranging”
40 Joel Alme – “The Way We Used to Beg”
Göteborg. “You were a cold hard stone/But how does it feel to be alone”
41 Teleman – “Glory Hallelujah” …However do you haunt me…
42 San Mei – “Until You Feel Good”
Thank you to Travis
43 Mallu Magalhães – “Culpa do Amor”
Gone back to Brazil, yet again
44 Mazzy Star – “Blue Flower”
Kitchen singalongs and traumatic high-school-era memories
45 Wooden Shjips – “Everybody Knows” …The longing for home/We’re only alone…
46 Aamina Camaari – “Rag waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo”
Bet you couldn’t have guessed I’d take us to Somalia?
47 Blonde Redhead – “Where Your Mind Wants to Go” …If it’s not me or you, then why?…
48 Jane Weaver – “The Architect”
Be the architect of your spaces and places
49 The Bombay Royale – “I Love You Love You”
Melbourne
50 Yma Sumac – “Karibe Taki”
51 Feist – “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” …I was so disappointed I didn’t know what to do…
52 Young Marble Giants – “Brand – New – Life”
Cymru am byth
53 Eerie Wanda – “I Am Over Here” …And I found you and we make/Sweetest memories/Now I’m here and you are overseas…
We are the world: Dutch band, Dutch-Croatian singer
54 Hater – “Cry Later”
Malmö
55 Richard Hawley – “Tonight the Streets are Ours”
56 Tennis – “Night Vision”
Can’t listen to Tennis without thinking of Esteban
57 Guided by Voices – “Game of Pricks”
“Prick with fork” – love to my mom and to Naomi
58 The Novacs – “Found”
Airdrie! (The Scottish one, not the weird, middle-of-nowhere Airdrie in the Edmonton-Calgary, Alberta corridor)
59 Haifa Wehbe – “Albi Habb”
もう少し Lebanon
60 The Kills – “Monkey 23”
61 Big Thief – “Shark Smile” …she said woo/baby take me…
“She held us, gunning out 90 miles down the road of a dead end dream
she looked over with her part smile, caught up in the twinkle it could take awhile”
62 Linda McCartney – “I Got Up”
Getting up is also a place, a real place
63 Haley Bonar – “Kismet Kill”
“I was impossible when I was beautiful and now/Cartoon deaths just don’t seem so funny”
64 Blouse – “Trust Me”
Famous last words: “Trust me, I’m the one who loves you”
65 Globelamp – “Washington Moon” …I want a California sun/And a Washington moon…
66 Jessica Pratt – “Bushel Hyde” …Words mean more that they did before/In that other place…
67 Robyn Hitchcock – “Sayonara Judge”
October in Oslo
68 Linda Perhacs – “Chimacum Rain”
Lichen. Lichen. Lichen. Oh, dear T’Pow
69 Amália Rodrigues – “Abril”
I love Amália Rodrigues and was surprised to see that that particular tune was one of the least-ever listened to on Spotify. I decided to remedy that all on my own
70 Life Without Buildings – “Sorrow” …Difficult people slip away…
Glesga Glesga Glesga (Glasgow for those not in-the-know)
71 J&L Defer – “Hard Fiction Road”
For SD: Refer to theme song of Canadian children’s show “The Littlest Hobo” at this time. How’s that for random? Even though this is a band from Winterthur, Switzerland, y’know?
72 Wand – “Melted Rope”
“Desire, I barely thinking/In the dark/And life, life is what you wanted/It’s what you are”
73 Koncz Zsuzsa – “Keresem a szót”
Hungarian. And had to choose… for the name Zsuzsa. Just for Martina.
74 She-Devils – “I Wanna Touch You” …can you read my mind?…
Montréal
75 Kikagaku Moyo (幾何学模様)- “Kogarashi”
Tokyo
76 The Limiñanas feat Peter Hook – “Garden of Love”
To France and beyond
77 Yasmine Hamdan – “Samar – Oriental Skeee Remix”
No escape from Lebanon
78 Cold Beat – “62 Moons” …It’s cold but I don’t mind/I’m accustomed to ice…
The Bay Area…
79 Kerem Güney – “Sicak Bir Sevda”
Istanbul grooves
80 Alvvays – “In Undertow” …You made a mistake you’d like to erase and I understand
“What’s left for you and me?”…
On, on Toronto – pulled in and pulled under
81 The Magnetic Fields – “Strange Powers”
Song is so New York, so Las Vegas, so outer space
82 Cults – “Go Outside” …I think I want to live my life and you’re just in my way…
83 ShitKid – “Sugar Town”
Sweden remakes
84 Santo & Johnny – “Pineapple Princess”
Aloha from this arctic hula doll
85 Sam Cohen – “Kepler 62”
“Strange neighbors as you know/They come and go/They live in a world without you”
86 Imarhan – “Assossamagh”
Algeria/Tuareg
87 Whyte Horses – “The Snowfalls”
Manchester
88 Rana Alagöz – “Vah Bacim Vah Mehmedim”
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks…
89 EL VY – “Paul is Alive” …Nobody stays above/Out in the waves of love…
90 Carla dal Forno – “What You Gonna Do Now?”
Aussie. Transcends
91 Sanisah Huri – “Joget Malam Berinai”
Singapore/Malaysia. I said I’d show you the world, baby. I just didn’t say it’d be through your ears
92 Monument Valley – “Dear John Letters”
93 Lea Porcelain – “The Love”
94 Grizzly Bear – “Mourning Sound” …Let love age/And watch it burn out and die…
“I stare at the face/Looking through my eyes/I move at a pace/That I cannot survive”
95 Marjan – “Kee Seda Kard Mano”
Iran
96 Heavens to Betsy – “Axemen”
Like being in a high school gym pep rally (as in the song) or first miserable year of uni
97 Mia Doi Todd – “Pancho and Lefty”
A pretty version of best-songwriter-ever (and now-near-ubiquitous) Townes van Zandt tune
98 Pridjevi – “Ako Je”
Hrvatska
99 Widowspeak – “When I Tried” …I was more alive when I tried…
100 The Proper Ornaments – “Cremated (Blown Away)”
London. “I would like to be cremated and blown away…”
101 Věra Příkazská, Plzeňský lidový soubor, Lidová chodská, Zdenek Blaha – “Ó radost má”
Czech check. Love to Martina, Anne
102 Cigarettes after Sex – “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby”
“Whispered something in your ear/It was a perverted thing to say/But I said it anyway/Made you smile and look away”. Lovely but also sounds like it belongs in an 80s John Hughes romance
103 Adia Victoria – “Mortimer’s Blues” …Heaven help me how it hurts…
Back to Nashville
104 Patti Smith – “My Madrigal” …You pledged me your heart/Till death do us part…
“We waltzed beneath motionless skies/All heaven’s glory turned in your eyes”

Image by S Donaghy 2017

Lunchtable TV Talk – Dig: More subtitled entertainment

Standard

I have been a fan of A Fine Frenzy for years. I had no idea when I started watching Dig – a show that is not (so far) great by any means, but which has enough twists and turns and depth to keep me watching – that A Fine Frenzy’s Alison Sudol is one of its standout characters.

While it does not seem to be a great show yet, it fits squarely into the category of shows I have been considering and writing about lately – those shows that use languages other than English extensively (and thus a liberal use of subtitles). With Dig, it’s Hebrew.

Jason Isaacs often shows up in programs that are a bit too obscure and conceptual – and thus do not seem like they will be long for this world. Awake is a good example. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring exceptional insight to his roles. He plays grief and confusion quite well. This large cast, in addition to Isaacs and Sudol, includes some great talent; notably, Regina Taylor (also seen in The Unit and the great, long-gone but not-forgotten I’ll Fly Away), Anne Heche (also seen in Hung and Men in Trees), Lauren Ambrose (also seen in Six Feet Under and Torchwood), Richard E. Grant (also seen most recently in Downton Abbey and Girls – among a million other things) and David Costabile (also seen in Suits, Ripper Street, Breaking Bad, Flight of the Conchords, Damages and many others).

With Dig, which has a few related storylines in play in parallel, it might be too slow, too intricate and again, obscure, for most viewers. But I will give it a shot… and like every time I watch a film from Israel, wish that I knew Hebrew.

With Dig, which has a few related storylines in play in parallel, it might be too slow, too intricate and again, obscure, for most viewers. But I will give it a shot… and like every time I watch a film from Israel, wish that I knew Hebrew.

Do what makes you happy – RIP Arik Einstein & RIP investigative skills

Standard

A clear, sun-filled, beautiful day at home in the woods. Being here turns my mood around 180 degrees.

Some places I have lived have always filled me with some sense of satisfaction. Many people will claim that happiness has nothing to do with “place” – but I have always felt otherwise. It is a big contributing factor. I was never happy living in the US for some reason, and while I had bounced around to different places looking for the right place (a place to feel at home, grounded), I landed in Iceland. To this day, although I don’t live there anymore, just being in Iceland and seeing the panorama across Faxaflói Bay or being back in the “subdivision” of Reykjavik in which I used to live (Seltjarnarnes), makes me feel at home (or rather, homesick). I don’t imagine ever moving back – but being there and the place/surroundings – affected how I felt.

Now that I split my time between my home in the Swedish woods and Gothenburg, and have been doing so for a year, I have no bad feelings toward Gothenburg – but I know that being at home is where I want and need to be. I don’t want to move to or be in the city even though a year ago that sounded like a good idea. Truth be told, I needed a change, but a move to the city was not the change I needed. Sometimes, though, you have to try something to see that it is not right for you.

Thinking back to the time in Seltjarnarnes, which I wrote briefly about the other day, reminiscing about baking there – it is hard to believe that I was only living in that apartment for two years. It was such a defining time, but such a short span of time.

For whatever reason, I watched quite a bit of television when I lived in Seltjarnarnes (2001-03) – my friend had given me a tv, and I often turned it on just for noise (this was before there were really great internet connections). For some reason MTV was the Israeli version, so I saw a lot of TV commercials in Hebrew – and every commercial break was this same one advertising (I suppose) a kind of “greatest hits of…” album for some unidentified Israeli musician. Since I cannot understand or read Hebrew, I had no idea who he was – nothing about the commercial could give me a clue as to his identity, but because of the ad’s ubiquity, I became obsessed with trying to find out who he was. It was not until 2009, when I was in Oslo, that I found out that this iconic singer is Arik Einstein. I am not even sure how I found out his identity – I think that I may have Googled “Israeli singer” and something like “Fiddler on the Roof” because one of the clips in the commercial I had seen looked like it could be some kind of musical, like “Fiddler on the Roof” – I know, it sounds like a crazy and stereotypical long shot. BUT… it actually led me to the name of some other Israeli musician, which in turn led me to a lot of information about other Israeli singers, which finally (FINALLY!) led me to a picture of the man I had seen in the commercial so many years earlier.

Arik Einstein!

After that, I actually listened quite a bit to his music, much of which I really enjoyed. Quite by chance, yesterday I was looking for information about the musician Keren Ann, and she wrote on her Facebook page on 26 November that Arik Einstein had died. I would never have found out otherwise, so it was an interesting path of… chance. Like so much information discovery these days. I am thus remembering these old stories of how I first discovered this Israeli mystery man, found out who he was, and really came to appreciate the music. (My god the world is so much smaller, and information so much easier to find than in the “old days”. My mom and I used to go on pre-internet wild goose chases to find different music we would hear in tv commercials and shows. That was always a challenge. It is so much easier to find everything now, but then, our investigative and questioning skills are certainly suffering for it.)

RIP Arik Einstein!

RIP research and investigative skills (or at least the kind that are not online)! (And this is for the average person. Plenty of academic and scientists still do plenty of hands-on research and investigation and more traditional, well-trained journalists will follow leads and actually talk to people, track down other forms of information – as they should!)

“Get a grip; this is the world we live in”

Standard

History is written to say/it wasn’t our fault” -Sam Phillips – “Love & Kisses”

Which side of the fence are you on?

I am going to start this post by writing that I am well-aware of the gross oversimplification of everything I am writing. It is a train of thought I am following without delving into any specific issues in a meaningful way. I just had a lot of thoughts following Nelson Mandela’s passing on the nature of justice, race and humanity that I wanted to express, however disjointed and surface-level they are.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and even during his life, he had achieved a kind of sainthood status, untouchable… which is fine except that he was human. A great human, yes. But, as some media outlets have reported, he had a lot of “non-mainstream” things to say that exposed the hypocrisies he saw in all kinds of things, such as, and perhaps most notably, American power/hegemony. Most of these key statements are left out of the soft version of his obituaries, and the powers-that-be who might be less than comfortable with that part of Mandela can easily ignore those things.

His death brings forth the question, for example, “Who is a terrorist?” It depends on who asks the question. Who defines what a terrorist is – and how does that change? When Nelson Mandela went to prison, he was seen as a terrorist. Many South Africans of all races went to jail and fought for his  cause and the cause of racial equality (making it something of a “badge of honor” – at least according to the South Africans I have known who had criminal records for political agitation and protesting) to have a criminal record within the apartheid system. What better evidence is there of the commitment to social justice or to any cause of conscience? The whole concept of a criminal record automatically carrying a negative connotation is flawed because the offense makes a difference.

Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. But then, the United States labels all kinds of countries, people/individuals and organizations as terrorist or as official sponsors of terrorism. The other day, out-of-touch old man US Senator John McCain threw a fit because President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial services. SO WHAT? McCain shook hands with Qaddafi at some point. These labels assigned conveniently to people who are enemies of the state one day and the next are not are arbitrary and self-serving.

Many would cite Palestinian organizations and individuals as terrorists, and Israel certainly treats them like they all are. But who is the real terrorist in that scenario? How can a country occupied by people whose forebears went through something as ghastly as the Holocaust ever treat another people in the ways the Israelis treat the Palestinians? Isn’t that kind of treatment another form of terrorism? What is the difference between armed resistance and terrorism? Or even just resistance versus terrorism? We have seen history filled with people who resisted, armed or not, who seem to be called terrorists for their way of thinking, for their ideas. What about, for example, the Kosovo Liberation Army that sought independence from the Yugoslav union in the 1990s. Compared to the military apparatus of Serbia, from which it aimed to secede, you could hardly call the KLA a well-armed adversary. Serbs will tell stories about all the “terror” perpetrated by the KLA, but in the end it was the Serbs who were found guilty of violence and terror by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

That said, many people believe in causes, to the degree that they would die for them. At what point are those causes deemed morally just by the mainstream? That is not to say “majority” – but by a loud and vocal enough mainstream that whatever the cause is becomes bigger and favour for one side or the other of a cause tips in one direction or another. Apartheid is an easy one for the liberal, equality-minded person.  On the whole, it is wrong, and there are no two ways about it. On the surface, of course, the United States ended slavery and race becomes less divisive all the time. After all, the first African-American, truly multicultural president was elected to the highest political office in the nation. I personally did not think that would happen in my lifetime. But these strides do not mean that race is not still an issue. For some people, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is. Whether or not people in American society face a lack of opportunity or are more likely to experience poverty, etc. Is tied to race or is a multifaceted problem that is more socioeconomic in nature, with race playing one part in the bigger picture, I cannot say with any degree of expertise. It is always much more complicated than just one thing. But to say that there is equality would be complete and total bullshit.

The point, though, was to say that some issues carry a certain moral certitude (even if this is only in hindsight and the passage of much time). Slavery and apartheid are two such issues.

But then, something like gay marriage has been, at least in the United States and some of the more conservative parts of Europe, illegal without much to push the issue either way until recently. In 25 or 50 years (??) it may be that we can look back on the fight to love and marry whomever you want to and shake our heads at how it was ever a question. In 25 years, maybe this “moral certitude” will creep in. The tide in much of America has shifted away from trying to legislate gay marriage into non-existence and has been replaced in many cases by total indifference and in even more cases outright support. I am well aware that there are large swaths of the population who will never support it, never accept it and will fight until the day they die for a Constitutional amendment to try to ensure that marriage is a man-woman thing. But assuming that the current trend continues to move forward on the path it is currently on, at some point perhaps gay marriage will become passé. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s so common no one bothers to comment on it or think about it. (It’s a little bit like that in Scandinavia already – it just does not matter who you are paired up with. It’s your life.)

But many people believe in causes and take them to extremes. Some of those causes are questionable but clearly meant something to the people involved in them. As an example, I watched the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on the true story of the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang), which conducted its own acts of “protest”, mostly in the 1970s, in militant and violent opposition to the then-West German government (which they considered fascist). It was considered a terrorist organization, and most of its activities were indeed violent. But they did indeed believe in their cause. But cult leaders and their followers also believe in a cause. (Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and suicide-by-KoolAid in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who were killed by US federal agents at their compound in Waco, Texas, etc. The list could go on.) Did a cause like the Red Army Faction start off with such terrible intentions? Or is it just the tactics that eventually make the cause insupportable?

Anyway, back to race and the general state of affairs in the world we live in. Most alarming is that while we want to believe in the triumph of “racelessness” – Mandela “united” and reconciled a nation left in tatters thanks to apartheid; Obama became president in a fairly racist country… some of the (somehow) more unexpected racism comes from places that seem, at the same time, both improbable and common – beauty pageants. Not to start down the road of “what is beauty” (which is also a minefield) – but when an Indian-American woman won the Miss America title a few months ago, there was an uproar in social media channels that re-exposed the raw reality of American racism and the tendency toward discrimination. And why? Today I see that the newly crowned Miss France, who is mixed-race (white French and Beninese), is experiencing the very same hatred from all these anonymous sources who insist that she is “not French”.

But – short of exploring the complex questions of national identity (what makes someone a citizen and what makes them essentially that nationality or what makes them feel at home in that country?) – how is she any less French than any other? And in America, the “melting pot of the world” as is so often falsely cited, how is a woman of Indian origin any less American than someone of Irish origin or of Japanese origin or any other origin?

Basic questions because they demand basic answers. This kind of discrimination is so patently stupid and hateful that I cannot bring myself to analyze it further. All I want to do is slap the people who are most vocally hateful and say, “Get a grip – this is the world you live in.” I long for a day when all people are so obviously mixed in terms of race and nation that things are never obviously cut and dry.

Cleansed of the past – 2006 in soundtrack form

Standard

Continue reading