Call Us What We Carry

I keep telling myself I want to read more poetry. But I don’t do it. Why? I think in part it is because for me it is hit or miss. I love it or I don’t get it. And when I don’t get it, I feel less than. It feels unsatisfying. With a book, it is different. I may like the story or the writing, or I may not, but I don’t often feel a sense of failure. With modern art, or even classical paintings, if I don’t appreciate something, I just move on without judgment – not of the artist and not of myself. Why does poetry that goes over my head, or if it doesn’t move me, make me feel like it is a personal failure? I think I need to adopt the attitude I have about other art forms – enjoy what resonates and let the rest go. Maybe then I would make it more of a priority. After all, poetry lends itself to our lifestyles these days – they can be quick reads (maybe not quickly understood and processed, but it doesn’t require a huge time investment) so it would seem to be a good fit.

I am pleased to report, though, that a book of poetry I just read, prompted by my family book club (thank you, Nicolette), did not fall into the category of going over my head. I found it accessible and meaningful. Amanda Gorman’s Call Us What We Carry was insightful, moving, intelligent and creative. My niece, who picked it as this month’s read, called it a ‘time capsule,’ and I think that is very apt. Gorman wrote it during the pandemic, it was published in 2021. The poems remind me what the early days of Covid felt like – the isolation, the fear, the uncertainty. The poems cover that year, 2020, and all the upheaval that went with it. While some might not want to be reminded, it is important because though we think we have moved beyond it, in our quest for normalcy, there are residual effects that we need to reckon with.

It Is amazing to me that Amanda Gorman is so young – as of today she is 25. When she recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at Biden’s inaugural (that uplifting poem is included in this collection), she was 21! She is clearly well-read and well-educated – how much is formal education (she earned her B.A. from Harvard so there had to be some of that), or her own reading and research, I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. She brings a sense of history and culture to her poems that is so impressive. There are references to the pandemic of 1918, the Great Migration (the movement of African Americans from the south to the north during the first half of the 20th century), the Civil War and her own life. She includes footnotes and endnotes. All of it is called upon in service of enlightening our present moment.

It isn’t common for our book club members to all agree on something we have read. Usually there are differences of opinion, and we bring a variety of perspectives and preferences to the piece  – which is what is beautiful about it– and we read a wide range of genres. Everyone was impressed with Call Us What We Carry. Each of us picked up on different themes, some things resonated more than others, but we all valued the experience. I should note that we do not all share the same politics – though I would not characterize any of us as extremists, we are mostly center-right, center-left, and maybe a bit further left. I point this out because one might be tempted to assume that Gorman’s poetry would be heavy-handed. We did not find it so – she writes substantively, with evidence and passion – not propaganda.

Several of our members perceived that some of the poems communicated anger. I can’t say I felt that as I read. I didn’t pick up on that in her tone. If it was there, it wouldn’t be without cause – there is plenty to be angry about. It didn’t hit me that way, though.

I think this collection of poems offers an important contribution to our time. I recommend reading and or listening to it. Our book club had a discussion about how best to engage with it – some had listened, some read and one of us read and listened at the same time. I think, if one can, that last method would probably be best. Reading it allows you to appreciate some of the artistic choices made in how it is presented (the poem in the shape of the U.S. Capitol, the use of white space, the color of the paper, etc.). Listening likely offers more of an appreciation of the rhythm and the playfulness of the language.

I will leave you with two parts of poems that made a meaningful impression on me. The first comes from “The Shallows,” which describes a time challenging to the human spirit, she concludes the poem with these lines:

Shall this leave us bitter?

                Or better?

Grieve.

Then choose.

The other piece is entitled Pre-Memory:

“Marianne Hirsch posits that the children of Holocaust survivors grow up with memories of their parents’ trauma: that is to say, they can remember ordeals that they did not experience personally. Hirsch calls this postmemory. Seo-Young Chu discusses what she calls postmemory han, han being a Korean conception of collective grief. Postmemory han, then, is the han passed on to Korean Americans from previous generations. As Chu writes: Postmemory han is a paradox: the experience being remembered is at once virtual and real, secondhand and familiar, long ago and present.” The whiplike echo of Jim Crow, too, passes through Black bodies even before birth.”

The piece then goes on to explore this idea. The notion that we inherit trauma, if it is true, has major implications – and would explain a lot about why people behave the way they do and why it is so difficult to move on.

Amanda Gorman is wrestling with provocative and interesting ideas. I think it is worth the time to explore them. I look forward to seeing what she will offer us as she grows.

“Born a Crime”

I like Trevor Noah. Though it was a little traumatic for me when Jon Stewart left the Daily Show, I think Noah did a good job. I appreciated his voice (his take on things), intelligence and talent. He is a good interviewer, quick on his feet and charming. When he performed locally, Gary and I went to see him, and we were very entertained. I laughed a lot. I recently read his memoir, Born a Crime, and I still appreciate his viewpoint, he has had unique life experiences as a mixed race person who grew up in South Africa as apartheid was being dismantled, but I will admit to discomfort with some passages of the book He recounts three experiences that troubled me.

I don’t want to focus on those three incidents without first acknowledging the insightful and compelling parts of the book.

It is quite startling to understand the reality that is reflected in the book’s title. Trevor Noah is the child of a Xhosa woman and Swiss father. Their union, they were not married and couldn’t be, was illegal in South Africa in 1984. Thus, his very existence was the result of a criminal act. It is hard to wrap my brain around that, and to realize that miscegenation was decriminalized only a couple of decades before that in the United States– in my lifetime. To some that may seem a long time ago, but when you consider how long it takes to really change hearts and minds, it isn’t that much time.

Noah details what that meant for his family. He couldn’t walk on the street with his father. Even walking with his mother was complicated since to some Noah appeared white or ‘colored,’ but not black like she was. He spent much of his childhood playing indoors.

Anyone who has watched Trevor Noah knows that he has a great facility for languages (he does uncanny imitations of different accents, too). He talks about the importance of language and how it acts as a double-edged sword. Language carries culture and values in its idioms and rules. It can bond people. He points out, though, that in South Africa, as of the writing of his book, there are 11 official languages, it can also be something that divides people. They may not understand each other and may not make the effort to understand each other. He recounts a number of instances where his ability to communicate in different languages got him out of trouble or helped make a connection.

He also writes insightfully about the cycle of poverty and how difficult it is to move beyond the circumstances one is born into. The pressures to conform which play out in a myriad of ways and the systematic barriers combine to keep people in their places. His mother is an unusual person, she was someone who saw beyond the imposed limitations and refused to be constrained by those expectations. Ultimately, Noah finds his way to a different life, but it takes him a bit to decide for himself that he wanted to do that. It is an interesting journey.

The book does not cover his emergence as a comedian in the United States. It only mentions his success in South Africa in passing. The focus is on his experience growing up as someone who navigated different worlds – the challenges he faced and the tools he used to do it. He also shares the impact that domestic violence had on him as he writes about his mother’s experience with an abusive man. It offers a compelling story.

One incident that left me uncomfortable was his cavalier response to the killing of his cat. He was a young child at the time, but older than 5. He had a black cat. He writes that he wasn’t that attached to it (given the nature of cats) and to some in his neighborhood black cats were associated with witchcraft. So when he finds it dead (and evidently tortured – I won’t go into details), he isn’t that surprised or upset. I found that disturbing. I would hope that one would have feelings for any creature that had been harmed, much less tortured. I couldn’t let him off the hook just because he was young. It struck me as odd, even if there are cultural differences in attitudes towards pets and cats in particular. If it is a reflection of a cultural difference, I can’t help but judge it.

Another thing that I thought reflected poorly on him involved an escapade with a close friend. They found a store in the local mall that when it was closed, and the grate was down, they could still reach in to snatch chocolates. They did this regularly until one time security saw them and gave chase. He and his friend ended up running in separate directions. Noah got away and his friend got caught. What bothered me is that Noah made no mention of feeling bad for his friend, in fact that friend is not mentioned again in the book. He was about 13 at the time. Maybe that was just a matter of editing – not closing the loop on that experience. But that lack of sympathy for his friend troubled me more than the stealing.

You may look at those two incidents and chalk them up to youth and credit him with writing honestly about his childhood. I appreciate that he wasn’t painting himself as some kind of hero. But, it raised questions about his capacity for empathy.

Part of the narrative he is telling is how endemic cutting corners and flouting the law is (buying and selling stolen items was common) and how it took him a while to see it and decide to go a different way. He does ultimately distance himself from those activities, but it took some close calls and hard realities to get him there. In offering insight into that, it is enlightening, and one can see that not everyone would or could emerge successfully from it.

The third episode was the most disturbing because he is writing this book years after the fact and he could have added a more informed perspective if he chose to, but he didn’t. The title of the chapter is “Go Hitler.” He explains that a buddy of his, who was a skilled dancer, had the first name Hitler. Apparently in South Africa, in the black community, this was not that unusual of a name (wow!). Noah goes on to say that their awareness of Hitler’s atrocities was limited – it wasn’t explored in school – he was seen as more of a strongman than as a perpetrator of genocide. While this is distressing for me to learn, it is useful to understand.

One of the things Noah did as a teenager to earn money was to DJ. He had a crew of dancers that performed with him, Hitler being the star dancer. Their final number involved him getting in the center of a circle and the other dancers and Noah chanting, “Go Hitler.” This didn’t trouble anyone when they did their act in the townships. They were invited to a competition at a Jewish day school, and they were doing fine until that number. Noah claims he didn’t understand why the atmosphere changed, why they pulled the plug, why they got yelled at. He thought it was for their suggestive dance movements. He was outraged that they were treated that way – since they had been invited specifically to showcase cultural diversity.

Writing about this years later, he doesn’t show much empathy or understanding. He says that the reason we know there were six million Jews killed is because Germany kept meticulous records. In Africa, when colonialists abused and killed native peoples, no records were kept, thus we have no numbers. He seems to suggest that if those records were kept, our attitude would be different. Maybe it would be. We should have more understanding of the brutality and exploitation inherent in the colonial system in Africa. That is a valid point, but it doesn’t negate the suffering of the Jews in Eastern Europe. It doesn’t mean that the students and staff at the Jewish day school shouldn’t react to hearing “Go Hitler.” Just reading the chapter title sent shivers down my spine.

I am not interested in comparing atrocities or competing to see who had it worse. One would hope, though, as a member of an oppressed, vicitimized people, Noah’s response would be compassion. How about, having learned now about Hitler’s evil, now understanding the nature of the genocide he would include a statement such as, “Now I understand their reaction; then I didn’t.” He doesn’t write anything of the sort.

I was not aware, until reading Noah’s book, about the history of South Africa. It was not included in the curriculum in my high school’s global history class. I am not an expert having read his book, after all it is one account. But, my eyes were opened to the reality of apartheid (not that I didn’t understand it was an unjust, despicable system before) and the complications involved in dismantling it. I also am now more aware of the different tribes that comprise the black community. The history of that country, once again, illustrates the capacity of human beings to be evil, selfish and ignorant.

I recommend reading Born A Crime. It is compelling and insightful. It raises challenging questions about how we educate ourselves. It is unrealistic for us to learn the history of every country. Clearly, we have problems agreeing on the history of the United States and what to teach our children, never mind trying to cover the history of the nations of the world. There aren’t enough hours in the day to learn it all. But, it speaks to the need to continue to learn, to continue to read and to be open to different perspectives – even when it is troubling.

Whose Voices?

I was in the airport and had time to kill. I had finished the book I brought with me, so I went in search of another. I scanned the display and saw one that looked interesting. It was an Oprah Book Club selection and I usually find her recommendations to be reliable – they are often the right blend of substantive, and highly readable. Aside from having her seal of approval, the descriptors on the cover were ‘propulsive,’ ‘magnificent,’ and, ‘heart-pounding.’ I was in the mood for that. Perfect reading material for my wait in the terminal and the two-hour flight.

I dug in and was taken on a ride from the beginning to the end. I read 378 pages in basically two days. What book was it? American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins.

Some of you may recognize the title. When I was perusing the shelf in the airport store it did not ring a bell. After I finished it and went to enter it to my list on Goodreads, I saw that it was the subject of controversy. I saw comments that labeled the book racist. When I read a little further, I remembered the storm. I don’t think I followed it closely at the time – it was published about two years ago – but I recall the dispute over whether a white woman could credibly tell the story of Mexican migrants.

As I read the book, I did note that the author’s name did not sound Latina and I wondered if its portrayal of Mexican cartels and culture was accurate. I flipped to the back to read about the author, and I also read the acknowledgments. I thought, like with any novel, that I would give the writer the benefit of the doubt – that she likely would have done her research, that she and the editor(s) were responsible and would not knowingly put forth a false picture of that life. I was quite invested in the story, and I wanted to find out what happened to the main characters. After all, I knew I wasn’t reading a scholarly history book or anthropological analysis. I read on and I am not sorry that I did.

It is a powerful story. I came away with a much greater awareness of the dangers, risks and challenges faced by those who make the arduous trek from Central America and Mexico to the United States. I don’t know if many face the near-death experiences that the mother and son did in this work of fiction, but their fear rang true. I was moved by their plight and by those who took the journey with them.

On first reading the criticisms of the book, I was embarrassed that I missed that it was racist. But was it? I wanted to understand what the issue was. Did the story stereotype Latinx? I thought the characters were multidimensional, but I could be oblivious. Did it misrepresent the violence of the cartels by either romanticizing them, downplaying them or sensationalizing them? That is possible, though movies and television shows are far more extreme than this book was. I am not knowledgeable enough to assess the book’s take on that. Most of the disapproval, though, centered on the author’s lack of credentials to tell this story. Under pressure, Jeanine Cummins eventually claimed a Puerto Rican grandmother, though I believe she identifies as a white woman.  Ultimately the question seems to be: can a white woman write a novel about persons of color?

This question applies more broadly, and I am troubled by the conversation around it. I heartily agree that historically marginalized voices need to be heard – space and time must be devoted to those who have previously been denied access. Also, if one wants to gain insight into a culture, it is probably best to read the literature of that culture rather than an outsider’s view. That said, writers should not be limited to only telling stories born of their personal experience. Male writers should be permitted to tell a story from a woman’s perspective and vice versa. Their success must be judged on the merits. I think it is a daring thing to do – I don’t write fiction, I don’t have the imagination for it. I can’t conceive of writing in another voice. But I don’t want to make that a rule for those that can. Thankfully we have many creative storytellers who reach beyond their own lives to explore the world (or create other worlds). Wally Lamb, in my opinion, did it quite successfully in She’s Come Undone, a story with a female protagonist, among others.

This raises several related issues. One might criticize Oprah for picking the book. She has a lot of clout. One could argue that she should use her influence to bring authors forward who would not otherwise get mainstream attention. To be fair, though, I think she has done just that many times over. But, perhaps if she wanted to focus on the migrant experience she could find a book written by someone who took that journey.  On the other hand, this was a very compelling read and sparked a lot of discussion. Isn’t that a good thing?

The publisher came in for a lot of criticism too. To some degree, the same questions that faced Oprah were directed at them. Should this manuscript have been bought and promoted? I don’t know the answer to that. I can only say that I found it to be a spellbinding story.

The controversy over this book raises important concerns. The backlash against it and the author raises lots of questions. In our desire to bring forward previously marginalized voices, is it a zero-sum game? Can the marketplace expand, or will voices that had access before now be silenced? Did this author deserve to be vilified?

I am not one who has worried about political correctness or cancel culture. I believe that many people do indeed need to be more sensitive in the language they use; that our collective (and individual) consciousness continues to need raising; and, that people deserve to be held accountable for their words and deeds. I am concerned, though, that if we narrow who is permitted to be heard on a given topic based on some aspect of their identity whether it be gender, race, ethnicity, or religion, we will have taken a giant step backwards. Sometimes an outsider brings needed insight and a useful perspective.

Frankenstein

The edition I read

Apropos of Halloween, our family book club recently read and discussed Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I had never read it before. I have seen the movie versions, the iconic one with Boris Karloff from 1931 and Mel Brooks’ version. For the record, I recommend Young Frankenstein.

Reading the book, I was surprised by how relevant the story is even though Shelley wrote it in 1818 (when she was 18 years old!). I was anticipating a difficult read. I expected the language to be dense and unfamiliar. I was pleasantly surprised to find it accessible. In parts it was quite beautiful and expressive. At other times I found it overwrought, though I suspect the author may have intended it to be. It is quite a melodramatic tale. The members of our book club differed in their judgment of the writing; some ended up skimming because they found the focus on details off-putting, while others reveled in the lush descriptions. I fell somewhere in the middle. I appreciated her ability to convey depth of emotion and paint a picture of the ‘creature’s’ experience as he entered the world, but sometimes I found it overdone and was ready to move on.

Apart from the writing itself, the story led to spirited discussion. It is so rich with themes that transcend time: the nature of man, the balance of progress (scientific discovery) and ethical obligation, the danger of unbridled passion/ambition. It was nearly impossible to contain our conversation to the scheduled one hour (we meet on Zoom). Interesting takes on the story were offered: that it was really a parable of mental illness (perhaps the ‘monster’ wasn’t real at all). Another perspective suggested that it was reflecting on the fears of that age that God had turned his back on man the way Dr. Frankenstein abandoned his creature.

We talked about the role of appearances. The creature’s appearance engendered so much disgust, fear and violence that he became the monster that the people feared. Had the public responded differently, he might never have become destructive.

In terms of the risks of progress, we agreed that the book offers a cautionary tale. We talked a bit about whether Mark Zuckerberg was a ‘Dr. Frankenstein.’ While there are differences in that Zuckerberg has not abandoned his creation (far from it), there are relevant parallels.  Progress, without due consideration of the ethics and consequences, is dangerous. Today universities have structures in place to assess the ethical impact of an experiment before it is funded. Private tech companies need to put more emphasis on ethics and consequences before steaming ahead with new applications. How to make that happen remains an open question.

In the story Victor Frankenstein, during his studies at university, becomes obsessed with breathing life into something dead. His research convinces him that he can achieve this, and he becomes single-minded in his pursuit of that goal. He sleeps little, isolates himself and slaves away in his workshop until he succeeds. Most of the story focuses on what happens after that ‘eureka’ moment, but I was interested in exploring that aspect of the narrative.

I wonder whether that level of intensity is necessary for great breakthroughs, for great scientific achievements. My daughter, who is a neuroscientist and has worked in several labs at different universities, offered that she thought meaningful scientific progress can be made by people who have lives outside the lab. She has observed researchers who have families and hobbies and still manage to produce important work. I was heartened to hear that because I am predisposed to think that it requires if not obsession, close to it.

When I raised that question at book club my cousin responded that it is a myth that big discoveries are achieved by single-minded, hardworking geniuses. He pointed out that those accomplishments are the result of collaboration or appropriation of the work of others; though individuals may claim the credit and history may celebrate that person, that isn’t the reality. We didn’t get to examine his point in depth because time had run short. I want to investigate this idea further here.

I have not read the histories of Edison, Ford and others who are credited with huge advances, but it makes sense to me that their work was built on ideas and contributions of others. I think it does us a disservice not to acknowledge that. The mythology of one man, and most often it is a man, forging the path or having the ‘aha’ moment, creates unreasonable expectations and fails to give due credit to those who provide the conditions that permit the discovery. Putting aside the cases where the idea may have been outright stolen or appropriated, wherever you look, in whatever field of endeavor, geniuses need support. These days, even in an individual sport like tennis, the winner of the tournament thanks his/her ‘team.’ Roger Federer, a genius on the tennis court, acknowledges his coach, his physio (I didn’t know what that was until recently), and his family because he recognizes that even if he was alone on the court, others contributed to his victory.

I took my cousin’s important point to heart; it still didn’t exactly answer the question I was posing. Both things can be true. Great accomplishments can require collaboration (acknowledged or not) and an obsessive devotion to the effort.  I was pleased to hear Leah’s observation; I still wonder. Though I can’t say I have seen geniuses work up close, I have worked with folks who are at the very top of their field, very respected, sought-after practitioners of medicine, law and public policy. I think it is fair to say they have bordered on obsessive. They certainly put in many, many hours of work and mental energy. They may have families and even a hobby, but it isn’t in balance. I can’t think of anyone in that esteemed position who didn’t prioritize their work (family might share equal billing, but nothing else comes close). I made a choice early in my career to seek out balance, I wasn’t that ambitious. Or maybe I was, but my ambition was to have well-adjusted children. I certainly put time and energy into them. I have come to no conclusion on this. Can a person live a balanced life and still achieve greatness? Of course, it begs the issue of defining greatness, but I’m thinking about major contributions to their field, whatever it might be.

The issue of scientific breakthroughs without due consideration of consequences and whether those engaged in that work need to be obsessed are likely connected. The obsession or unbridled ambition may lead to the inability to consider impacts beyond their own achievement. We need mechanisms in place that balance the drive for innovation with concern for the greater good. The concept of a greater good has proven difficult for folks to agree upon.

In sum, if you have not read Frankenstein, I recommend it – especially for a book club.

Note to my fellow book clubbers: If I have not done justice to the ideas shared, please add your comments. Or, if I have done justice, but you’d like to chime in, please do. If your thoughts rise to the level of a full essay, I’m happy to post it. I extend that invitation to other readers, as well.

The Albany Book Festival to the Rescue

I thought this week’s blog post was going to be titled “The System is Broken.” The system I am referring to is elder care. It was motivated by my visit to my aunt at the Amsterdam Nursing facility. I will write that piece, but not today. Fortunately, I was rescued from that dark place by some uplifting experiences, and I decided to focus on those.

First, I will note the value of friendship. In the midst of my distress, I had a lovely dinner with my almost-life-long friend (we met when I was 14), Steven. We commiserated over our respective painful experiences of seeing our elderly parents, relatives and friends go through the indignities that aging can bring, especially when coupled with the limitations of the health care system. We found much to laugh about even as we covered those difficult subjects. We ate outside on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a refreshing breeze washing over us. A strong cocktail improved my mood. It was a much-needed respite. Thank you, Steven.

This was followed up later in the week with a zoom call with Merle. We lamented the state of our country, but then focused on our gratitude for the good fortune we both enjoy.

The crowning event, though, in shifting away from writing that disturbing blog post, was attending the fourth annual Albany Book Festival. Last year it was limited to a virtual event due to the coronavirus. This year it was a mixture – virtual and live. I was concerned about attending an in-person, indoor event and wondered whether they would be taking appropriate precautions. I read the Covid information on the website and my worries were eased. I assured Gary that if they weren’t enforcing the rules and the environment felt unsafe, I would leave promptly.

My well-thumbed program

The morning fog had burned off, leaving a bright blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds, as I drove the short distance to the SUNY-Albany campus. I parked my car and ran into an ex-colleague from my days working at NYSSBA. This was a delightful surprise, as I had not seen her in several years. We caught up as we walked to the campus center. Purple signs, SUNY-A’s color, directed us. As we entered the building, I was relieved to see each and every person masked; not just masked but wearing them properly, fully covering their nose. There were a lot of people, but the area was not overcrowded. So far so good.

I perused the program and decided to head to the auditorium to hear Nathan Philbrick talk about his new book, Travels with George. It is a combination history, travelogue and memoir; the George in the title is George Washington. I had not read the book, nor was I familiar with Mr. Philbrick’s earlier work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the relaxed but informative conversation that was facilitated by moderator, Paul Grondahl. Mr. Philbrick, who has written multiple history books about early America, talked about Washington as a flawed but great man. Sprinkled in were amusing and interesting anecdotes about Philbrick’s own life. To conclude the session, Grondahl asked the author about his prediction for our country’s future, in this difficult and contentious time, given his knowledge of the past. Philbrick reflected on other perilous times in our history, including in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s election when the United States was first forming as a nation. He responded, “I have faith in America.” He pointed out that it may take a while, likely years, to weather the current storm. He admitted that though he is a pessimist by nature, he still trusted in our institutions. My spirits lifted. I felt better. I realize he is just one person, but he struck me as well-informed, intelligent, and knowledgeable. I bought his book.

I picked another session to attend. This one featured a conversation with the newly-named New York State poet and author, Willie Perdomo and Ayad Akhtar, respectively. Again, I was not familiar with either man’s work. I am not well read in poetry.  I am always promising myself that I will read more of it, to no avail. I left this session motivated once again. We’ll see.

Both men were well-spoken, good-humored and insightful. It is no wonder that Mr. Perdomo is a poet. He spoke lyrically, expressively and meaningfully about his life-journey. I could have listened for another hour. Mr. Akhtar didn’t project the same warmth, but he too was insightful. I bought his novel, Homeland Elegies, which according to Barack Obama is ‘a powerful and searching examination of contemporary American politics and attitudes.’ I value President Obama’s book recommendations and look forward to reading Mr. Akhtar’s work.

After that session, I wandered through the exhibit hall, taking in the offerings of other authors and publishers. I looked out the window and saw the brilliant sunshine. I decided I wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather rather than attend more sessions so I headed home.

I was invigorated by the talent, intelligence, and diversity I had witnessed at the book festival. Though I cut my stay short, I had gotten what I needed: a reminder that there are creative, smart, interesting people who are engaged with complex issues. It made me feel better about the world, about the future. Though it doesn’t change the fact that ‘the system is broken,’ I felt more hopeful and energized. Next week I can write about elder care.

More Hard Questions

Note: It has been another challenging week for me. Aside from my mother’s continuing health issues, I am troubled by the violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. I do not subscribe to the narratives offered by the far left or far right in explaining what is going on there. I believe all the participants share responsibility for the violence and that they all need to change to come to peace. In view of these events, I thought it was a good time to revisit a book review I wrote a couple of years ago. The book, Salt Houses, was insightful and provocative and was written from a Palestinian perspective. Even if you haven’t read the book, I hope you find my discussion of it enlightening and thought provoking. It is clear that we, across the globe, all of us, need to find better ways to address trauma that has been passed down through the generations. We see the impact of failing to do so everywhere we look.

https://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2018/12/24/hard-questions/

The Education of an Idealist: A Book Review

I recently read The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. To remind you, she was U.N. ambassador representing the United States during Obama’s second term as President. Prior to that she worked in his administration on the National Security Council. Hers is an interesting story. She was born in Ireland and lived there until her mother, unable to access a divorce in Ireland, took her two children and immigrated to America. Power’s and her mother’s journey is worth reading about. Not surprisingly, the issues raised in the book have spurred questions for me.

Some observations after reading the book:

It seems that immigrants have a clearer understanding of this country’s founding principles than many native-born Americans. Samantha Power and her family are examples of that. Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman, NSC officials who testified in the House impeachment hearing, are two more examples.

Many of the events Power describes happened only four or five years ago, but I barely remember them. Or, more accurately, I remember the incident (for example, Assad gassing his own people in Syria or the killing of U.S. embassy staff in Benghazi) but have forgotten the specifics – if I ever knew them. It makes me wonder if it is information overload or a short attention span or not paying attention in the first place. Whatever the case, it is disturbing because how will we learn from these events if it all becomes an incomprehensible jumble swept under the rug.

As a person who has grappled with the causes and lasting impacts of the Holocaust, I was surprised to learn that Power made a name for herself by researching and writing a book about genocides in history (‘A Problem from Hell’ America in the Age of Genocide).  I will look for it next time I’m at the library. She was a reporter covering Bosnia in the 1990s and viewed her role as bringing the war crimes there to light so that the world would respond. I have always appreciated the importance of journalists educating us about events in far flung places, but this renewed my understanding of how crucial the press is. They may get things wrong or not tell a complete story but having eyes and ears on the ground is essential.

Reading about our conflicts with Russia, over its invasion of Ukraine and Assad’s actions in Syria, which Power had direct experience with at the U.N., brought into sharp relief the differences in values between our two countries. I studied Russian history (Soviet history at the time) when I was in college. I have some understanding of their single-minded concern with national security and their view of the world as an ‘us against them’ equation. They also have no legacy of democracy so when the Soviet Union crumbled it didn’t have a democratic tradition to call upon. Human rights never enter the equation for them. In the Russian scheme of things, what a country does in pursuit of its interests is not subject to any limitations – they don’t appear to apply a moral compass to the behavior of themselves or other nations. Power recounts her negotiations with Russia’s ambassador and those interactions illustrate very clearly that they are not our ally. We need to coexist with them, and we need to find opportunities to cooperate, but we cannot be confused about who they are. This reality makes Trump’s respect and affinity for Putin that much more frightening.

Another point that is driven home in the book is the power of politics. According to Power’s narrative, much of our country’s government action or inaction in foreign affairs is driven by perceptions of opinions/support of Congress, which, in turn, is driven both by their polling of their constituents and the influence of special interests. For example, Power describes Obama’s failure to act when Assad crossed the ‘red line’ in using chemical weapons, as mostly a political calculation based on lack of Congressional support for an air strike and fears of long-term engagement. After reading her analysis, in which she supported a military strike, I came away thinking that this was a failure of leadership on Obama’s part, but I have a better understanding of the factors that led to his inaction.

The notion of polling constituents or relying on phone calls/emails from constituents to gauge public opinion, raises a bunch of questions, some of which I thought quite a lot about when I was a school board member. The issues I faced were thankfully not life and death, but the fundamental question was the same: is my role as a representative to poll my constituents and vote accordingly; or is it to use my best judgment based on the information I have (which the public may not have) and apply my values to that data? Both paths are fraught. If I take the first approach, do I really know how my constituents feel? How many have I heard from and is it just the squeaky wheels? Do I poll on every issue, knowing that polling is not a perfect science?

If I choose the second approach, using my judgment, then I may be limited by the information I have and those who have provided it likely have an agenda. In the case of Congress, a lot of the information they rely on is supplied by special interests.

Whichever approach an elected official takes, representative democracy is flawed in some respects.

In my school board service, I generally went with the second approach. We didn’t do polling at that time, and I would have had some issues with it if we did. For me, it comes down to information, facts, data, analysis. If I could pull from different perspectives and look at data, I thought my decision-making would be stronger than basing it on a poll. Ultimately, the community would have their say in the most important poll – the voting booth. If they didn’t like where I came down on the issues, they would vote me out. Of course, I wasn’t terribly concerned about being voted out of a volunteer position. The challenge of taking my approach, relying on the data and applying one’s values, is that these days no one can seem to agree on a common set of facts or data. To make matters worse, there are those who benefit from exploiting the cynicism about science/data. At some point, we need to evaluate the information to assess its credibility and then trust in something!

So as not to leave you on a downer, I will share an example of the positive power of politics from the book. As Power describes the efforts to control and thwart the Ebola epidemic in West Africa a few years ago, the United States had the political will and resources to lead the way in addressing a terrifying public health emergency. This seemed to be a case where the data and science were believed, and political leaders overcame fear to do what needed to be done. One can only hope this problem-solving model can become the norm.

If you are interested in recent political history, and want to consider how values fit into public policy, I recommend reading The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power. By the way, I am not the only one recommending the book. It appeared on President Obama’s year-end list, too.

 

 

 

Thoughts for a Monday Morning

I am not going to write at length about gun violence in this country. But I do want to comment on what I see as an irony after the two most recent mass shootings. As the majority of Americans get more and more fed up with and anxious about the frequency of mass murders, suicides and “regular” homicides (in sum the staggering rate of gun violence in this country), the more possible the great fear of the gun rights activists could be realized. If things get bad enough, maybe we will come for your guns, instead of common sense gun control legislation. The staunch unwillingness of the NRA to negotiate reasonable standards (background checks, allowing databases to talk to each other, outlawing high-powered automatic weapons) may create an untenable situation where the majority of Americans are willing to put even more limits on gun ownership. I certainly am.

I know most of my readers don’t enjoy my political writing much (judging by the number of views those essays get), so I will leave it at that and move on to other topics.

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As I work on my book, I asked my mother a few questions to fill in some gaps in my understanding of our family history. First, I want to note how fortunate I am to still have my mother to ask those questions! Her memory may not be what it once was, but she still has so much to offer. Since beginning this blog and undertaking my memoir, I’ve had many conversations with her that have enriched my understanding of events and of our family.

Recently I asked her questions about Zada (regular readers know Zada was my maternal grandfather, Mom’s father). Zada was the patriarch of the Spilken family. He was a lover of life and an optimist. Two of his children, my mother and her brother, Terry, were able to adopt that approach. His other two children…not so much.

Zada’s life was hard in many respects. I didn’t fully appreciate some of the challenges until Mom reminded me of some tragedies that I may have known about before but had forgotten or not thought about for decades.

Zada came to this country when he was three. His father was ten years younger than his mother! She already had three children by her first husband. Zada was the oldest of five more children. All eight were raised together in a tenement on the lower East Side. It was a hard life – everyone worked as soon as they were able. I recall Zada describing sleeping in shifts because their apartment was so small, and they had to take on a boarder to help pay the rent.

What I didn’t remember is that one of Zada’s sisters, Ruth, who was seven or eight at the time, was playing with friends on the roof of the tenement when she fell off. She was found dead on the sidewalk. I can’t imagine the horror. But family life went on – I’m not suggesting that lives weren’t changed by the tragedy, but Zada was able to maintain his spirit. Maybe Zada was unique, but my sense of things is that in those days (this would have been early in the 20th century), people expected tragedy. Accidents and fatal illness were more common and as a result the death of a child was not so unusual.

I am glad standards have improved so that our expectations for our children are higher. But I do wonder if we could use some of the fortitude that our ancestors had. I can think of numerous examples of difficult times Zada endured. He lost everything in the hurricane of 1938 (fortunately none of his family died, but they lost their business and their home with most of their possessions). His sister, Lily, died as a young woman of tuberculosis. He went bankrupt when he was 60 years old and had to go to work in a commercial bakery at that late stage of his life. His wife, my Nana, died prematurely at the age of 56. So much loss to endure, but his spirit remained upbeat. He continued to be engaged with the world, even after macular degeneration took his vision.

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Zada and me next to his Toyota Corolla in Canarsie (1973)

I was thinking about this after our book club read The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was convicted of crimes he didn’t commit in Alabama in the 1980s. He was on death row for 30 years until he was finally exonerated. The book follows his journey. It is a very powerful story. He makes a choice, while on death row, to reclaim his humanity instead of giving in to anger and bitterness. He chooses to establish relationships with fellow inmates and guards, he starts a book club, he escapes to his imagination. He has the love and support of his mother and one friend throughout. There is much more to the story, but I will leave you to read it.

During our book club we discussed whether we would have the strength to make the choice Hinton made. Some of us were pretty certain we wouldn’t have the wherewithal, others of us thought we would try. Of course, you never know unless you are tested. I hope to never be tested in the ways that Hinton or my Zada were. While my life so far has brought challenges, they have not been on that scale. I hope I will rise to whatever my future holds with the fortitude of my ancestors, especially Mom and Zada.

Scared Straight

Scaring kids straight isn’t supposed to work, but it worked on me. There is a school of thought that says that if you present adolescents with a frightening picture of what drug use looks like, it will keep kids on the straight and narrow. I haven’t looked at the data, but I’m under the impression that the strategy isn’t very effective. Maybe because adolescents think they are immortal, that they are unique, can maintain control and it won’t happen to them. Or maybe because they don’t believe the message adults are feeding them. When I was an adolescent, I believed.

When I was growing up in the early ’70s there were stories about people taking a ‘bad trip’ and trying to fly off buildings – to their death. There were other stories of tripping on LSD and wandering outside naked. I’m not sure which of those scenarios horrified me more. The idea of being out of control, or not being able to distinguish fantasy from reality, was terrifying to me. When there was a rumor that someone had laced the ketchup in Coney Island Joe’s, a neighborhood burger/hot dog place, with LSD, I stayed away for years.

When I was 12 a book came out,“Go Ask Alice.” It was released anonymously, described as the diary of a real girl who got mixed up in the drug scene. I don’t remember who got the book, my friend Deborah or me, but we were so anxious to read it that we went into her basement and read it aloud. I think we read the entire book that way – in one sitting. We were shocked and disturbed by it.

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The story presented a 15 year old girl, who we could relate to as she struggled with social acceptance, whose first experience with drugs was accidental. It fed into the zeitgeist of the time (not that I knew that word then). After consuming LSD without knowing, she got deeper into the scene. She was new to her town and she became friends with a group of kids who were experimenting with drugs.  It all seemed so plausible to me.

The worst part of the story was that the diary ended with her clean, starting a new path with new friends. There was a brief epilogue that reported that she died of a drug overdose a couple of weeks later. Deborah and I were devastated.

I was just starting junior high school and I never felt more alienated. As I have written before in earlier blog posts, Nana, my grandmother and closest companion, had died the year before. To make matters worse,  I was zoned to go to a different junior high school from my classmates in elementary school.  It was a challenging time to say the least.

Reading Alice’s story, the girl’s name is never actually revealed, we just assumed it was Alice based on the title of the book, convinced me that whatever loneliness I might have felt, befriending kids who were doing drugs was not an option. I think Deborah came away thinking the same thing.

I’m not sure what reminded me of the book or this issue, but when I did a bit of online research about it, I found some interesting things. Unbeknownst to me, a few years after it came out, there was controversy about whether the book was a real diary or if it was fabricated.  The edition we read had the tag line “A Real Diary.”  (see photo above) It was presented as non-fiction. Lo and behold, when information emerged about the possible author, Beatrice Sparks, it turned out she was a therapist who said it was a diary of one of her clients that the parents authorized her to use. But, apparently Sparks augmented the diary entries. Today the book is still in print, but it is categorized as fiction and includes a disclaimer. Turns out James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” wasn’t the first of this kind of controversy.

Perhaps those adolescents who were skeptical about messages from adults were right. Ironic, isn’t it? I think my fear of drug use served me well, though.