Medallion Status

By John Hodgman

Medallion_StatusI’ve been listening to a lot of the Judge John Hodgman podcast at work, since it is very soothing. Two funny, smart hosts (Judge John Hodgman and Bailiff Jesse Thorn) adjudicate cases of very little significance. In one of my recent favorites, a husband “sues” his wife to prevent her from getting a worm-based compost bin in their apartment, and it is hilarious, hilariously gross, and charming. In this episode, as per usual, Hodgman charmingly gets at the base issue and finds a solution that leaves both parties extremely pleased, and it is so refreshing.

While mired halfway through Smoke, I put a hold on Medallion Status, figuring it would be the perfect fluffy palette cleanser. And I was 100% correct! While I know Hodgman best from his guest appearances as the deranged billionaire on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, he is most generally well known as the PC in the old Apple ads. He is the first to acknowledge that was the height of his fame, too. With the ads came more regular roles on television shows, and a gold medallion status on his airline of choice.

In Medallion Status, he reflects surprisingly poignantly on the weirdness, seductiveness, and elusiveness of even relatively minor fame. It is also so consistently funny; I was giggling out loud every few minutes in what I’m sure was a very annoying manner. His writing is so deceptively simple that over and over again I would be caught off guard with just how funny it was.

Nice Try: Stories of Best Intentions and Mixed Results

By Josh Gondelman

Nice_TryWhile I’m talking about funny, kind white men, I also have to recommend Josh Gondelman and his collection of personal stories, Nice Try. He is an incredibly funny comedian – his standup album “Physical Whisper” is one of my favorites – and is frequently referred to as the nicest guy in comedy (thus the title of his book). And he is super nice! His comedy is self-deprecating, but also wildly relatable, about trying your best to navigate increasingly complicated life while feeling like you might be missing some key tools.

The book collects stories his written for other publications and additional personal stories. In one chapter, he talks about struggling with his growing awareness of how problematic the NFL is, both physically and socially, with how love for the game was an important way to bond with his family (this also led him to co-create #agoodgame, tying points scored to donations). In another he talks about adopting a dog that may or may not have been stolen from its original owner, and figuring out what to do about that, with the same amount of maturity and savvy as any of the rest of us (i.e., none). It’s all very funny in a way that is laughing with, not at, all of us about how ridiculous life can be sometimes.

Harriet Tubman by Catherine Clinton

HarrietTubmanHarriet Tubman: The road to freedom
by Catherine Clinton, 2004
read by Shayna Small, 2017

I put a hold on this book as soon as I returned from the theatre after watching Harriet, the movie, because it was an amazingly good movie and I wanted to know more about the history. Also because I wanted to know if the theme of Joan of Arc parallels was unique to the movie. As it turns out: no, the similarities were acknowledged during her lifetime.

I highly recommend this book.

Also, the audiobook version picked an excellent voice to read the book: clear spoken and academic but with a hint of a southern accent.

And that really typifies the book: it’s an academic biography of Harriet Tubman that addresses where the evidence and documentation comes from and where the holes in that evidence are and why, in a very direct and personable manner. We don’t know what year she was born because there’s no birth certificate and a possible ten year span. There’s a lot we don’t know about the Underground Railroad because anyone keeping records at the time would have been keeping records of their own criminal activity. Tubman struggled to get any sort of payment from the government for her services in the civil war because, despite being at that point a well-known celebrity, the bureaucracy demanded documentation that didn’t always exist. And the implications for how these issues effected other African-Americans is staggering because Harriet Tubman was well-known, well-respected, and well-remembered by highly ranked military personnel.

Apparently during the civil war there was a third category of African-Americans that I had never heard of before: Contraband. These weren’t free blacks or slaves, these were “contraband” who had been confiscated and/or escaped from their masters but were still considered possessions rather than people in the eyes of the law. The whole thing really highlights how insane the slave era was, (and how insane the white supremacy era continues to be.)

Anyway, Harriet Tubman was amazing and doing her best as she could, and her life is an example of: do what you can, when you can, and you can move mountains… but there will always be more to do.

But also, risking your life to change the world doesn’t always end with death, even for someone so similar to Joan of Arc: Harriet Tubman Davis died free, of old age, in a house she owned, surrounded by family, as a cherished and celebrated member of her community.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

By Hanif Abdurraqib

They_Cant_Kill_UsHanif Abdurraqib is very smart and funny on twitter and instagram, but I was unprepared for just how deep his collection of essays would go. When Rebecca asked what it was about, I said “essays discussing different musicians and albums,” which is such the tip of the iceberg as to be completely misleading.

Abdurraqib is first and foremost a poet, and it shows in these essays. Every word is carefully chosen, which leads to very dense and evocative prose, and slow but engrossing reading. Just about every essay starts with a musician or album (ranging from Carly Rae Jepsen to Future*), and uses that music as an access point to discuss something about humanity or society that the music is trying to address.

As a black boy growing up in Ohio and super into the punk scene, and then an esteemed music critic trying to sell all his friends on Jepsen, Abdurraqib is well experienced in finding his own place in scenes that are not often created with people like him in mind. He talks about the tension that often exists between the artist, the art, and the audience, any of which can be alternately be welcoming or alienating. The funny thing is that Abdurraqib talks about music in such a way that I got all excited to actually listen to it, but then it inevitably wasn’t as interesting or complex as his analysis. So, while I didn’t get introduced to any new favorite musicians, I’m definitely keeping tabs on Abdurraqib’s future writing.

*It took me a good five minutes of flipping through the book to select two, since I kept being like, oh, I should mention The Weeknd; no, My Chemical Romance; no wait, Migos; or Fleetwood Mac, etc. etc. Abdurraqib has an awe-inspiring range of interests!

Graphic novels on systematic oppression

I was in a mood the last time I was at the library and these are the three other graphic novels I got along with Freedom Hospital, and all of them are about dealing with systematic oppression. Not necessarily successfully, but trying to. They are none of them cheery.

RunforitRun For It: Stories of slaves who fought for their freedom
by Marcelo D’Salete
2017

There’s four chapters, telling four somewhat interlinked stories of black resistance to slavery in Brazil. And it’s just heart-breaking. Individuals could and did fight for their freedom, but unlike a game of tag, there was no home base, no safety or home free. There was just constant risk of staying, even greater risk of trying to leave, and no alternatives.

And trying to organize for a rebellion against the structure itself was just more courting death.

It also really shows how slavery-based societies actively promote viciousness and suppress empathy, among everyone involved, slave owner and slave alike. And possibly the greatest rebellion that the slaves managed to (sometimes) win, was to maintain a sense of worth to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.

girlcalledechoA Girl Called Echo, Vol. 1: Pemmican Wars
by Katherena Vermette, Scott B. Henderson, and Donovan Yaciuk
2017

This a beautifully done YA comic about Echo, who has been placed in a new school and a new foster care house. In school, she’s learning the history of the Métis, the local indigenous tribe, from which she is descended but not raised with. She’s in a position where she doesn’t fit in with the people around her or even with the people who should have been her people, but about whom she doesn’t know anything.

But in an odd experience that comes with no explanation (in this volume, at least) she is transported back in time, for short periods, to the era that her modern history class is talking about. And that’s where she makes what looks like her first a friend, Marie, a young Métis girl. But Marie is experiencing the time that Echo is learning about in school: the series of conflicts between Métis and colonists that largely destroyed the Métis way of life.

veraxVERAX: The True History of Whistleblowers, Drone Warfare, and Mass Surveillance
by Pratap Chatterjee and Khalil
2017

Pratap Chatterjee is a journalist and the graphic novel follows his years-long investigation into governmental mass surveillance and drone warfare. So the slow start and surprisingly long time it takes to get anywhere might be a realistic portrayal of the frustration of the investigation but it makes for a book that spends the first half alternating between victims speaking about their loved ones being killed in drone attacks and Chatterjee speaking about his editor not properly appreciating his nose for a story. Chatterjee does not look good in the comparison.

That said, about two thirds of the way through, it starts to pick up with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing. At that point the story shifts from following an investigation to explaining the implications of the information found, and that was much more interesting.

VERAX brought up two things that I hadn’t given much thought to before:

First:

That unmanned drones are not actually unmanned: they have a crew of 180 people stationed around the world, keeping them in the air, flying them, analyzing the data, examining the video feed, and making the calls to fire. It means that Air Force enlisted kids right out of high school and sat them down in front of screens with crappy surveillance video (this is not the high def videos shown in the movies) and has them watch the grainy videos of people dismembered and dying from the missiles they helped launch. Rates of PTSD among drone pilots who never leave their offices is amazingly high.

My dad used to say, “be careful what you put into your head, because you can’t always get it out again.” Some knowledge is important to have, and certainly worth the pain of being a third party witness. But sometimes it is just too much: I can’t imagine spending years watching those videos live.

Second:

While mass surveillance is an invasion of privacy and terrifying in how pervasive it is, it is almost equally terrifying how rife with errors it is. It’s bad data and the government is making life-or-death decisions based on this data. That’s why there are so many civilian casualties by a method that is supposed to be created specifically to avoid them. Because how often have you called a wrong number or gotten a call from someone trying to reach someone else? Maybe it’s an old phone number of maybe a 5 got misread as a 6, or a 1 as a 7.

It’s full of bad data, such that a good third of the drone strikes were made on the wrong targets. And the institutions making use of the data tend heavily towards confirmation bias. Ie, if they’re looking for a weapon and they see someone in a person’s hands, that’s evidence that they have a weapon. As opposed to looking at someone carrying something and considering how many other things they could be carrying: a glass of water, a baby, a bag of skittles. No matter how smart you are, no matter how dedicated, you cannot make good decisions based on bad data.

But overall, as a book, it was a slow start that finished with a lot of ideas and was very thought provoking.

I recommend all three books, but they are draining as they show how hard and yet necessary it is to maintain hope.

I am Raymond Washington by Fortier & Barton

RaymondWashingtonI am Raymond Washington
by Zach Fortier and Derard Barton
2014

The Crips were founded in Los Angeles, California, in 1969. This book mentions that there is some conflicting information regarding who takes credit for the gang, but that there shouldn’t be: it was Raymond Washington.

Raymond Washington was born on August 14, 1953 and died on August 9, 1979, just shy of his 26th birthday, and his story feels like something in between a classic rags-to-riches American myth and the story of Alexander the Great. He grew up in what was essentially an urban-American war zone and created order for his little section of it. He created something much larger than himself and died young. He was not the only kid creating a gang, but his particular gang grew and continues to grow well beyond the original intent some fifty years later.

Most of what I’ve read about gangs before (admittedly not a lot) has been from the external view: told from the perspective of police about these violent groups threatening the welfare of the established class. Despite Fortier’s history as a policeman, however, he clearly respects Washington and a significant amount of the book is recounting interviews with Washington’s friends and family. This gives the reader the interior perspective of the gang, where the violence is merely a necessary defense of what the gang really provided its members: a sense of structure in a chaotic community and a sense of protection from threats.

It really struck me that the way to fight gangs is not to be one more set of people fighting them, but rather to provide viable alternatives to the people who see the gang lifestyle as their only and best option. Because everyone, friends and family and Washington himself, knew that gang life was brutal and short and nothing you wanted for the people you loved. Raymond Washington was not a hero, but he also wasn’t a villain. Or maybe he was both. But he was certainly a complex individual.

Fortier is clearly impressed by Washington. It’s also clear that Fortier’s experience is as a cop rather than as an academic writer. The writing is very plain-spoken and direct, in some ways it feels more like an oral history than a written one. But he doesn’t buy into the mythos surrounding the conflict between cops and gangs; trying instead to get to the actual facts of the situation and the facts are fascinating. This is a really fascinating look at the impact of the racial tensions of LA in the 1950s-1960s on a child, and the impact in turn of the young man that child grew up to be on the world around him.

Cruising Attitude

By Heather Poole

Cruising_AttitudeThis post-surgery recovery is not kidding around, and I’m still not quite up to reading plot-based books. Luckily, I ran across this memoir of a flight attendant, which is basically just a chatty string of anecdotes about a world I didn’t know anything about before.

I had my stereotypes, of course, and honestly, the book confirms quite a few of them. Ms. Poole, herself, seems like a bit of a bitch, very concerned with appearances and status, but that is partly what makes her a good flight attendant.

The industry sounds completely bonkers – more rigidly managed than I’d ever guessed. Of course, uniforms, hair, and weight are all carefully regulated, but even lipstick color must match the team. Everything (everything) is done by seniority – the longer a flight attendant has been on the job, they can choose the better flights, the better positions on the flight, even the better rooms in the various boarding houses that cater to the unusual schedules of flight attendants. It seemed like an even more extreme example of a sorority.

So, while it confirmed that I would never have wanted to be a flight attendant and don’t have much in common with anyone who would want that, it did make me much more sympathetic toward them. One reason the regulated low body weight isn’t as much a problem is that they aren’t paid enough to afford regular meals, and they all try to supplement as much as possible with leftovers from first class meals.

Fire Monks by Colleen Morton Busch

FireMonksFire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara
By Colleen Morton Busch
2011

The opening sentence of the book is:

On June 21, 2008, lightning strikes from one end of drought-dry California to the other ignited more than two thousand wildfires in what became known as the “lightning siege.”

The book focuses on the threat of wildfire to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and proceeds chronologically, day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Over the course of ten chapters, we go from Saturday, June 21, 2008, one p.m. when the news arrives about the wildfires, to Thursday, July 10, one p.m. when the fire arrives as the Center. Then there’s an eleventh chapter covering July 10th, and a twelfth chapter covering the mop up afterwards.

It’s a slogging, almost painful recounting, that really highlights how any conflict can be summarized by “hurry up and wait.”

It’s a nonfiction account and there’s probably an equal amount of discussion of the ways of Zen as there is the ways of fire fighting, with a focus on where they can intersect and where they diverge. I found the references to other fires particularly fascinating and the author clearly did a lot of reading on wildfire fighting in general to be able to discuss expectations and possibilities.

There’s a cast of twelve characters, nine monks and three professional firefighters, who the author focuses on as they desperately try to plan for all the possibilities and correctly balance the risks to people versus the chance to save the physical center. There’s a lot of stress and disagreements by all involved and while I am absolutely positive it would have been a lot worse if the same situation had happened with people who were not Buddhist Monks, it’s still unpleasant, for both them and me.

This took me a ludicrously long time to finish, especially since it was a kindle book on library loan and thus I had to have my kindle on airport mode for the better part of a year to avoid losing it. I persevered however, because despite everything, it really was fascinating.