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.

 

The Undertaking

By Thomas Lynch

UndertakingThomas Lynch describes himself as an internationally unknown poet, though my impression is that is fake modestly for the sake of the mild joke, since from his own accounts he seems relatively well-regarded in poetry circles. More importantly to this memoir-of-sorts, he is a third-generation undertaker in a small Michigan town. I was looking for some insight into how undertakers view death when they deal with it daily and in such a practical way. Lynch kicks the book off with a treatise on funerals that can be summed up with his repeated phrase, “the dead do not care.” It is occasional humorous, but more often, uh, bracing, like cold water or a slap in the face. It isn’t really a pleasant read, but it is an interesting one.

That is, until he goes off on tangents on wider subjects, and his old-white-maleness starts showing. Sympathizing with a friend’s divorce, he bemoans how the ex-wife seemed to just callously stop appreciating poetry idolizing her body. I started side-eyeing the author a bit there, but he really gets going at the end of the book. A lengthy screed against assisted suicide, stemming from a more interesting description of his brother’s post-mortem cleanup service, veers way off course into anti-abortion territory with a wide variety of willfully ignorant arguments that made me dislike the author quite heartily. The glib snarkiness that had seemed darkly funny at the beginning became pretty nasty towards the end.

March by John Lewis

marchtrilogy960x510

March, books 1, 2, and 3
written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
illustrated by Nate Powell
2013, 2015, 2016

John Lewis is a g**d*** hero and every school child should learn his story and every adult should know it. That’s my take away from these books. I am embarrassed at how much of these events I didn’t previously know.

These books were both heart-wrenching and inspirational, made all the more so by the starkness of the story telling. Lewis is not specifically trying to be heart-wrenching or inspirational, he’s just telling the story. And the story is intrinsically heart-wrenching and inspirational.

John Lewis felt, feels, so strongly about achieving what is right that he knowingly walked into situations where he could be killed, refusing to physically fight back, and instead demanding that the world be better than it was through acts of faith and friendship in the face of hatred and anger. That takes levels of courage that I can’t really comprehend and yet want so much. He wanted to live and yet was willing to risk his life to accomplish something because, live or die, succeed or fail, just the attempt would be worth it.

That is a freaking hero.

These books are autobiographical and nonfiction. They give the reader a look at a specific part of history that often gets glossed over in the textbooks. But it’s important history, in part because it’s still ongoing. These events were only some fifty years ago and John Lewis is still alive and working today. And the issues he dealt with are still being dealt with today as well. These books make you think. They don’t necessarily tell you what to think, but they show you events that require thought.

So read them.

Read them now.

Something that gets to me about modern politics is how scared people are. Trump’s supporters want to cower behind a wall, protected from anyone and everything different from them. Trump’s detractors are terrified that he’s going to either kill them outright for being different or force them into a poor homogenous society cowering behind a wall. (I’m over simplifying, but I stand by the summary.)

John Lewis’s life is a testament against that level of fear. He could face fear and not let his warp who he was or change him into someone he didn’t want to be. Everyone should learn that lesson.

Another thing that struck me in these books was how evil some of the white people were. It’s generally not covered in text books, but it’s still historical fact—and not even all that historical. But there were just ordinary citizens who were also monsters and they raised their kids to be monsters. They went out of their way to kill, spread misery and spew anger.

It has occurred to me before that there is a level of cognitive dissonance in this type of violent racism, that clearly shows that the racists know themselves to be in the wrong and lying to themselves. True-believer racists go the white-man’s-burden route. But by violently trying to create a society that they consider to be natural, they demonstrate just how unnatural it really is.

These books also got me thinking about how methods change and evolve in every war as both sides learn how best to attack and defend. In the 1960s, the civil rights leaders made being jailed work for them by overfilling the jails and refusing to pay bail, forcing the cities to take the expense.

Unfortunately, racists have evolved since then and have turned the jail system into a for-profit venture and they benefit off the number of black bodies they imprison.

I’m reminded of the story of Jesus turning the other cheek. It’s often seen as purely an act of humility, but that’s because not many people know the cultural implications of Jesus story. Left and right hands were seen very differently, as were open handed slaps and backhanded slaps. Jesus wasn’t merely submitting to being slapped again, he was changing the situation so that the person slapping him faced a very different set of options.

I’m not sure what the modern version should be, but I do know that it needs to change with the times.

And a final thought:

One of the things that I find difficult with any civil rights movement is that I can never do enough, and so I become paralyzed and wind up doing nothing. But Lewis makes the point with this story, the story of his life and the lives the people he worked with, that no one person can do everything and that’s okay. Because you do what you can, don’t do what you can’t, and rely on others to do what they can. Civil rights, all politics for that matter, isn’t a single sprint: it’s a marathon and a relay. You work together and you go for the long run, and you pass the baton back and forth. You have some wins and you have some devastating losses, but hopefully over the course of years and decades you wind up with more achievements than setbacks. And that is a message that is always important, but especially important in today’s political scene.

A Perfect Union of Contrary Things

By Sarah Jensen with Maynard James Keenan

A_Perfect_UnionRebecca referred obliquely to this book in her comment to my previous review, saying that she guessed I had lost all perspective of writing quality while in the middle of this book. We all have books that we are too embarrassed to review on this site, and thus admit to reading. I was torn about this one, but I think it is time for me to admit my love for Tool. I am a 40-year-old, mild-mannered woman, and yet I just love Tool’s music. I try to ignore the general Tool fanbase as much as possible, and honestly I’m super conflicted about frontman Maynard James Keenan – I have so much admiration for his music, but every time he stops singing and starts talking, my admiration steadily falls.

Still, when Keenan partnered his long-time friend Sarah Jensen on an official biography, I was certainly interested (though still a bit embarrassed).

The Forward opens with “Maynard James Keenan is a mysterious fountain of constant creation. From his soul-searching lyrics, and extraordinary music in multiple bands to his astoundingly delicious wine, he has permeated our culture like no other artist. He straddles guises and genres and makes us wonder what could fuel such original superhuman output.”

Uh oh, I thought.

Skipped the rest of the Forward to the Prologue: “He sings of the fire’s spirit, of the taste of ashes on the tongue, of the truth on the other side of the mirror. He sings of the desert that is no desert place but a land breathing, flying, crawling, dying—alive with spirits of ancestors and the untold tales of children to come.”

Oh, nooo.

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Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

61unm4weinl-_aa300_Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
2015

So 2016 proved to be a bit of a wake-up call for me in terms of politics and social justice. We have some serious problems in the US, regarding unjust inequality of human respect and public safety in addition to inequalities of income, access to education, access to healthcare, and access to overall opportunities.

I’ve come to the realization that it’s a sign of just how sheltered I’ve been that 2016 was a wake-up call rather than just another demonstration of what the world can be like. It was time and past for me to expand my horizons and get out of my comfort zone.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is only a couple of years older than me and this book is about his experience with being black in a white society. I’m white in a white society and thus a lot of racial issues are nearly invisible to me. I am not at all the intended audience for this book: he writes it as a black man to his black son about his experience with the way their blackness is seen by society. It is beautifully written and it’s an honor to be be allowed to read this somewhat intimate letter from a father to his son about his fears and hurts and anger.

It reminded me of Why Are They Angry With Us?, another book I highly recommend, but while that book was academic and intended for a general audience, Between the World and Me is very personal and intended for a specific audience of one, possibly expanded to include all young black men.

I’m glad I listened to it as an audio book rather than trying to read it as text. Coates reads it himself, which I always appreciate in audio books. But the real benefit of audio books is that they don’t stop unless you actively push the pause button. I found it a difficult book to hear but that very difficulty is what makes it all the more important that I listen.