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.

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.

 

The Good Death

By Anne Neumann

The_Good_DeathThis book was way more depressing than I’d anticipated, and I already knew it was called The Good Death. Author Ann Neumann was inspired to research and write this book after she spent a year caring for her dying father. After he passed, she wondered whether he’d had a ‘good death,’ and what that even means in our world. I was interested to read it, of course, because I have some questions about that, myself.

I was looking for a more personal, introspective look at what death means in our lives and how we judge other people’s death, but Neumann is a journalist, and quickly veers off into wider-scope political and institutional controversies around end-of-life care.

After a brief personal introduction of Neumann’s inspiration, the book begins with looking at end-of-life “comfort care,” and how the health care and legal industries define the boundaries of palliative care vs. medical intervention. Because her father had mentioned it as he declined, she discusses assisted suicide, analyzing the arguments made by advocates and protestors. This leads Neumann to further explorations on forced feeding, capital punishment, and disability activism. There are clear linkages between the topics, but the book feels a bit loose and tangled as a whole. It asks a lot of questions and inspires a lot of thought on difficult topics, but doesn’t reach many conclusions.

She does weave personal stories throughout, initially from her experience caring for her father and later as a volunteer with Hospice, and those parts were the most interesting to me, her witnessing the ends of different lives, but also the least deeply explored. I imagine that the journalism experience that benefits her when untangling legal documents and political arguments perhaps hobbles her in more personal reflection.

I was glad to read it because it inspired me to really explore some of my assumptions around life and death, but I finished the book feeling that everything was just in a bit of a mess, and there was no clear way to fix things in the future.

—Anna

DCEagleCamOn a more cheerful note, I am completely entranced (possibly to an unhealthy degree) by the DC Eagle Cam, live-streaming an eagle family of two adults and two eaglets nesting in the National Arboretum. The adults are such good parents, and the eaglets are completely precious and growing quickly!

Why Are They Angry With Us?

By Larry E. Davis

Why_Are_They_AngryThis is a short book of autobiographical essays on race by a colleague of my mother’s. I picked up her copy while visiting over Christmas, so I have no idea how widely available it is, but I highly recommend it. Davis has a fascinating way of breaking down extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues of race into underlying theories of causes that can be more directly addressed. He calmly and clearly lays out factual counter-arguments to many of the arguments that, per the title of this book, attempt to blame black people for their own social inequality.

The title comes from a question that struck the author as a young boy: if we (himself and other black people) were the slaves, then why are they (white people) angry with us? This led him through decades of studies in psychology and sociology. His central hypothesis in this book is that it mostly comes down to cognitive dissonance. Basically, people want their way of thinking and their behavior to align with each other, so much so that they will force one or the other to change in order to align, if necessary. So, if your way of life depends on exploiting others, but you still very much want to consider yourself a decent person, then you begin to think that the exploited person somehow deserves it, which then leads to all sorts of racist stereotypes.

The encouraging aspect of this is that it seems to work both ways: if you can successfully change either the behavior or the thinking, the other will eventually change, too, in order to stay aligned. His example of that is when the Civil Rights Act made it illegal to discriminate based on race, behavior (slowly) changed to follow the law, and then thinking changed afterwards (even more slowly). It reminded me of something that the host from one of my favorite podcasts, Yo, Is This Racist?, said (paraphrasing): “I don’t think I can stop people from having racist thoughts; I just want to make it unacceptable to ever verbalize these thoughts.” According to Davis’ theory, making racist talk culturally unacceptable could go a long way toward making racist thought disappear as well.

—Anna

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

tidyingupThe Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By Marie Kondo
2014

This book was amazing. I have now recommended it to virtually everyone in my family and am passing it around so they can all read it and you should read it too. It’s joining The Art of Learning as one of now two nonfiction self-help books that I really enjoyed and was impressed by.

Marie Kondo is kind of crazily obsessed with tidying and organizing. (Her family members are clearly saints for having put up with her trying out different methods.) But it makes the book pretty funny in addition to useful and interesting as she writes about what methods she’s tried and the ways in which they did and did not work.

Kondo’s actual method, the one she’s describing in the book really does work, and I love that she takes the time to show how she came up with the method and how and why it works. Not only is the theory something I find generally interesting, it also makes it possible for me to modify the method for my own use. Because I don’t have the time and energy to implement her massive 6-month reorganization bonanza, but working bit by bit, as I feel inspired does work.

Despite it not being a particularly long book, it took a while to get through because I would get inspired to just start tidying. It’s surprisingly fun to do and the results leave me feeling all pleased and happy with myself.

While there are a lot of specific suggestions about how to really work her system (so go and read the book!), the basic premise is that you should keep the stuff you love and get ride of the stuff you don’t. The first part of her method is to spend time looking through your possessions and identifying all the things that you love. It’s amazing how much stuff I had because I had it and had no reason to get rid of it. I had a lot of clothing due to inertia rather than enjoyment. While reading this book, I wound up with several large bags and boxes of clothing and books to donate and now am left with a room with a much higher concentration of things I love, because there’s less dilution with things that I just sort of have.

I highly recommend this book. You don’t have to follow her advice, but at least read the book and see if you’re interested in trying it out. Because I have been working through my stuff and it has been fun to do and I love the results.

Lost at Sea

By Jon Ronson

Book Cover: Lost at SeaChrist. I don’t know how Jon Ronson does it, but he made me feel sympathy for the goddamn Insane Clown Posse in the very first chapter.

After my last review on a book that I discovered through an article by Jon Ronson, I remembered that I hadn’t checked up on his works for a few years, and he had published twice since then. Lost at Sea is made up of dozens of short chapters, each a standalone essay describing Ronson’s interaction with a wide variety of people and groups. (I believe they were actually originally articles for the London Guardian.) It made me laugh several times, but it also made me kind of sad, as each group seemed to be simply looking for connection and meaning in life, and having to go to some extreme lengths to find it.

It took me far to long to realize this, but the title is actually very apt – these are all stories about people who have lost their way in one way or another. The stories get progressively grimmer, too, starting with stories of roboticists attempting to create artificial intelligence and parents raising “indigo children,” thought to be the next evolutionary stage with psychic abilities, to a planned school massacre in Christmas, Alaska, and suicides over mounting credit card debt.

One of the more powerful essays for me, though, was one where he takes the general income disparity in the United States, and divides it into 6 sections, each one five times the income of the previous one. So, the first he talks with a dishwasher earning $10,000; then a family that lives paycheck-to-paycheck on $50,000; then Ronson himself is $250,000 (this is also the briefest section); a high-level executive in the entertainment business who wished to remain anonymous and earns roughly $1.25 million; one of the first investors in Amazon, who earns roughly $6 million, and finally at the top, a man who helped establish the storage unit industry and is worth billions at this point (at this point it is almost impossible to establish an annual income). I have read a lot of articles on income disparity and what it means for our society and economy as a whole, but this was the first that broke down what it means for day-to-day living and helps explain why it is so difficult to understand the lives of people that make significantly different amounts of money.

Several of the stories included the subjects expressing anger at Ronson’s writing style, saying that he including snarky lines like “I’m met with silence” in order to connote something underhanded without actually state it outright. And while I enjoy his style and his snark, I could see their point, that he does offer his own interpretation of pauses and body language in ways that certainly influence readers’ views. I’d mentioned before that one thing I like is how much his own presence is included in his writing, which is unusual in journalism, but after the third or fourth subject lashes out at him, I began to wonder about it. While he is often self-deprecating, he does vary how much he is present in writing in ways that are complimentary to him, so I could certainly see how his subjects felt manipulated and their personal crises used simply to showcase Ronson in one way or another.

So, I guess by the end of the book, I remain a big fan of Ronson’s writing, but perhaps not quite such a fan of Ronson himself.

—Anna

Service Included by Phoebe Damrosch

ServiceIncludedService Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter
by Phoebe Damrosch
2007

The subtitle is misleading: while there was one chapter that told some stories about some of the wacky customers, the focus was really on the professional (and sometimes personal) life of a high-end waiter. It’s fascinating. It’s eye-opening, nonfiction, and really makes me reassess my experiences at various restaurants. I don’t tend to go to the high-end restaurants like Per Se, where Damrosch worked, but I imagine much of the same structure is true in a watered-down fashion in other restaurants.

Also, the food descriptions are mouth-watering. Even when the descriptions were of food that I don’t generally care for, wow, I wanted to try them out because it sure sounds like this place would be doing them in a way that all people would like. I want to try these dishes! And I really want to visit Per Se to experience them.

I could have done without the sections focused on Damrosch’s adventures in dating, but it was still well written with humor and humility. I just found it somewhat soap-opera-like and an unwanted break from the intricacies of the high-end service industry. It’s possible and even likely that other readers will enjoy those sections, though.

I still don’t understand the interconnected budgets of the restaurant, the service staff, and New York living, but I assume it’s all based on the incomes of the regular clientele who apparently might spent $20,000 on dinner. (After reading this book, I looked up the Per Se website and confirmed that a regular dinner without wine is a fixed price of $310, which is within the realm of possibility if I save, in contrast to the $20K that is just not.)

Damrosch also includes tips on how to interact with service staff, most of which I already knew, and some of which I (rather embarrassingly) did not.

Anyway, this is a fabulous book and I definitely recommend it.