Monday, December 5, 2016

All the Single Ladies

Rebecca Traister's book cover
I first heard Rebecca Traister when she was interviewed on NPR.  She spoke about her book, All the Single Ladies:  Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.  I have read (or tried to read) a few non-fiction books on women that just did not work for me - Bachelor Girl and Spinster being two of them.  Traister sounded much more up my alley, and so I put her book on my radar.

I mostly read this book after the election this month.  I thought it would be difficult and painful to do, but it was more like a balm.  Throughout history, people have had to fight, tooth and nail, for their rights.  And then they have to keep fighting to keep those rights.  It's exhausting.  It takes SO LONG to move forward even an inch, and then BAM! someone else comes into office and everything moves backwards again so quickly.

It's strange, admittedly, to describe knowing this as a "balm," but it kind of is.  Every time a group fights for recognition and respect and rights, there is another group that feels threatened and fights tooth and nail against it.  Often, the group that is threatened wins.  Sadly, fear is a huge motivator.

Thus, when you look at civil rights movements throughout history, there is always this back and forth motion.  This seems to be particularly true for women's rights, though it might just seem that way to me because I have read more about the women's movements than other ones.  I suppose I have  accepted that we are now in what appears to be a global backward motion on many civil rights.  When I say that I have "accepted" this, I don't mean that I won't fight for those rights.  What I mean is that I realize there are highs and lows, and I feel like this is our low.  It's our time to fight so that we move even further when we get to the next high.  Perhaps knowing that we are at the low and looking at history makes me realize that there are still highs to come.

Back to the book.

I listened to All the Single Ladies on audiobook, so I don't have a lot of quotes to share.  That said, there were many quotes in this book, not only from history but from very modern times, about how dangerous and selfish and horrible single women are.  This risk of women not reproducing to continue the species (or a very specific portion of the species) seems to threaten people at all levels and at all times and for all reasons.

What I really enjoyed about Traister's approach is that she looked at single women from many perspectives.  She talks about how life for women in cities is different than life in suburban and rural areas, about female friendship, about women living on their own.  She talks about why women choose to stay single (for work, money, independence, choice), not only rich women but also poor women.  She talks about how people assume single women live hugely promiscuous lives when the reality is usually quite different, single moms, and the families that women create for themselves when they are not married.

Right at the start, Traister admits that she has an urban, educated, white slant to her book.  That said, she does make some effort to meet and talk to people who have had different experiences.  She also cites a lot of evidence about people from many walks of life.

I have been single my whole life, and I have many single female friends, and this book really resonated with me.  Contrary to what many people think, I do not spend my nights desperately wishing there was a man in my life (though admittedly, there are some times, usually during engagement parties and weddings and showers, when I do).  I also don't go out with dozens of guys a year.  I'm not a shrew who is unkind to people (though I admit that I can be quite unkind to people I dislike strongly), and I'm not an anti-social, awkward person who stays at home every night with her books and wine (though I do enjoy evenings by myself just as much as I enjoy spending time with other people).  I would be happy to find a guy that I really love and get married, but if I do not meet one, I am pretty sure I will be happy and fulfilled in my life.  Except, of course, for everyone always wondering why I am single and what's wrong with me and when I'll finally stop being so picky.

Rebecca Traister understands all of this, and I felt so validated by this book.  I think many people would.  I love how Traister sets up historical "norms" as completely outside the norm.  For example, so many people look back on women getting married young and then having children as being the basis of so much economic growth and prosperity.  But even through history, many women have had to work outside the home to make ends meet.  And people make it seem as though women are being selfish and thinking only of themselves and putting the world at great risk.  But really, they're just making reasonable decisions for themselves, and people who complain about what they're doing should just get over themselves.

This book is not exhaustive by any means, but I don't think Traister is trying to be exhaustive.  She shares anecdotes about herself and from her friends, she tells us about the choices women have made through history and now, and what some of the numbers behind the trends mean.  I think this book would be a fantastic companion to Gail Collins' books about women in America and the long, winding path that the women's movement has taken.  Those books (referenced below) give a bit more breadth to the history whereas Traister's book has a personal and more "everyday woman" feel.

I've been reading a ton of non-fiction lately!  Sorry for all the heavy subject reviews.  Though really, this book is not heavy by any means - it's a very informative read, and I am glad to add it to my list of books that are refreshing and kind to women who make choices in life that not everyone understands.

Want to dig deeper on this subject?  Here are a few links:

Shorter reads -
"On Spinsters," by Briallen Hopper, which is a review of a different book but makes fantastic points
 "We Just Can't Handle Diversity," by Lisa Burrell, about how we all have biases and should acknowledge them instead of pretending we are totally objective about stuff

Long reads -
America's Women and When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins; I love these books about the history of women's rights and empowerment in America
Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine; also absolutely amazing

Have a listen - 
The Lady Vanishes episode of the Revisionist History podcast

Watch -
"We Should All be Feminists" TEDx video by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Monday, November 28, 2016

"There's more hunger in the world than love." - Monstress, Volume 1

In case you thought I only reviewed books about gloom and doom in America, DON'T WORRY.  I also review books about gloom and doom in fantasy worlds!  And Monstress, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, is a SUUUUUUUUPER good fantasy comic about gloom and doom.

I had never heard of Monstress before.  I went to an indie bookstore for Small Business Saturday, and after we finished at the bookstore, my brother-in-law asked if we could go to a local comic bookstore, too.  I said yes.  I admit that I usually find comic bookstores quite intimidating, but the people at the one I went to were so nice!  And they had this wall of best-selling comics, and it thrilled me to see how many of those best-sellers were ones that featured women.  So of course, I felt the need to support both the indie store and female empowerment, and I purchased this book.

I don't know if I would have picked up Monstress if I had known how violent it is.  Or how many dark subjects it tackles.  But I'm so glad I didn't know those things and picked it up because it was SO GOOD!

(I hope that you are not the same as I am and that knowing the book is violent and dark will not drive you away from it, because that would be a mistake.)

Monstress is about many things, and I admit that I am vague on a lot of the details because it was also a bit confusing.  But it doesn't really matter because it is amazing.  The artwork is absolutely stunning, and brings to life a world that is complicated and can be difficult to grasp.  Takeda puts a huge amount of detail into each panel.  The dark color scheme she uses perfectly captures a world in the midst of an endless war.  The rich detail in the panels shows the level of sophistication that the civilizations have reached, and the trade-offs between culture and war (and how one can often drive the other).  The characters are all beautifully drawn, including a SERIOUSLY ADORABLE little fox named Kippa.  Honestly, I feel like a lot of people will judge me for this, but I generally don't find animals that fascinating.  Like, I know that puppies and kittens are sweet and cute, and I like looking at them sometimes, too, but I don't get squealy and excited or feel the need to pet them.  But Kippa just stole my heart, mostly because of how vulnerable and sweet she was, and how she would hold her tail for security like a blanket.  It's a little strange at first to see these doll-like faces (Kippa is not the only one with the perfect, adorable face) on such fierce characters, but hey, heroines come in all forms.



The artwork is great, but when you combine it with the story and the characters, the whole effect is quite pleasing.

I cannot believe I have gotten this far in my review without mentioning that this comic series is all about women.  There was probably one main male character in this story (and possibly a male cat, but I'm not sure of the cat's gender).  All the "good guys," all the "bad guys" - none of them are guys at all!  And it's not a story that's obviously about women the way Lumberjanes is.  (Though being obviously about women is totally fine, too!  I was just making a comparison in that Lumberjanes is more vocally about women and the role of women vs Monstress is about the story and features women and the fact that it features women is the statement.)

I used to read a lot of epic fantasy, the multi-volume, 500+-page per volume variety that focused a lot on building a world and a lot on sharing that world's history and a lot on character development.  I would say that Liu is a pretty amazing epic fantasy storyteller.  She populates her world with a complex group of characters, none of whom have clear motivations or loyalties or goals (except the adorable Kippa!  She's perfect in every way!).  The main character is Maika, who is clearly very, very powerful but who also has a monster living inside her.  Maika is trying to learn more about her past and who she is, but she has blackout moments when she must feed this monster inside of her.  (With, er, people.)  She tries to fight it, but, well, it's a monster (artistically rendered as a lot of tentacles and eyes), and that's hard work.


The monster at first seems like a straightforward villain, but as you get deeper into the story, you realize the monster also is confused and unsure of what to do.  Maika works hard to make the right decisions for herself, and the monster works hard to make the right decisions for itself, but the two have to work together to do what is best for both of them.  Hopefully, anyway, as no one really knows what is the best course of action.  Even at the end of this book, it's unclear whether Maika is being hunted so that people can harness her power or so that she can be killed.

I mentioned a long, on-going war.  There is one, and it's about one race exploiting another race for power.  This seems pretty standard for a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels, but it's still a very important storyline to drill into people's heads, and I liked Liu's take on it.  She has a lot here to develop and nurture over the course of the next several volumes, and I can see this becoming a very rich and rewarding series.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Jeff Chang on the Resegregation of America

A collection of essays by Jeff Chang
Jeff Chang's Who We Be:  The Colorization of America was one of my favorite books of 2014.  When I saw his newest book, We Gon' Be Alright:  Notes on Race and Resegregation at the library a couple of days after the most recent election, I grabbed it as quickly as I could.  Chang excels at showing readers just how politicized race has become.  In Who We Be, he talked about the difficulty of living in both a "multi-cultural" and yet "colorblind" society (basically, you can't have both) and how that leads to erasure and exclusion.  In We Gon' Be Alright, he focuses a lot on violence and segregation.

This book was particularly poignant for me to read after this week's elections for many reasons.  As many, many people have mentioned, a lot of urban "liberal elite" Americans do not know or understand rural America, and this is an issue.  We have left them behind.  They are suffering and they see no great future ahead, and everyone else is "cutting in line."

Chang does not come right out and say it, but one of my main takeaways from this book was that rural Americans isolated themselves.  They were frightened of people who were different than them, so they made it really hard for people who were different than them to move in.  When people did manage to move in, the whites up and moved out again, taking resources with them.  And they kept doing that.  And continued to self-segregate.  Chang quotes Thomas Sugrue in his essay about white flight.  "Fear - not forward-looking optimism - shaped the geography of metropolitan America.  Sprawl is the geography of inequality."  Whites are by far the most segregated group in America, and they are that way because, quite often, they choose to be.

All of the essays in this book are excellent, just as I suspected they would be.  One that I found very interesting was the one on student protest movements on universities.  These movements have made the news a lot in recent months/years, mostly because people seem to think a lot of students are silly and coddled for demanding "safe spaces" and attention.  Chang points out that, after affirmative action was derailed, the percentage of minorities at universities dropped substantially.  There is very little representation at top schools, and even when there is representation, there is very little support.  So these universities decrease the number of diverse students they let in, provide very little support structure for them, ignore their legitimate complaints of racism and discrimination, and then everyone thinks the students are whiny, entitled brats when they make the news, asserting their rights to free speech and to be heard  Media latched onto the story that students were demanding certain speech codes and that trigger words be removed.  But almost always, what students were overwhelmingly demanding was more staff and faculty of color, emphasis on recruiting minority students (and retaining them), increased funding for cultural centers, counseling, etc.  All things that make a whole lot of sense if you feel marginalized, afraid, and lonely.  And if you are the victim of racism, which happens much more often than people realize or admit, and which is often ignored.
...while we are engaged in the culture wars, the most difficult thing to do is to keep the "race conversation" going, because its polarizing modalities are better at teaching us what not to say to each other than what to say, better at closing off conversation than starting it.  In this way those who believe that protesters are dangerous and those who believe they are merely misguided join together to end the necessary discussion the rest of us might want to have, in fact need to have.  If the choice is framed as one of silence versus noise, in the long run most people prefer silence.
One of the most interesting points that I took away from this book was the difference between diversity and equality.  My whole life, I have heard a lot about diversity, to the extent that people make jokes about "the token black/Asian/gay, etc. friend."  I have not heard nearly as much about equality.  I never even considered diversity and equality to be two sides of the same coin, two potential outcomes to one huge problem.  But they are very closely related.  And much of what we do, at the school level, at the government, at work, is a lot about diversity and not much at all about equality.  And so we have student protests because they feel underrepresented and alone, we have a limited pipeline of multicultural talent in government and companies, and we continue to live very segregated lives.

The central essay in this book was called "Hands Up" and focused on police brutality.  In the wake of the presidential election, I feel so many things.  But one of the main ones is fear of police violence and a lack of accountability for that violence.

I don't want to say that one essay spoke to me more than the others, but the last essay in the book, "The In-Betweens" was about the awkward and strange experience of being Asian-American.  It is something I have thought a lot about over recent months and years.  As an Asian-American, I am often shielded from the most virulent and violent racism, mostly because Asian-Americans appear invisible to many.  When Trump talks about deporting people, he is not referring to Asians.  When he talks about how people used to "take care of things" with regard to protestors, he is not referring to Asians.  When people fight affirmative action, they are not fighting Asians in their schools and jobs.

For much of their time in the United States, Asian-Americans have been in this weird "almost white" space.  We don't receive the full benefits of whiteness because, well, we're not white.  We don't receive the benefits that under-represented minorities receive because we are usually not under-represented.  And we don't face the racism that Blacks and Latinos face most of the time, either.  Racism against Asian-Americans is usually more subtle (but not always).  But we still face racism.  And we still are not white.  And we try so hard to work the system both ways to our advantage, which just feels very uncomfortable and wrong and horrible.

For example, Trump went out of his way to appeal to Hindu-Americans.  (Note that he did not try to appeal to Indian-Americans, because many Indian-Americans are Muslim.  And he does not want them.)  When I went to the Chicago Cubs victory parade, there was a plane flying overhead with a banner that said, "Chinese-Americans for Trump!"  Asian-American students are suing universities for discrimination, saying that they are being denied seats in schools that they earned through being seriously stellar students.  I understand that.  I get it.  Asian-Americans work so hard at winning by following all the rules, and then it is disheartening not to get ahead when you have followed all the rules.  It feels like discrimination.

But this has very real consequences for everyone.  Asian-Americans' anti-discrimination lawsuits have made it even more difficult for Blacks and Latinos to succeed.  On the west coast, all of these schools with disproportionately high Asian-American numbers - they tout their "diversity," but it's not really diversity if everyone is the same, and if it still results in other people being woefully under-represented. 

Chang speaks passionately and eloquently for integration, for a shared sense of responsibility and kindness to others.  He ends with a quote from James Baldwin, who wrote, "To love all is to fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who think they hate us."

Are you interested in learning more about this topic?

BOOKS
Who We Be:  The Colorization of America, by Jeff Chang - the first book I read by Chang that really challenged a lot of assumptions
Evicted:  Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond - an in-depth look at segregation and housing policies and how those impact cities and people
The Making of Asian America, by Erika Lee (I have not read this yet)

ARTICLES
"Racism on Campus:  Stories from New York Times Readers"
"Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults"
"With Diversity Comes Intensity in Amherst Free Speech Debate"

PODCASTS
The Uncertain Hour by Marketplace - about welfare and how differently it works vs how you probably think it works
More Perfect:  Object Anyway - an episode about how even the best of intentions can lead to very concerning outcomes

Friday, November 11, 2016

Strangers in their own land

Here I am again, everyone!  My country needs me.

I kid.  Kind of.  But not really.  I mean, my country doesn't need me, specifically, but it certainly needs people willing to cross some scary bridges.  There are so many scary bridges.

So.  Hi, again!  Let's get right to it.

In the midst of the US election campaign, and in the spirit of my ongoing search for empathy this year, I decided to read Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild.  It is about, as the title says, "anger and mourning on the American right."  I first heard about the book in the New York Times, which gave it a very positive review and championed Hochschild's empathy for people who stand on the other side of the political divide than she does.

Hochschild, a sociologist known for her book The Second Shift about working moms in America, really does strive to "scale the empathy wall."  (In fact, she uses the phrase "scale the empathy wall" a LOT.  More on her language later.)  She is a left-leaning academic from Berkeley, but she's also a sociologist whose focus is on how emotions can shape our lives and beliefs.  So she's perfect for this task!  She's also white, which I suspect helped a lot, though she did not talk about this element of privilege directly.  It can be difficult to talk about race frankly and openly and inoffensively.

I read Strangers in Their Own Land because, like many "liberal elites" (a phrase that seems to have been coined in the past 72 hours), I rarely come into contact with rural Americans, let alone Tea Partiers.  I have many stereotypes and preconceived notions about them (those on the far right), which are just as unfair as any stereotypes and preconceived notions they may have about me.  This book was my first step in trying to understand them, their values, and their opinions just a little bit better.  I can't say that I feel fully enlightened now, but I do understand why they feel so abandoned and how that drives their choices.

Hochschild really wanted to get to the heart of what drives Americans on the far right to, in many people's minds, vote directly against their own interests.  They vote for less government support even as they depend on Medicaid and unemployment; they vote for less regulation even as they see the horrible effects of unbridled pollution around them; they vote for big business even as it abandons them.  What she finds is that they are driven by many real, concrete things that the rest of us have trouble understanding.  First, they have a deep and abiding and very concrete connection to God.  Even though this world may be polluted, Heaven will not be.  And Heaven is where they spend eternity.  Second, they really need jobs.  Any jobs.  Otherwise, their homes and their friends and their livelihoods will disappear.  You need to prioritize things, and jobs are prioritized over everything else.  Third, they value sacrifice.  Sometimes you need to sacrifice things that are important to you (like women's health and environmental safety) for things that are more important to you (like jobs and a comfortable home).  Also, they really love this analogy of "waiting in line."  They have waited in line for a really long time, and other people keep cutting in front of them.  Maybe those people have worked hard, and maybe they are good people.  But that doesn't mean they deserve to cut.

It was very difficult for me to read this book.  Not because I don't think the values above are important.  I do think they are important.  I understand that our culture values work and job titles over almost everything else.  It is embarrassing to not have a job and a title that reflects who you are and how smart you are and how hard you work.  I also understand prioritization.  And while I am not religious myself, I respect that people have a right to worship as they choose.

My main issue is that nothing in this book made me believe that Tea Partiers would extend the same courtesy to me.  I have difficulty extending empathy towards people that I don't believe would treat me and my beliefs with empathy.  For example, I believe very strongly in a woman's right to choose.  People in this book are very religious and usually very pro-life.  Therefore, they want to limit everyone's access to abortion, in line with their religious morals, regardless of the fact that it is not in line with my religious morals.  In contrast, they believe very strongly in the right to bear arms.  (The Bible tells you not to kill other people, but this does not come up.)  They get very upset by the possibility that people would take away their right to own guns.  But the connection between their right to bear arms and a woman's right to choose whether or not to bear a child... well, let's just say they don't see this connection.  They want less regulation over some things but are totally fine with regulation over others.

As Hochshild points out,
"the Great Paradox becomes more complicated... Liquor, guns, motorcycle helmets - mainly white masculine pursuits - are fairly unregulated. But for women and black men, regulation is greater...while the state boasts a reputation of an almost cowboy-style "don't-fence-me-in" freedom, that is probably not how a female rape victim who wants an abortion, or a young black boy in Jefferson Davis Parish see the matter."
It's these inconsistencies that I really wanted Hochschild to hone in on and explain to me (HELP ME UNDERSTAND, ARLIE).  But I felt like she just noted them and moved on.  She did not push anyone to justify this paradox, probably because her goal was "scaling the empathy wall," not changing anyone's mind.  I understand prioritizing some things more than others (such as jobs over the environment, I suppose).  But what about this stance on less regulation, except when it comes to women and minorities?

 Speaking of "scaling the empathy wall," this was somewhat more difficult for me to do because of the language Hochshild used.  There was a lot of jargon in this book.  "Scaling the empathy wall" was one phrase that was used [too] often.  As was "deep story," an articulation of another person's worldview that shows how emotions play into values.  The Tea Partier's "deep story" is that other people are cutting in line and getting ahead while he waits patiently for his turn.

But the thing is that Tea Partiers are not waiting patiently for their turn.  There is so much that is inherently sexist and racist in the whole idea of "waiting in line" that I don't even know where to begin with my objections.  But here's a sample.  Why were people like you the only people allowed in the line for so long?  What makes you think that you work harder than anyone else?  Why does my joining the line somehow imply that your wait has now become longer?  Why do you assume that everyone is in the same line?  Why are you willing to give people who look and talk like you the benefit of the doubt but you assume everyone else is trying to cheat the system?  Why are you willing to donate to your local soup kitchen but you think people abuse food stamps?

I understand that jobs are leaving rural areas, that communities are drying up, that drugs are coming in to fill the void, and that the path to education and forward momentum seems stagnant.  All of these are very real issues and I absolutely understand voting for your interests.  I think Hochschild did a really good job of showing this and how little choice and agency people have over their lives.

Where I think Hochschild fell short is that she doesn't make the connection between this prioritization and how this leads people to value their own way of life and their own privilege over other people and against everything that science and data and fact say are true.  She mentions right-wing news like FOX and talk radio only as it pertains to how people receive their information, not about how it directly impacts their worldview.  Maybe this is too much to ask from a book, but I think Hochschild focused a lot on giving us a window into the life of a Tea Partier and why we should have empathy for them, but she doesn't make many overtures to convince them to have empathy for the rest of us and our worldview.  And again, maybe this is expecting too much, but she also doesn't present readers with any ideas on how to bridge this gaping divide between us.  So while I think this really was a very enlightening and sobering book, particularly about the horrific policy decisions made by Bobby Jindal, I wanted much more from it.  I'll have to keep reading.  Based on the results of this past election, I feel certain that there will be many articles and books written about this soon.  If you know of any that I have not listed below, please share!

Are you interested in learning more about this topic?  

Here are some other books I have on hold but not read yet:
Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis, by JD Vance
The Unwinding:  An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
What's the Matter with Kansas?:  How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, by Thomas Frank

And some articles that I did read and found very informative:
How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind
Trump Won Because College-Educated Americans are Out of Touch
I'm a Coastal Elite From the Midwest:  The Real Bubble is Rural America

And this podcast series that is excellent:
The United States of Anxiety

Monday, August 8, 2016

"This anxiety of non-belonging."

by Susan Faludi
As soon as I read the New York Times' book review of Susan Faludi's In the Darkroom, I knew I wanted to read it.  I immediately put it on hold at the library, and I went to pick it up the same day my hold came in.

I have struggled a lot with my reading this year.  But this book brought back so much of that enjoyment to me.  Every day after work last week, I would finish my dinner, pour myself a glass of wine, and then settle down on my sofa for some quality reading.

I set myself the task this summer of being more outgoing, of inviting a lot of different people to do a lot of things with me, and of trying to form true friendships with new people.  It has been a lot of work (and I wouldn't say it always feels particularly rewarding), but it's also been pretty fun and kept me extremely busy.  I have a feeling the people I have gotten to know over the past few months probably think that I am far more extroverted and social than I would probably ever describe myself as being.

For whatever reason, last week, I made no plans.  I had no plans for ten days in a row.  It was the perfect time to settle down with a good, meaningful, beautiful book.  And I'm so glad that In the Darkroom was there because it is one of the most moving books I have read in a very long time.

I almost hesitate to share a summary of the book because I think it will frighten some people away, and that would be sad.  At a high level, the book is about a grown woman coming to know her father after many years of estrangement, after he has undergone a sex change operation to become a woman.  She goes to meet her father in Budapest and the story unwinds from there, from his childhood growing up in a very wealthy Jewish family to the horrors of the Holocaust and the many re-inventions he underwent before this final one - choosing to live as a woman at the age of 76.

[Apologies if I am misusing pronouns here; Faludi refers to her father as "him" before the operation and as "her" after.  I will try to do the same.]

Faludi is a staunch feminist, and as she talks to her father and others who have undergone the male-to-female operation, she is struck by their adherence to traditional (stereotypical) gender norms.  Her father says troubling things like, "Now I can communicate better, because I'm a woman... It helps that I'm a woman.  Because women don't provoke."  She reads memoirs of women who talk about their experience, and none of them sound very feminist at all.  Take this quote from Jan Morris.  As Jim Morris, she had climbed Mt. Everest.  And yet, as a woman:
"I was even more emotional now.  I cried very easily, and was ludicrously susceptible to sadness or flattery.  Finding myself rather less interested in great affairs (which are placed in a new perspective, I do assure you, by a change of sex), I acquired a new concern for small ones.  My scale of vision seemed to contract... It is, I think, a simpler vision that I now possess.  Perhaps it is nearer a child's."
It's difficult not to be offended by the comments above.  And yet, most men who want to undergo sex change operations to become women have to pass a horrible test that dates from mid-century and very much requires them to conform to stereotype.  In order to be approved for the operation, they are expected to say that they don't mind putting their careers on hold or not being the bread winner, etc.  I had no idea this was the case.  The way that all of these memoirs are written with this assumption that women are inherently different than men in their approach to the world, and that feminists are stupid to want to change things because being a woman is just such grand fun, is very hard to take.  For Faludi, whose father fetishized womanhood prior to her operation with costumes and posed photos and then became much more conservation after her operation (this happens a lot, it seems), it must have have been overwhelming.

Faludi doesn't only tackle feminism, though.  She also talks a lot about Jewish identity.  Faludi is not very religious, but she doesn't have to be.  "I was someone with only the vaguest idea of what it meant to be a Jew who was nevertheless adamant that I was one."  Her father's relationship with religion was much more up and down.  Born to affluent but negligent parents who didn't even attend his bar mitzvah, Istvan Friedman shed his Jewish identity during World War II when Hungary became extremely anti-Semitic.  The many stories he recounts over the course of this book are amazing; he saved his parents' lives and the lives of many others, often by pretending to be a Nazi.  He escaped Hungry with friends on a fantastic lie.  He moved to Brazil, changed his name to Steven Faludi, and then moved to America, got married and had a family.  It was only when Susan said she was considering becoming a Christian that he informed her, quite violently, that she was Jewish.  "I remember exactly what I said.  That they exterminated the Jews.  And how could you do this?"

There are many stories like this in Hungary.  After World War II, there was Communism.  Many people hid their religion just to get by.  Only now are people (ironically, some of them ultra-right-wing politicians who denounce Jews) coming to know their family history and religion.  Faludi shares some of these stories in a beautiful chapter in which she attends Rosh Hashanah services and dinner with her father.  Temples that were built to hold hundreds now cater to groups of twenty or fifty.

In the Darkroom is one of the most moving books I have read in a long time.  The way Faludi weaves her own story with her father's and Hungary's, and that thorny issue of identity, is beautiful.
I studied my father's face, averted as it so often had been in life.  All the years she was alive, she'd sought to settle the question of who she was.  Jew or Christian?  Hungarian or American?  Woman or man?  So many oppositions.  But as I gazed upon her still body, I thought:  there is in the universe only one true divide, one real binary, life and death.  Either you are living or you are not.  Everything else is molten, malleable.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A beautiful, troubled city

Natalie Y. Moore
Hello again, friends.  Once again, it has been a while.  I have been very up and down over the past several months, and certainly since my last post.  Sometimes, I feel very optimistic about the future and really believe that good people doing good things can make good changes in the world.  And sometimes, I'm just exhausted and saddened.  I have been reading, though not as much as I usually do.  And not many books that I feel compelled to review.

I have been drawn to non-fiction of late, possibly in the hope that my reading facts will compel the rest of the world to trust in facts.  Or to help me make sense of how the world came to be the way it is now (though I do feel strongly that fiction can help just as much as non-fiction in that regard).

I recently read Natalie Y. Moore's The South Side:  A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.  As I think many of you know, I have lived in or around Chicago my whole life, and I love the city so much.  But it is a city with deep-rooted problems.  It's a city that can break your heart if you let it, from a legacy of corrupt politicians, gang violence, police brutality, and segregation.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he had never faced such virulent racism anywhere as he faced in Chicago.  The beautiful, striking skyline that locals love so much came at a huge cost to many communities and people.

Natalie Moore writes about her own life growing up on Chicago's south side (the historically black area of the city) and then settling back on the south side as an adult.  Her book is so many things:  an homage to her happy childhood, a guide to so many of the city's overlooked neighborhoods (and restaurants!), and an indictment of how little the government has done to invest in black neighborhoods.  The facts she shares about what it's like to be Black in America are pretty horrifying, not only because it's so obvious that racism is there, but because it just seems so endemic.  I know that a lot of racism is under the surface now, even sub-conscious.  But its consequences are just as real and impactful, and it's just so sad.

The chapter that most affected me was the one on gun violence in Chicago.  Some have given the city the nickname "Chiraq" due to how many people have been killed here (one year, more than the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq).  As someone who lives in the city, I would say the news of shootings and killings is absolutely constant, particularly in the summer.  It's unending.  It's horrifying.  It's such a tragedy I don't even know how to describe it without sounding trite.  And it makes Chicagoans themselves scared of their city.  People don't take public transportation after a certain time.  We don't walk in parks after dark.  We tell people when we reach home safely.  And there are some neighborhoods that people just won't go to.  Such as many, many neighborhoods on the south side.  We won't even stop for gas there, let alone think of shopping or eating there, or definitely not living there.

I have, of course, always been aware that violence in Chicago has an indelible impact on communities.  Kids who can't play outside, teens who can't go to school, family structures broken down.  But I don't think I realized just what a huge economic drain it is, too.  If everyone is too scared to visit a neighborhood or to even walk around outside, then business suffers.  And if businesses don't feel like they can invest in a neighborhood, then no one is ever going to move to them.  And property values decline, and people move out, and the city continues to shrink, to condense in the very gentrified central area.  And when you refer to a community as a "war zone," you automatically think about punishment and strong enforcement as the only means of solving the problem.  You don't think about how to work with the community for longer-term solutions or addressing the root of the issue because you're so busy scrambling to save lives in the moment, to stop that next gun from being purchased.  Its consequences are much more far-reaching than I ever considered, and it makes me even sadder for my city than I was before.

I also really enjoyed the chapter about food and access to food.  Whole Foods is opening a massive store in Englewood, one of Chicago's poorest (and most dangerous) neighborhoods, and it created quite a stir.  Were they trying to gentrify the neighborhood?  Were they trying to do good?  Would people be able to afford to shop there?  Were they going to bring some cheapened version of their store that wasn't as nice as the other Whole Foods in wealthier neighborhoods?  It was so fascinating to read multiple points of view on this.  The store is slated to open this fall, and I hope it helps the community.

Moore talks about many more topics in her book - public housing and public schools, her own childhood, property values, the pros and cons of integration vs access to the same resources, and so much more.  Her own love (and frustration) with the city comes through strong and clear.  Obviously, people who live in or around Chicago are probably most likely to be interested in this book, but I think much of what is true about Chicago is true around America, or at least the Midwest.  And if you are not American, and look at America now and wonder what is happening, I think this book would be a good primer to help you understand.  It's really well-written, very evocative of the city's highs and lows, and I am so glad I read it.  There's a reason that I came out of my semi-blogging retirement to write about it and urge you all to read it.  I hope you do.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

It's hard being nice sometimes

Recently, my family went to dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago.  We were celebrating the visit of my dad's best friend from medical school being in town with his family, so our it was a special occasion.  It was a great meal, we all had some drinks, and we left the restaurant around 10:30 to get in our cars or cabs and go home.  My mom asked that we all pose for one last photo before we parted ways.  We all groaned and complained, but we posed and then gave each other hugs and started to say our goodbyes.

This is not that photo, but this is my immediate family.
At that time, a woman passing by on the sidewalk paused in her journey, turned to all of us, and started saying truly vile and horrible things to all of us.  I will not repeat them here, mostly because I don't remember her exact words, just the tone of her voice and the fact that she was very clear that we did not belong in America.  Mostly, she went on and on about Indian people in general (she was weirdly specific about her hatred of Indians), and how all of us should go back to "our country."  (Not that it should matter, but everyone in my family is an American citizen.)

My brother's girlfriend is white, so the woman took special care to show her disdain and special level of anger for anyone white who would choose to spend her time with so many Indian people.

Needless to say, all of us were horrified and very shaken up.  I have never before in my life felt the full power of unadulterated hatred.  I don't think I've ever seen so much anger directed at anyone so pointedly.  And it was for me.  And my parents.  And my siblings and friends.

I did not react well.  I was tired from traveling home from a weekend away, I knew I had to be up early and at work the next day, I had had a couple of glasses of wine.  And there had already been enough hatred spewed into the world that day.  Everyone else reacted by not reacting.  Trying to ignore the woman, trying to get all of us in the cars, trying to make light of the situation to keep everyone calm and feeling safe.

I yelled back.  I'm not proud of this.  It was stupid.  This is Chicago.  She could very possibly have had a gun and used it.  And what's another hate crime in America these days?  I wish I could say I did not stoop to her level, but I 100% did.  I did not call her vile or horrible names or insult her entire race or nationality or family, but I did tell her to get away from us using a lot of words that I do not use regularly.

I have read a lot about the Civil Rights movement.  I grew up hearing all about satyagraha.  I understand that there is power and dignity in passive resistance and that one should try to take the high road.  After all, the woman was probably mentally unstable.  Maybe she had had a bad day.  Perhaps she was homeless.  (In my defense, she did not look to be any of those things to me, but I was not an unbiased observer.)


Honestly, it's SO HARD sometimes to be kind to people.  Especially to people who are verbally pounding you and your loved ones with the full force of their vitriol.  People who make it personal without knowing you personally.  And it's not even being actively kind.  It's just... not being angry.  Holding your emotions in check.  Being the adult.  Being the better person.

But I know I'm the better person, at least in this situation, and I still reacted that way.  I have been doing so much reading and thinking and discussing around kindness and empathy and vulnerability  and trying so hard to become a kinder, more empathetic and open person for months now.  I said as much in my last post.  And it all just went right out the window at the first pressure point.

The fact is, it's a lot easier to be kind and empathetic and vulnerable with people who are like you.  It's much harder with people who are at the other end of the spectrum.  It's not that I wish I had given the woman a hug and learned about her past horrible experiences with Indian people so that I could understand where her hatred was coming from and then wow her with my empathy so that she would trust me and, thus, all Indians she encounters in the future.  I'm not that naive.


It's more that I wish I had been like the rest of my family in that situation and just remained calm and aloof.  I mean, none of them are on a personal improvement project of kindness and empathy and vulnerability, and yet, somehow, they all managed to hold it together until we were in private.  I don't like to be quiet about things that are important to me.  It feels like acceptance.  As though by not saying anything, you are implying, "You are entitled to your opinion, and I shall respect that opinion."

BUT SOMETIMES PEOPLE ARE JUST WRONG.  And I feel like they should know that.  Granted, I am unlikely to convince them of this by shouting at them while I get into a car.  But... well, someone should tell them.  Possibly someone who is further along on the continuum of kindness and empathy than I am. 

If I could do that night over, I would.  Obviously, I would ideally do it over in that the woman wouldn't be there at all.  But if she had to be there, I'd prefer to not react as I did.  I wish I had a mantra.  Be the person you want her to see, not the person she already does see.  Be better.

But, as many of you know, that  puts the onus on the innocent party and basically lets the other guy off without even a slap on the wrist.  I guess just the moral victory of being the better person is supposed to balance that equation.  I don't know if it does.

There is so much misdirected anger and hatred in the world.  It's too much.  I don't know how to handle it, and I clearly do not deal with it well when I come face-to-face with it.  It's hard to be rational.  It's hard to stay calm.  It's hard to not fight back, to kick and scream about the unfairness of it all.  Because, dammit, it really sucks to have to be the bigger person every. single. time.  To remind yourself:  She is not well.  She does not know you.  She has no power over you.  Her words do not define you.  YOU define you.  YOU choose the words.  YOU choose the actions.  But you have to do it.  Not every moment is a teaching moment, and not everyone is open to being taught, anyway.  You can only control what you do, and hope that when you reflect back on your own actions, that you are happy with how you acted or find it in yourself to react better the next time.  If there has to be a next time.

As the glorious and sorely missed Terry Pratchett said in his book A Hat Full of Sky,

"There isn't a way things should be.  There's just what happens, and what we do."

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