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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

What If Altruism is Our True Nature? Review: Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger

Scientists tell us we are programmed to be drawn to round baby faces; dopamine is released in our brains and we feel protective instincts. Likewise, when we see somebody struggling or hurt, there is an instinct to help.

The word "perversion" derives from the Latin perversionem and is defined as "action of turning aside from truth, corruption, distortion."

So, looking at our present government policy of taking children away from their parents, locking them in cages, and neglecting them, one can deduce that we have a policy of perversion. In response to being directed to commit perverted acts, some of us refuse and blow the whistle, and others become full-fledged perverts. On a recent 60 Minutes interview, Nazi war criminal prosecutor Ben Ferencz says that "War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars and all decent people." It turns people against themselves—their inborn altruism—turning them into perverts.

The election of the Trump administration has brought us into all-out war with and for our national soul.

John Ironmonger's 2015 novel Not Forgetting the Whale begs the question of what is natural—self-preservation or generosity and sacrifice, and the story swept me away and ultimately reaffirmed my belief in our innate altruism.

In this smart and compelling parable we learn about dependencies, supply chains, connections between everything, and how things happen according to streams of supply and need. We debate the possible end of civilization as we know it due to our human self-interest vs. an optimistically imagined natural impulse for generosity and sacrifice. All this forms the matrix of this story about a naked man and a beached whale, both of whom wash up on the shore of the off-the-grid village of St. Piran in the southwest corner of England.

The writing and storytelling are wonderful. The profound issues start artfully and become more heavy-handed as the book progresses. But I am interested in these subjects so I was consistently intrigued, sometimes pausing to contemplate the big issues of what causes everything to happen and how to redirect the train of actions leading to catastrophic events. There is a mythical quality to the tale, and the sometimes-sentimentality or intellectual debates about our nature worked! I was completely engaged and couldn’t put the book down. Read More 

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The Human Mob—Our Destiny?

It was the summer 1980 or thereabouts. It's hard to remember, but I know it was hot because I was wearing a soft white cotton dress with shoulder straps. I wasn't that interested in clothes, but when I'd seen this dress, it had beckoned because of its unconstricting beauty and flow, and I needed dresses that I could stand inhabiting for eight mind-numbing hours a day doing temp work in New York City offices. I was headed back to one such office and in a hurry because my hour lunch was almost up.

 

Madison Avenue and Fifty-second Street or thereabouts. A midtown torrent of people and vehicles. I don't remember if the walk light was green when I stepped off the curb. It might have been. It might not have.

 

The week before, the light had definitely been green—the green "Walk" sign solidly radiating permission as I stepped off the curb on quiet Central Park West. No cars even stopped at the red light, so I didn't bother to look to my left to see the cyclist hurtling toward me. And when she slammed into me, I was too stunned to do more than gasp, "The light was green!" To her credit, she leapt off the ground and checked that I was unhurt before speeding away.

 

But on this day—this hot summer day a week later on Madison Avenue—I not only saw but I heard the cyclist coming, screaming at me to get out of the way, and in a kind of frantic flashback of the previous accident, I stepped right into his path as he heroically tried to avoid me.

 

What happened next is as vivid as right now: Read More 

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Benefits of Becoming — Much More than a Memoir

A page and a half into the preface of this book, I found my heart pounding, as if syncing up with an all-consuming life force. It consumed me, made me tear up, and I had to stop reading to type the previous sentence.

Every writer has an energy. Some write from a shallow pool, and I really don't care about those books. Others, not that many, write from an ocean — a place much bigger than their everyday self — and it's called Love. Becoming has an almost palpable pulse as strong as the ocean tide.

There is something for everyone through this pulse:

    • If you are an inveterate skeptic, or an order devotee, or someone who has been torn apart by seemingly opposite obligations and doubts about being good enough, Michelle Obama speaks for you.

 

    • If you're black or brown, you'll probably nod a lot with recognition.

 

    • If you're white, same thing, even as you relate to unfairness you've never faced; Obama's openness, vulnerability, and warmth make her experience feel as if it is your own — no small trick.

 

    • If you have ever felt in over your head, with more responsibility than you can handle, yet simultaneously in awe of the situation, your experience will both resonate with and be dwarfed by this story.


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When Daddy Is Nuts

A reaction to NY Times Op-ed
I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration



In his seminal book Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, linguist, cognitive scientist, and expert on the framing of political discourse George Lakoff writes that the conservative worldview is one of patriarchal top-down authority. Children are raised to be good through punishment and discipline, and Daddy will support and protect the family from a dangerous world.

But what if Daddy is nuts? Read More 

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

What keeps us humans from seeing the obvious—our smallness and our place on this planet in the context of all that is—and responding rationally? And why do some people see it even though everybody around them does not? These are the questions at the heart of Richard Powers's powerful new novel The Overstory as he attempts to tell us "something [we] need to hear."

 

This is a book for right now—a time when we face the possibility of the extinction of democracy and the extinction of human life as the planet screams and we ignore it, placing our addiction to consumerism above the right to life of trees and subsequently all living things (including us) who are connected to the lives of trees.

 

In The Overstory, Powers gives trees, our closest plant relative with whom we share most of our DNA, a voice, a voice that is praying for us to change our ways and let Life live.

 

Maybe we'll listen; maybe we won't. But for me there is one small consolation: if we don't listen, if we kill ourselves and our environment, life will not end. In the wonderful PBS documentary, Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl, we get a glimpse into such a future, where twenty-five years after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, scientists have found life flourishing—"a sort of post-atomic Eden, populated by beaver and bison, horses and birds, fish and falcons, and ruled by wolves."

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Truthiness in "Reading"

One night many decades ago when I was working as a legal secretary, one of the partners asked an associate about a brief she was working on—what was its status?

"I typed it," she answered.

I held my breath waiting to hear the partner's response. He did not disappoint me: "You typed it yourself?" he asked pleasantly. And although he made no show of noticing me, I'm sure he heard my strangled laugh and enjoyed it.

"Well, no," answered the associate, blushing deeply. "I mean I had it typed."

"By a secretary," said the partner.

"Yes," she nodded, avoiding my side of the room.  Read More 

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What Would Mister Rogers Do?



The new documentary about Mister (Fred) Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, could not be more timely. Some of the seasoned professionals at the Directors Guild screening last night wept—with longing. Mister Rogers's message was simple: Be Kind. A Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers never "preached." He just loved. He looked deeply into the eyes of children and said, "I like you just the way you are." He embodied the Golden Rule. He knew that at the core of every person is a small child who wants to be loved and valued as they are. He knew that human beings start in this world filled with a desire to be good.

It is no coincidence that director Morgan Neville received unprecedented support to get this movie into theaters as soon as was humanly possible. The message from everybody who helped—financially and otherwise—was "We need this movie!" And in fact the film ends on questions about what Fred Rogers would do right now, in our current political and cultural tumult. "I think he would try to make it bend," says his widow Joanne. I interpreted that to mean that rather than rail at the reprehensible behavior of President Trump et al., he would look this man deeply in the eyes and try to address the hiding child full of goodness inside. Read More 
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A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

James Comey is a very good writer, storyteller, and teacher, so on a literary level (except for one odd plot order choice—the highly dramatic John Ashcroft hospital showdown between Comey and Bush representatives—which I suspect has to do with the need to insert a ton of detailed background information), this book works.

Comey is a man who is in love with the law and justice and has a loathing of bullies. He is a student and practitioner of ethical leadership—which is really the topic of this book. He is a deeply reflective person. Yes, he tries to make himself look good by talking about his noble motives, but, unless he practiced introspection, he could not relay his introspective self-interrogations about his motives and whether something is ego-driven or directed for the higher good. If he were not compelled to know what's honest, he would not have told the story of the time he was the very thing he loathes—a horrible bully. I relate to this introspective inquiry because I do it myself—constantly, relentlessly—and I'm amazed so many other people don't. But I shouldn't be surprised. As Comey writes, "It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future. (137)" One can only know this pain by experiencing it, so I believe he is committed to this. Also like me, Comey has had a lifelong struggle with his tendency to think he's right—overconfidence—and he has had to learn to check his opinions with others, let in belief-disputing information, and monitor his tendency to be impulsive and arrogant. He freely admits all this, and he sees and admires Obama's enlightened ability to believe in himself yet remain humble enough to learn from others "which doesn't often exist alongside overconfidence. (155)"

I like this guy. I really, really like him. We are made from a lot of the same stuff.  Read More 
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Books We Cherish in Multiples

On the anniversary of publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, my friend Karen Troianello posted a Facebook homage to her multiple copies of the book, and it got me thinking about my own multiples (see photo) and the personal reasons I will hang onto them for the rest of my life. And that got me wondering about other people's multiples and reasons for holding them. So I asked.

Boy, are we loyal to books we love. We cherish them like family members. My friend Maureen Phillips who writes delightful stories and poems about fairies calls her multiples "a little family of weirdos who all sit on the shelves together." (Madame Bovary, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Shipping News, A Confederacy of Dunces, the stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe.)  Read More 

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White Houses by Amy Bloom: Truth-telling through Fiction

Whitewashing, denial, gaslighting, saying black is white, Mad Hatter's Tea Party, 1984 doublespeak—all descriptors of our present condition with a President of the United States who seems to decide what's true with the casualness of a four-year-old playing an "invent-as-you-go" game. But although current events seem extreme, they are not without precedents. After all, we have long denied the facts of America's founding (see What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted blog), and we comfort ourselves with all sorts of blatantly untrue Bad Stories (per author Steve Almond).

In her new novel White Houses, Amy Bloom has lovingly exploded the lies of historians about Eleanor Roosevelt and renowned journalist Lorena Hickok, and oh, how exciting it was last night to sit in an audience at The Roosevelt House (where Roosevelt and Hickok first met) and listen to a discussion between Bloom and Blanche Wiesen Cook, historian and author of the Eleanor Roosevelt biography that inspired Bloom's novel. Read More 

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