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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Correcting the Record and Moving Forward in Truth

To those who rail against anyone who would destroy our history, I say, "You are absolutely right." No history should ever be destroyed. Instead its presentation should be amended to correct for distortion—to let it yell loud, clear, and truthfully the centuries of lies that we have been taught. This is but a tiny step to rectify the record.

 

The corrections of my distorted record (what I knew to be true history) began seriously about two decades ago when I worked for an organization that was involved in indigenous rights and issues. I'm ashamed to say that until I began working there, I hadn't thought much about Native history. I'd passively accepted what I was taught in my all-white school—all of which was exploded when I began to learn about the systematic genocide and suppression of Native peoples all over the globe.

 

With the current ongoing videoed deaths of so many Black men, my justice trigger has been pulled into high gear. I've been reading books, contemplating, and as they say in 12-step programs, doing a fearless moral "inventory." And much of what I've found inside me makes me sick to my stomach.

 

On a recent news report, Aisha Tyler was asked to comment, as the first Black actor in an important role in the sitcom Friends, about the producer's statement that "if [she] knew then what [she] knows now," she'd have done something about the lack of diversity on the popular show. Looking exhausted and disgusted, Tyler remarked that the producer had probably known then everything she knows now, but it was the great apathy that allowed her complacent White casting.

 

This statement rocked me because at a gut level, I believe it is true.

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White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Educator and sociologist Robin DiAngelo is brilliantly thorough, and I am grateful beyond expression. This is unapologetically a book by a white woman written for white people who dispute our part in our historically racist system. It's for people who find the discomfort of the discussion intolerable. And it's also for white people like me who have accepted culpability and have committed themselves to being as uncomfortable as it takes in an effort to become an antiracist—and it gets pretty damned uncomfortable; my last read, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, gave a new-to-me history that I was never taught in white school and a vivid new awareness of systemic racism and how black people have coped with it that's changed my vision.

 

White Fragility is clarifying, supportive, and further strengthens my commitment, even as the clear articulation of everything made me sometimes squirm. DiAngelo's genius is the ability to break things down and deliver them as digestible facts. And with that, I'll turn it over to Professor DiAngelo:

 

What is white fragility?

 

Given how seldom we [white people] experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven't had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. (1-2)

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Listen and Atone: A Message for White People

Even if you have never knowingly done something to hurt another person.

Even if you consider yourself "color blind."

Even if you live in an enclave of peace and harmony.

Even if you don't know any people of another race, so how could you be guilty of offending or hurting?

Even if you have lived a life of groveling in the mud and have worked for every dime you've ever had.

Even if the whole notion of "white privilege" strikes you as ignorant of your pain and suffering to merely survive.

Even then, please listen.

 

"But, but, but . . ." you protest.

 

All I'm whispering is, "Listen." What will it cost you?

 

Think of a time you were hurt—maybe as a vulnerable child—and nobody heard your screams. Or maybe they did hear, but they didn't help or they actually made you hurt more.

 

Think of a time life was unfair. You did everything right, but still you were rejected, tossed out.

 

Now think of our history: Europeans landed on an inhabited land where they were welcomed. In response, they committed brutal sustained genocide, stole land, stole children, put Natives in virtual concentration camps—

 

"But I didn't do that," you protest.

 

Please, I'm pleading with you. Listen.

 

These settlers built an economy based on free labor. Human beings were sold by African warlords because they saw white man's money and wanted it. These people were ripped from their families, shackled and packed like sardines, shipped across the ocean, raped, brutalized, tortured, murdered. Even after the slave trade was declared illegal, it continued. White people declared that other humans were not human, purveying it as a spiritual truth, because it justified what they knew in their deepest hearts was immoral. They defended it, and therefore their economy and right to a certain life style, by turning against their own government, flying their own flag, and fighting a war. Which they lost.

 

But still the abuse continued. By now it was woven into the culture. Our DNA.

 

"But I've never—"

 

Hush. I'm begging. Read More 

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Joys of Solitude 101: 10 Tips

As a person who woke with dread for the four decades I was compelled to work with other people in offices, silently thinking "if only I could work alone," I may have some wisdom for people who normally leap out of bed in anticipation of social contact—people who are now forced into a routine that requires low levels of oxytocin to enjoy. So to you, I offer the following tips, the first one of which got me through my years of mandated social agony:

 

1. It's only temporary. If you can just do this for the required time in order to stay well, know that one day you will be able to revert to your happy natural self. Anything is do-able, even life, if you remember that the only consistent thing is change, and this too shall change.

 

2. No more makeup, no more appropriate dressing of any kind. No more need for clothes! Think of the money you'll save.

 

3. You can fart with abandon.

 

4. Relax your facial muscles. I'll bet you have no idea how much time you've spent stress smiling, faking care when you really didn't want to hear about Bob's grandmother's operation, pretending you were okay with that guy/girl in the neighboring cubicle latching onto you when their very presence made you want to shower. No more pretending! Feel the relief and let it move through your now-flaccid body.

 

5. To keep that flaccid body from melting into a puddle of adipose, exercise at home—YouTube videos, Kathy Smith videos are my go-to, free weights, a treadmill, dance like nobody's watching—because nobody is. Nobody to impress. Enjoy some private endorphins. Work up a sweat. And, again, fart with abandon.

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Awakening the Ancient Power of Snake by Dawn Baumann Brunke

 

I used to work as managing editor of a magazine whose theme was spirituality. Despite its subject, it was news and research-based at its core. Readers liked this, but often we would get pitches from New Age writers who couldn't understand the importance of science, verification, and credentials. It was my job to gently explain that although I understood that people had powerful personal experiences, for us to publish a "fact" story, the writer and/or material had to have had some kind of vetting.

 

I cannot imagine a better writer than Dawn Baumann Brunke for material that might otherwise fall into the "woo-woo" category for many readers. She is not only a deep dreamer with apparently 20/20 vision for details that she remembers, but she is a skeptical analyst of all things and a researcher who understands that history matters—that everything, including dream images, has history that informs meaning. And it helps that she is also an elegant writer who knows how to tell a story.

 

Who better to write about one of the most potent and controversial animals—snake? Snake is worshipped and loathed. It is embedded in our stories and architecture and reflected in our DNA. There is even a named phobia (ophidiophobia) because fear of snakes is common among our species.

 

This generously illustrated book is so full—from history, art, myth, and science, to personal stories of owning and feeding snakes, to understanding why our feelings about the iconic snake (in body and in image) are indicative of the sharp divides in today's culture, how these divides came to be, and what we might do to accept the synthesis of opposites offered by one of the most ancient symbols of healing, protection, and oneness. Read More 

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Little-Known Facts Behind the Story of "The Emperor's New Clothes"

 

It is a little-known fact that before bringing the Emperor down, the little boy who vocalized the naked truth suffered debilitating battle fatigue.

 

In his family, in the District of Mossi, it was never about the politics. It was always about the clothes . . . or lack thereof. You see, the little boy's mother, Masha, believed in wearing them and his father, Mitch, thought it was enough to merely believe you were wearing them and have such conviction that everybody around you believed, or at least claimed to believe, that you were wearing clothes, and for goodness sake, Masha with all her New Age civility and dedication to yoga and "belief creates reality" B.S. should have no problem with his and the Emperor's love of "so-called" invisible suits which, after all, were a gift from dignitaries from a foreign kingdom!

 

As if warring parents were not enough, there were also the stresses among the boy's siblings. There was his brother, Peter, who cried wolf and had a habit of wearing male sheep's clothing to disguise his love of flamboyant fashion, and the boy's sister, Red Riding Hood, who had been brainwashed into a kind of willful apathetic belief in the goodness of strangers by her cousin Pollyanna and insisted on going about town cloaked in a cult costume that not only hid the new bulge of her stomach but made her the butt of cruel jokes and in general devalued the family's status, causing the Emperor's minions to dezone their house and the entire District of Mossi as too alien to deserve rights. The little boy was a naturally quiet child, which talkative people interpreted as interest in their problems, so for weeks Red Riding Hood had been weeping hysterically to him:

 

"Oh, Brother, I am aggrieved by the Emperor's impending appointment of a diehard clothes-believing magistrate who would deny a good-hearted sixteen-year-old such as me the right to make a speedy private personal decision, with her PCP's counseling. What'll I do? What'll I do?" And before the traumatized little boy could venture a reply, she continued: "If I have to become a mother, Daddy will disown me, and I don't even want to think about Mommy. I'll never hear the end of it for letting things go beyond the point of no return without the protection she insisted I carry in my little Emperor's favorite daughter-designed purse which loses its fashionable shape if I carry so much as two gold pieces. I know I'm not very smart, but I always fancied I'd go to Imperial Community College which I can't if I have to work. And the other choice—I can't even imagine the grief of giving away my offspring. How could this have happened?" she wept. "I told the gentleman whose name I cannot disclose 'No,' but he insisted his dingle was so small it could never make a baby. Oh woe is me, I am lost!"  Read More 

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Watching the Human Race

 

To mark publication of my anthology of stories and plays, Girl Stories & Game Plays, I'm sharing one story from the collection. Although I wrote it many years ago as a manifestation of my ongoing effort to soften my own judgmental nature, at this time when our culture has devolved into accusing "sides," this seems more applicable now than when I wrote it.

 

(Two other stories from the collection are also available on this site: Jakey, Get Out of the Buggy and a video of me reading Pose Please at the botton of Girl Stories & Game Plays book page.)

 


Watching the Human Race

 

Marla barely tolerates people. They make unreasonable demands, lie when it is to their benefit, and, worst of all, behave irresponsibly. Irresponsibility Marla cannot stomach. She hoped a Sunday walk across Central Park and an afternoon of shopping would distract her from her desire to murder the woman on the 35th floor at work who seems to take pleasure in upsetting Marla's orderly habits, and in whose presence, seemingly intelligent men's brains turn to mush. It is this mush factor that's kept the woman employed no matter how many days off she takes, how many rules she flaunts, or how, despite the five years Marla has personally handed her a paycheck, the woman cannot remember Marla's name and persists in calling her Maria!

 

That woman has everyone but Marla bamboozled. She wears Laura Ashley dresses, speaks in a studied throaty voice, and has unruly waist-length blonde hair that falls into her eyes at orchestrated moments of vulnerability. Friday, she suggested to Marla's boss that that idiot Selma handle payroll, knowing full well that this is Marla's job—a job that makes Marla feel powerful. Marla wishes to kill this woman, but since that is not realistic, she went shopping. Read More 

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Is a Loveless, Joyless, Purposeless Life Still Worth Living?

Life doesn't end. It merely changes form.

I've never been a fan of what I call the "Bleak School of Literary Book Writing." In my many-times rejected and ignored short story "Metamorphosis or How to Become a Famous Writer or How to Make it Okay to Eat Unlimited Quantities of Candy Corn," the first-person protagonist (a struggling writer) defines this genre as fiction that "ascribes to the philosophy that life sucks, there is no way out, and this is best expressed through endless lists of obscure adjectives, designed to inject just enough intellect and depth to appeal to serious reviewers and get those oh-so-important front-cover praise blurbs."

 

I've recently read two books in a row that do not fit into this School because they are, in the case of the classic A Meaningful Life by L. J. Davis, filled with humor, or in the case of The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrère, decidedly not bleak because of the high-energy Kafka-esque plot turns. However, both of their endings seem to ascribe to the Bleak School's notion that if you can't get what you want, if you can't control life, if you can't even agree on a common reality, life is not worth living or else it is merely a bleak and hopeless exercise to tolerate.

 

In my last blog about Herman Hesse's novella Bartleby, the Scrivener, I make the point that I don't believe Bartleby, a man who simply refuses to participate in life, is a victim of his oppressive obligation to make money unhappily, but rather he is walking apathy—a choice. Yes, he has an apparently loveless, joyless, purposeless life, in which (as in the earlier-referenced books) he cannot get what he wants and his death seems to be an attempt to at least control that. But I posit that all these conclusions are a kind of delusion and misunderstanding of what life is and what it is for. And therefore they are, in a sense, false endings.  Read More 

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

[2/27/20 Update: See author John Ironmonger's blog about how this book relates to our current coronavirus outbreak.]

 

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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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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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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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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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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Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country by Steve Almond Offers Clarity

This book is staggeringly good. I was familiar with Steve Almond from his short stories, but this is straight journalism at its best (which he teaches at Harvard). (It is clear from Almond's thought processes and messages to students, presented in this volume, that he is a great teacher and seasoned journalist.)

In reviewing, there is a tendency to break down books about politics into bullet-point messages, and I hesitate to do that because it would misrepresent Bad Stories as something much smaller than it is.

So what is it?

Because of Almond's conversational writing style, it is easily readable and offers up documented mind-blowing insights like hors d'oeuvres. Hence, Bad Stories is a huge, readable 237-page revelation of profound insights gleaned from connecting dots that we-the-people largely prefer not to see.  Read More 
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What's After #MeToo? Send in the Clowns! Read Paul Beatty's The Sellout

Timing is important. There is a time for rage and a time for laughter, and right now rage reigns—as it should. After centuries of suppression, critical mass has been reached, the #MeToo movement has exploded, and male bodies are flying. Time magazine has put it on its cover. It's about time!

Like any other human woman, I have a litany of stories of men abusing their power. I admire the women who have spoken up. I quickly learned that would not work for me: Although I'm a clown, I couldn't laugh. As a child, I wasn't believed; as an adult, there was nobody to speak up to because the abuser was the boss. My M.O. was to cut and run, resulting in what might be politely referred to as an "attachment disorder" and "an eclectic" work résumé.

But I do believe there is another way, and eventually the clowns will have their microphones.

I recently read a "holy cow"-popping, rib-crackingly funny book that gave me a clue about how that might be.

In Paul Beatty's Man Booker-prize-winning, esoteric-reference-riddled novel The Sellout, an outsider black man "leans in" (thank you, Cheryl S.) to prejudices, actually reestablishing segregated schools and slave trade in his small California town of Dickens.  Read More 
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