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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

When Rereading Novels Is Therapeutic

I am a published novelist and a rabid reader, but I've been stalled in both those areas. Between the cultural tumult and my almost-15-year-old dog's terminal kidney disease, I've become a worried political activist and an exhausted canine hospice caregiver.

 

I have two novels circulating to publishers through my agent (the newest of which deals with what we are going through right now), but since there is no discernable response, I see no point writing more . . . which nicely compliments my complete lack of inspiration.

 

Between my dog's IV drips and endless treks up and down my four flights of stairs to walk her, I found I cannot concentrate on reading new novels, let alone meeting new characters and remembering who everybody is. So suddenly my reading habit—a great source of joy—stalled.

 

In these incredibly dark days, I've found solace talking to people I've known since childhood. And, likewise, I realized I need books with a personal foundation already in place—books that I already know are outstanding, that I know will transport me, books that I trust because of my long history with them.

 

I have such books already on my shelves, but I also bought a couple.  Read More 

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At the Root of Our Problems

From my new favorite teacher, sociologist, writer, wisdom teacher Bertice Berry. Listen and contemplate.

 

Here's my contemplation:

 

More and more I think that at the root of our problems is a lack of imagination: if something has not happened to us or someone close to us, we at some level cannot imagine it is true, along with the full spectrum of feelings that come with that.

 

I fancy myself pretty imaginative. After all, I was an actor and am a fiction writer. But recently I realized that because of my childhood, I have never really imagined a "good family." Therefore I never wanted a family. What an aha when a sudden healing opened my heart enough to realize what I've been blind to all my life.

 

Seeing my own lack of imagination allows me to correlate it to people who are so horrified by the current violence (and please understand that I too abhor violence), but only the violence of protestors. In the horror, you're painting all protestors as horrifying--same as I unconsciously painted all families as a torturous experience. I'm guessing you think my delusion is pretty extreme. Good imagining--you're right. Now correlate that extremism to your own if you cannot understand the pain of the majority of peaceful protestors. We all do this. I am hardly alone.

 

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A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

A partial journal of reading this very long book

 

7/7/20 My Facebook Post

I am very late to this classic. The first paragraph landed so hard I have to stop reading and do errands to let this process through my body. Here's what did it—from Columbus's log when he was met with an extraordinary welcome by Arawak people who inhabited the Bahamas:

"They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned ... They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features ... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. ... They would make fine servants. ... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The legacy of this mindset is nauseating. The misinterpretation of love, altruism, and gifts to honor visitors, from a Western perspective of power and possessions and the arrogant belief that any culture that is different from theirs is necessarily ignorant or stupid rather than perhaps more evolved and connected to oneness? ... I do not know where to begin. I have been reading and editing Native material the last few months, and seeing and feeling the roots of the pain leaves me moaning in my own agony. I will absorb this book as fast I'm capable.  Read More 

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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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Percival Everett Has a New Book!

I made this video as part of the Authors Guild's initiative, #SupportAuthors, to promote new books in the age quarantine.

 

The websites mentioned are Graywolf Press's page for Percival Everett's new book Telephone

and the wonderful new bookshop.org that supports independent bookstores--here is their page for the book: bookshop.org.

 

 

Now that I have just finished this magnificent book, my review:

 

How on earth do you review a book that is as personal, as tender, and as unnamable as your own soul? Reading Percival Everett, and this new novel in particular, is like entering the territory where all life comes from. I had such a hit of this when I first began the book that I literally passed out. In yoga there are names for this. Suffice it to say that it's when your consciousness is overwhelmed, stretched beyond its normal capacity.

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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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I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

Once after dinner, as we sat in front of the television watching an Adventures of Superman rerun, I asked, "Was my father handsome?"
She replied, "Some might say yes."
"Was he smart?" I asked.
She stared at the television. "Why is it that after all the bullets have bounced off Superman's chest, he then ducks when the villain throws the empty gun at him?"
I looked at the television and wondered, knowing also that my quest for some detail about my history had been again thwarted, albeit with a very good question. I never pressed terribly hard, thinking that someday the story would surface, but then she died. (pp. 84-85)

I've quoted this out-of-context gem to give you a taste and because it made me laugh the first time I read this brilliant book about a boy who is named "Not Sidney Poitier" although he is the spitting image of a young Poitier. I laughed while I moaned. This is serious and hilarious stuff.

 

However a year after my first reading, when I read this book for a second time, I had a different experience. I hardly laughed at all for the first half (second half is funnier). Instead I was moved by the pain.

 

I Am Not Sidney Poitier is a quest story—a search for identity, or one's true essence, in a culture where that is largely obscured by other people's perceptions of race, wealth, and the like. Each event in this quest is a step for Not Sidney to find out who he is. The book opens with him wondering who his father was, then careens into a life where he is a screen for other people's projections. After getting beaten, locked up, applauded for his money, and locked up again, he finally decides to go back to where he came from . . . only to be met at the L.A. airport by yet another person who mistakes him for the real Sidney Poitier. Exhausted and depleted of any sense of identity, he acquiesces and ends up receiving an award as the Greatest Black Man in the Universe—a role that is a distortion of anybody, including the real Sidney Poitier. His last line, in my opinion, is perfect:  Read More 

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I Wish More People Would Read Books

Because I write books, of course I wish more people would read them. But I write fiction, and this morning, after seeing a plethora of fearful social media posts as well as the New York Times's trepidatious headline about Bernie Sanders's New Hampshire primary win ("Tightens Grip on Party's Liberal Wing"), my wish is that people would read more nonfiction.

 

Why?

 

Because, unless the books are the fabrication of a good ghost writer (i.e., The Art of the Deal, now disavowed by repentant ghostwriter Tony Schwartz), people tend to expose who they really are when they write.

 

Since the 2016 election, I have read a lot of political books:

 

In A Higher Loyalty, former head of the FBI James Comey came across as thoughtful and introspective . . . with a fatal flaw that turned off his self-analysis talent: blind righteousness when it came to his decision to talk about an ongoing investigation, despite the fact that it was against FBI policy.

 

In Hillary Clinton's post-mortem, What Happened, she is warm, funny, dedicated, smart, and unbelievably oblivious when she dismisses, with one line, the Democratic National Committee's rigging of the primaries—because it was legal, albeit completely unethical. She gives not one thought to all the people who felt betrayed to find out what really happened in that instance. It is the same oblivion that allowed her to condemn "deplorables" and promise unemployment for coal miners. For a smart and usually ridiculously controlled person, she could be incredibly flippant.

 

I like Comey and Clinton—a lot. I understand flaws and have plenty of them. I don't believe either one of them wants anything other than the best for this country, but they have blind spots—a similar tendency to instantly dismiss what they disagree with.

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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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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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The Lasting Message of Bartleby, the Scrivener: PARTICIPATE

Of my comment that Herman Melville's novella Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street speaks to today's apathy, an attorney friend wrote:

"I can't agree with your reading. In my view Bartleby is, like Kafka's The Trial or Metamorphosis, a parable about the grinding impact of modernity and its inhumane conformity. Bartleby is the farthest thing from apathetic; he would prefer not to, but he is overwhelmed by the irresistible oppression of being a wage slave, for which there is no escape. Interesting that he is a writer as a trade. Alas Bartleby, alas humanity."

Other people have written that the story's themes are depression and isolation. Originally published in 1853, Bartleby, the Scrivener is told by a first person narrator, a reasonable and almost pathologically tolerant attorney, who hires a clerk named Bartleby whose job it is to copy legal papers. However when it comes to proofing the copies, a tedious task that requires participation of all of the copyists, Bartleby replies, "I would prefer not to." This quickly escalates to his preference not to leave the office—ever, and to do no work whatsoever—all of which the lawyer tries to mitigate by cajoling, begging, bribing, and finally vacating the premises and moving his office . . . only to learn that the new tenant cannot get rid of Bartleby either. In the end, this man who would "prefer not to" is carted away and starves to death in prison because eating does not appeal to him.

 

I am a writer by trade and a former actor who's spent my life preferring not to do any job that would get in the way of my art. Miraculously I've survived, but it may be due to the fact that although I've been picky about work hours, I've always done the work I've been hired to do, no matter what my private preferences may be. My main currency has been time—time to create. So certainly I understand preferring not to, but reading this story in 2019, in an era when the Naked Orange Emperor won an election where only 58 percent of eligible Americans voted, meaning that 100 million people "preferred not to" vote, according to the Washington Post, honestly made my skin crawl.  Read More 

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This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America's Middle Class by Elizabeth Warren

This past Saturday I went back to my hometown for my 50th high school reunion. When I lived there it was a tiny village and many of my graduating class of about 70 had known each other since first grade. A guy I've stayed in touch with, Doug, picked me up at the train station and proceeded to give me a tour, with such detailed understanding of the architecture, layout, relationships between families, and therefore the history of change that I felt as if I was meeting where I'd lived for the first time. "When did you learn all this?" I asked, astounded. It turned out he'd always seen this way and just kept learning from the time he was a small boy, until now when he is an architect turned city planner. He goes through life with a grid in his head about the relationship between people and landscape that I cannot begin to approach. If I ever wanted help with anything to do with building anything, I'd call Doug.

 

In This Fight Is Our Fight, Elizabeth Warren demonstrates the same grid-like understanding of cultural politics and economics, and therefore how the world works and doesn't work.* Through heartbreaking stories, she clearly explains the relationships between housing, education, systemic unfairness, people, and mega corporations. I cannot begin to convey what is in this book. But after reading just a couple of chapters, I wanted to hire her to lead the renovation to make the United States work for everybody.

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