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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

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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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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Sacrifice Is Critical in the Age of #MeToo

It's not complicated: "No" means no. "No, I don't want to do that." "No, stop that." "No, I don't think that is funny."

Persistent advances—kissing, groping, or worse—after somebody has made their "No" clear is bullying or assault. End of story.

Good guys can do this. They can get their photos snapped doing it. And rather than defend them as good guys and attack the victims for being "coached" by your opposition, realize they were doing something a woman had clearly rejected.

Talented guys can do this: brilliant actors and directors who have long-dirty reputations in closed industry circles, yet they've gotten away with it and their predation escalates.

Presidents can do this, and they appear to be Teflon-covered.  Read More 
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What Happened by Hillary Clinton

What really happened? What always happens: Politics, like life, is not fair. Nobody tells the whole truth. Everybody thinks they're right and excoriates everybody who doesn't agree with them. And the best we can do with this mess is try to listen to everybody with an open mind, make the best choices we can—knowing that none of them are perfect, and when we are in peril, choose whatever compromise most assures life.

I voted for Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries, and his book, Our Revolution, was the first I read about the election.

The second related book I read more recently, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, and it was like an infusion of sanity.

What Happened by Hillary Clinton feels like the third in a medicinal trilogy. It is healing to read a funny (the specifics of the phone and email stuff are laugh-out-loud funny!), articulate, sane person admit her flaws, take responsibility for most of them, introspectively process what happened, learn, and consider new policies and future actions in a more open way because of it. Read More 
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Team of Rivals—What Doris Kearns Goodwin Omitted

This is a wonderful nuanced book that resonates mightily with and informs what is going on today. Read it if you want to understand any kind of historical basis for what is now happening in the U.S. Read it if you love the minutia of history—every conversation ever recorded during the Lincoln period, every permutation and convolution of the Civil War, the complex emotional motivations behind the factions (a lot of people fought more for preservation of the union than out of any conviction about slavery)—or if you feel as if you need to learn U.S. history. This book has garnered enormous public attention as well as an award-winning movie based on it, so I am not going to write more commentary on what is in it. Instead, here are some opinions about the very important content that is missing.

At more than 900 pages, the book was so heavy, I broke down and bought a wretched Kindle version so that I could read without straining my tendons. But still, it was too short. Why? Read More 
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The Book of Mormon and Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

In The Book of Mormon, eager-beaver boy Mormons aspire to save humanity by spreading their truth to "unwoke" people across the globe. In the performance I saw on Friday, actor Steven Ashfield (not the actor in this recording), playing "Elder McKinley, the tap-dancing, light-switch-turning Mormon district leader in Uganda" (see profile) leads the cast in a rollicking number called "Turn It Off," lauding the wisdom of violently "crushing" any homosexual and other feelings. The audience roared with laughter — a recognition of the universal futility of experiencing anything approximating "good" by self-crushing.

During intermission, as I gazed over the packed house from my seat near the front of the orchestra, I couldn't help but hear the loud cell phone conversation of a woman a few rows back: "I just don't find it funny," she said irately. "And I really dislike the actor playing the queer. His mannerisms are annoying, and there's a lot of things they don't get right. It just isn't funny." The conversation was all the more interesting because a few minutes earlier, several people sitting next to me had been complaining about the lack of cell service in the theater. But that aside, I began to wonder about her and her need to pronounce her displeasure. And I've thought about her more in the ensuing days. Read More 
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Indecent on Broadway and The Postman Always Rings Twice

Much as we like to fancy ourselves superior to sheep and cows, we really have a lot in common: we are a herd species. We have leaders and followers, and to spook us requires a well-placed surprise that the "influencer" members pick up, and ka-boom, stampede. To control us, merely convince the same influencers, and we follow en masse. It's the key to many things — for instance, politics. But first the entertainment. (To get a point across, I've noticed that good shepherds open with enticement.)

I just saw a matinee of Pulitzer-winner Paula Vogel's play Indecent, a timely story about our herd propensity. In 1907, a young playwright named Sholem Asch wrote a play called God of Vengeance which was frightening to his Jewish colleagues because it exposed Jews as flawed people. "You can't show this," they rail at him. Nevertheless, the play is put on, is a big hit, tours throughout Europe and eventually lands in New York . . . where it is censored for an uptown production. What is cut out is a love scene between two women. Subsequently, it becomes a play about a Jew who runs a whore house, abuses his lesbian daughter, and disrespects the Torah. And the show is shut down and the cast jailed.

The New York herd was spooked — something had to be done, somebody subdued, trampled, shut up.

The reason that I think this play is important — particularly in our time when political correctness has become a divisive topic — is that it movingly expresses the value of (and price paid for) speaking truth, no matter who may get offended by it or who may use it to bolster arguments for bigotry. In my opinion, this is the tightrope negotiated by all artists who are working to express something bigger than they are. If you really say it, somebody is going to be infuriated.  Read More 
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