White Fragility

Book 25 of 2020 was White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I make for you, gentle reader. This book was written by a person who runs diversity training for a living. I dream of a world where that job doesn’t exist. I don’t know who needs to hear this besides the author, but anecdotes are not data. There is nothing in this book to back up any of her claims. Nothing. No statistics. No studies. Nothing but personal anecdotes from her own life. Worse than that, she makes counterfactual claims. More on that later.

There’s too much trash opinion to sift through to make a comprehensive review, so I’m just going to quote and give my hot takes. Please enjoy.

She claims there are “forces” that hold the racial hierarchy in place, such as meritocracy and individualism. Let that sink in for a moment. If we break it down, doesn’t this mean that we believe whites have more merit than blacks?

“Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character.”

Individualism doesn’t claim there are no barriers. Individualism simply attributes value to individual choices and claims that those choices can make a difference in outcome. Social structures aren’t fate. Furthermore, since the nature of social structures is that they are slow to change, outcomes in the present can only be improved through personal choice. It’s detrimental to have the mindset that a racist society is an insurmountable obstacle: it’s called learned helplessness.

“Most of us can acknowledge that we do feel some unease around certain groups of people…. But this feeling doesn’t come naturally. Our unease comes from living separate from a group of people while simultaneously absorbing incomplete or erroneous information about them.”

The feeling comes naturally. When you’re constantly being “called out” or told you shouldn’t say this word, or shouldn’t wear that. When you’re told that every other casual comment you make is hurtful or even violent. You shouldn’t do your hair this way, shouldn’t sing along to songs, shouldn’t wear certain costumes. When saying the wrong thing, or remaining silent at the wrong time can motivate a group to get you fired. When everything’s a microaggression, it is completely natural for people to avoid the groups they perceive as being easily offended, frequently angry, petty and vindictive. It’s unpleasant to deal those people, so it’s natural to wish to stay away from them as much as possible.

She quotes Charles Mills’ book The Racial Contract, mentioning that this contract creates “political states differentially favoring [white] interests” and “an economy structured around the racial exploitation of others.”

No part of our “political state” mentions race explicitly, except to forbid discrimination based on race. At best, this claim is vague. At worst, it’s meant to stir up racial animus without any evidence to back it up. It’s never made clear how white interests are favored or what is meant by “racial exploitation.”

“At the most general level, the racial frame views whites as superior in culture and achievement and views people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence”

Is this a “racial frame” or simply the facts we’re working with? If blacks and whites were equal in achievement and had equal political and economic power, would we be having this conversation? Why would we be complaining about racism?

She asks whites to reflect on the white racial frame by asking leading questions such as “Were the honors or advanced placement classes and the lower-track classes equally racially integrated? If not, why not?
The implication being that the reason for some groups being better represented in honors track is racism. It is clear from her framing and the fact that she doesn’t believe in individualism that the only acceptable answer to her question is “racist policy.”

She later implies that any difference in outcomes between whites and POC is attributable to racism and no other cause. (Sounds familiar… Wasn’t that the faulty basis of Kendi’s entire book on antiracism?) That to think otherwise is to “enact racism.” Again, this assertion is given with no evidence or data. It’s a baseless opinion.

“Because I haven’t been socialized to see myself or to be seen by other whites in racial terms, I don’t carry the psychic weight of race”

It is a good idea then, to not socialize anyone to see themselves in racial terms. Who needs or wants to “carry the psychic weight of race?”

“George Zimmerman would not have stopped me as I walked through a gated suburban neighborhood.”

But why not? Because you are a white woman, and white women were not responsible for a string of burglaries in his gated suburban neighborhood. Let’s take it a step further. Even if he had stopped you to ask what you were doing, you would’ve responded pleasantly that you were visiting your father, and gestured towards his house. If he had followed you, you would’ve gone straight home, and maybe even called the cops on him. You would not end up dead because you chose to show aggression towards an armed man: you would not have shown aggression at all. This is why individualism and choices cannot be dismissed: they can mean the difference between life and death.

“Once hired, I won’t have to deal with my coworkers resentment that I only got the job because I am white”

A great point! We should eliminate any hiring practices that give anyone an advantage based on race. Then no one would have cause to feel or deal with resentment.

“It has not been African Americans who resist integration efforts, it has always been whites.”

Let’s turn on our critical questioning skills here. Unless we assume that whites are irrational, if they resist integration it must be that the costs of integration are perceived to be higher than the benefits. If crime and poverty are higher in black neighborhoods and a white neighborhood is integrated, doesn’t it follow that crime and poverty rates will increase? And what is the corresponding benefit that makes this possibility of higher crime rates worthwhile? If there is a benefit that outweighs the costs, it must not have occurred to enough whites. Maybe there isn’t enough convincing evidence?

“The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of color from our lives is no real loss.”

Is there some proof that this would be a real loss? Do we feel this way about isolated tribes that have never met outsiders? What about racially homogenous nations like Japan? Are they experiencing “real loss” from the lack of people who look different from them? How so?

She argues that not only is it impossible for human beings to treat each other the same regardless of race, but that it’s undesirable to do so “because people have different needs.” While I agree with the general sentiment, we should hesitate to assign “needs” to a person based on race.

“Today, we depict blacks as dangerous, a portrayal that perverts the true direction of violence between whites and blacks since the founding of this country.”

This statement ignores present-day facts. Blacks target whites for violent crime at a much higher rate than the reverse. Blacks are also overrepresented in the set of murderers and violent criminals. A cursory glance at the relevant statistics would show these facts. It’s intellectually dishonest to imply otherwise.

She appears to be ignorant even of recent historical facts. She brings up the difference in rhetoric regarding the opioid epidemic versus “the mandatory sentencing perpetrated against those addicted to crack,” conveniently ignoring the fact that black leaders spearheaded and supported these harsher sentencing laws because they saw the destruction that crack brought to their communities.

In an amusing bit of hypocrisy, she calls out whites for their stance of self-defense, and denies they have any reason to feel attacked in discussions about race. But can we deny an individual’s feelings or lived experience? If someone claims to feel attacked, shouldn’t intention automatically not matter? She goes as far as to say “no physical violence has ever occurred in any interracial discussion or training that I am aware of.” This is especially rich, given that “silence is violence” is a very popular rallying cry of social justice warriors and BLM. Well, no physical violence was perpetrated by anyone as a direct result of their silence, as far as I’m aware.

She rejects the idea that we should assume others have good intentions because it “tells victims that as long as there was no intention to cause harm, they need to let go of the hurt and move on.” We can be certain that her idea of “harm” includes being offended by someone’s choice of words. If that counts as harm, then whites being made to feel uncomfortable during a discussion about race counts as an attack! If there needs to be this level of sensitivity towards black feelings, then maybe our discussion should be about black fragility.

She calls a respectful environment with no conflict, no expression of strong emotion, no challenging of racist patterns and a focus on intentions over impact a “hostile environment for people of color.” Again, implying that people of color are so extremely fragile that a respectful environment where they can’t shout or make personal attacks is “hostile.” By the common definition of hostile, allowing shouting / “expression of strong emotions” and challenging others is more hostile than disallowing those things.

She claims that there’s no such thing as a positive white identity because “White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.”

I’m not even sure what this means. Does she mean that “white” as a category wouldn’t exist? She can’t mean that once white supremacy isn’t a thing that all white people just *poof* disappear, right?

“It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.”

This last is my favorite quote from the book and I would like to leave you with it. But with a small twist. Let’s do a little mad libs to get a much more accurate representation of what the situation in the U.S. really looks like today:

It is black people’s responsibility to be less fragile; white people don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate blacks as painlessly as possible.

Names I like

This post was inspired by the arrival of a new baby to one of my oldest friends. A child they have named after a bird. It is hard to name a boy, so I understand. Here are some themes for naming I find promising:

Names ending in -er

These emphasize action and usefulness. Or employed-ness. Or at least being well-off enough to be doing obscure leisure things. Or none of the above, there’s just something pleasant about the -er ending. Examples: Hunter, Archer, Alexander, McAllister, Winter, September.

Town names/Family names

Towns were once upon a time named after someone, usually. I don’t mean towns like “New York City.” Examples: Hartington, Hadley, Montgomery, Savannah, Exeter, Lexington, Coventry, Devon*.

Names from nature

It is hard to choose a name from this category and not have it sound too-hippie (Rain, River, Meadow, Lark). The answer is to go for slightly obscure ones. Examples: Linden, Aster, Bryony, Laurel.

Bad things that sound nice

There are some words that sound pleasant but have meanings that aren’t great. While none of the ones I like are common as names, I know that Amara is used as a name and means “bitter” in Italian. Examples: Arson, Avarice**, Invidia, Aryan (but misspelled as Aerian), Sarin, Heroin.

Well, maybe it’s a good thing I’ve never been in charge of naming things other than my own electronics and a few cats. Funny though, I prefer animals to have traditionally human names. This exercise was fun. I hope I’ve shown that it’s possible to give a child a unique name without it rendering them un-hirable.

*Though I think the spelling “Devin” is more promising because it’s less likely to be mispronounced as something like De-Von.

** I know someone named for the corresponding virtue: Charity. So why not bring some balance to the world. Funny enough, she has a sister named Saren.

How to Be an Antiracist

Book 24 was How to Be an Antiracist. I have been bombarded with mentions of this book. It’s on NPR. It’s all over social media. It’s practically the bible of the BLM movement. I figured I’d read this just to be up to date on the current arguments and terminology preferred by the social justice movement. Also, I decided to take one for the team and read it so that you don’t have to.

The author does have an advanced degree (a PhD), but in a field that doesn’t require any formal training in logic or proof (African American studies). The tl;dr here is that the premise of the book rests on the idea that all races, cultures, classes are equal, and thus equally good, so any racially disparate outcome is a priori the result of racist policy. This is begging the question, as it’s a big claim and needs to be proven. Kendi makes no attempt to prove his assertion, or to exclude the possibility of other differences being the root cause of disparate outcomes (income, IQ, etc).

He also defines racism in such a way that makes it antiracist to discriminate based on race at the policy level. Yes, in an amazing feat of mental gymnastics, he asserts that it is necessary to discriminate based on race to be antiracist. He says “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” He makes no secret that the goal of his new antiracist framework is not seeking equal opportunity but equal outcome.

His writing style is not exactly scholarly. The book is heavy on personal anecdote and goes on in great detail about such topics as what fashion items he and his friends thought were “fresh” during his high school years. At the same time, he asserts without any attempt to prove that all races/cultures/classes are equal. Sure, we can agree that it’s meaningless to say that one race, culture or class is better than another generally. However, if we restrict to specific questions, we can answer them. Things such as “is a given race/culture/class over-indexed in the set of Harvard grads, engineers, high-paid individuals, prisoners, welfare recipients, etc” we can answer all of those questions. If his assertion is that race, culture and class all play zero contributing role to how their members end up faring on various metrics, he really needs to prove it or at least provide evidence. He doesn’t. He even goes one step further and claims that personal choices and behaviors should not be considered: that every unequal outcome is the result of racist policy.

Kendi includes many statistics comparing black outcomes to the benchmark of the US population by race. Statistics such as “Black students were four times more likely than White students to be suspended from public schools” and many more. He attributes these 100% to racism, and not at all to behavioral differences. He doesn’t even acknowledge that anything other than racism could be a factor. He doesn’t give any reasoning why the demographics of the US population is the correct benchmark. For example, given that blacks commit murder at about 8x the rate that whites do, would it be correct to say that the number of blacks in prison for murder should reflect the general demographics of the US? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to expect the rate of imprisonment for murder to match the rate at which murders are committed?

On “biological racism”, Kendi says “Biological racism rests on two ideas: that the races are meaningfully different in their biology and that these differences create a hierarchy of value.” He then uses the old talking point of there being more genetic diversity within race than between races to invalidate the idea of races being genetically distinct in a meaningful way. There are entire books written on the subject, but Kendi is satisfied with dismissing the idea with one line.

Not only does Kendi fail to prove his assertions, he also contradicts himself. For example, he claims that classes are all equal, and none is better than any other. He does not accept that the wealthy are doing something differently that gives their children a better shot at school, job prospects, high income, staying out of prison. However, he also brings up property taxes funding public schools as a reason for the black-white performance gap. So which is it? Does money help improve outcomes? Or is it irrelevant because all classes are equal?

Antiracism, as defined by Kendi, is an absurd and poorly thought out concept. Even granting him his definitions and his assertions, we can find an antiracist policy (by his definition) that I am certain he would find objectionable. (nb: This is a reductio. I am not seriously suggesting this as policy.) Once the black imprisonment rate for murder reaches 13% of all prisoners convicted of murder, let the subsequent black folks convicted of murder roam free. This would be an anti-racist policy, as it helps align the black imprisonment rate for murder with the demographic breakdown of the US in general, which Kendi insists is the correct benchmark in all cases. I would assume Kendi would disagree with this policy because black murderers mostly kill black victims.

Kendi advocates for massaging outcomes to look more equal by race, what the social justice kids call “equity” to distinguish from the concept of treating people equally under law and policy. It seems pretty obvious that making changes at this level only changes outcomes on a skin-deep level and doesn’t address any underlying issues. I’m a bit baffled that this book is as popular as it is, given the shortcomings I’ve listed here. Maybe you can help me understand?

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Book 23 of 2020 was The Sorrows of Young Werther. I am the patron saint of unrequited love, so I figured I’d get to know one more of my subjects. Werther is, I suppose, the German version of Frédéric in Sentimental Education, which I read earlier this year. We could do an entire post of compare/contrast, but I’ll just summarize. Werther is so much more earnest and single-minded. Frédéric liked to be dramatic about his one way love but was also a playboy fully capable of being flattered by other women. For Werther, there was only one. Amusingly, both young men have some disdain for the workaday lives of older, more established men.

The book was written in high German, so it sounds almost as stilted and old-fashioned as Shakespeare. Most of the book consists of letters written by Werther to his friend Wilhelm, and most of the letters are an unconvincing telling of how great Charlotte (object of Werther’s affection) is, or how obsessed with her he is. I say “unconvincing” because everything is trite and sounds like a “textbook” case of unrequited love. He describes her beauty and her good qualities, and how time has become a blur to him, and his obsessive thoughts, and how happy he is thinking about going to see her. There’s nothing fresh in his descriptions. Though, to be fair, it may have sounded less overused at the time of writing.

The story was too realistic. Too like real life in that nothing happens. From his descriptions of Charlotte, I’m not convinced his love is based on actually knowing her at all. Maybe just confirmation bias — an initial meet-cute, some fun dancing at a ball, then spending the remainder of his life assigning positive attributes to her. She’s not actually a saint: she knows how he feels and wants to keep him around, even after she’s married, because she likes the attention. She briefly considers marrying him off to one of her friends, but decides that she doesn’t think any of them are a good fit. How awkward.

Overall, too much telling, not enough showing. Not very much happening in this book and the writing wasn’t good enough to offset the lack of narrative progress. The reader should feel sorry for young Werther, but he’s hard to get close to, because he doesn’t seem like a real person. Actually, now that I think of it, this book reads like a novel-length, yet barely more grown up version of any story from Der Struwwelpeter.

All that being said, I did find a few quotes I liked, so I’ll leave you with those:

“Often do I strive to allay the burning fever of my blood; and you have never witnessed anything so unsteady, so uncertain, as my heart…. I treat my poor heart like a sick child, and gratify its every fancy.”

“I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.”

“A dim vastness is spread before our souls: the perceptions of our mind are as obscure as those of our vision; and we desire earnestly to surrender up our whole being, that it may be filled with the complete and perfect bliss of one glorious emotion. But alas! when we have attained our object, when the distant there becomes the present here, all is changed: we are as poor and circumscribed as ever, and our souls still languish for unattainable happiness.”

“He values my understanding and talents more highly than my heart, but I am proud of the latter only… All the knowledge I possess every one else can acquire, but my heart is exclusively my own.”

“I fear, I much fear, that it is only the impossibility of possessing me which makes your desire for me so strong.”
— Charlotte to Werther

Sustainable Happiness

Book 22 was from a Little Free Library and titled Sustainable Happiness. I know, I know… self-help? I promised not to discriminate on genre, and hey, who doesn’t want to know the secrets to sustainable happiness, right? So here we are. The basic premise of this book is that while consumerism is necessary for continued economic growth, it doesn’t make humans much happier after we have the basics.

Here are the 10 things that will make you happy, according to the book:

  1. Savor everyday moments
  2. Avoid comparisons
  3. Put money low on the list
  4. Have meaningful goals
  5. Take initiative at work
  6. Make friends, treasure family
  7. Smile even when you don’t feel like it*
  8. Say thank you like you mean it
  9. Get out and exercise
  10. Give it away now!

Many of these things make sense intuitively, and #10 is the basis of Marie Kondo’s de-cluttering manifestos. 4 and 5 are probably the most difficult, because they’re hard to define, and the benefits are hard to quantify.

I did also appreciate the following list from the book, though it sounds more like a list on “How to be French”:

The Sabbath Manifesto — 10 ways to take a day off

  1. Avoid technology
  2. Connect with loved ones
  3. Nurture your health
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid commerce
  6. Light candles
  7. Drink wine
  8. Eat bread
  9. Find silence
  10. Give back

The book is composed of several essays, and I found a couple of them… goofy. For example, there’s one on internet porn addiction that seems out of place. Author Dan Mahle says giving up porn helped him restore a sense of personal integrity, dismantle his subconscious sexism, reconnect to his tears, trust himself more, increase self-confidence, gain clarity on his life’s purpose and be passionate about the work he’s doing. Wow, what an infomercial. Makes me wonder why there are people who were never into porn but don’t have those things (eg clarity, passion, self-confidence). Then there’s some stuff about “Earth university,” “Earth Democracy,” and restorative justice. I’m not really sure what they have to do with an individual finding happiness, but maybe the point is to help all humans get there.

In short, to be happy, try to live more simply, enjoy and be thankful for what you have, and be Frencher.

Quotes from the book that I enjoyed:

“Slavery was motivated by “the love of ease and gain,” and no luxuries could exist without others having to suffer to create them.”

I definitely disagree with this one. Fine dining? Those chefs have the time of their lives. I don’t think the artisans at Staub are suffering a lot to make the luxury cocottes I love either.

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Simple living is not about abandoning luxury, but discovering it in new places.”

Maybe this quote addresses my objection to the previous luxury quote. Maybe I’ve discovered it in places where it doesn’t cost suffering. Yay, me.

“It’s not that we actually have an overwhelming desire to accumulate property, it’s that we’re concerned with how we’re seen all the time. It’s not material self-interest, it’s that we experience ourselves through each other’s eyes — and that’s the reason for the labels and the clothes and the cars.”

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.” — Viktor E. Frankl, concentration camp survivor

*Not about actually smiling, but a recommendation to have a positive outlook so as to see more opportunities

Identity

For book 21, I read Milan Kundera’s Identity. Kundera’s strength is that his thoughts are interesting enough that even if his stories and his writing are unremarkable, there’s still something to be gained from reading his books.

The story itself was predictable. I figured out who the secret admirer was before the protagonist did, and I’m not usually good at figuring that out when reading mysteries. Kundera gives up on even writing an ending, throws something together and says “oh, at some point this turned into a dream.” Then sort of cheekily tells the reader to try and figure out when it was.

The author doesn’t describe the physical world much, and doesn’t believe in doing so. Too much description does get plodding, but when I try to imagine the people or settings in Kundera’s work, it comes out like cubism or impressionism or abstract art. I guess neglecting descriptions can be its own type of distraction.

Kundera’s strength is that his insights, even if I don’t agree with them, seem like they could be true for many others. Here are some that stood out to me:

“This is the real and the only reason for friendship: to provide a mirror so the other person can contemplate his image from the past.”

“Every woman measures how much she’s aged by the interest or uninterest men show in her body.”

“When he wondered: what should I choose for my life’s work? His inner self would fall into the most uncomfortable silence.”

“The feeling that he was about to find himself alone on a platform all the trains had left.” — in re: dropping out of medical school

“I would imagine life before me like a tree… We see life that way for only a brief time. Thereafter, it comes to look like a track laid out once and for all, a tunnel one can never get out of.”

“The quantity of boredom… is much greater today than it once was. Because the old occupations… were unthinkable without a passionate involvement.”

“Since they’re hopeless, the beggar’s desires have one feature that’s beyond price: they are free and sincere.”

“Only through her can he feel compassion… What if he should lose this one person who binds him to humankind?”

“We put makeup on desolation.” – in re: the advertising industry

I agree with that last one at least. I have been targeted dozens of times for ads on social media demonstrating undergarments into which I could shove copious fat rolls for a smoother appearance under skin-tight dresses. That my goal should be to look better in spandex dresses if I had copious rolls of fat around my middle is indeed desolate.

Things that bring me joy

I’ve decided to write about things currently bringing me joy because what everyone else is posting right now isn’t. And remember what Marie Kondo says about things that don’t spark joy? That’s right. Thank them, then remove them from your life. Unfortunately, current events have infected my Facebook and Instagram feeds with repetitive, performative content I quickly got bored of. So I’ve decided to take a break until Stonemill posts matcha again, until Dogspotting is all about dogs again, and until my well-intentioned friends return to posting about their cooking adventures.

Here’s what’s making me smile these days, in no particular order:

Hospital Playlist

It’s a (Korean) medical drama, and I like it because it’s full of things I can’t do right now. There’s a group of 5 surgeons who have been friends since medical school (aww) and now work at the same hospital and play in a band together. They frequently eat meals, all of them together. At restaurants. This is my fantasy life, eating kbbq at a restaurant with a group of friends. Laughing and teasing each other. I miss eating at restaurants. I miss seeing friends. Also, everyone in the show is a good person, but in a realistic way. It was so cheery to watch that show that I was sad when I ran out of episodes.

Newfies of Norway

This Instagram account features another fantasy life. The owners run a farm with a forest on their property and post videos daily of hiking or working with the newfies running around “helping.” You know, napping nearby or sloshing around in muddy ravines.

Animal Crossing

This is a game for Nintendo Switch. It’s yet another fantasy life, where I live on an island and all my neighbors are cute animals who give me gifts and speak to me. I breed flowers, buy myself new outfits, visit friends’ islands, make furniture out of fruit, fish, and redecorate my huge house with multiple bathtubs. Oh yeah, another reason it’s my fantasy life is that there’s no crime on this island. You can leave things you own anywhere, and no one will touch it. Even literal bags of money or trees that grow bags of money. If only San Francisco could be more like my island in Animal Crossing!

Schubert – Impromptu No 3., Op 90

How did I take piano lessons for 9 years and never know this song existed? I found it when looking for a new piece to learn and this one took my breath away. I have learned about half of it now, and it is so moving that it messes with my breathing to play it. I know, dramatic. I couldn’t find information about what inspired Schubert or what it might have meant to him. But to me, it sounds like sweetness, hope, longing, with brief undercurrents of darkness or frustration. The only thing that would make this one even better is if I could find a recording of Lang Lang playing it.

Yoo Yeon Seok singing

He has a nice voice: velvety, comforting. One of the most important components to performing music well is expressing the feeling behind it. It’s hard when performing for an audience, but getting outside yourself, your nervousness, your fear of fumbling — and finding joy in the music: that’s the key. He does a really good job. Almost as good as Lang Lang.

Buy Nothing groups

All that time quarantined at home. All that Kondo-ing you’ve done. And now, walls and entry halls are lined with paper bags full of things awaiting their trip to Goodwill. Which has also been covided. Enter Buy Nothing groups! No matter what you have in those bags, I can guarantee there’s someone who would be grateful to have it. And who would come to your house to take it off your hands. Also, people give away nice things too. I recently saw a street lamp that you could plug in!

Weighted blanket

Speaking of buy nothing groups, I recently got this blanket from one. Some people hate feeling pressed, but I love it. It’s so relaxing. As a child, I used to fantasize about being pressed under the couch or refrigerator. Yeah, while other girls my age were wearing towels on their heads dreaming of being brides, I was imagining what it would be like to be squashed by my couch. TMI? It’s better than a spa day. Really! It’s relaxing and there are no strangers touching you. (How can anyone relax with strangers touching them…)

The Calm app

I linked to the Amex offer: a free year for any cardholder. The meditation lessons are the highlight. They’re funny because the guide’s story is that he was once a clubby party bro and then he found meditation. It probably sounds hokey to anyone who hasn’t tried it, but after a 10 minute guided meditation, I do feel more relaxed for the rest of the day. It sure beats being angry or anxious or agitated about things I can’t solve. The rest.. well, I tried listening to the bedtime story read by Stephen Fry, and it made me imagine things (a mouse with silver claws and silver eyes) that were terrifying and made me less sleepy. I tried the Sigur Ros “calming” music too, but it sounded like a horror movie soundtrack replete with voices of haunted children.

Ok, friends. I hope that helps. Remember, die gedanken sind frei. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something you don’t actually believe in.

In the Shadow of the Valley

Book 20 of 2020 was In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir. I heard it compared to Hillbilly Elegy, which I liked. This book was purely memoir, though, and didn’t offer any broader discussion or prescriptions like Hillbilly Elegy. Tl:dr, don’t bother with this book if you’ve already read the other.

To be fair, this book doesn’t claim to be anything other than one woman’s memoir about growing up in Appalachia. And her writing is good. It was engaging and painted a vivid picture. It never got in the way or made me want to scroll to get to the next interesting part. But the subject matter itself was not enlightening. It’s a litany of all the ways she was mistreated, more or less. I don’t think I had any added insight after reading the book, so that was disappointing.

I also came away unsure how exactly her husbands were abusive. She admitted they weren’t physically violent. But she doesn’t describe specific incidents to show the reader what was so terrible about them. She compares them to her father, implying that they are as bad in terms of wanting to control her. It sounds like one husband was a cheater and the other was a gossip, but it wasn’t clear what this had to do with her abusive father, or how it could be as bad as being whipped with a belt. I guess she was confused, so she left her reader confused too.

I am glad that she managed to graduate from college, get an advanced degree, and become a published writer despite the poverty she was raised in. It’s confirmation bias, but I collect examples of people getting where they belong, despite less than ideal environments. It’s some variation of “If Yan can cook, then so can you.” We make too many excuses in the United States. In Asia, you fail because you didn’t try hard enough.

I would’ve loved to see her tell us what could have made things better for her. Anything her teachers could’ve done? The government? The other students? College professors? College friends? Any self-help books for people who are growing up similar to her?

Flights

Book 19 is not really a book. It was a Nobel Prize and Man Booker Award winning “masterpiece.” It was Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. When I first heard of it and its awards and the founts of praise, I was excited. I like travel. I like intelligent discussions on the human condition. I like good books. What could go wrong? Everything. Everything.

Where to begin? You can’t say anything bad about a book that has critical acclaim like this without fear of accusations that you aren’t smart enough to understand. Or that you just didn’t get it. Or your tastes are coarse. Whatever: believe me or don’t. Read the book for yourself or don’t. I’m not here to convince you that I’m qualified to say this, but the emperor has no clothes. Yes, her prose is good. Good enough that it wasn’t distracting like the writing style of many suspense or sci-fi writers. Fine, I’ll give her that. But was it good enough for there to be no plot? No characters we care about? No point? No glue? Not by half. This isn’t Nabokov. It’s not Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s not even Stephen King. It just stays out of my way enough for me to refrain from throwing my Kindle across the room in frustration.

There’s just nothing here to hold the reader’s interest. For example, there is one longer short story about a man searching for his wife and child on a small island where no one can get lost. There are endless descriptions of completely random things that have nothing to do with finding them. Or even with any of the characters. Such as descriptions of ferry passengers. Why? Why waste the reader’s time like that? Infuriating!

However, what this book did give me is inspiration. That’s not a compliment. President Donald Trump gave me inspiration more than any other president. No other president made me believe as truly that anyone, just anyone could be president. Likewise, this book, having won prestigious prizes that much better (more gripping, more interesting, more coherent) books could never come close to winning — that’s brought me hope too. If Tokarczuk can be a Nobel Prize winning author, then anyone, anyone can be an author. I have a set of 100 pointless, disjointed essays. Who wants to publish me?

I’ve reached 35%, and I’m not going to finish. Some tips from me if you want to produce a work like this:

  • Write a bunch of unrelated essays on whatever sparks your fancy at the moment.
  • Be sure to name drop every Greek philosopher  you’ve ever heard of in at least one of them.
  • About 50% of them should be whatever you happen to be thinking or seeing at a random moment in your life. Just set phone alarms for and write down whatever was going through your head, or record what you see people doing wherever you happen to be.
  • Go to anatomy museums and describe what’s on display.
  • If you include stories, don’t write endings. Just spend the entire time setting the scene, introducing the problem, then end the story without explanation.

That, folks, is how you can produce a work like this and perhaps also be a Nobel literature award winning author.