Zimbabwe, America, and the immigrant experience

Book Review: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

We Need New Names

I can’t quite recall where I first heard about this book, but I have been hearing about it a lot lately. I discovered that We Need New Names is definitely not being over-hyped; it is awesome. This is probably the first work of Africa-related, contemporary fiction I’ve read since Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in high school and it made me feel like I’ve been missing out on something profound and interesting.

This book is beautifully written. It is just full of amazing imagery. I’m not inclined to gush about such things, but as I was reading this book, I just wanted to drink up all the language and become drunk from it because it was so heady. Even though the story is told from the point of view of a child, the language isn’t necessarily puerile. Darling, the narrator, doesn’t use lots of sophisticated language, but her thoughts are really succinct and what she says makes the reader picture everything. For example, when speaking about the heat she says, “The sun keeps ironing us and ironing us and ironing us,” which is something I can relate to with the heat wave happening at the moment.  In another chapter, Darling is watching a funeral and comments of the cemetery:

“[It] is mounds and mounds of red earth everywhere, like people are being harvested, like death is maybe waiting behind a rock with a big bag of free food and people are rushing, tripping over each other to get to the front before the handouts run out. That is how it is, the way the dead keep coming and coming.”

Not all the imagery is morbid, of course, but this example stood out to me because it’s such a mature observation even though it is rooted in kid-logic.

As to the plot (which is, I suppose, what people want to hear about in a review), the book is told from the perspective of Darling, a girl who lives in Paradise—a shanty town in Zimbabwe. Her observations about life are folded in among vignettes of playing with her friends: Bastard, Godknows, Shbo, Stina, and the pregnant Chipo. Darling dreams of moving to America, a place where everyone has enough food and is rich, and she knows that one day she will because her Aunt Fostalina lives there. The second part of the book focuses on Darling’s life in America (specifically, in “Destroyedmichygen”) and how she copes with the reality of living in the US, works through her identity, and relates to others. The result is both a poignant view of life in modern Zimbabwe and of the immigrant experience in America.

The first half of We Need New Names made me realize how little I know about Zimbabwe specifically and Africa in general. From the way the story is told, the reader can gather that Zimbabwe used to be ruled by a king, but then it was taken over by white colonialists. The colonialists were eventually ousted by the native black people, who were then deposed by another group of black people. That is an extremely rudimentary understanding, but clearly this isn’t a book about politics or history; it’s about one person’s experience in Zimbabwe. I feel like I should be able to at least put names on some of these movements or governments, but I don’t have any in my head. I think that reading up on modern African history is definitely going to be on my to-do list.

The second half of the book was, in a way, more relatable, just because I am American and Darling’s experiences were easier for me to digest, even though they were through the eyes of someone new to the country. I briefly taught English as a second language when I was a teacher, so I was able to appreciate some of the observations about learning (or improving, more accurately) English. In one scene, Aunt Fostalina is on the phone trying to order something from Victoria’s Secret, but she is not being well-understood. Darling comments about how you can practice what you want to say beforehand, but the words still come out wrong, concluding “English is like a huge iron door and you are always losing the keys.” This is such an amazing way to conceptualize all language learning, but especially English learning.

Something incidental to the story, but that I really liked, is the concept of a “talking eye.” Essentially, this is when you look at someone in a way that says something, like when a little dog wearing a pink jacket tries to get attention from Darling and she gives it a talking eye that says “No, dog, you don’t even know me like that.” Or you could give a talking eye that says “Don’t even think about it,” or “Get over here.” Bulawayo has managed to name something I didn’t know I needed a word for.

We Need New Names is stuffed with observations about life both in Zimbabwe and in America. I really enjoyed Bulawayo’s take on the world and I feel like my worldview has definitely been expanded (which is the point of reading in the first place). There is a lot more in this book that I haven’t discussed because I know I can’t just talk about a whole book, but if anyone who has read it would like to discuss it with me, I would love to talk about it! I will definitely be keeping my eye out for future works by NoViolet Bulawayo.

What should you read after you’ve finished We Need New Names? Here are some things I am thinking of picking up that have similar themes:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seems to be focused on immigration in a similar way to Bulawayo’s work, but centers on a teenage couple from Nigeria. The woman in the couple manages to immigrate to America, but the man is unable to do so. Adichie won the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing for one of her previous novels.
  • A Contellation of Vital Phenomena is the debut novel of Anthony Marra. This story is set in Chechnya, another place I don’t know enough about.
  • The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin looks to be a pretty solid work on the modern political situation in Zimbabwe. If, like me, you know want to know more about Zimbabwe, this would be a good pick.

 

Dreaming Is Free: Its Aftermath Is Not

The book cover for Dreams and Shadows
Dreams and Shadows

Book Review: Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill

I loved reading this book; I guess we can start with that. Like most books I’ve been reading lately, I spotted this on the “new” shelf at the library. The cover looked really cool and the description sounded good, so I went for it. I know we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but I think it’s okay to do so sometimes, especially when the cover is awesome and the text is awesome too.

I would describe this book as probably urban fantasy or, perhaps, a modern fairy tale. And yes, it’s a fairy tale with all the nasty, brutish implications of one told by the Brothers Grim, not the Disney adaptation. I know I am not the first person to say this, but it definitely reminded me of a Neil Gaiman novel—it’s kind of American Gods-esque. Like all great fantasy, it deals not just with the fantastical, but also with how humankind’s fantasies reflect its true nature. I’ll get into that in a minute.

Before we go any further: a summary. The first part of Dreams and Shadows alternates between two characters. There is Ewan who is kidnapped by fairies as a baby and replaced by a changeling who wastes no time compelling Ewan’s parents to kill themselves. There is also Colby, the son of an alcoholic, negligent mother who encounters a genie. Part of the excitement of reading this book was that I immediately knew that the characters were going to cross paths (because, duh, that is how stories work), but I couldn’t wait to find out how. Ewan and Colby are both eight years old during the first part of the story (with the exception of the part of the exposition that involves the changeling) so even though they are operating in realms that would seem illogical to adults, they inhabit this madness readily.

Ewan is being raised by the fairy folk of the Limestone Kingdom (near Austin, Texas—and when was the last time you read a fantasy set in Texas?) and is being slowly transformed into a fairy. Unfortunately for him, he is not being turned into a fairy just for fun, but he is the tithe child. Fairies, it is explained, have an ongoing pact with the devil that requires them to sacrifice one of their own every seven years in order to maintain their longevity. Rather than sacrifice their proper kin, they often steal children, turn them into fairies, and sacrifice them as soon as they’ve turned.

Colby meets the cursed genie (djinn, to be more accurate), Yashar. Yashar has an interesting backstory that involves a jealous vizier, the genocide of the djinn, and years of lonliness. He selects Colby for wish-making because djinn are unable to survive unless someone remembers them. Although Yashar is reluctant to grant Colby’s wish (cursed djinn, remember?), he does eventually grant it. Colby, somewhat unfortunately, wishes to “see everything.” By everything, he means all the supernatural things that no one else sees. This wish is eventually what makes him cross paths with Ewan.

I won’t go into the rest because I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice to say, Colby and Ewan do cross paths. Colby also wishes to become a wizard in what I found to be a hilarious display of child-logic. One thing I will also say about the progression of the narrative is that I appreciated Cargill’s inclusion of faux-scholarly texts on the matter of the fey. There is a series of excerpts from the work of Dr. Thaddeus Ray, Ph.D. Some of them explain different types of fairies (djinn, for one), or fairy custom (like the tithe). The best explained where fairies came from. Fairies are essentially the result of whatever ambient emotion there is to be found in an area. If a city radiates misery and hatred, fairy folk are created who feed off these emotions. A region full of goodwill is likely to engender fairies who feed on those emotions instead. In this way, the fey are a true reflection of humanity. Miserable people beget miserable creatures.

One of the themes that I found in Dreams and Shadows is that monsters aren’t the real monsters; people are. When Colby first meets Yashar, the djinn, he asks if monsters are real. His response was to tell Colby:

“Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares … They are the things that we harbor within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt of that hasn’t walked once within the soul of a man.”

So, even though most of the villains in this story are fairies, we must remember that the fairies are, effectively, created by humans. It’s easier to understand and contextualize our own humanity when we see it in another group of beings.

Another piece of the ‘monsters aren’t the monsters’ trope is Yashar’s behavior. After Colby and Ewan meet, the local fairy council decides that Colby and Yashar have to go because they pose a threat to the tithe child, Ewan. Yashar’s response to the fact that Ewan is going to be brutally murdered for the sake of the Limestone Kingdom: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”  Yashar displays a much higher degree of humanity than almost anyone else in the story, despite being a djinn.

But don’t worry, this story isn’t preachy, I just like analyzing literature. Dreams and Shadows is also hilarious. One of my favorite exchanges is between young Colby and Ewan. Colby finds out that Ewan has never seen Aladdin because he’s been busy being raised by fairies. When Ewan thinks Colby is an idiot for not knowing something basic about fairies, Colby shoots back, “At least I’ve seen Aladdin!” Cargill does a great job of representing what children find to be critically important and incorporating it into the story. Another part that I laughed out loud over was Colby wishing to be a wizard. Yashar insists that he can’t “just make [Colby] a wizard.” Colby just keeps wishing, insisting that Yashar promised he would grant any wish as long as they left the Limestone Kingdom and Ewan behind. Obviously, describing jokes out of context is not that funny, but trust me, there are some pretty funny bits in this story.

There is a lot more to this story than I’ve written about here because I don’t want to spoil it. I really loved this book and it was one of the best fantasies I’ve read in a while. If you’re looking for a modern, hilarious, but poignant story, definitely check out Dreams and Shadows.

Panic: A Retrospective Essay

I remember the first time I had a panic attack.

Of course, at the time, I wouldn’t have called it that.

I was four years old—maybe even three, who knows—and my parents, still married, drove me to my grandparents’ house in San Clemente to stay the night. I don’t think I had ever slept somewhere without my parents before then. Or if I had, I lacked the capacity to note the difference.

We came in through the garage, passing my grandfather’s workbench, and entered the house. We placed my duffel bag and stuffed animals in the spare bedroom. My parents made their farewells, probably looking forward to some time to do whatever it is parents do without children.

I walked into the living room, finding my grandparents sitting on the sofa. My grandfather looked at me and with a pinching hand motion said, “Bug, bug, bug.” It was something he always said to me (and my sister, later on) as kids, but I have no idea why. Just then, I started crying, screaming perhaps. It’s difficult to retroactively judge one’s level of volume.

I don’t think it was my grandfather’s bugs that provoked me, but to all observers that seemed to be the case. I knew that wasn’t it. It wasn’t that my parents were gone. It wasn’t being in San Clemente. I just panicked.

“Do you miss your mom and dad?” my grandma asked. I sobbed out a “no.” An interrogation followed. Was I hungry? Bored? Did grandpa bother me? No, no, no. None of those things. I couldn’t explain it, I was just upset.

I wish I could remember what eventually calmed me down. I suppose it was just time and possibly a popsicle. I think my parents came back to get me. It was not to be my first sleepover.

I was 26 when I was actually diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Why it took that long, I have no idea. I had seen at least two therapists as an adult before I met the one who gave me a proper diagnosis. After my parents’ divorce, there was talk of therapy, but I insisted that I didn’t need it. Why anyone would listen to the opinion of a distraught seven year old, I can’t explain.

Anyone can have panic attacks, not just people with disorders. The human brain is equal opportunity that way. A true panic attack—not just stress or general anxiety—includes a series of biochemical reactions. The nervous system, trying to be helpful, I’m sure, leaps into action when someone feels stressed. In a normal, non-panicked brain, the parasympathetic system would then step in, take the nervous system’s keys and call a cab, but sometimes, the parasympathetic system is not a very responsible friend. In the case of a panic attack, no one is around to tell the nervous system, “Go home, you’re drunk,” and the brain is unable to calm down.

I think everyone experiences panic a little bit differently. For me, my brain feels loud. Not that my thoughts are loud, but whatever is happening in my head is drowning out other noise, other stimuli. My music will be on, but I’ll only halfway hear it. My boyfriend hugs me but I only halfway feel it. I get hot, like I’m on fire from the inside out and my skin will be the last thing to ignite. I feel at once like I want to sleep, or cry, or just start running and never turn back around.

These feelings are highly problematic for me. When I’m not absolutely losing my shit for no reason at all, I consider myself an intellectual person. I make a living based on my ability to use my head, to think critically. Since watching Star Trek: The Original Series, I like to pretend I’m a Vulcan (or maybe just half-Vulcan. Spock is only half and he does alright). When a panic attack hits, I lose all control. I feel like a goddamned idiot for freaking out. I usually have no idea what precipitated it, which makes it even harder to understand.

This happened to me again today. I woke up feeling okay, I guess. But within an hour, I felt myself feeling moody. I attributed it to general stress. I moved in with my boyfriend just a week ago and the intervening seven days had been quite full. My things weren’t totally organized, and I assumed that was stressing me out. Admittedly, this is a dumb reason to be stressed, but it’s better than no reason at all.

We started cleaning up. I was vacuuming and my boyfriend was moving things out of the way to make it easier for me. For some reason, this irritated me. I felt myself getting frustrated and then I chided myself for it. What a dumb reason to be upset. He was helping. We finished vacuuming. I headed to the closet where the last of the boxes were hiding. I started rearranging things, pulling out boxes and piling up blankets, but I was not okay. I was freaking out. I could feel it.

I sat down. I was burning up. I knew I was having a panic attack, but I wasn’t sure why. “I’m so stressed out right now,” I told my boyfriend. “How can I help?” was his response. I love him for it and I hate myself for being mad and telling him there was nothing he could do and that I just had to deal with it. I angrily went back to my piles.

I pulled some things out of a a box. I stopped. Why was I upset? I sat down, too hot. I leaned my head against some of my fingers and Kirk (the aforementioned boyfriend) kissed me, once again asking what he could do. “I feel like fire,” was all I could say. “Take one of your pills,” was his suggestion.

I have anxiety medication, but I hate it. One time I took a pill and I slept for five hours and felt like shit after. I reminded him of this. “Take a quarter,” he said. “I don’t have time to sleep all day!” I angrily returned to my box and my piles.

I can’t deal. I feel like crying, or maybe screaming. Anything. I go to the bedroom, strip and throw myself onto the bed. I hold a large pillow against my face, trying to smoother the rest of the world. In this state, I feel like I can’t deal with existence. I said this out loud once and people thought I meant to kill myself.

I don’t explain it that way anymore.

Kirk comes in and pretends to be one of the kitties, meowing and pushing his head against me. Normally, I think, this might make me laugh. Instead, I swat at him with the hand that isn’t securing the pillow against my face.

I cry a little.

I breathe and try to stop berating myself.

 

 

 

I start to cool down.

Eventually, I reposition myself so my head is only half under the pillow. I take deeper breaths.

I start to tune back in to the rest of the world. I hear the fan whirring quietly as it steadily sends cool air in my direction. I feel it collide with my skin. My bra feels uncomfortable because it’s so hot and because I’m lying on my side. I realize that I left music playing in the other room as my brain remembers how to decode sounds. Suddenly, the pillow feels heavy against my face. I don’t need it anymore.

My cat jumps onto the bed as I am coming back into myself. She meows and meows. She’s always meowing her little meows. She rubs against me and licks me. Cat things. I pet this entity of fluff a few minutes, taking deeper breaths and feeling generally like a human again.

I walked back into the other room, finding Kirk at his computer.

“I’m sorry.” I kissed him.

“You don’t need to apologize.” Whether or not I need to, I still feel like I should. Loosing control like this makes me feel embarrassed. When I come back around, I feel like an alcoholic sobering up for the first time, realizing what’s happened. Making amends is a critical step.

I wish I could say I know it won’t happen again so I could wrap things up with a “We’ll look back at this and laugh!” and be done with it. But I never know when I am going to have a panic attack. Even when I am managing my life reasonably well, these things just happen.

Earlier today, when I was coming to terms with being a member of humanity again, I thought about this. About how to explain it and about my history of freaking out. I’ve never really written about it before. I decided I should. I’m sure other people have written about this issue, and probably even more people have experienced it but lack the capacity or willingness to write. So here is mine.

Logic by Any Other Name

Book Review: Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou

I heard about this book via friend who thought I might be interested in learning more about logic and I finally decided to get it from the library a couple of weeks ago. Logicomix is a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell who was one of the first mathematicians/philosophers to devote himself to the study of logic as the underpinnings of math and philosophy.

Logicomix has several narrative threads: it is a frame story with a meta component, which sounds ridiculous, but is actually quite easy to understand thanks to the artistic conventions used. The book opens with one of the authors, Apostolos, discussing the somewhat crazy decision to discuss logic, of all topics, in graphic novel format. Apolostos introduces his creative team and his friend Christos who is responsible for injecting a little more logic into the narrative. The authors discuss some general ideas for the narrative while walking through Athens (where they work). Then, the frame of the main story is introduced. The reader first meets Russell when he is in the United States (Russell was English–the grandson of a Prime Minister, in fact) to speak to a group of isolationists who are protesting to keep the US out of World War II. Russell agrees to advise the protestors by discussing logic, providing the frame for him to narrate his life and achievements to date. This is occasionally interrupted by the meta layer of the narrative, in which the authors discuss a controversial choice or attempt to clarify certain things for the readers. Russell sketches an outline of his early life, his work and frustrations in university, his quest to understand and build upon the “giants” of the field, his personal life, and his publication of Principia Mathematica with Alfred Whitehead. The narrative also includes some very basic introductions to logical concepts, like set theory.

Graphic novel is an interesting narrative choice for discussion the foundations of logic. I expect that this medium was chosen because it is a way to connect readers with a topic they might not have otherwise investigated and because it is an effective way to introduce readers to Russell as a person in addition to some of his ideas. A book on logic and Russell’s life would probably be too dry for most readers, but Logicomix manages to straddle entertaining and informative quite well. Personally, although I enjoyed Logicomix, I think I am one of those odd people who would probably prefer the dry, no-pictures text version of learning about logic. It was hard for me to remember who the major logicians were by sight (they would pop up at conferences and such) and I don’t feel like I really got that much logic out of it. However, I will admit that my dissatisfaction with the amount of actual logic may be because I am already casually familiar with concepts like set theory, which Russell explains is based on Boole’s work. And any good librarian knows about Boolean operators, so this was not one hundred percent new.

Despite all that, I did learn some logical concepts from reading Logicomix. Russell was obsessed with the concept of mathematical concepts requiring concrete definitions and rules. He felt that there was no way to move forward with mathematics until its foundations were strong and definite. This lead directly to his work on Principia Mathematica, which occupies a significant section of the narrative. Set theory was what Russell saw as the key to mathematics. Sets are groups of objects and the way sets are organized and understood is what Russell focused on. Russell is later criticized by his student, Wittgenstein, who claimed that all Russell accomplished was to establish a series of tautologies. Wittgenstein later went to work on logic as it relates to semantics (at least, that is how the text made it sound); he also expresses in the novel, “The meaning of the world does not reside in the world,” and seemed to develop a somewhat mystical bent in his work. Russell and Wittgenstein’s works also lead to major philosophical players like Gödel. There is also an interesting (but somewhat too briefly covered for my taste) treatment of these philosophers working in Europe leading up to World War II. Logicians were divided along pro and anti-Nazi lines and some of them used their work to justify the Third Reich and the extermination of the Jews, which I found alarming.

Finally, an overt theme of the work is the intersection of logic and madness. The authors discuss the concept throughout the work and they seem to conclude that a certain degree of madness seems to be inherent for people interested in logic. I can’t recall if the text specifically alludes to this, but this link seems to suggest that people who have turbulent minds are more likely to want to impose order on the world around them, which seems to be the case for Russell. Ultimately, both Russell and Wittgenstein come to the conclusion that while logic is important, it isn’t everything. Wittgenstein states that “The things that cannot be talked about logically are the only ones which are truly important” and Russell explains that human life isn’t logical, so people should not use logic to justify things like the Nazi regime, for example. Leaving the story here, as the authors point out in their meta section, makes it sound like logic was a failure: Russell and Wittgenstein admit that it isn’t everything, and Continental logicians are using it to kindle a genocide. However, one of the authors, Christos points out that logic actually won the war. People like Alan Turning leveraged it to create early computers and crack the Nazi codes, which of course lead to modern computing, et. al.

I enjoyed reading this and I will admit it was quite interesting. It was cool to read about a specific slice of history in comic book format because it gives you a better sense of the period (showing the aesthetics, etc.) and it was probably easier to follow than starting out cold with a textbook on logic. Overall, it made me want to read a lot more about logic, set theory, and Bertrand Russell, which is probably the main aim of the book. In which case, it can definitely be considered a success.

 

Scientology, Comparative Religion, and Fun with Cults

Book Review: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Going Clear cover

There is so much to say about this book that it’s hard to know where to begin. I love reading about cults/people who survived cults/wacky religious beliefs and the rest, but this is my first read on Scientology. Up until this point, my main exposure to the subject was via South Park (I’m not proud). Going Clear spans nearly 100 years of history, beginning with L. Ron Hubbard’s birth in 1911 and ending with Paul Haggis’ (the work’s protagonist, such that it can be said to have one) departure from Scientology and the subsequent uproar in 2010-2011. This book is packed with information and there are a lot of people who were interviewed and who played parts in the narrative (it has more characters than a George R. R. Martin novel). Some of the people involved are introduced early in the book as young people involved in Scientology and show up again later as adults, which I found hard to keep track of–I didn’t know I’d have to manage all the people!–but I don’t think you need to remember exactly who everyone is (other than a few power players) to appreciate the absolute insanity of a lot of the things that happen.

Going Clear is meticulously researched. It draws on interviews with lots of current and former Scientologists, court documents, medical records, and the writings of L. Ron Hubbard and other parties. The book is also peppered with footnotes to the tune of “[person’s name]’s attorney denies that X happened” and “The church denies that [person] ever did Y,” which makes one wonder what kinds of behavior that anyone’s attorney would admit to, but that is another matter. The title of the book, Going Clear, refers to the first step in being a Scientologist. When one becomes “clear,” one is free of malicious engrams and is able to work towards being an Operating Thetan (OT). Various people throughout the book are described by their Scientology levels; OT VIII is the highest level that anyone other than Hubbard has ever had access to (Hubbard supposedly penned several more levels, but no one has seen them). Operating Thetans are supposed to have amazing mental powers that can prevent sickness, bend others to one’s will, and basically a certain level of telekinesis. At least, OT levels are described this way. There is as yet no one on the record demonstrating these amazing powers, which of course makes one question why people keep on believing in it, but of course, we could ask such questions about any number of movements.

The book opens with Paul Haggis, that archetypal, directionless young person of the 1970’s who finds Scientology. People like Haggis were attracted to Scientology because of its idealism, they state that they’re working toward “A civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise of greater heights,” as stated by Hubbard himself. This narrative that Scientology is actively working to improve the world seems at odds with basically everything that happens to individual Scientologists in the book, and yet, they all kept stating that they were in it for this ideal; they thought they were really helping. Haggis is the bread in this Scientology sandwich. After his introduction, the reader doesn’t hear about him again until much later in the book when he begins questioning Scientology.

L. Ron Hubbard’s (the L is for Lafayette) early years, when examined from the perspective of Scientology as it is today, are quite revealing. Wright traces the development of some of the themes of Scientology back to Hubbard’s youth, which I think is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Analyzing modern “religions” and charismatic leaders is so different from tracing the history of someone like the Prophet Muhammad because there is actually a record of what people did and one can draw conclusions about how that influenced their later work. One of the formative experiences of Hubbard’s life was traveling by boat from Seattle to Washington D.C. via the Panama Canal. Hubbard was taken in by Commander Joseph C. “Snake” Thompson on the trip, who was “of the US Navy Medical Corps. A neurosurgeon, a naturalist, and a former spy, Thompson made a vivid impression on [Hubbard].” Thompson also schooled Hubbard on Freudian theory, which doubtless had an impact on Hubbard’s later preoccupation with pyschiatrists and psychologists. There are so many anecdotes (and fabrications, which Wright compares to evidence and accounts from other people) about Hubbard’s early life  that it is difficult to choose what to discuss in a short review, but I will mention that Hubbard briefly served in the US Navy during World War II. He insisted he was a hero and I’m sure this also was a part of his choice to later make Scientology a maritime venture. He was also connected with several people on Hollywood, and it seemed that he was fascinated with society there, but he never made it big, which I think was also a factor in the later choice for Scientology to court celebrities so seriously.

Dianetics was Hubbard’s first effort and producing a work that would define a movement. It quickly became popular because it capitalized on the public’s interest in psychology and psychotherapy, but it supposedly offered people the tools to treat themselves without any actual academic or scientific grounding. Although its popularity burned brightly, it burned out quickly when people realized that Dianetics didn’t actually enable them to do fantastical feats with mental powers. Hubbard, an autocrat at heart, decided that Dianetics had gotten out of hand, and choose to rebrand it as Scientology. He is quoted as saying “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is.” Shortly after Scientology began, Hubbard moved to England with his family (well, his new family, Hubbard had three wives and seven children throughout his life). Soon, Hubbard became paranoid that “British, American, and Soviet governments were interested in gaining control of Scientology’s secrets in order to use them for evil intentions.” To combat this, he bought three boats, gathered up his staunchest believers (who all signed billion year contracts, yes, billion since Scientology subscribes to reincarnation) and founded the Sea Org, which came to be what is essentially Scientology’s clergy. The Sea Org is when, it seems to me, that the real abuses of power began. Parents were separated from their children, abandoned at various ports, and in one case, representatives were caught up in a popular uprising in Morocco. At this time, many of Scientology’s procedures were codified, like the RPF rundown, which involved locking up a dissenter in a room with no contact for several weeks. The practice later evolved to include making such people stay in confinement for years, in some cases, and do labor while there.

There are a lot of tragic events described in Going Clear, but I want to spend some time looking at Scientology from a comparative religion perspective, with a focus on similarities between Scientology and Mormonism (full disclosure: I was raised Mormon). Later in the history of Scientology, when they were back on land, Hubbard was working to get a film made. The script was shopped around and an offer for $10 million came in (at the time, a record sum for a script purchase). Upon investigation of the buyers, they learned that the  buyers were mormons and “Hubbard figured that the only reason Mormons would buy it was to put it on the shelf,” which is probably true. I find it interesting that Mormons would want to suppress a Scientologist message, considering that the movements really have a lot in common as modern religious movements. There are a lot of parallels to be found between Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was a known huckster and treasure hunter before starting Mormonism, as Hubbard was a prolific science fiction writer before Scientology–both had a flair for the fictitious. Hubbard also took multiple wives (to say nothing of mistresses) without divorcing, although a few wives isn’t much compared to Smith, they are both outside cultural norms. I would also make the argument that Scientology’s doctrine of spirits being sent to Earth as punishment by a more powerful force has some parallel to Mormonism’s concept of there being a “war in heaven,” which Satan lost and God won. Except in the case of Mormonism, the losers weren’t sent to Earth for punishment, they went straight to hell. Both movements also have a period of being on a journey early in their  history. The Mormons, of course, were hounded out of New York and across the Midwest, finally taking a long trek to what is now Utah to escape persecution. Hubbard sailed the Mediterranean and Carribean for several years with his Sea Org to escape what he perceived as persecution. Although the early periods have a lot in common, I will admit that the later histories diverge. Mormonism doesn’t have the forced labor of the RPF (although young people are required to serve missions under extremely spartan conditions) and it also seems to have found a broader appeal than Scientology. However, as comparative cases they are interesting to consider in the context of the development of modern, American religions.

Although there are many differences between contemporary Mormonism and Scientology, some of the tactics they use have similar roots. One line from Going Clear regarding a Sea Org member who wanted to leave explained, “Most of those who fled were torn by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, they were often frightened, humiliated, and angry. They desperately wanted a life outside the organization.” Many people who leave Scientology quickly realize that they don’t know much of the real world, and many of the people who joined as young people or who were born into the religion lack a formal education and haven’t graduated high school (which reminds me of fundamentalist Mormons–the ones that practice polygamy and live in compounds). Scientology is described as being completely consuming. While Mormonism allows people to have lives outside of church, they pack the week so full of church functions that people often find it difficult to do much else, it truly can be difficult to figure out what one’s life is after the organization. Another tactic used by Scientology is “disconnection,” which is the practice of encouraging Scientologists to cut themselves off from anyone or anything that isn’t related to Scientology. This ensures that Scientologists are so emotionally and socially invested that leaving involves a total social suicide. Mormons operate in similar ways. As the good people of Reddit’s exmormon community will tell you, families do disown members who leave Mormonism with alarming frequency.

Comparing Mormonism and Scientology is both part of my fascination with cults and also a way of validating my own experiences. Something about seeing similar tactics documented in other cults (I will go ahead and call it a cult) makes me feel a little less foolish. Obviously these strategies work. We have seen all sorts of movements rise and fall and maintain zealous members using these strategies. Some parts of Going Clear hit close to home, but there were just as many things totally outside of my experience that were absolutely tragic. It’s hard to know what to write about this book because there is just so much to tell; so many stories, so many lives ruined or people’s emotions and sense of self destroyed. This is probably not my best review because I did react very emotionally to this book. I appreciate non-fiction work on religious movements like some people are into horror. It produces that “can’t look away” fascination. I marked a lot of sections in this book that I wanted to talk about, but instead I’ll leave you with this. Be rational for your own self. Be compassionate to other people and then maybe they won’t feel such strong needs to find meaning and acceptance in cults. Read this book because you will be horrified and sad and feel like you want to punch someone.

In the Kiddie Pool

Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows book cover
The Shallows cover

I wanted to read The Shallows because, like the majority of people in my generation (or at least, among those in my generation I talk to), I spend a huge amount of time online or otherwise connected. I was skeptical that being so involved in digital life was making me stupider (as the title implies). Now having read the book, I think that the premise is less about how we’re becoming stupid, although I think Carr does convey that sentiment at points, and more about how technology shapes the way we think. Humans mold themselves to the available tools, rather than the tools to the humans, it seems.

The central thesis of The Shallows seems to be that computers have changed our behavior in a fundamental way. The way that we learn, remember, and retrieve information has been altered thanks to widespread computer use. Or, to quote Nietzche–as Carr does after relaying an anecdote involving Nietzche and a typewriter–, “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” To support this claim, Carr spends the initial portion of the work discussing neuroplasticity and working through a history of other technologies that have changed the way humanity uses their minds. Carr raises the point that studies show that the brain is both able and willing to reallocate neurons to new tasks, if those neurons aren’t being made use of elsewhere. He cites work showing that when someone becomes blind, that person’s brain reconfigures such that the area of the brain formerly given over to visual processing is put to use in auditory processing or other pertinent tasks. In fact, neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s (a researcher at Harvard Medical School) opinions are shared. He explains that neuroplasticity is one of the most important traits that humans have evolved. Carr states, “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hardwiring, but that it doesn’t,” i.e. that we’ve made it this far as a species because we can adapt well. My response to the fan fare over neuroplasticity was to wonder why the author seems to be decrying another step in the brain’s inevitable adaptation to our modern computing landscape.

There are a few fascinating examples of technological developments and how they changed humanity. One that I particularly enjoyed was a discussion on clocks and timekeeping. For much of the history of civilization, time was primarily kept only by the rise and fall of the sun, but in the Middle Ages, Christian monks decided that they needed more precision in their schedules, and as such, pushed for superior time keeping technology (superior to sun dials and water clocks). Eventually, every town had a clock and kept time by the bells ringing during the day, but it came to a point when that wasn’t enough either; people wanted absolute time precision. Of course, clocks were developed, soon pocket watches, and all the rest. Now, we think about the whole day in the abstract medium of hours, minutes, and seconds. Having the technology available made people change their habits. Some people saw that keeping accurate time was an improvement, and eventually everyone else standardized too. By presenting these historical anecdotes on technology, Carr draws an analogy between these instances of technology and our current matter: computers. He even states, “In large measure, civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use.”

After discussing technology in general, Carr goes on to discuss writing and reading. When the Greeks first started to use writing, Socrates complained about it, stating that it had some practical benefits, but it would not affect us for the better (sidenote: he then told those damn kids to get off his lawn and turn down that music). Something interesting that I didn’t know (but once I read it, seemed obvious) was that reading was originally only an out loud activity. Silent and solo reading were not things that people thought to do. Even though people started writing things down as an aid to memory or to communicate stories, people still only read in the same way that they had communicated for ages: with spoken word. It wasn’t until the middle ages that people started reading silently and methods of writing text (like using spaces between words) were developed to support silent reading. Carr argues that we are now at a point where reading is a feat of sustained attention and quiet effort. This is where Carr’s complaint about reading on computers comes in. Computers as a medium are inherently distracting due to the way that we navigate the text. Furthermore, “Research has shown that the cognitive act of reading draws not just on our sense of sight but also on our sense of touch. It’s tactile as well as visual.” I would be interested to see if there is any research on how the tactile sensation of reading is interpreted for readers of different generations. I feel like, when I close out other distractions, I can read just as well on the computer as I do with a book. I wonder if there is a generational divide in this issue. If the brain has as much plasticity as the reader is lead to believe in earlier chapters, would it not be possible that the brain can learn to get as much out of digital reading as analog reading?

There are a couple chapters in the middle of the book that strike me as rather self-indulgent. Take this statement, for example, “Despite years of hype about electronic books, most people haven’t shown much interest in them. Investing a few hundred dollars in a specialized ‘digital reader’ has seemed silly, given the ease and pleasure of buying and reading old-fashioned books.” Ah, yes, the simple allure of analog books, that ultimate argument against digital reading! You know, based on the ridiculous amount of statistics on this issue, I think I am going to have to disagree that e-books aren’t catching on. Carr also discusses the fact that some people predict social media conversations happening within e-books. One the one hand, I can see that being annoying, but as long as there is the option to disable it, I fail to see the problem. In some texts, I can even see it being beneficial. Readers could start discussions and connect with each other this way. In textbooks or technical books, readers might as each other questions. The future isn’t necessarily horrible, Mr. Carr!

Finally, we get to how the Internet is changing our brains. Inquiring minds want to know: what is the word on this? Carr characterizes the modern Web as a “high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions.” He argues that we keep interneting because it stimulates our brains and bite-sized information chunks make us feel happy; it boils down to basic operant conditioning. Carr also states that the Internet keeps our brains distracted. The brain needs downtime away from highly stimulating environments to do deep thinking and refresh itself, but it’s hard to pull away from the computer because we feel rewarded when we use it. I do agree with this, but I also think there isn’t anyone who really disagrees with this. Even the most internet addicted among us (Redditors?) will agree that spending the entire day online results in feeling kind of bad at the end of it all. Everyone has to learn to moderate their own time online in order to get things done. That’s the nature of modern life. Carr also cites some work on attention and multitasking, making the case–again–that the desultory nature of reading online is making us dumb because we can’t remember anything. There is a case in which people were assigned a reading comprehension task, one with hyperlinks throughout and one without. The people with no hyperlinks understood the story they read on a deeper level because they didn’t get lost on tangents with the hyperlinks. Furthermore, the people who had the hyperlinks remembered less about everything they had read than the no-links group. In a similar study, a researcher found that readers understood less for every additional link in a text. I can see that this is a problem, just from my own experience. I find that if I click on links through a text and read all the links immediately, it is harder to understand what is going on. However, I think this problem can be solved quite simply by opening new links in a tab and reading things all the way through before going onto the next one. So, again, the tone seems somewhat alarmist to me, especially when there are so many easy ways to get around these problems.

Next, Carr considers the effects of “outsourcing” one’s memory to the Web. On this subject, I do agree with the author that this is a dumb idea. Some people take the approach that they don’t really need to remember things because everything is online. Carr brings up some interesting research on this subject, noting that “the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation,” which is to say that when you remember something, your brain strengthens the neural pathways to the memory and you probably deepen your understanding of the issue by thinking about it again, but with new knowledge in your brain. I must agree with this based on my own experience. I find that the more I know, the more I can know. Remembering a lot of things allows more links between information to be formed, thus making me smarter. Treating the mind as an index to things online works in some ways (perhaps for things you want to learn later, or for incidental information), but the best course of action for actually being a more intelligent person is to use your damn memory! I also appreciated the William James quotation in this section, “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.” I like it.

Overall, The Shallows has discussions about some interesting research and I felt that it did make some valid points about the metacognition, but I thought the tone was needlessly alarmist. I don’t think people are becoming more shallow in their thinking as a whole, but I do believe we are in a transitional period in terms of how we view technology and its role in cognition and learning. The technology will change and we will adapt to it. In some ways it will be better, and in some ways it will be worse. Such is humanity. Should you read the book? If you like reading about technology and the brain, yes, you will likely be interested. I particularly enjoyed the beginning of the book because of these topics. The end of the book has some interesting modern research on attention, which I also appreciated. On the whole, I am ambivalent about The Shallows, but I would not say that I regret reading it (in between opening all the hyper links, checking email, and generally going to hell in a hand basket).

Every day the same, but different

Book Review: Every Day by David Levithan

Every Day cover
Every Day cover

I picked this book up from the library on a whim. I volunteer there twice a week, so I spend a lot of time walking past books, and this one caught my eye. The author wrote another book that a friend of mine has been telling me to read and the summary on the back sounded good, so I borrowed it.  I was glad I did because even though it is a “young adult” book and a quick read, I enjoyed it.

The premise of Every Day is that the protagonist, a 16 year old who has taken the name A, wakes up in a new body (of zir own age) every day. Ze (ze is a gender neutral pronoun) can “access” the  host body’s memories and generally tries to go about zirs day without disrupting the life of the body’s owner. A’s life has been like this for as long as ze can remember. Furthermore, A has no idea why or how this happens, just that it does. A also doesn’t know what zir original body is: boy or girl, straight or gay. A has experienced all types of genders and doesn’t feel anymore at home in one type of body than another. Each chapter of Every Day tells us what day A is on. The book opens with day 5994 with A inhabiting a boy named Justin. This leads A to Rihannon, Justin’s girlfriend, with whom ze immediately falls in love. On that day, A breaks zirs own rules and disrupts Justin’s life, skipping class with Rihannon to drive to the beach and get to know each other. The next day, A is desperate to meet Rihannon again. Luckily, A seems to stay within a relatively small geographical area so on any given day our protagonist isn’t too far away from the love interest. The book chronicles A’s efforts to meet her and get her to see A’s inner self, apart from the physical trappings. They deal with issues of attraction and sexuality and try to figure out what it means to be with someone who is a different person every day.

I felt that it had some strong themes that would be good for teenagers who are still trying to figure out who they are. Feeling like you’re a totally different person every day is not uncommon for a lot of  teenagers (or, let’s be real, 20-somethings) and Every Day plays with that concept quite literally. At one point, A tells the reader, “Part of growing up is making sure your sense of reality isn’t entirely grounded in your own mind” and I have to agree. You can always spot the mature children based on how aware they are of things that go on that have nothing to do with them. And from a perspective of advanced reality-awareness, being able to navigate the world around you without basing all your decision on your immediate feelings or hormone situation really is the secret to being a level-headed adult.

Another identity-related theme is our protagonists attitudes about sexuality. I know that not everyone is going to agree with this sentiment, but there is a part in the book where A expresses that zir preferences aren’t based on what sex organs people have, but on the person as an individual. Or, as I like to put it: love the person, not the parts. Again, I know that not everyone will feel this way, but I feel like for young LGBTQI (especially for the “questioning” part), the message that it’s not a big deal which gender the people you like are is an important one. It’s okay to just like people for themselves and not based on your considerations of how to have sex.

As a practically inevitable counterpoint to A’s genderless attraction preferences, ze is thrown into contact with some people who strongly disagree with those ideas. A ruminates on the family of one boy whose body he inhabits; the children are homeschooled in the extreme Christian way (not the cool, learn what you want and experience life way) and the mother goes berzerk when he catches her son (so it seems) kissing a girl–the beloved Rihannon. A remarks on the lecture ze received about “the sins of the flesh” and comments, “I want to tell [the mother] that ‘sins of the flesh’ is just a control mechanism–if you demonize a person’s pleasure, then you can control his or her life.” Speaking as an ex-Mormon, I find this to be totally true. Control of one’s sexuality is an all too common tactic that religions use to keep people down. Even though A feels this way, ze also expresses a lot of empathy for people who go to church. As a by product of zir life, A has been to all kinds of religious services. A emphasizes to the reader that religions have about 98% in common, and it’s that other 2% that everyone wants to focus on. Even though I am not a religious person, I liked that bit of perspective. It is a good point and I think that we do focus on the differences when we disagree with someone, rather than on the vast amounts we might have in common. And that’s really the point of Every Day. A wants us to focus on the commonalities of human experience as a way to come together, rather than dwell on the minute differences and let ourselves be dragged apart.

As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I enjoyed the premise (a new body every day), but I did want there to be more to it. Of course, that would make it a dedicated genre novel, rather than more of a YA work. The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret A’s condition: either ze is some kind of “soul” that isn’t linked to a body, or A body swaps every day, with the essence of the host body going to A’s body somewhere. Based on A’s description of how the mind of zir host works (the host seems to remember the day how A wants him/her to remember it, A can access memories of the host’s life), the latter interpretation seems unlikely; however, it is the better launching point for telling an alternate perspective of this story. Imagine, A’s body somewhere waking up everyday confused and alarmed. Parents come in and ask “What’s wrong, Liam?” (or whatever A’s possible “real” name is). The guest consciousness panics, “Liam? Who’s Liam? My name is Ashley. Wait … who are you and WHERE AM I?” You’d get various levels of hysteria from different personalities. Frustrated, Liam’s parents seek professional help, seeing a new doctor every week it seems like. Every day, Liam is someone else and the people are so detailed. Liam is so young, where does he get these ideas? Even worse, Liam never recognizes his parents. Eventually, unable to cope, Liam’s parents send him to a psychiatric institution. Every day, the psych tech wakes Liam up and sometimes she’s frustrated and sometimes she laughs at him. He sees the doctors who ask, “Who are you today?” Every day, Liam is someone new. I think that is a story that would be fun to write, perhaps I will look into that, although it’s likely that the premise has been used before. Even though Every Day didn’t delve deep into the genre stuff, I still liked the system created around A’s talent, if you will. It was consistent and it was interesting. This book might be disappointing if you’re looking for serious science fiction or fantasy, but if you think the premise sounds interesting and you like young adult literature, you will probably enjoy this book.

It’s a Trap!

Book Review: The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle Class Mothers & Fathers are Going Broke

The Two-Income Trap cover
The Two-Income Trap cover

I picked up this book not because I am a mother (as if I would have time to read if I had a child), but because I came across this quotation on Reddit about a month ago, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” And my thoughts were That’s all the reason I need not to procreate and also I should read that book. This is a big claim though; the main thing that will bring a woman down is children. I was interested to see how Warren and Warren-Tyagi (the mother-daughter duo that wrote the book) substantiated that claim and treated the issue.

The basic premise of The Two-Income Trap is that by sending mothers (the book does focus on mothers, rather than second-earner more generally) into the workforce, we have doomed ourselves. At first, this sounds very anti-feminist. I found myself wondering whether the authors thought women should go back to staying at home, but they later make it clear that this is absolutely not what they are proposing. Rather, the “trap” is twofold: having two income earners means that families structure their budgets around having two full time workers. Using this increase in cash (compared to families with only one income), these two-income families buy homes in better school districts, driving up the home values of everything in the area, making it impossible (for most people) to afford a home in a decent district on only on income. The second piece of the trap is that because families are focusing all their resources on affording homes in a nice school district, if one parent becomes unable to work or loses his or her job, the family is immediately sunk. We have created a system in which the only way to compete is to have two full time incomes and no one gets injured or laid off.

I was surprised to learn that school districts were such a major factor in where people decided to live (although, as a former teacher, I should not have been). In fact, “A study conducted in Fresno found that, for similar homes, school quality was the single most important determinant of neighborhood prices [emphasis theirs].” And furthermore, I found this statistic quite telling, “Schools that scored just 5 percent higher on fourth-grade math and reading tests added a premium of nearly $4,000 to nearby homes.” What! That’s basically adding a whole year’s salary onto a mortgage just for 5% more in test scores. The tone of this book definitely communicated the importance of getting into better school districts to middle class families. People are willing to bring themselves to the brink of financial ruin just to make it happen. I expect this is a function of the middle class drive for children to do better than their parents and the parents make this part of the American Dream come true by positioning themselves as strategically as possible, even if it means spending almost all your money on a house. Warren and Warren-Tyagi’s solution to this housing madness is “a well-designed voucher program.” I know that for anyone in education, vouchers make you tense up, but the goal of their proposed voucher is to make it so each child is entitled to go to school somewhere, but that school doesn’t have to be tied to the family’s domicile. The “voucher” travels with the student to whatever school the family chooses. I like the idea of de-coupling residence and school; however, I find it hard to believe that this can work in a pragmatic sense. Won’t everyone just try to get into the best school in the area? Wouldn’t this just result in lotteries like many charter schools already do? How are kids going to get to school? I will admit that I don’t have a better idea (of course I’m not a professor at Harvard Law School like warren is), but I am not confident that this would work without seeing a lot more data and plans.

Even though the book is primarily about two-income families, it also gives some attention to single mothers who have it even worse than everyone else. Unfortunately, “Single mothers are more likely than any other group to file for bankruptcy.” Essentially, anything that is financially negative, will happen to single mothers more than anyone else. They are more likely to lose their homes and to be past due on bills. Even though the “trap” described in this book is for two-income families, single mothers (and presumably fathers) are caught up in it in their own way. According to Warren and Warren-Tyagi, “For every increase in the paycheck of a single mother, there is now a corresponding increase in a married couple’s income as well … the income gap between single and married parents is growing.” So, if you think that being a single parent will let you opt-out of this two-income trap, you’re wrong about that.

Another issue that is discussed in detail is the issue of debt, consumption and inflation. They explain that one of the major things that can drive a family into debt—and potentially bankruptcy—is medical bills. They state that “Over the past twenty years, the number of families declaring bankruptcy in the wake of a serious illness has multiplied more than twentyfold, or 2,000 percent.” They also discuss the rise of subprime mortgage lending (and for anyone who has lived in the 21st century, subprime is not a term I need to define for you). Subprime mortgages offer interest rates of more than twice as much as a standard loan. The authors give the example of a 6.5% and a 15.6% interest rate: on the life of a $175,000 mortgage, the higher rate would result in $420,000 more in payments over a 30 year loan. That is insane, you could buy two more houses (in someplace that isn’t California, I suppose) for that amount, yet people are racking that up as mere interest. Apparently, the mortgage industry was being somewhat less than honest at this point in time, and the authors cite a figure that 40% of people who were sold subprime mortgages could have qualified for a standard loan. It seems that many people are not well enough educated to know when they are being scammed by the bank, and thus were taken advantage of by lenders who were pretending to be friendly. Again, this is madness and it is absolutely irresponsible and predatory on the part of banks.

From my standpoint in 2013, I’m thinking, Well, obviously, but this book was published in 2003. It pre-empted the financial crisis by five years. Some of the issues they discuss make them seem almost prescient, but of course, they weren’t making magical predictions, it was clear even then that our economic model was not a sustainable one. To get on my soapbox for a moment: the fact that people knew and were writing about the problems of medical debt and people getting into mortgages that they could barely sustain in 2003 (which means the data would have been primarily from the 1990’s), but nothing happened and the economy was allowed to completely fall apart in 2008 is infuriating. The authors mention that in 2002, Citibank’s subprime lending arm was “prosecuted for deceptive marketing practices.” And yet, nothing happened. They paid $240 million to settle and, presumably, went on stoking the fires of financial ruin for the country. My generation is going to be trying to cope with the after effects of all this thanks to the legislature deregulating so many industries and bankers profiting off of all this foolishness.

At the end of the book, Warren and Warren-Tyagi offer some suggestions for how to avoid the two-income trap. The first is the somewhat obvious “Stay home?” I get that having a parent stay home can be a way to opt-out of this trap, but for that to work, one partner has to be making a significant amount of money and the other must be okay with staying at home and leaving the workforce. I don’t see that being a great solution (and even the authors present it in a tentative kind of way). However, I think the lesson from this suggestion is to not rely so heavily on two incomes. If a family has two incomes, then they shouldn’t be putting a full income of one member into a mortgage. An entire lifestyle cannot be predicated on having just enough to pay for necessities without any savings. The second solution (and my personal favorite) is “No children?” (all the suggestions have nice, tentative question marks). Notably, “By forgoing childbearing, a woman decreases her chances of going bankrupt by 66 percent” and “By remaining childless, a woman greatly improves her odds of having a comfortable retirement.” If you read this book looking for reasons you shouldn’t have children, then here it is, you win this round!

I had a hard time figuring out what I thought about this book on the whole. A part of me wants to say Well, just never have children! Problem solved, but of course that is not an actionable solution for everyone, and frankly, there are lots of people who want children and feel good about having them, and I wouldn’t want to deny people that choice just because the financial game is not a fun one for families with children. Another part of me was enraged because injustice is upsetting for me. Every school should be a good school that parents want their kids to go to! People shouldn’t be pushing themselves to the brink of bankruptcy just so their kid can get a free and appropriate education. That is the most anti-democratic concept that I can think of. It guarantees that only rich (or relatively wealthy people) will get a good education, thus perpetuating a cycle of socio-economic inequality. I’m not sure what a good answer would be, but I feel that, as a society, if education, equality, and democracy are things that we actually value (rather than things we just say we value) then this is a problem that needs to b e fixed.

Finally, if you hate reading, or just like watching things, here’s a lecture by Elizabeth Warren about things from this book and “the coming collapse of the middle class.”

The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class – Elizabeth Warren [57:37]

Welcome to Crazy Land

Book Review: Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane

Over the Cliff book cover

I know I am not the only person to ask themselves “Why are these people completly insane?” while watching the news (or, while watching the bits of Fox News crazy that The Daily Show cherry picks for our amusement). I know this because John Amato and David Neiwert wrote Over the Cliff. Surely, they started with the same “What the hell?” sentiment that so many non-conservatives—and probably quite a few fiscal conservatives have felt since this century began and George W. Bush took office. What happened? How did we get here? More importantly, how can we get out?

Over the Cliff was published in 2010, so while a few things have changed since it came out, the analysis and coverage of the events leading up to Obama’s election and his first year in office are on point. Amato and Neiwert are both internauts of the original liberal blogosphere (do we have a better word for this yet?), with Amato being the creator of the Crooks and Liars blog. They both seem to have a fair bit of news watching street cred and, hey, they lived this period—and more importantly they were paying attention (unlike me, finishing college and having an existential crisis).

The first thing that stood out to me from reading the coverage of the Obama campaign was just how racist it was. I remembered that it had been racist, but seeing the vitriol compiled in text was alarming. I’m used to racism operating in its normal, insidious way, but seeing flat out racism is, for me, really shocking. Of course, much of the blatantly racist quotes are stated in that crazy, nonsensical way that we have come to know and love from Republicans. For a fine example: “Obama wins, I’m gonna move to Alaska. Haven’t you heard that the United States is gonna be taken down from within? What better way to get taken down from within than having the President of the United States be the one that’s going to do it?” Irrefutable logic, truly.

As much as it is fun to giggle at the apparent stupidity of some of these people, Over the Cliff makes the point that when networks like Fox News prominently feature incendiary rhetoric, people who hold these same beliefs feel validated, like their beliefs are correct and right because someone on national television is sharing in the same sentiments. As such, the book takes aim at people like Glenn Beck, in particular, for giving a forum to this militant fringe crazy bullshit.

A lot of these right-wing extremists subscribe to the “lone wolf” ideology, which is a form of “leaderless resistance.” By operating alone, it is difficult to pin down some kind of hierarchy that could be targeted by law enforcement, but it also means that a quite often crimes or terrorist acts committed by extremists often aren’t connected with the ideology because they appear to be a one-off event by a crazy person. In fact, the “oh, that guy is just crazy!” defense seems to be a popular one. The book discussed a few instances where there was a shoot-out or someone reacted with what was an apparently disproportionate response for the situation, at least based on the way the news reported it. Whereas in many such cases, the perpetrator can be connected with extreme right wing ideology, either via activity on the Stormfront forums or similar sites. What’s really convenient about that for the people on TV fanning the flames of these people is that they can just say “He’s a crazy person! Not my fault!” and move on from the subject. Glenn Beck did this pretty often. Unfortunately, unless you’re paying extremely close attention (or you are in on the right-wing extremist secret handshakes) they do seem like unrelated crazy people flying off the handle, making things seem just insane, when they represent a pattern of violence based on an extreme ideology.

Another theme of the book is Fox News’ promotion of the Tea Party. It seems like they never would have gone anywhere if it hadn’t been for Fox promoting their events and really signing on with the message (anyone remember the Tea Party Express?). With the emergence of the Tea Party movement, the “Birther” issue and the “Obama is a socialist/Marxist/Hitler” rhetoric took on a life of their own in the insane signage that many of the participants carried. Again, Amato and Neiwert make it clear that this is really a function of racism. These people did not have a cogent message other than “Oh no, black man!” Thus, they equated Obama with all the worst political things they could think of and continually tried to cast doubt on his legitimacy. Racism all the way.

When the issue of passing some health care legislation came up in is when the Tea Party found its voice. The authors express that after the initial tax day protests and the 9/12 foolishness, the Tea Party was losing momentum and lacked any kind of focus, but unfortunately for the rest of us, the health care debates invigorated them. The Tea Party leadership actually distributed guidelines to people on how to be maximally disruptive during town hall events so that there could be no civil discourse. From a rational point of view, it is really hard to understand why you would want to shut down a discussion where people might be sharing actual information. Even after reading this book, I still don’t totally understand that, but it seems to be fueled by racism and the espousal of just really extreme beliefs. I’m sure there’s a certain element of mental instability as well, but I’ll go ahead and admit that’s mostly speculation.

It ends on a not very hopeful note, cautioning us against being dragged down by right-wing madness, but also giving a call to action to everyone else. I think now, a few years down the line, things are more optimistic in some ways, but the same in some others. First of all, Glenn Beck—the book’s villain—no longer has a show on Fox News. For this, we all rejoice. I think that Obama’s landslide re-election beat back some of the crazier sentiments that emerged during his first term. The people have spoken! We’ve now elected a black man to the presidency twice, any person of color who comes after Obama will not have it as bad as he did. He has made it possible for everyone else.  In news that is both hopeful and profoundly depressing, Mother Jones offered this article on the outcome of adopting many Tea Party policies in Florida. The state cut taxes, 4 million people are without health care, $3 billion was taken from education, and agencies that serve disabled people were hugely cut. While there is nothing hopeful about this news for Florida, I hope that everyone else in the country sees this and realizes that this is the “logical” extension of the policies of the Tea Party. Hopefully, over the next few election cycles, Florida digs its way out of this madness and the rest of us can let the Tea Party become a historical footnote.

The Ordinary Review

Book Review: The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall

Cover image for
The Ordinary Acrobat

The Ordinary Acrobat occupies the literary territory between memoir, history, and anthropological report. Wall opens with his nod to the “circus memoir” genre, in which the author describes his or her first interaction with the circus, before jumping into the circus experience that captivated him, compelling him to learn more about the exotic culture and history of the circus. Not surprisingly, Wall was became fascinated with the circus while in France, a cultural stronghold for the contemporary circus. France classifies circus as a fine art, and it is governed by France’s Ministry of Culture, which puts millions into supporting the art and its state supported circus school annually.

Wall researched this book from the enviable position (from my perspective as a scholar and a former circus performer) of a Fullbright fellowship and the ability to sit in on classes at France’s National School. In compiling the work, it’s clear that Wall also spent an immense amount of time speaking with circus professionals and historians, reading works of circus history and lore, and “chasing ghosts”—the name the author gives to visiting sites of circus history, even if there’s nothing left connecting the site to the circus anymore. When I picked up the book, I was worried that it would be heavy on memoir (What do I care about reading some circus neophyte’s memoir? I asked myself), but in fact, the memoir aspects permeated the narrative without overpowering it. Wall’s personal experiences tied the history and cultural observations together, propelling the story forward and providing a great sense of how the circus developed to where it stands today.

Even though I’ve been involved in circus arts for about half my life, I learned a lot about the roots of the circus and how some of its traditions developed; some of which I had never even thought about. For example, the traditional red and gold circus colors and ring master look are based on military fashion. One of the first and most influential circuses (as we think of them today) was put together by Philip Astley, a retired cavalry officer. When he started his circuses, he based his shows on equestrian skills (a tradition that persisted until very recently, although still seen in “traditional” circuses today), and lifted most of his style choices from his military experience. Wall makes the point that such choices became codified into traditions that were handed down through the years between performers, resulting in the rather uniform look of circuses in the 20th century.

The first skill that the author describes learning is juggling and he devotes three whole chapters (three!) to juggling and speaking to professionals. As a juggler, I was impressed; jugglers are typically the misfits of the circus (speaking as a juggler), and as one performer that Wall spoke with put it, jugglers are “heady.” Wall also described the problem with juggling performance: it tends to only really be appreciated by other jugglers. “Be hinging their craft of virtuosic execution, jugglers painted themselves into a corner. Although it is thrilling, this kind of technical juggling is tough for audiences to appreciate … Many tricks are harder than they look, and vice versa.” He also noted that since there is no inherent danger in juggling as there is in other circus disciplines, audiences sometimes have a difficult time connecting with it. Some jugglers have moved past this by turning it their acts into full blown art pieces. Wall spoke with juggler Jerome Thomas, who confided the secret to engaging the audience with an act as art: “You make him work his imagination … You make him dream!” The audience has to do some mental work in order to connect with the act, not just be wowed by a deluge of props cascading to the floor.

Wall also relates his foray into trapeze and investigations into clowning, all the while including fun facts. One of the most ridiculous (and terrifying) was that in 1829, a town in Pennsylvania prosecuted a group of acrobats for witchcraft for “‘having private conferences with the spirit of darkness,’ as well as exposing their populace to such ‘performances of magic’ as ‘leaping over a horse through hoops.’” Jumping through hoops: the devil’s handiwork! I also found the section on clowning quite informative. Wall met Andre Riot-Sarcey, director of Les Nouveaux Nez, a modern clowning quartet. Andre explained that clowning is “the reduction of ourselves into our purest desires, to our desperate hunger for approval,” and he also offered the most important information about clowning: “CLOWN = FUNNY !!!”

At the end of the book, Wall discusses the cultural significance of circuses and compares the artistic landscape in Europe and the U.S. One of the best comments on this came from Bernard Turin, director of France’s National School in discussing why circus arts declined so sharply in the middle of the 20th century: “A popular art should bring people together. It should unify them and pull them upward. Unfortunately, television doesn’t do this, it pulls them downward. Instead of bringing people together, it isolates them.” This segues into something of a call to action from Wall. Circus arts can bring people of all social classes together, but in the U.S., we leave the funding of circus arts entirely to the private sector, so the artists we get really only end up working in corporations. No one starts troupes or shows because there is too much financial risk involved, thus leaving the American circus landscape devoid of new contributions and innovation. Circus can pull people upward, as Turin put it, and as someone who spent most of my youth in a circus environment, I tend to agree.

I recommend this book for both people who have an existing interest in circuses (you will learn something!) and for people who don’t (it will endear you!). Like I said, I found that this book was a great way to get in touch with my circus “roots,” and I think that it’s a highly accessible work on the past, present, and future of the circus as an art form.