‘Learning requires the humility to realize one has something to learn.’ So saith Adam Grant, author of Think Again, one of the more insightful and (literally) thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. A possible alternate subtitle might be ‘Tearing down our siloes.’ The author offers nothing less than a way out of our current rigid thinking, reinforced by social media, and enhanced by the echo chamber of confirmation bias.
One of the first challenges any of us encounters interacting with others is the tribal urge, the powerful need to obtain the approval of others, and to not receive argument in return. Grant says the tradition of arguing should be returned to respectability, since, as he writes, ‘arguing with somebody is not a sign of disrespect; it’s a sign of respect. It means I value (that person’s) view enough to argue about it. If I didn’t consider it worthwhile, I wouldn’t bother.’
He continues, addressing most of the common fallacies we hold about confrontation, and argument, and the value of letting go of long-cherished opinions. One method of letting them go, or at least starting a civil conversation with someone we disagree with is to ask: ‘How do you know?’ The key is, we need to ask ourselves that question as well.
A few lasting lessons from Think Again are these: Don’t confuse confidence with competence; meaning is healthier than happiness; the greatest discoveries have come not from ‘Eureka’ moments, but from ‘That’s funny’ moments; and just because it’s the HIPPO—the HIghest Paid Person’s Opinion—doesn’t make it right.Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
I was drawn to this little memoir partly because of its title, partly because I have a passing acquaintance with the author, and partly because it took me back to other cherished friends in the Spanish-speaking world, amigos that I dearly miss.
That disclaimer aside, let me say that even if I didn’t know Jackie Ruiz, I’d happily give The Fig Factor five stars, only because I can’t give it eight. Seldom have I read a memoir that tugs at the heartstrings like this one does, and seldom have the rewards for persistence, faith, and resilience been so clearly rewarded and conveyed. It has the added feature of being very well written.
No spoilers here, but the vector Ms Camacho-Ruiz has taken was nothing short of amazing, and considering where she has landed, and how she’s thriving is a remarkable thing to see. As for the mysterious title, suffice to say that figs played an important part in the author’s first entrepreneurial effort, and ‘Fig Factors’ still guide her efforts to this day. The book gave me a new appreciation for strong women, the value of family, the role of universal beneficence in our lives, and the goodness available to all, if we seek it out.
Political cant aside, her story also affirms for me the shallow thinking, and the ill-considered efforts of certain people to block entry to immigrants to this country. From Mexico City, to a tiny pueblo called Malpaso, to the U.S. and Chicago, to success, despite several challenges, speed-bumps, health concerns, and family crises, Ms Ruiz triumphs, and then some.
Life in the veil. This is the encapsulation of WEB Dubois’ seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, on what it’s like to live as a Black person in these United States. Sadly, though the book was published in 1903, it is relevant these hundred and eighteen years later as Black Americans continue struggling to be, in Dubois’ own words, ‘a negro and an American.’ Here’s my disclaimer: As a white man in America, I understood very little of this book, except that my race bears a considerable blame for its contents & conclusions.
Dubois begins the book with a simple, yet profound question: How does it feel to ‘be a problem.’ As a white person in America, this was an unusual query for me, simply because, unless we’re in trouble for some reason, or unable to accomplish a task, or lag behind our peers, we whites are never subjected to this feeling; we’re never assumed to ‘be’ a problem. Our Black friends and neighbors feel it their entire lives, simply because of the color of their skin.
Dubois writes of another sense that separates his race from whites, what he refers to as ‘second sight,’ that is, Black peoples’ constant sense that they must see themselves not for themselves, but as white people see them. They must always look at themselves through our eyes. And the message Black people often find in that sight is—don’t forget this was written 118 years ago—’the other world which does not know, and does not wish to know our power.’
He continues, unashamed and unapologetic, in calling America to task for its serial disappointments regarding Black citizens: The Atlanta compromise; the Freedmen’s Bureau and its lost promise; the on-going violence against Blacks across America, despite the 14th amendment, and on, and on….
Dubois is not shy about calling his contemporaries to task: He writes of the controversy surrounding Booker T. Washington, and his degradation of Blacks, in Dubois’ opinion, and the former’s efforts to build Tuskegee Institute. He writes also of the on-going antipathy among Blacks for Jewish people, accusing them of assisting the white race in keeping Black people subservient.
In another section reminiscent of today’s headlines, particularly those emanating from Georgia, Dubois writes about voting, and those who would make the act of voting more difficult. Since emancipation, Black churches have served in many ways to benefit their members. One of those services has been as a gathering place, a sort of circling the wagons kind of place prior to heading out for the polls. This is why, 118 years after this book came out, it is no surprise that a new legislative initiative in the south proposes an end to so called ‘souls to the polls,’ efforts. History is indeed circular.
He writes further about chain gangs in the south, and prison labor as nothing more than enslavement by another means in order to create work crews for menial tasks that the state would prefer not to have to pay for.
But mostly he writes about his title: The souls of Black folk. And the theme he returns to, time after time, is how resilient and hopeful his people are, in spite of everything they’ve undergone in America since 1619. In the author’s words, ‘there has always been the temptation to despair, when all we wanted was to be a negro…and an American.’
Here we have a story about a larger than life individual, Jack, the Buccaneer of MayCay Beeler’s true-life adventure. If anyone believes tales of derring do, surreptitious flights across foreign borders, near death experiences, and otherwise ‘too exotic to be true but they are anyway stories are long gone, here’s your answer that, yes indeed, those people still exist.
Ms Beeler’s rendering of Jack Reed’s phenomenal life story reveals the true hidden life of a band of smugglers, scofflaws, pilots, and pirates, showing them to be much different than the general public believes, and that the American media makes them out to be. True or not, it’s easy to see how their distaste for violence could be damaging to their brand. True or not, it’s easy to understand why these pirates respond to a ready market for their illicit product.
We find ourselves agreeing with the motivations of people who are demonized for simply following the supply & demand business model that capitalism reifies: Find out what people want, and give it to them. So they’ve done that. The fact that the product people want is highly illegal, and addictive, and disruptive matters not. The marketplace rules all, right?
Also, readers may come away with the impression that those attempting to hinder the drug trade, working day and night to arrest and incarcerate people like Jack Reed are often themselves twisting legal niceties to get their job done. It appears that no one in the drug business is pure as the snow white product they all owe their living to.
Buccaneer Jack Reed is dead. Too bad, I thought. I’d like to have met him, he sounds like someone who lived his life according to his own lights, another sacred tenet of our society. This retired pilot wanted much more aviation treatment, more middle of the night, close calls in crummy weather, aircraft system spit-up stories. I’m quite sure there were many such tales, as the equipment in question had to have been old, ragged, rode hard and put to bed wet aircraft as we say, thus anything but reliable. Maybe there will be a sequel. Buccaneer: The Provocative Odyssey of Jack Reed, Adventurer, Drug Smuggler and Pilot Extraordinaire
Here we have a wonderful dream-come-true story, wherein a young woman in the UK with few prospects, no money, fairly pedestrian expectations, and only a vague dream ‘to travel the world’ finds herself doing just that, and being well paid for it into the bargain.
Betty Riegel (nee Eden) wasn’t particularly dissatisfied, or wretched, or restless growing up in wartime London, but once the war was over, and she went looking for work, she understood that there was much more to the world than her little burg could offer. She took a position with a small, puddle-jumping airline when she was just 18, and despite a bad case of airsickness, learned a lot more about what she wanted from life.
When the chance arrived to interview with Pan Am, at the time the world’s premier airline, she entered the interview with those same lowered expectations, but found herself in short order a newly hired ‘stewardess,’ which is, of course, what young women flight attendants were called in those pre-feminist days.
Betty Eden lived her dream thereafter, training in New York, passing one after another test, graduating from the Pan Am academy, and finally—pinching herself, and determined to be the best employee she could be—took her place in the cabin as a proud worker for Pan American Airlines.
The book outlines her charmed existence as a stewardess, her choice of domicile in San Francisco in order to fly the Pacific routes, and her interaction with other young women as they pioneered the business. After reading of Betty’s exploits on flights to Honolulu, Sydney, Tokyo, and even exotic places like Indonesia and Wake Island, we have a real picture of what early airline travel was like, and why it held so much appeal to young people like the author.
Also, reading of the way passengers were pampered in those early days highlights and contrasts with modern passenger air travel: The crowded cabins, minimal extras, shrunken seats, and especially the perfunctory attempts at inflight feeding compared with the lavish gourmet fare offered by Pan Am. Those truly were times when only the wealthy could afford air travel, and Betty Eden upheld the reputation of Pan Am as she pampered them, while she fulfilled her dream to see the world.
In the contrasting vision the author offers between air travel then and now, it’s easy to see why, with its laser focus only on passengers who could afford their service, the world’s premier airline no longer exists. Up in the Air
At some point in all of our lives there comes a time of reckoning. A time when we understand that we have no choice but to look at a long-cherished belief, to see its false promise—indeed, its pernicious grip on us—and to realize that we must let it go, as painful as that process might be. Robert E. Lee and Me is about one man’s arrival at that point, and his brutally honest exploration into the effects of his former creed, his past associations, and his cherished beliefs, indeed his conception of who he was. His conclusion is that all of that must be questioned and addressed. This is not an easy, or a casual reading experience. For any American, regardless of ideology, religious bent, acculturation, skin color, or social stratum, this is a book that will disturb any thoughtful reader. It should be used in early classroom situations, as we struggle with the ugly, the still deep seated racism that pervades this country.
The author’s background informs his writing. A historian by education and training, he spent many years in uniform teaching history at West Point. He describes his early life’s ambition as the traditional rise in society as, ‘a christian gentleman’ in the southern understanding of that term. In other words, Ty Seidule was a white man immersed from top to toe in the southern lost cause myth. He spent most of his previous life in adulation of Robert E. Lee ‘more deity than man’, and in full throated defense of the heroes of the insurrection against the U.S., despite his own dedication to the country as a member of its armed forces.
Seidule describes how, at every turn, whenever the idea of slavery as the true cause of the Civil War pushed forward for recognition, evil forces of southern tradition, the ‘sweet tea on the verandah’ narrative brutally suppressed that truth.
As if he’s peeling a particularly pungent onion, the author winces as each new revelation of this countries brutal racism shimmers into his view, and pens its way onto his pages: The retrocession in his hometown; his families frantic rush to change schools when integration loomed; the silence that surrounded lynching in proximity to his boyhood home in Georgia; finally, his awakening to the egregious presence of confederate souvenirs, monuments, and regalia adorning The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, items that glorified men who, in Seidule’s words, ‘killed U.S. soldiers’. Perhaps his most painful revelation is the realization that northern, progressive politicians—men like Franklin D. Roosevelt—pandered to powerful racists to curry favor, and to win legislative battles.
The author describes the beatification of Robert E. Lee, his history as ‘a southern christian gentleman,’ his rise through the ranks in the U.S. Army, and Lee’s seemingly inexplicable abandonment of a promising future as a true leader of that institution. Seidule writes that Lee’s path, however, was not so inexplicable after all; Lee resigned his commission, and walked away from the U.S. Army that had given his life purpose, and meaning, and potential, for one simple reason: Like his southern peers, Robert E. Lee was enmeshed in the sordid business of enslaving men & women for profit. As clearly painful as it was for him to do so, the author calls Lee out for what he truly was: A traitor.
Finally, the book is about the mandatory reckoning we Americans must have with our racist past. For white Americans, we simply must face this brutal and ugly part of our history, or it will haunt us forever. So long as we refuse to face it square, call it what it was and is, remove the symbols that contribute to the perpetuation of the damaging ‘lost cause’ myth, the southern ‘tea on the verandah’ tradition, we will never move forward as one country.
Robert E. Lee and Me is not an easy book to read, especially if one’s background is based in the south. It is, however, a book that should be read by anyone who loves the United States of America as its author clearly does, and by anyone who has the courage to dredge up our racist past, and subject it to the cleansing sunshine of truth.
An afterthought: This reader wondered, in a bit of counterfactual questioning, where America might be today had Robert E. Lee followed his oath, and marched against those rebels that he instead chose to lead? Our history could have been truly glorious. And Lee’s position could have been truly exemplary and heroic, instead of the tawdry, carefully cultivated chimera of heroism that it is.
I love Annie Lamott. I really do, she’s a treat. And this little book is as well. Almost a hymnal, like many of Ms Lamott’s works, Dusk, Night, Dawn is the ‘adorably ageless’ Anne Lamott’s way of helping us all through the current crises: the pandemic, the trump debacle, loss of incomes, and homes, and jobs, and hope. It was written as Lamott, in her own words, ‘awaits the rain of frogs.’ (She adds that York Peppermint Patties also help. See why I love this woman.)
The setting for the book is (roughly) a Sunday school classroom, with Lamott as the teacher, a kind of convict returns to prison to warn others scenario. Like every Sunday school scene, there are prayers, and these prayers, otherwise known as Lamott-isms, take the form of snippets of wisdom that we’re asked to recite, short pearls of wisdom Lamott has gathered along the way. Referring to the healing need to tell others what’s going on with us, she writes ‘stories can be our most reliable medicine.’ If we’re feeling bad about ourselves, ‘the hardest work we do is self love & forgiveness.’ Hard to argue with any of that.
As one of her credentials, Lamott claims a ‘PhD in Morbid Reflection’, which qualifies her very well to write this book, at this time. We learn here that she’s been married now for two years to Neal, and their navigation of the relationship is another layer atop the blanketing of woes, another green downpour in that rain of frogs. Here’s a tip: If you happen to encounter Annie Lamott in the airport, or the public market, or in Sunday school, don’t ask her how married life is. You’re welcome.
Despite her own penchant for retreating into past destructive behaviors and negativities, the author encourages readers to avoid that: ‘if you want to have loving feelings, do loving things,’ she writes. And here’s the thing about the lurking hypocrisy in Lamott’s seemingly glib pronouncement: She’s not afraid to listen to accusations about that seeming hypocrisy, because she’s done the hard work required to hear them, and that ability has made her the wonderful writer she is. Here’s proof, in another Lamott-ism: ‘Perfectionism is the most toxic condition for the soul.’ Don’t you feel better already? I do.
Lamott refers to ‘forgiving ourselves’ (a common Lamott theme) as ‘senior lifesaving.’ Always looking for simplification, she quotes Ram Dass: ‘You only have to remember two things, your Buddha nature, and your social security number.’ Sounds easy enough. After writing that, she returns to her Sunday school class venue where, with her students, she celebrates ‘the sacrament of shrimp chips,’ Lamott’s students apparently approve, even though we’ve read that it’s a tough room.
Lamott writes of her quest to always ‘do Jesusy things,’ and how the nautilus shell is the perfect metaphor for growth, and how dealing with our restless, squirming, endlessly-seeking selves is ‘like putting an octopus to bed.’ She writes about ‘Dread’ as her constant companion, and as we’re attempting to get all eight octopus legs under the covers we must understand that ‘laughter is a holy and subversive battery charge.’
Opening a deeper vein than perhaps she ever has, we learn that Lamott has survived a lot of crises in her life. That’s not to say the current ‘flung-fecies fest’ is less deserving of her pen, because it certainly deserves every inch of ink she devotes to it. But reading about her past difficulties, her drunken sojourn, her near death at Esalen while ‘capital I inebriated’, her slogging recovery, her search for resolution with her estranged parents, and her interactions with, ahem, sinful men, we feel how far she’s come, and realize that we have come a ways as well. (See self-forgiveness i.e. senior lifesaving above)
Leave it to Anne Lamott to rely on a comedian for what may be the best takeaway from Dusk, Night, Dawn. This is Duncan Trussel: ‘When we first meet someone, we’re really meeting their bodyguard.’ Somehow meeting this author, either at Dusk, Night, or Dawn, we feel we’ve met the real deal. In conclusion, we’re offered a tender branch of hope in these parlous times, when she says, ‘The center may hold after all.’ As long as we have forgiveness, and York Peppermint Patties, and don’t ask Lamott about her married life, we’ll be fine.
Here we have a simple little book, with an even simpler message, the secret to astounding success. What is it? Giving. That’s it. Full stop.
The Go-Giver took this reader an hour to finish, and its message affirmed a lot of what I already suspected & knew.
The authors have crafted a narrative about ‘Joe’, a young-ish stockbroker heavily enmeshed in the hamster wheel of corporate climbing. Joe’s metric for success is based on the standard wisdom, and oriented around the standard marker, namely money, its acquisition, and its relentless, soul-killing pursuit. In other words, ‘getting.’
Then Joe is introduced to Pindar, a yoda-like master of success, who takes Joe under his wing like Master Po to the young grasshopper, teaching him in ways no B school ever did, or perhaps ever could. Joe is astonished, not only that the wealthy, lavishly-successful Pindar has deigned to even meet with him, but that the wealthy man is anxious to share the true secret of his success.
We meet graduates of the Pindar school of success, and the ‘connector’ who brings all of the protagonists together, and various Pindar acolytes who have embraced his teachings, and spread their success like pebbles on a pond.
No spoiler alerts, but of course there’s a happy ending. Even if ‘giving’ is the true secret of success, I’ll not ‘give’ the ending away. You’ll have to ‘get’ a copy of The Go-Giver and find success for yourself, grasshopper.
A very short post this time reference the current Derek Chauvin trial taking place in Minneapolis. As if this needs to be said, the trial is to decide the culpability of Derek Chauvin. It is NOT to decide George Floyd’s guilt or innocence. Since 1619 we’ve seen such misdirection by various entities when a Black person runs afoul of our laws, a white person interacts with them, and the Black man ends up dead. For 402 years it’s been happening, that, inexplicably, Black people stand trial for the very inequities whites have perpetuated for too many years.
I don’t watch the news, but I don’t live in a cave, either. So I know what’s going on around this trial, and how certain media are depicting it. I’m utterly and wholly disgusted by certain implications I’ve heard, not just from Chauvin’s defense attorney, but from people discussing the trial, and from unavoidable media commentary implying that George Floyd was responsible for his own demise.
George Floyd is dead. George Floyd is not on trial. It beggars belief that I even need to write those words. Allow me to present the following questions. (I’m looking at you, my white colleagues.)
1—If Derek Chauvin was Black, and George Floyd was white, would Floyd still be on trial?
2—If Derek Chauvin had been the victim, would his health status be evidentiary?
3—If George Floyd had been white, would his rap sheet be an issue in this trial?
4—If Floyd’s death had never been recorded, would we be having this trial at all?
From the top: 1— if Black Officer George Floyd had knelt on Derek Chauvin’s white neck, suffocating and killing him, I think we all know what could have happened. The city could have descended into chaos, as white citizens demanded Floyd be arrested and charged, or at least that possibility exists. I’ve been a white guy long enough to know exactly what the reaction would have been. By way of indirect example, we saw white men rampaging through our nation’s capitol in January, and they plundered away unmolested. I shudder to think what the reaction would have been had those men been Black. It would have been a bloodbath in that building, and many people would claim the violence agains them was justified.
2—If Black Officer George Floyd was on trial for killing white Derek Chauvin, would Chauvin’s poor health be an issue in his demise? Would we be saying that, since Chauvin neglected his health, he basically killed himself? If you believe we’d be having that discussion, I have some mountain view property in Florida I’d like to sell you.
3—If Officer Floyd had killed Derek Chauvin, would we be pointing at Chauvin’s rap sheet, his misdemeanors and even his criminal behaviors and basically saying he deserved to die? Since when have our police officers had the power to not only arrest, but to try, convict, and execute citizens? Did I miss that memo?
4—If the video of this despicable act had never surfaced, if it had happened before hand-held video cameras found their way into our individual possession, does anyone really believe the observers of George Floyd’s death would have been believed over Derek Chauvin’s word? Really? Do we have anything in our collective history to support that scenario?
Let me be very clear about this: I give no support to those who want to defund police departments. I do support redirecting funds away from basic law enforcement into community action programs, which is what the ‘defund’ slogan actually intended, until right-wing media distorted its message. Also, I believe the overwhelming majority of police officers are fine, upstanding, hard-working, conscientious women and men. I also believe they have the toughest job there is. I salute all those who put on the blue uniform every day, do their very dangerous job in commendable fashion, and keep the bad guys away.
But here’s a story that weighs on my unequivocal assumption that the police always act in benevolent fashion, especially toward our Black neighbors & friends. Many years ago I served in the Ohio National Guard with a (white) fellow who was a retired Columbus cop. He told me that at that time, again several years ago, it was routine for police officers to carry an unmarked, untraceable weapon with them as they patrolled the beat. The purpose of the contraband weapon was this: If they were to shoot and kill a Black man, for whatever reason, then discovered he was unarmed, they discharged the hidden gun, then placed it in the victim’s hand, and claimed self-defense. It was common practice.
Another story, related to that one: Days after the LA freeway chase of OJ Simpson, I heard two Black women chatting with each other about Mr. Simpson’s seemingly errant behavior. Here’s what one of those women said: ‘Of course he ran away, he’s innocent!’ Now…as a white man in this society, her statement seemed outrageous to me. If OJ was innocent, I thought, why would he feel the need to run? Then I remembered the Columbus PD practice, the assumption police forces make about the guilt of Black men in America, and how that assumption informs their too often derelict behavior.
Back to George Floyd. There is no reason Mr. Floyd should be dead. None. Not to prejudge Derek Chauvin, he’s entitled to a fair trial, of course he is. But to see George Floyd being tried for his own demise is simply incomprehensible to me. Why does any of his background, his health, his rap sheet, his behavior that day, or the color of his skin matter? And if it’s simply the last factor, the color of his skin, then why do so many of my white friends and family still need to ask why we need a Black Lives Matter movement?
Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Derek Chauvin is on trial. As he should be. RIP George Floyd. Here’s hoping your death finally wakes us up to the inequities that exist in this society. I believe 402 years is enough.
Here we have a collection of stories that offer a range of insights on topics from contraband flown in from Colombia to Florida, just not at all what one expects (and no spoilers here, although this reader wondered if Viagra may have been a better choice! Or perhaps a stool-softener? Or could that be Shonda?).
We move on to the quintessential object of U.S. capitalistic imperialism: Bananas. Who knew there was such an intense interest in them? The author could have included their uniformity in U.S. markets, despite the variety grown elsewhere, and the reasons for this, (thank you ever so much United Fruit Company.
Good rendition of the SF haunted house, and here again this reader wondered why no mention of Carlotta Monterey, O’Neal’s long-time paramour?
The pieces cover all kinds of subjects & geographies from cow-chip tossing contests in Oklahoma, to geology in ‘Cutthroat Gap,’ to a seeming version of the Scopes trial with the admonition to ‘never sleep with the attendance lady.’
We move on to northern France, and a study of WW1 battlefields, and then a kind of scavenger hunt for Dan Brown, and how that author’s literary works have upended the once bucolic countryside now overrun with Brown-artifact seeking tourists.
Through the individual works we get a sense that the author has a deep understanding of each topic, along with a misty nostalgia for a long ago past that once saw him ranging these very landscapes, making love with these very women, and drinking life to its top.
In the final, eponymous essay, a German operative ‘Crazy Heinie’ seeks to destroy the world through a monopolistic scheme centered on rubber of all things. ‘When you’re out to destroy the world, someone’s going to hear about it.’ Indeed. And then write about it. The Basics of Rubber: Amblings and Selected Short Stories