Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way


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100 Books While 40: THE GIVER

Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Published: 1996

The summary for this book is ignorance is bliss. And if you find ambiguous endings insufferable don’t read it. Most of the population in this diytopian future community is blind to history and blind to differences. They cannot see color, and they are not allowed to make choices. 

The benefit of not experiencing differences or making choices is the inability to make a bad decision. There is no bad choice when there is no choices to be made. The culture has fully normalized killing unsuitable babies and old people. But really the same point could be made with brown people or those with minority religious views. 

There is one keeper of history and knowledge of difference and he selects a young boy to take over for him. The boy questions the way things have always been leading the keeper to reconsider his own part in the transfer of knowledge. 

Life is in the choosing. Making the choice is more important than if the choice was right or wrong. Knowledge can be hard to live with. When injustice is shown to me I feel compelled to act against it. The exhausting aspect of that is that there is so much of it in this world.


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100 Books While 40: THE SUN ALSO RISES

Title: The Sun Also Rises
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Published: 1926

It is ok to have feelings if you are always drunk while fishing or watching bull fighting. I guess it is manly to feel but only when you do incredibly manly things like watching bulls gore a horse to death. Where I a man, I would not find this reassuring.

Once you have seen the carnage that was WWI, I imagine it difficult to get excited doing your desk job. What is the point after you have seen how indiscriminately lives are destroyed? It would be difficult to come to any other conclusion than this one: the only thing that matters is that you enjoy your moments. Apart from that, we are promised nothing.

When I think about life through this lens, I know exactly why Hemingway lived as he did. He took joy from the things that he could. He wrote because he enjoyed the struggle. He drank, watched bullfights, and traveled because these things brought him pleasure. The end.

Maybe it’s hubris that makes many of us think there is anything else. That we agonize about meaning, or strive to build businesses or homes, are all folly unless we take joy from the effort itself. Investing in the future at the expense of the now, assumes something. It assumes that life is fair.

These moments of reorientation happen for me periodically. There is a paradigm shift, and then I struggle to make sense of the implications of it. If I had to summarize 2016 it would be thus. What I perceived as indulgent, incorrect actions resulted in excellent outcomes. What I perceived as the hard, correct actions resulted in horrible outcomes. Maybe I need to take up bullfighting and smoke more cigars.


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100 Books while 40:THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Published: 2010

Who is entitled to our genetic material? If my cells enable a drug company to create a profit generating drug should I get some of the proceeds? As the laws are today, I couldn’t. Sharing the profits with me would cause drug companies to stop making drugs, or so they say. That last sentence is so absurd I laughed a little while typing it. 

Henrietta Lacks signed off on giving her cancerous cervical cells to research. Years later her cells have been reproduced enough to encircle the world. They were used in developing several cancer treatments. In essence these cells were the precursor to billions of dollars of medical services and treatments. Meanwhile Henrietta’s children and grandchildren cannot afford healthcare.

Something is deeply wrong with this. Although I am not of the opinion that The Lacks family should be millionaires off their mom’s genetic material, it does feel unjust that her children cannot afford the treatments that their mother enabled. At the core of this book is the conflict inherent in capitalism as our caretaker.

We are engaging with a set of economic causes and effects, all the while pretending there is some morality to it. There’s nothing moral in supply and demand, it is better a display of amoral power. Those that have can extort those that do not to greatest degree possible. And when they do so we consider that “good” business. 

If we question the outcomes of this blind system, we are always scolded with the dramic choice between no healthcare and a more equitable system or healthcare for the wealthy. This either/or proposition has been demonstrated as false by Britain’s NHS and Canada’s healthcare. But we still believe that to control morally bankrupt capitalist forces in our healthcare is to handover our decisions to a soulless government minion. But a profit-seeking insurance agent is just peachy.

Lifting this rock a bit more reveals our unspoken, toxic adoration of wealth as being synonymous with right and good, and poverty being only a moral failing rather than a systemic feature of capitalism. Most of the rich people I know have overcome less barriers than the poor people I know. If what we really value is hard work, my time waiting tables should have been better than my time spent in my cushioned office chair directing project meetings. But that isn’t what my pay says. 

Meanwhile I will enjoy my yearly checkup in a few weeks. I will get my teeth cleaned with no out of pocket expenses. And I will think about a those years waiting tables with no healthcare. And I will consider that I must have become more morally good since then.


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100 Books While 40: OF HUMAN BONDAGE

Title: Of Human Bondage
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Published: 1915

Nothing can rival the passing of years to impart understanding and wisdom to the thoughtful. The stories of all the men Philip wanted to be versus the man he actually became is only meaningful to one who has seen many of their lives spin out of our imaginations and later die on the indifferent shores of reality.

Age gives these truths. Unlike The Age of  Innocence this shows the way in which our thwarted dreams can give space for the perfect dream unseen but desired. After many false starts Philip finds his love and contentment in simple pleasures afforded by a modest life. 

It is in the smile of a loved one or their small victory in sharing who they are. These are the gifts easily missed in the forest of our own distracting sensations and habit of living in the future or the past. They are waiting to be seen just beyond the TV and our phone screens. They are there just to the side of the bitter disappointment over a lost job or a missed opportunity. 


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100 Books while 40: THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Published: 1920

Robert Martin said The Age of Innocence was, “fundamentally about America and its failure to fulfill its own possibilities”. This resonates now more than ever. The ideal of this country and its execution in practice are at odds.

We proclaim freedom, meritocracy, and pioneering. But our social constructs suggest just the opposite. Just as Newland Archer is compelled to give up his true love for the social script that he’s been given, we are directed to follow the script of our parents. We are to get married, go to church, have children, and work at our uninspired jobs.

I threw the script away, and have been paying for it in big and small ways. I am alienated from my family. I am regularly reminded that I am not fulfilled because I don’t have children.

This was a sacrifice that Archer wasn’t willing to make. As one who has made it, I can say that there are enormous costs. But there are benefits that I cannot express. A few months ago I rode a motorcycle up the side of a volcano in Costa Rica. This experience was so sublime that I cannot capture with words how it felt. I have walked the streets of Manila, Prague, Newcastle, Paris, Tokyo, Panama City, Amsterdam, Vienna, and San Jose. I’ve worked with people all over the planet. I’ve learned that we are all the same, seeking fulfillment and life just in different languages and structures.

And I found love. I found it in places free of expectation and custom. I found it where people are truly free to give of themselves without social binding. Love, generosity when it is so freely given is precious, more so than any possible material wealth.

The yearnings of Newland Archer are both with us as individuals and with us as a nation. Looking through his eyes as his dreams move beyond his grasp, I see how so many of us are full of resentment. As we move forward together but apart the ties that bind will keep moving to hold us all down. But where the Newland Archers leave off, there will be the quiet marginalized pioneers wrestling down the spirit of life with all its dazzling energy and beauty.


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100 Books While 40: THE LOOMING TOWER

Title: The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11
Author: Lawrence Wright
Published: 2006

In the months between starting this book and finishing it my dad and Jeannine’s mom died. The pages have been difficult to turn mostly because people are still dying over the ideas captured in black and white. On the page the words seem oddly innocuous.

But there was no American response. The country was in the middle off a presidential election, and Clinton was trying to burnish his legacy by securing a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. The Cole bombing had occurred just as the talks were falling apart. Clinton maintains that, despite the awkward political timing, his administration come close to launching another missile attack against bin Laden that October, but at the last minute the CIA recommended calling it off because his presence at the site was not completely certain.

Bin Laden was angry and disappointed. He hoped to lure America into the same trap the Soviets had fallen into: Afghanistan. His strategy was to continually attack until the U.S. forces invaded; the the mujahideen would swarm upon them and bleed them until the entire American empire fell from its wounds. It had happened to Great Britain and to the Soviet Union. He was certain it would happen to America. The declaration of ware, the strike on the American embassies and now the bombing of the Cole had been inadequate, however, to provoke a massive retaliation. He would have to create and irresistible outrage.

And he was partially successful. We spent 3 trillion dollars fighting an idea. That money could have shored up our aging infrastructure. That money could have been used to give those out of work new skills. We gave up our civil liberties with the Patriot Act and the expansion of the executive branch’s power. We gave up our morality and engaged in torture.

But I think the culmination of his success only just happened. We’ve just elected a president with profoundly anti-democratic ideas. We’ve elected a president who will unleash an assault on the pluralistic ideal of our country. We’ve elected someone who might put an end to all the things Bin Laden hated in us.


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100 Books While 40: The Book Thief

Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusac
Published:  2005

Relevant. Thanks Donald Trump, you shitty, shitty human being.

The young man wandered around for quite some time, thinking, planning, and figuring out exactly how to make the world his. Then one day, our of nowhere, it struck him-the perfect plan. He’d seen a mother walking with her child. At one point, she admonished the small boy, until finally, he began to cry. Within a few minutes, she spoke very softly to him, after which he was soothed and even smiled.

The young man rushed to the woman and embraced her. “Words!” He grinned.

“What?”

But there was no reply, He was already gone.

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will  never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attach was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night, and cultivated them.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen through Germany…. It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

While the words were growing, our young Fuhrer also planted seeds to create symbols, and these, too, were well on their way to full bloom. Now the time had come. The Fuhrer was ready.

He invited his people toward his own glorious heart, beckoning them with his finest, ugliest words, handpicked from his forests. And the people came.

They were all placed on a conveyor belt and run through a rampant machine that gave them a lifetime in ten minutes. Words were fed into them. Time disappeared and they now Knew everything they needed to know. They were hypnotized. – The Book Thief

I’m sure Hitler really enjoyed his freedom of speech. We have to believe one of two things, but they both cannot be true at once. Either words are power and freedom of speech needs to be carefully monitored and considered, or words are powerless and freedom of speech isn’t important. But I see people want to lay claim to both. They hide behind freedom of speech while throwing their hate words and simultaneously suggest words are not power when asked to to be accountable. Check out this for more on this topic.

The young man was a Nazi; his father was not. In the opinion of Hans Junior, his father was part of an old, decrepit Germany-one that allowed everyone else to take it for the proverbial ride while its own people suffered. – The Book Thief

Make America great again. What does that mean, exactly? Donald Trump actually answered this question and said it’s the boom years during WWII. Trump seems to identify this time period for economic reasons-which I think is past and will stay that way mostly due to robotics and other ways in which manufacturing will require less and less labor while maintaining or increasing productivity-back to my main point. But Americans interpret that based on their age. And this phrase allows people to coddle their irrational nostalgia for some time in the past that they perceive to be better in some way than now.

I think many Trump supporters do not interpret this first as an economic statement. I believe they interpret it first culturally. That’s the root where some of the racist and sexist portions of his following comes from, the basket of deplorables, so to speak. They are thinking of a time when blacks and women knew their place. They are thinking of a time when men with no education could hold unilateral power over women and minorities. Let me repeat that statement in a slightly different way, a time when white men with zero achievement or intelligence could wield power simply by being born.

That time is at its end. White men for the most part are going down swinging. And we have to watch it. And it’s painful.

I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate. – The Book Thief

Reading this book about a child caught up in Nazi Germany was painfully relevant. I have had this theory for years, that we all have the capacity to be Germans in 1939. I just didn’t think I would live to see concrete evidence of it during my lifetime.