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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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: DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL

Title: Diary of a Young Girl
Author: Anne Frank
Published: 1952

I always wondered why my fundamentalist school didn’t have us read this book. Now I know.

I already had these kinds of feelings subconsciously before I came here, because I remember that once when I slept with a girl friend I had a strong desire to kiss her, and that I did do so. I could not help being terribly inquisitive over her body, for she had always kept it hidden from me. I asked her whether, as proof of our friendship, we should feel one another’s breasts, but she refused. I go into ecstasies every time I see the naked figure of a woman, such as Venus, for example. It strikes me as so wonderful and exquisite that I have difficulty in stopping the tears rolling down my cheeks. If only I had a girl friend. 

Anne Frank in The Diary of a Young Girl

It would be unacceptable to normalize same-sex attraction. More darkly, the strict obedience that’s enforced in fundamentalist communities is authoritarian in nature. Further the Jews are pagans just as much as Satanists, so fostering empathy for their marginalization and mass murder doesn’t serve their interests.

Anne Frank shares her deepest struggles to embrace true connection and to assert her independence from her parents all the while hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. Her immediate family shares a set of hidden rooms in a warehouse with a few others for over two years. It’s after D Day when they are discovered, and unfortunately only Anne’s father survives their internment. Her last entry she shares her choice to believe in the goodness inherent in us all in spite of her keen understanding of the atrocities she’s attempting to escape. And then. Silence. 

We have been pointedly reminded that we are in hiding, that we are Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, but with a thousand duties. We Jews mustn’t show our feelings, must be brave and strong, must accept all inconveniences and not grumble, must do what is within our power and trust in God. Sometime this terrible war will be over. Surely the time will come when we are people again, and not just Jews. 

Anne Frank in The Diary of a Young Girl

Are we any better now? Are homosexuals people? Are Muslims people? Our vice-president elect attempted to redirect funding to treat AIDS patients towards conversion therapy, including shock treatment, to make gay people straight. Our president seeks to prevent Muslims from immigrating to the US. He has promised to register them, the first step that Hitler took in his campaign to eradicate The Jews. Are we any different now? 

I don’t believe that the big men, the politicians and the capitalists alone, are guilty of the war. Oh no, the little man is just as guilty, otherwise the peoples of the world would have risen in revolt long ago! There’s in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again.

Oh, it is sad, very sad, that once more, for the umpteenth time, the old truth is confirmed: “What one Christian does is his own responsibility, what one Jew does is thrown back at all Jews.”

Anne Frank in The Diary of a Young Girl

It is enraging and comforting to know that this false narrative persists: when someone from the majority commits horrible acts it is only a reflection of himself while when a minority commits horrible acts it represents all that is wrong with the entire minority population. This false generalization has been with us for ages. Resisting it is an old struggle. But that it still persists suggests I will die with it continuing to hold power.

History is sitting here telling us everything we need to know. The power hungry among us will continue to flatter and build resentment. And like those before us we will foolishly listen.

Stealing value from one life steals value from us all.


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: Interpreter of Maladies

Title: Interpreter of Maladies
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Published: 1999

What a lovely read. At our very best we are inconsistent in our dazzling displays of love and joy and humble in our weakness and quirks. Lahiri deftly reveals how just minutes of interaction can change the trajectory of one life while leaves no impression on another. The same three sentences for one is all and the other nothing.

These stories are so gorgeous. They tell stories of Indian immigrants as they negotiate their past and their futures. But more broadly they speak of how the landscape of our lives is painted in what we share with others rather than what we earn.

Read it. It’t lovely. It’s joyful, wistful, heartbreaking, funny, sweet, sad, sublime. It’s life.

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100 Book While 40: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Title: Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
Author: Michael Lewis
Published: 2003

We aren’t logical. Take a gander at this list. If there’s one thing this list should make plain, it’s that we often have gaps in judgement.

Baseball is a big money business. And it’s one that provides ample statistical data. And yet, this book narrates the challenges analysts had in getting baseball insiders to accept that the data tells a more accurate story than men who have spent a lifetime scouting for new players.

This idea, our failure to think logically, and our failure to acknowledge it, started swimming around my head after 9/11. While that was a terrible event, I grew puzzled that not only were citizens of the largest cities fearful of a terrorist attack but those from the most remote and sparsely populated areas were equally distressed. They weren’t just mildly concerned either. The entire population was so scared that they willingly sent even more Americans to die on bits of desert that figure in their lives in no tangible way what so ever. Not only were they behind putting our soldiers in harms way, but they also supported the extravagant 4-6 trillion dollar price tag to support this military action.

Just as a point of reference, the national debt is currently clocking in around 19 trillion. So, the wars account for about a quarter of that. With just the costs of the Iraq War alone we could have paid off half of every American’s mortgage. We could have given every American child access to preschool 40 times over. We could have installed a national light rail system 8 times over (for more shit would could have done check this page).

In retrospect, I can’t say what Americans envisioned as the outcome of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, but I am supposing living with ISIS wasn’t it. Yet even now I am hearing an alarming number of Americans advocating for more military action in the Middle East. Did we learn nothing? The apparent answer is yes.

One constant from September 11th 2001 until now is our fear. Today Americans are just as scared that they will be victims of terrorist attacks as they were then. And yet, the probability of dying in a terrorist attack is stunningly remote. We are talking on the level of lightening strike or becoming shark bait here. Yet here were are, a significant number of us want to bomb Syria.

This problem with our inability to be logical? The founders were aware, even while we continue to seem blissfully ignorant of it. The judicial branch is there to prevent the tyranny of the majority. AKA, you guys can be stupid, and not just a few of you, but MOST of you at once. Plus, there’s this from a fascinating article in The Atlantic.

The Framers worried about demagogic excess and populist caprice, so they created buffers and gatekeepers between voters and the government. Only one chamber, the House of Representatives, would be directly elected. A radical who wanted to get into the Senate would need to get past the state legislature, which selected senators; a usurper who wanted to seize the presidency would need to get past the Electoral College, a convocation of elders who chose the president; and so on.

In baseball, the data eventually won. But when I am watching Trump at the RNC tell America that we are all in danger, I am dubious of data’s power here. In the case of baseball, there are clear and expensive consequences to ignoring the data. In politics, although the consequences are even more expensive, the relationship of cause and effect is cloudy.


100 Books While 40: Lolita

Book: Lolita
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Published: 1955

All the window dressing in the form of gorgeous prose cannot make up for the hideous plot of this book. I feel myself in a state of revulsion and appreciation at every page. It’s exhausting.

Humbert Humbert falls in love with a child, Lolita. After several self-serving actions he becomes the child’s guardian and begins an incestuous relationship with her. Eventually, she leaves him for another older man. They reconnect at some point in the future after she’s nearly an adult and married to someone close to her age. They die around the same time.

Who she is apart from the object of Humbert’s desire is never revealed. Unsavory as this was, I realized that female characters in many movies hew to exactly this role. The role is a vehicle for one of the protagonists object of desire. The revulsion I experience with the book is one that I’m just inured to in movies and TV with a minor addition of a few years.

Seeing Ghostbusters this weekend was more moving than I was expecting. Seeing four women eating, working, and kicking ass with no romantic interests felt uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable because it’s novel.

The source of my disgust isn’t the gorgeous prose and unsavory subject matter. It’s not the age of Lolita and how lecherous Humbert is. It’s that nearly all female characters are essentially Lolitas with some years, and that I am seeing that more profoundly than before.


100 Books While 40: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Book: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Published: 2014

How many times can someone starve? I am just wondering, because Louis Zamporini starts off his trip to the Japanese POW camp at less than one hundred pounds. And yet he loses another 20 pounds at least 5 or 6 times before is rescue. By my calculation Zamporini, while there are many remarkable things about the man, shockingly survived a weight of zero pounds.

Added to his miraculous weight loss, he also survived brushes with death. He barely survived it when his first plane was shot up. He barely survived when the plane nearly crashed due to holes shot through the gas tank. He barely survived when they crash landed on the deck of a air craft carrier. He barely survived when his next plan was shot down. He released his ankle in the wreckage nearly missing drowning. In his barely conscience haze after surfacing he managed to swim after and capture two life boats. He barely survived dehydration. He barely survived starvation. He barely survived insanity while lost at see. He barely survived being shot at by a Japanese plane. He barely survived circling sharks. He barely survived circling sharks attacking simultaneously with a different Japanese plane. He barely survived drowning or becoming shark food when the life rafts where shot through with bullets.  We aren’t even into the Japanese prison camp yet.

When I finally put the book down, I noticed that my empathy account was overdrawn by decades. The last twenty pages giddily wrap up the book with Louis’s conversion to Christianity, as though this is some remedy for the last 980 pages of smothering misery. It was not.

The unabridged version of this book could be improved with a thesaurus. Really, it could have used more imaginative prose. Really really, the unabridged version could have not existed at all. Or maybe someone with less talent for turning a fascinating story and an honorable man into a book painful to slog through should have authored it.

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100 Books While 40: Little House on the Prairie

Title: Little House on the Prairie
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published: 1935

It was that Indians didn’t have a concept of land ownership that brought them to living huddled on reservations. This one thing encouraged white people to believe they were entitled to it and drove the Native people to shrug as pioneers erected their fences and structures.

The word entitlement has been seeing a lot of mileage recently. In the 80’s it was often used to deride welfare recipients. It’s been used more recently to describe the way that men behave around other people’s bodies and how they touch them with or without consent. It’s been used to describe millennials and what they expect to have.

Here’s the thing to focus on when that word is trotted out. Who has the power? Because it seems that word is used to both point to or obscure who has it. In sexual assault cases, the man involved usually has it. Welfare recipients have little to no power in the 80’s or otherwise. Here the word misdirects what would otherwise be legitimate income inequality concerns toward those with the least responsibility and power. When directed at millennials, it often functions the same. A generation of people who got full time jobs with benefits and enough income to buy a house at 21 level this at a group of new workers who will have none of those things.

The book is remarkably kind to the Native Americans, and yet completely unconscious of the land grab that was actually taking place. They rationalized that the natives weren’t using it. But I think by using it they meant farming it like they do. The natives were using it, just in a different way.

Who had the power? The people with the most guns then. Now it’s little more subtle but still pretty easy to sort out.

The remainder was an interesting look at pioneer living. Holy Moses was that rough. The next time I feel like whining about… well, almost any niggling thing in my cush life, I will swallow that feeling right down.

Here’s a link to my book list.

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100 Books While 40: Diary of a Whimpy Kid

Title: Diary of a Whimpy Kid
Author: Jeff Kinney
Published: 2007

Breathe a sigh of relief. This batch of kids’ books will keep the all the big problems of the world away for a few posts. Until I turn the last page on Lolita and then God help us all.

Two hundred pages of comic sans seems a mild form of torture. Jeff Kinney’s illustrations made up for it as did the very premise of the book as a journal of a middle schooler late to puberty. Reading it while looking over a white Florida beach contributed to my warm regard, no question.

When experiencing trauma our brains insulate us from ugly reality. And then after the fact our brains put out of our reach the gory details of that terrible car accident or the specifics of getting mugged. All adults fail to recall years 12 to 15 because of this exact phenomena.

There is some exquisite confusion at that age. No one explicitly says as much, but all the rules change. I blended in swimmingly with all the boys until then. I had a crash course in being feminine in three months the summer I was thirteen.

This was a little tour into a place I forgot. I now feel a little more charitable toward the snotty thirteen year-olds I run into. And I am happy to remember that the worst moments are always temporary.