Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way


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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: 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.


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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.