Category Archives: Books

“Strangers In Their Own Land”

“Strangers In Their Own Land”

“Anger and Mourning on the American Right” is the subtitle of this book by Arlie Russel Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist. Based mainly on interviews with Tea Party Republicans in Louisiana, she delves into the “why” of poor white votes for Trump and other Republicans. Louisiana is one of the poorest and least-healthy states. It is heavily polluted because weak enforcement of weak regulations make it attractive to oil and chemical plants. Polluting industries seek the “least resistant personality profile” in the residents of the area they plan to poison (page 81):

  • Longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest
  • High school educated only
  • Catholic
  • Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism
  • Involved in “nature exploitative occupations” such as mining, farming, ranching
  • Conservative
  • Republican
  • Advocates of the free market

Hochschild develops a “deep story” to explain their traditional values of loyalty, sacrifice, and endurance. Polluting industries manipulate them into fearing the loss of their income if they don’t turn a blind eye to the secret pollution, the dying trees, the disappearing fish, the increasing illness. Church, state, and politicians tug their loyalty strings to believe in Capitalism at the expense of the environment. They endure the secret spillage into their waterways, staying close to home and their traditional values. They resent Liberals who point to the contamination and tell them they “are not feeling the right feelings.”

These white people work hard and they scorn the shiftless, no ‘count people below them in the social order who live on government handouts and never work. They identify with the white plantation owners, the 1%, and believe that through hard work, luck and family connections, they too will live in the white-columned mansions along the Mississippi River. But they don’t go to college and they don’t learn new technology or new ways of thinking.

They are resentful of affirmative-action types (women, blacks, refugees) who “cut in front of them in line” for the good jobs. They believe the government paid for Obama’s education, and for Michelle’s Harvard education, too. Because they never bought and read his books, they don’t realize that their education loans were paid for with the book royalties. They believe the government subsidizes this “line-cutting” that has stagnated their wages and lives.

They don’t want to feel like downtrodden victims like blacks, women and gays. They want to feel like the white 1%. Their endurance is a matter of honor. Honor is sacrifice. With their tight communities and limited education, their feedback loop is small and fed by Fox News.

Trump cashed in on Identity Politics for white men who felt trapped in 1950s ethics and values. The ones holding the KKK signs in Atchafalaya.

Death Rate Jumps 22% for Middle-Aged Whites

Death Rate Jumps 22% for Middle-Aged Whites

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The New York Times reported in a front page article that white Americans without a college degree are dying at an accelerated rate due to suicide, fast and slow.

The rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called it “Despair, American Style” in an op-ed piece today.

In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.

About a year ago, two of my brothers drank themselves to death on opposite sides on the country. Dave (on the right in the picture below) died on Oct. 5 in Virginia and Greg died on Nov. 17 in Oregon. Both were in their 50’s, both had retired a few years earlier, neither retirement was completely voluntary, neither had finished college. Neither had a strong plan for retirement, both slipped in to spending a lot of time with their best friend, beer. This photo was taken one year prior, on a vacation in Florida.

DaveGreg

In the days following the publication of this alarming data, there was some pushback over methodologies, so Angus Deaton released this drill-down info.
chart

My brothers, who grew up in the 1950’s, rode the post-WWII juggernaut where men were men and drank to prove it. They lived their lives as if everything was going to take care of itself, which was the prevailing assumption in the days of Ozzie & Harriett and Leave It To Beaver. What was different about these two, however, is that they were musicians who became stalled at the “talented amateur” stage. They didn’t pursue enough training to focus their minds or to hone their talent. They never developed a commitment to their art.They never even learned to read music. But their artistic temperaments were difficult to live with, and they numbed themselves. To death.

blackoutSarah Hepola, author of “Blackout: Remembering the things I drank to forget” attributed alcohol addiction to heredity and culture. My brothers did not live in a culture that encouraged thinking in healthy ways. They did not see their father, another talented piano player, take an active part in creating healthier emotions, minimizing emotional suffering and maximizing joy. According to Debbie Joffee Ellis in a letter to the NYTimes, “To create healthy [emotions] requires willingness to think in realistic… ways and to recognize when we are catastrohizing, and then to dispute such thoughts. Don’t worry, think wisely, be healthier and happier.”

The New York Times review of her book says:

Ms. Hepola’s electric prose … has direct access to the midnight gods of torch songs, neon signs, tap beer at a reasonable price, cigarettes and untrammeled longing.

She may have squandered her early carreer
and now is back in Texas, finally publishing her first novel at age 40. I enjoyed the book and I think she is going to beat the odds in the charts above because she finished college, and knew she was a good writer. She made a living at it while she used alcohol as “the gasoline of all adventure.” Now she has sobered up and found her path. I’m so glad.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven

station11The
\NYTimes
loved this bestseller which opens with “King Lear” and moves on to a traveling Shakespeare company with a Star Trek line painted on the truck, “Survival is insufficient.”

The line is from a Star Trek: Voyager episode written by Ronald D. Moore. I enjoyed the book. It’s interesting to read a book that isn’t structured as a movie.

NPR review,

author’s website.

Yield to the Present – 10% Happier

Yield to the Present – 10% Happier
Yield to the Present – 10% Happier

“Yield to the Present” was the sign near the door when Dan Harris, the ambitious ABC reporter, arrived at Spirit Rock in Marin for his 10 day silent retreat in an effort to become “less of a jerk.” The book was a dishy read of behind-the-scenes at ABC news, which I loved, and had a lot of good information on his walk toward Buddhism

Dan’s teachers suggest using our native curiosity to train our Default Mode Network to move from Aversion to Compassion. To move from being a jerk, in his parlance, to a mensch. He shows the brain chemistry and meditation techniques to do it, including asking yourself, when you are ruminating on the same thought for the nineteenth time, “is this useful?”

One of his mentors, Mark Epstein, explains on page 164 discussion Dan could become 10% happier because of mitigation of misery, not alleviation. The waterfall of drama is still there, you gain the ability to step behind the waterfall, creating a space to witness what is going on. Instead of the kneejerk stimulus —> reaction, you have walked behind the waterfall of emotion and created enough space to move to stimulus —> response because you are less caught up in the melodrama that is unfolding. You are less attached to the outcome. You have space for a little insight because you are not clinging to success so desperately. Here the metta prayer he learned at Spirit Rock:

May you be happy
May you be safe and protected from harm
May you be healthy and strong
May you live with ease

My favorite part was in the appendix where Dan Harris mentions the research of Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, addiction psychiatrist at Yale. Here’s Jud’s TED talk shows how to calm the posterior cingulate — get it to “turn blue” in the fMRI.

Martin Walker: Bruno, Chief of Police

Martin Walker: Bruno, Chief of Police

brunoIn Sept, 2012 I read book three in the Bruno Series, The Dark Vineyard. It has taken me this long to get to the first book in the series: Bruno, Chief of Police. It is a quick read and I love the way Martin Walker writes.

As a working journalist, 13 of his books have been non-fiction, with many about the Soviet Union. When he retired to the Périgord region of France, he embarked on his first fiction book, The Caves of Périgord which was very ambitious with three intertwined story lines. The first, in the prehistory of the area, described how the caves may have been created. The second story line dove deeply into the French Resistance in the Périgord region during WWII and the third story was set in present-day London and Périgord. It was very interesting but complex and sometimes hard to follow.

His next fiction book, Bruno, Chief of Police, is much lighter and more playful. The caves get only a few paragraphs and we meet Bruno who embodies the world-renown charm and discretion of Frenchmen. It also touches on the horror of war and the toll it takes on the bodies and souls of men, women and children. In this book, it is Bosnia as well as WWII. Martin Walker really has a reporter’s eye for detail and he moves us quickly through the mystery, but it is the charm of the people we meet through Bruno’s detective work that is the real pleasure in this book.

I am really looking forward to the next one. Thanks for loaning it to me, Russ!

Divergent: Young Adult Fiction

Divergent: Young Adult Fiction

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My friend Beth loved the “Divergent” trilogy of Young Adult dystopian-future science-fiction novels with a 15-year-old heroine. They are being made into movies and the second installment, “Insurgent,” is due out on March 20, so I read the first book, “Divergent” and watched the movie on HBO.

I am fascinated how our mythology teaches young adults how to act in the face of danger, and how to be courageous and to take charge of their own lives and safety. Beatrice grows up in the Abnegation faction, which is like a clan, where selflessness is paramount.

At 15, everyone in her society chooses the clan where they will spend the rest of their lives. Beatrice truncates her name to Tris and leaps into the Dauntless clan, where bravery is prized. Tris must fight for her own life and the lives of those she loves.

The message of Divergent is similar to the indoctrination I received:

  1. I am on my own, no one will help me
  2. Trust no one
  3. Be selfless (like Abnegation)
  4. Be brave (like Dauntless)

“I have a theory that selflessness and bravery aren’t all that different.”
— Tris in Divergent by Veronica Roth

Tris starts to realize that the differences between the clan of her birth and the clan of her choice may vanishingly small, and that treachery may lie beneath the efforts of others to pit the two clans against each other. Now that I have lived so many years trying to be a hero and a savior, I am starting to realize that this loyalty/bravery/sacrifice indoctrination may serve others who do not have my best interests at heart. It may actually serve those in power, at my expense. What would REALLY benefit women and children is working together. But in this book, ambitious and resourceful youngsters are pitted against other, with the top performers being destroyed by the second best.

Maybe we could evolve into something that works better. Let’s find out What Self-Loving People Do Differently. Could this strategy lead to young people working together instead of ruthlessly competing against each other?

  1. They welcome all their emotions, including the difficult ones
  2. They learn to be self-responsible rather than blaming others
  3. They feed their inner hunger for novelty with creative pursuits rather than drugs
  4. They embrace mistakes as an important way to learn, and refuse to be shamed for trying

I don’t think I will read the second book, even though my friend Beth said it was her favorite of the three. I understand the philosophy. I look forward to watching the Insurgent movie when it comes out.

Book: Playing Pygmalion

Book: Playing Pygmalion

galateaBarbara Hayes lent me her copy of Playing Pygmalion: How People Create One Another by Ruthellen Josselson. I finally finished it the weekend I went camping by myself.  It was hard to read because the writing was terrible (see excerpt below) and because the copy I had was heavily marked up in black pen with underlines, circles and stars by the previous owner of the book, not by Barbara.  This excerpt from page 137 is footnoted (12) which indicates that this theory is also found in Dicks (1962) Scharff (1991) and Sander (2004).

People are bonded through their mutual creations, each carrying a part of the other that the other either can’t recognize (in terms of positive aspects) or can’t bear (negative ones) in the self.

To me, this meant that I could consider taking back the parts of myself that I have been projecting onto another. For example, I used to believe that I could not go camping by myself. That is was unsafe and that if anything went wrong, I would be blamed for it (“she was asking for it”). How interesting that I was camping by myself, successfully, when I finished the book.

The copy on the back cover was much better written. “Psychoanalytic theory offers a wealth of understanding of how people unconsciously create what they both need and dread. Too often, therapists join their patients in overlooking their own role in creating the relationship in their lives, such that it seems that the patients were simply unfortunate to “have” an ungiving mother or to “find” an unloving spouse.” [image: Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, Vésoul 1824–1904 Paris) Metropolitan Museum of Art, used with permission]

The Female Brain

The Female Brain

The Female Brain“If you only read one book about the brain this year, make it this one,” said Dr. Martin Rossman in his UCTV lecture on YouTube titled How Your Brain Can Turn Anxiety into Calmness. The lecture is so fascinating I have watched it several times — I find his rabbinical speaking style to be soothing and the science to be amazing. He says, “If we can teach the blind to see, we can teach the anxious to relax.” He recommended this book so strongly because, “it saved my marriage.” This from an M.D.!

Louanne Brizedine’s book is written in a very accessible style, even though she is an M.D. trained at Yale and on staff at UCSF. She starts with how, even before babies are born, testosterone kills off half the neurons that manage with emotional communication in the brain of the male fetus. Testosterone kills a huge percentage again at puberty (which is why teen boys don’t talk about feelings) and again later in life. She explains that we all have androgens, which she doesn’t like to call “male hormones” because, well, we all have them. They generate sex and aggression and diminish in both genders with age.

“Her book travels through the human lifespan describing predictable hormone changes and how they affect the brain and behavior. Perimenopause and menopause are explained in detail and strategies for coping are useful. I especially liked Dr. Brizendine’s riff on how society will change when we use this new knowledge.

Women are living in the midst of a revolution in consciousness about women’s biological reality that will transform human society…. The scientific facts behind how the female brain functions, perceives reality, responds to emotions, reads emotions in others, and nurtures and cares for others are women’s reality. Their needs for functioning at their full potential and using the innate talents of the female brain are becoming clear scientifically. Women have a biological imperative for insisting that a new social contract take them and their needs into account. Our future, and our children’s future, depends on it.”

Dr. Brizendine descries in detail how oxytocin drives our “tend and mend” behavior and when it subsides in menopause, it can free us to creative pursuits beyond the boundaries of our own families.

“If you decide to take hormone therapy, keep your blood pressure low, don’t smoke, get at least sixty minutes per week of increased-pulse cardio-vascular exercise, keep your cholesterol low, eat as many vegetables as you can, take vitamins, decrease your stress, and increase your social support.
“The hypothalamus controls our appetite. …they found that changes in a woman’s diet and physical activity, both of which may have to do with changes in her hypothalamus at menopause, are the cause of weight gain.”

Wild – Cheryl Strayed on the PCT

Wild – Cheryl Strayed on the PCT

bookWildMy sister Laurie’s friend Maureen left this book on the nightstand in the guest bedroom when we spent the night at her house before we set out on our drive from Colorado Springs to Portland, Oregon last Thanksgiving. I didn’t realize at the time that Maureen was offering it to us because she had finished it. At the send-off party that same evening, another friend of Laurie’s also recommended this book, but it would be nearly a year before I would be being able to “sport-read” again.

I started this book last weekend while we were camping in Gualala and really enjoyed it, especially the Acknowledgements on the last few pages which give a sense of why it took 15 years to write. It made me realize it can take a lifetime to write a novel, and why it is important to stay fully alive for your whole life. This is one of my favorite passages, page 258, where she reflects on her marriage that she tanked through infidelity:

What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything different than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck everyone of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?

I’m glad I read the book before the movie came out.
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I like books that have me thinking about them afterwards. Even though his book was “first-person adventure,” the hike along the Pacific Coast Trail was just the engine that conceals the real content. As Cheryl hikes, she reflects on how she trashed her marriage, and other seriously-bad decisions she made. There are no comments or analysis from the 15-years-hence writer, just the ruminations of the hiking 27 year old on bad stuff she did — how she hurt someone she loved very much. The first-person ruminations gave me some insight into how people might feel when they behave badly in their own lives. I find myself using this book as fodder to consider what it would be like to not take the self-destructive behavior of others personally — but rather, to consider it as part of their own way of working out their rage or disconnection from Oneness-That-We-Are. Nothing like months on the trail to connect a person to the Divine!

Katie Couric “Fed Up”

Katie Couric “Fed Up”

Fed-Up-poster-618x400Interesting stuff on “hyperpalatable” food and how our brains are hijacked into Programmed Hypereating with incessant food cues. An expansion of the audiobook “The End of Overeating.” Candy and chips at every checkout stand, including the hardware store and auto parts store. You don’t see that in France!

The movie attempts to do for the food industry what Congressional hearings did for the tobacco industry — reveal the lies, half truths, phony research and misleading statistics. And the elected officials whose careers they have ruined for attempting to resist them. Extortion at international levels.

On-camera interviews with Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. Bottom line: avoid being tempted by packaged food by shopping at the farmer’s market, and cook.

Really puts the kibosh on the concept of exercise as the panacea. Went with some friends who love movies after a brisk walk around Spring Lake. They went to lunch afterwards, I had lost my appetite. Went back to work.