HEART OF FIRE– MAZIE HIRONO’S BURNING MEMOIR

“What the fuck happened?” Not a quote I expected to find in a memoir from a petite, modest, and soft-spoken Asian lady. Said lady, Senator Mazie Hirono, was explaining to Hillary Clinton what she thought was missing from the title Clinton’s recent memoir of the 2016 elections entitled What Happened? It’s a moment that typifies both the spirit and the evolution of this shrewd and fiery Hawaiian as she battled her way from her poverty-filled and a non-English-speaking childhood to a seat in the U.S. Senate, sitting among the highest elected officials in the land.

Hirono’s parents labored in the cane and pineapple fields of Hawaii in conditions that approached slavery. Her father made things worse with his drinking and philandering. It was a situation scripted for failure. What happened, indeed? I have a friend who contends that if you want to change a culture and economy, forget about the men. Support and educate the women. That’s where strength of the family, and by extension, the society, lies. Hirono’s mother proves the point. I won’t catalogue the times and ways that she saved that family. How? Certainly not with a $200 million gift from daddy. Daddy was mostly absent and drunk. In fact, there was no money at all most of the time. So little that one of the children had to live apart from the rest in his earliest years, and everyone paid a high price for the separation. That circumstance fostered her all-out assault on Trump’s child separation policy. But Hirono’s story does raise in my mind an even bigger question. How do you go from a semi-literate Japanese speaker toiling in the fields, married to a useless and even destructive husband, to an English language typesetter and raise and educate three kids at the same time? Read Heart of Fire and find out. However, if you’re like me, even after reading the story you might still wonder how such a thing is possible.

But I guess the how of it is not as important as the fact of it, and the fact is that one of the strongest and most authentic voices for compassion and liberty in the country is one we can hear and treasure regularly in print and on the small screen. From her finding ways to change the lives of her constituents to her skill in helping shepherd the Affordable Care Act through congress, her story is one that defines the idea of public service. Public service, not self-service. She became one of Trump’s fiercest critics not because she wanted to make headlines but because she was one of his “others.” A woman, first of all. A woman whose family were immigrants. A woman who knows from personal experience what it means to be poor with all the demonic forces of a hostile society arrayed against you and yours and still come out on top.

Mazie Hirono

 Heart of Fire is an astounding story, and once you read it, you’ll understand the title and it will give you hope.


TREKKING THE MIND, HEART, AND LANDSCAPE OF INDIA

I think I can safely assert that you’ll never read another book like this one. Unlikely bedfellows such as philosophy, religion, and adventure seldom sit down at the same high-altitude table as they do in Ways and Weighing, all the while sharing legends, prayers, and traveling tales fit to take the breath and challenge mind and heart.

Martin, a New York native, taught university-level philosophy and was on his way to a tenure track job when he headed to India and got so wrapped up in it all that he never returned. Why? Well this passage is one example of the philosophical bent of his mind:

…it is tempting to consider decisions not as mental events but as doings performed prior to . . .the ‘intended’ act. . . . Does buying an airplane ticket constitute an action that commences the trip, part of the trip itself, or is it the decision to go on the trip? . . . these matters are fixed retrospectively. Only after the trip, does it become evident when the trip began and what constituted the the decision to embark. . .

Such musings, which are both personal and academic/philosophic recur throughout the narrative and provide the foundation for  this splendid and unique memoir. Noval’s story includes exhausting “trekking” (in his case often closer to mountain climbing) over some of the highest and most rigorous landscape in the world. The scenery itself is worth the read, but when interspersed with the history and insights of Hindu history and religion Noval provides, it becomes a three-dimensional journey like no other. I think a passage from the book itself shows how fluidly Noval slips back and forth from the physical experience of trekking to the mental experience of meditating upon it.

These Nepali porters are the most elegant of walkers. You wouldn’t think it, in their half-worn-out sneakers or rubber beach thongs  with hundred pound loads of Coca Cola or beer bottle cases on their backs, . . . yet every step is a paradigm of efficiency, precision, grace, and elegance. . . . Mountain people[s’] lives are studies in elegance–in the way a mathematical proof may be elegant: pared down to  perfection.

Ways and Weighings is thus a memoir chock full of physical experience infused with a moral and spiritual perspective that makes it almost a religious experience in itself.

At the risk of sounding a bit like a commercial, I feel compelled to mention that my wife and I participated in a  in one of these Noval-led tours. Not at the physically rigorous level described in the memoir, but still challenging and educational and, yes, thrilling, nevertheless. Martin and wife Carol still lead these treks. Read Ways and Weighings (before, after or during your travels. It matters not.) Your mind and life will be the richer for it. https://www.novalandtours.com/india-tours.html

MARTIN NOVAL

 


IT’S THE MARS ROOM–ANYTHING GOES

I passed on reading The Mars Room some time back when the synopsis pointed toward what I suspected was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Orange Is The New Black. However, my granddaughter brought it to our (safe) covid retreat over July 4, so it fell into my lap, so to speak, so I dived in, so to speak.

Turns out my original assessment was about half right. It’s definitely a women-behind-bars narrative with plenty of gruesome details and sex galore. But it’s also a sort of coming-of-age novel with a thing or two to say about the dilemmas of kids without support or stable families. There is also, of course, the matter of the criminal mind per se, but protagonist Roma doesn’t quite make the grade in that category, which makes her a more sympathetic character than she would otherwise be.

Roma Hall grew up wild on the streets of San Francisco thanks to a neglectful mom and a splendid imagination for getting into trouble without getting caught. The Mars Room itself is a San Francisco strip club/lap dancing establishment way down on any scale of trashiness. Roma sees it as a perfect fit for her random lifestyle because for Roma 1) grinding is easier than talking, 2) nobody gives a shit when or if you report for work, 3) the money is better than minimum-wage burger-flipping or cosmetic-hawking alternatives. She ends up in the clink because she kills a stalker who fastens on to her in The Mars Room.

I recently finished The New Jim Crow. Roma is white, but, having been enlightened somewhat by Jim Crow I can see that bad as it is for people of color, the horrors visited upon Roma in our criminal injustice system are equal-opportunity events.

The key element is that no one in the system wants to go to the trouble of putting people on trial–too expensive and time-consuming, especially for overworked, burned-out public defenders. Plus, in the category of sympathetic defendant in the courtroom, Roma is lousy bet. A stripper (not a prostitute, but try to convince a jury of that when her history comes out.) whose brand is so tainted that the best she can hope for is to use a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty. The result? two consecutive life terms plus some extra. Some bargain.

Once behind bars, basically forever, she falls into all the devious manipulations open to her. She’s pretty smart, plenty streetwise, and managed to graduate high school. Thus, she develops a relationship with a tutor who is basically there to help people get GED’s and is  happy to find someone who can actually read even though she had no use for the GED (or any other certificate, really)

Roma uses this relationship to good effect. I might not have found convincing the extent she is able to lead this guy around by the nose had I not recalled a recent incident in an upstate New York prison in which two convicts (murderers, no less) manipulated an employee in the prison laundry into aiding and abetting their escape. It was, I believe, their abetter’s inability or unwillingness to procure a getaway vehicle that spelled doom to that attempt; but they were loose for a week or two.

RACHEL KUSHNER

For Roma, their conversations are at first, a relief from the normal prison routine. More important, she is later desperate to get news of the son she left behind. All she is able to find out is that the state has taken away all her parental rights. Officially, she will never get news of, let alone access to, her child. However, she hopes the tutor will somehow at least find out some details about the boy’s situation. The tutor teases her and himself into thinking that might be possible.

This thread continues as part of the suspense-narrative structure throughout the book, and Kushner makes excellent dramatic use of it to build some suspense in a situation in which the possibilities for change are enormously limited. Without doing a total spoiler, I will say that Roma’s intelligence and ingenuity help her create circumstances that make for a suspenseful and thrilling end.

The Mars Room is, as it turns out, though not the book of the year, a better read by far than I expected.

 


WHAT’S HUMAN AND WHAT’S NOT

Between my previous blog on The Invention of Yesterday, A 50,00 Year of Human Culture and this one on Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, A Brief  History of Mankind, I should be completely versed on the entirety of human affairs from our literal beginnings and beyond. I guess I could quit reading altogether, but I’m far too addicted for that and well beyond the help of any program 12 steps or 12,000.

Yuval Noah Harari

What’s most remarkable to me about Sapiens is the manner and extent in which Harari melds scientific and biological evidence with sociological and cultural. We go back to pre-neanderthal times (100,000 years ago and more) when probably several different editions of our species were roaming the earth. Whether and how they met, intermarried, or otherwise communicated with one another is speculative, but Harari’s point is that we can’t buy into the linear progression from ape-neanderthal-homo sapiens (means “wise man,” by the way. Some joke that.) that most early textbooks imagined.

Rather, we somehow outran, outdueled, outlived our ancestors despite our smaller brains and inferior muscle mass. How? We outsmarted them, and we were better able to work cooperatively. In so doing, we wiped out the larger species of every other animal group we encountered as we migrated from east to west and north to south. [That doesn’t include dinosaurs, of course, who came a few tens of millions of years earlier.]

Why are there no more sabertooth tigers or mammoths, or giant kangaroos or a host of other creatures whose bones archeologists have excavated? They couldn’t reproduce fast enough or in sufficient numbers to keep up with the rate at which we slaughtered them. And all this without the aid of a single elephant gun. Thus did we dominate our earth.

But Harari doesn’t stop there. What’s the next stage? Obviously AI, where our own inventions will produce “fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity.” And with the possibility of replacing our biological parts with mechanical and electronic ones, we maybe could become, not immortal, but as he terms it “amortal”. Beings whose longevity will extend far beyond anything we’ve been able to achieve so far.

Between you and me I’m not enough of a “Homo Sapien” to think that would be a good thing. But maybe I’m just in a sort of neanderthal stage and can’t appreciate the possibilities.

 

 


On The Fragility of White Folks

So what does this Robin DiAngelo get off with this title? How can a whole race of people who have collectively conquered, dominated, enslaved, incarcerated, and subjugated every other race (except maybe the mainland Chinese) on the planet for centuries–how can a race like that be called “Fragile”? So, at first the title didn’t make much sense, but a group I’m in wanted to read it, so I dived in.

DiAngelo is a veteran of racial awareness workshops both inside and outside academia. She makes a persuasive case (with the exception of some rather clumsy writing, but I’ve come to expect that of educational and sociological prose so I got past it fairly easily.) that despite all our years of sensitivity training and near-universal attitude changes which make overt racial prejudice as unwelcome as COVID in an ICU ward, racism and white supremacist sentiments and actions are alive and thriving across the land.

That’s not news, of course, given the horrid events of the day. What may be newsworthy, though, is the source and manner of the racism among those of us who consider ourselves among the uninfected. I’ll turn to one example Diangelo quotes from one of her groups. During a discussion, a black man referred to himself as “stupid.” A black female colleague assured him that wasn’t the case but that the dominant culture wanted him to believe it. A white woman intervened by saying, “what he was trying to say was. . .” She was, of course, trying to be helpful, but she was also, of course, perpetuating a racist pattern of assuming that she knew better than the man himself what he was trying to say. The guy was caught in between. It’s the kind of thing black folk encounter multiple times a day. And, in the larger context, the kind of thing that perpetuates de facto white supremacy about which black people can do little except navigate. But can to little to change.

The fragility part comes in when the author called the woman on her assumption. Immediate defensiveness and anger, followed by tears and a refusal to discuss the matter further. Her tears and retreat bought her sympathy from others in the group. The whole racial point and the man’s contribution were lost.

Another dynamic DiAngelo points to in similar situations ends with the black man trying to explain himself, thus perpetuating the notion that black people owe us an explanation some amelioration for our own tender and offended feelings.

Anecdotes like this abound, and it makes one despair of changing things. What’s most important is, though, that it is up to us white folks to cure ourselves. It’s both simple and complicated. I think we would start with one of DiAngelo’s sentences and perhaps stand a chance of getting somewhere.

Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than convincing others we don’t have them. 

Without that, we continue with destruction and misunderstanding. With that, we might have a chance.

ROBIN DIANGELO