Saturday, July 2, 2022

The Family Chao

 Author:  Lan Samantha Chang
Publisher:  Norton
Copyright 2022

It took me a  while to finish reading this novel.  I was interrupted by other life responsibilities.  But, it is not as compelling a read as many of the less "literary" novels by which I often am consumed.  That doesn't mean I value it less.  Still, I was haunted by the book and kept checking it out from the library (3 different times!).  I definitely learned a great deal about immigrant lives and cultural differences.  As a Chinese-American Chang is uniquely qualified to write about the intricate and complex social and emotional currents immigrants and second-generation citizens face.  Add to that the personal connection I have to the mid-western United States and I'm "sold!"

Chang is the director of the Iowa Writer's Workshop (the first woman and first Asian American to serve in that capacity).  The novel clearly proves she has the "writer's credentials" to fill such a post.

The book tells the story of three Chinese-American brothers and their interactions with a Wisconsin community, their cultural heritage, and their parents.  Love, money, passion, and revenge all come into play.  

Futureproof: 9 Rules for Human in the Age of Automation

 Author: Kevin Roose

Publisher: Random House

Copyright:  2021

Roose offers some great ideas for taking back control of life from technology.  I was drawn to this book partly because it helps with ideas to get out of the social media/misinformation/echo chamber.  (And more significantly why we need to do so!)  The first part of the book offers a brief history and explanation of how technology guides and creates our world based on AI algorithms.  Although I'm not a big user of any social media sites it helped me understand why I need to be cautious with product recommendations that appear anywhere on the internet  (they are easily manipulated by AI bots).  Roose calls this "machine drift."  Your musical, reading, and viewing tastes may be heavily influenced by this drift.

I don't want to spoil the reading of the book.  Roose includes a very helpful appendix that gives a great reminder about actions to take (that are fleshed out with details in the book's text).  If nothing else you should check the book out from your library to scan or copy the appendixes.

The anecdotes about the histories of individuals who changed their lives to overcome machines and robots are very helpful touch points.  When I want to think about "scarce, surprising, and social" or "handprints" it is sometimes easier to remember the British ropemaker who through clever steps avoided the worst effects of the industrial revolution or the Japanese autoworker who wisely specialized and ultimately became Toyota's "first-ever chief monozukuri officer" and one of it's few who climbed from the training academy to executive ranks without a college degree.

One important fact that more of us need to know about is how tax laws are encouraging companies to automate.  Physical equipment, including computers and robots, are taxed at a lower rate than human labor.

Definitely worth reading!

Monday, March 15, 2021

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

 By Sonia Purnell.     Viking 2019.  (Paperback by Penguin Books 2019)

Who knew that the French Resistance's success in WWII was primarily attributable to a woman?  One of the complaints that I have about the ways in which histories are told is that the narrative focuses primarily on men, warriors (generals), politicians, and warfare.  Of course, some of this is that most historical accounts are written by men about men  (The Guardian, undated).  Purnell's book helps address this deficit (as well as her previous book about Clementine Churchill--Winston Churchill's wife).

Purnell's biography of Virginia Hall is a well-documented account of this extraordinary woman's work as a "secret agent" during WWII and as an agent afterward in the American CIA.  In addition to being a compelling story, Purnell has carefully documented the story with extensive research including the study of previously unpublished primary documents and interviews of surviving participants.  The book is a delight to read!  Not only is it well written but includes many reader supports such as a map, listing of characters (it gets a little confusing--secret agents tend to change their names a lot!), photographs extensive footnotes of sources and a very useful index.  

My emeriti book club read and discussed this.  All members were wildly enthusiastic!  GoodReads gives it 4 of 5 stars with 3183 reviews.  I can easily see it used as part of "choice reading list" selection in a high school history course (or a literature course including a book like The Diary of Anne Frank or The Book Thief.

From the book, I learned some very interesting and important things about WWII and women in governmental organizations.  It's frightening how very near we came to disaster in WWII and how individuals of principle and courage saved us.  (And how the "good old boys network almost lost the war for us.)  It also helped me appreciate the mix of risk-taking, thrill-seeking, and determination required to serve as an undercover agent.  It's not necessarily the buff, handsome and athletic male who ends up making a difference.  

Monday, November 2, 2020

Just Look Away


Just Look Away but Stay Active

My mornings typically start with NPR and coffee.  This Monday as I reached for the button on the radio I recoiled.  I knew the news would be about the election.  I just could not listen.  There was actually pressure in my chest and gut---I could not bear thinking about what the coming election was going to mean for our country.  Then, as my finger hovered over the button I thought “Well, maybe they’ll cover something more cheerful, like the earthquake in Turkey.”  It paralyzed me—reports about a a huge natural disaster is more cheerful than the election (or as some call it, the battle for democracy)?

Earlier in this election cycle I made a decision---I was going to save myself first.  I am a committed voter and citizen of the United State of America.  How could I save myself from the damage being done to my soul by the current media coverage of the political battles in our country while still being an active participant in democracy?  My response was to take action.  I volunteered to join a phone bank on Get Out the Vote day.

That did not work out too well.  I am not cut out for phone banking.  I was greeted with obscenities, rudeness, wrong numbers and long waits for a connection.  I replaced phone banking action with a more local activity—creating “handmade” postcards to encourage voters in my state to vote for candidates for our state legislature who supported education and healthcare.  That was a very satisfying and soothing activity.  I felt I had contributed and there was no violence done.

Thus, I have made a new promise to myself.  Look away from the media circus and turn instead to small local actions.  Years ago, I read State of Fear, by Michael Crichton.  His message still resonates with me, that the media and politicians have the effect, intentional or not, of making us all live in a frenzied of fear.   And that was written before the internet grabbed us all.  Later Myra Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy forecast the rise of social media (and misinformation) in the face of a pandemic.  Her work helped me believe in the power of social media, both to inform but also to mislead.

My answer to these tensions that most of us are feeling is twofold.  Look away from the media and take two steps to the center.  The fear created by media and politicians have driven us to extremes.  I still watch or listen to some news but when I start feeling the churning in my gut or the pain in my chest I stop.  I have been intentionally listening to interviews of “average citizens” trying to understand those with a viewpoint different from my own.  To protect myself I’ve chosen the PBS interviews Amna Nawaz has done with a mix of voters after the presidential debates.  Listening with love in my heart for all of America I have tried to hear their concerns and beliefs.  As a result, I think I understand that there is honest concern and good intentions in at least some of the “opposition.”  I hope that as we move past the election that we can find these points of agreement or sympathy and build on them.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

COVID-19 a Reader's Journey Wednesay 3.25.2020

OMG--Is that tightness in my chest?

Or--hypochondria/paranoia in the age of COVID-19

Most of the time noting seems normal any longer!  From time to time I imagine (or feel) symptoms of coming down the with THE VIRUS!  I'm trying to stay calm and carry on.  This morning I'm feeling a little tightness in my chest.  Instead of rushing to disaster I'm considering alternative causes of this sensation.

  1. House repairs and clean up.  I've painted the ceiling in my craft room (and helped move furniture a little).  The painting, with my bad shoulder reaching over my head, is a very uncomfortable movement.  The bad shoulder is a result of rotator cuff repair as a result of a snowboarding accident.)  I've done a little bit of painting at a time (Done now!).  It could be just stretching muscles that I haven't used for a long time. Pulling grass out of flower beds and other spring yard clean up is also stretching similar structures.
  2. Too much coffee.  Since I don't have to rush out to meetings, the YMCA, lectures, or bookclub I can relax, read one of the books on the stack next to the door, read the papers, and drink coffee.  Maybe I should get some decaf!
  3.  Medical "Procedures."  Doing the new exercises my orthopedic surgeon prescribed because my should is increasingly weak may have created some strain.
  4. Anxiety! Who doesn't have these moments during this pandemic?
My body has some aches and pains.  One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is muscle pain.  
  1. Old Body.  Silly me, I'm old and have some arthritis.  We're having spring weather fronts move through and my joints often ache when the weather turns.
  2. Olympic Disappointment (just kidding.)  I'm not getting to the YMCA for my regular exercise classes.  Although I'm trying to exercise at home I don't think up creative new ways to move or ways that don't necessarily feel comfortable.  My instructors are great and pushing me in ways I wouldn't go!
  3. Inactivity.  I'm sitting more.  I have time to read and play my video game.  Well, what do I expect?  I know that all those joints hurt the more I sit!
  4. Spring Gardening.  See above.  Not only does pulling and digging hit those unused chest muscles but also all the joints that give me trouble.

Go walk the dog!  This morning just as I was going to walk her it started spitting snow. As I write I'm beginning to see some blue sky through the clouds.  Dreya, the dog, is seeing it too I think.  She's giving me the eye!  We both always feel better as we patrol the neighborhood while we get some sunshine and fresh air.  

Remember what you don't have!  I don't have a cough.  My senses of smell and taste are working well.  No fever.  I haven't been aware of any potential exposures.  There are two close friends with potential links to a victim, but I haven't spent much (or any) face-to-face time with them.

Do laundry and sanitize surfaces in the house.  I went to the grocery yesterday and completely forgot that I should shower and wash my clothes afterward.  Probably parking shoes at the door would be a good practice as well.  (Maybe I should order some new slippers for inside!)  Sanitizing surfaces make me feel virtuous.  It also gets me to clean off the counter and get up and move! 

Just In Case:  If I actually have THE VIRUS I am socially isolating myself.  Don't worry.  I'm not ignoring the risk of transferring virus the to the people I love the most.


I hope all of you are finding ways to embrace the options offered by our forced isolation.  I'm still trying to put limits on my consumption of pandemic coverage and doing a pretty good job of it.  Right now I'm reading a challenging book, Say Nothing:  A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe (2019).   I can't say it's lightening my mood, but it is definitely taking my mind off of The Virus.  It's particularly engaging for me since the part that I'm reading now is set in 1969-1972ish.  It marks the beginning of my college career and adulthood.  It gives me opportunities to compare my own experiences with The Troubles.  Of course, we were aware of the violence going on in Ireland but we were more absorbed with the war protests in our own country.  I also lived in the midwest at the time.  It wasn't really a hotbed of Irish heritage (unless you lived in Chicago).  Two of the people Keefe is following are sisters of about my vintage.  The comparison of their lives and choice with mine regarding the Vietnam war is particularly poignant for me.  

BYW--feel free to comment on these blog posts.  I see visitors but no one is talking!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

COVID-19 a Reader's Journey Saturday 3.22.2020

4am Panic!

Watching a recorded episode of the PBS NewsHour at 10 pm does not lead to good sleep.  So far I've been able to resist watching the stock market ticker.  This morning I awoke at 4 a.m. with an adrenaline surge and at 5 a.m. I was compelled to take a peek at my investments.  Down significantly but not as bad as I feared.  In fact, sort of similar to the 2008 crash. 

This afternoon I had a virtual happy hour with friends.  One of the couples has a nephew who lives in New York but has stayed in San Jose to help his mother for a few weeks.  The nephew really read the riot act to my friends about maintaining social isolation and protecting their health.  (And the health of others.)  He shared lots of statistics about the trajectory of the infection and hospitalizations.  Also a lot of concern about who will get the limited number of hospital beds and respirators.  Thus the virtual happy hour. We had planned to be reckless and have a 6 foot safety zone happy hour.  At the last minute, we all said we'd rather not take a chance of catching or spreading infection and switched to the virtual option. It was fun and a great way to connect with friends, but not the same as face-to-face.

We really are in uncharted waters here.  I can choose to live in anxiety or in trust that with some attention to the details of life all will work out.  It may not be the future that I planned, but I don't want to live in fear.  If I let my imagination run wild I'll live and experience the emotional toll of countless disasters that probably won't actually happen. 

So, with a rough start to the day, it actually turned out well.  My painting project is progressing.  We had another beautiful spring day.  I was able to mow the back yard.  (That makes my dog, Dreya, happy.  She doesn't like long grass on her feet.  Such a princess!) And happy hour with friends!  All is good so far.

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19 A Reader's Journey Tuesday 3.17.2020

Looking for Positives in the Pandemic

I'll admit--I went to the noon meeting of my spiritual group yesterday.  My friend promised we'd be small (4-5 people).  We ended up with eleven, way above the recommended limit of five.  I won't return in person and will use online meetings instead.  But, the meeting gave me the opportunity to reformulate my thinking about this social distancing campaign and how I reconcile my own thinking and emotions to our new reality.

First, I'm changing the way I think about my own decisions.  I found myself feeling bad about my decisions to back out of group events.  Most weeks I attend at least six to eight face-to-face events.  Now that's all in past-tense.  I used to attend all those events.  It was very hard to back out.  In some cases, the decision was made for me by closures.  In others, I had to announce it myself.  For a while, I was very worried about offending my friends and colleagues.  It was as if I was telling these people they were germ-ridden and a danger to me!  That is until I was discussing my feelings with a friend (by phone).  She wisely observed that I was setting boundaries for myself, not others!  Funny, after I decided to back out of one of my last group activities I immediately got a phone call from one of the members thanking me for taking the first step.  Phase one of changing my perspectives to a more positive view.  I also came to understand that I needed to be responsible about my contacts to protect my family.  My two children, one significant other and their father all have at least one sort of auto-immune condition that puts them at higher risk. 

Later I was looking out the front window onto the street and was able to observe a lovely grouping of what looked like three families with young children in conversation.  They were observing the six-foot distancing rule.  Suddenly I realized that in the past few days I've seen and experienced an increased feeling of community.  The foot-traffic in neighborhoods has dramatically increased.  For example, three high school girls walking with their lacrosse sticks down to the park to practice.  Normally they would be at the school practice field and invisible to their immediate neighbors.  Checking with my health-challenged neighbor before I went to the grocery.  Phone calls from friends when normally we only text.  Chatting with an old friend I haven't seen for years during the 7-9 am grocery store's "seniors only" shopping hours.  I'm blessed to be in a low-infection state, at least so far.  Some of these activities will not be possible in higher density communities or areas with high infection rates. 

Shutting down our busy lives is making it possible for us to relax a bit and reconnect with our communities.  Having to focus on our networks and evaluate our "risk" also makes us aware of our potential threats to others.  Thus, stepping back is actually a gift to our friends, neighbors, and families.

Finally, I want to offer a shout out for the creative social consciousness of many of our local stores.  They have come up with special "seniors and vulnerable populations" shopping hours.  Their consideration of the community is greatly appreciated.  It's way too easy to focus on the negatives of our situation.  Egregious examples of irresponsible behavior are being published far and wide.  I hope that we can also celebrate the more positive examples of care that come our way.