Do You Have a Label You Just Don’t Like?

For the past few days, I’ve been noticing that I cringe when I hear certain words used to label people or things in conversation, on social media, or on television. Some of these are words I know bother other people (like “gypsy,” for personal and business names that the Romani/Romanichal folks would not be fond of because the people using the term aren’t referring to actual gypsies, or naming your pets “Dixie” or “Cracker” or other loaded Southern words in today’s climate).*

The Roma wagons are so cool, though. Image by @Loreke76 via Twenty20

Others are just me. I realize that, for some reason, I do not like the word “cheap” when applied to things you buy. I think my internal definition in my idiolect has more to do with poor quality than low cost. In my mind when people say they want a cheap thing, they are saying that they pay more attention to the price of a thing than to how well it will work or how long it will serve, a short-term viewpoint. So, I never refer to things I obtain as cheap. They are inexpensive, which doesn’t have the poor quality connotation that’s really a secondary definition of cheapness. To me.

Yeah, economical, not cheap!

Back to the first group of words I don’t like, most of them appear to be words that apply to cultural, racial, or national groups. I just recently began to cringe when I hear “Latinx,” after hearing someone say no actual Latino or Latina person would use that word, since it isn’t even Spanish. To them it sounds like white people went and made up a word to solve a problem that didn’t really exist. People who speak Spanish don’t take grammatical gender as literally as English speakers do. How about that? Should I use “Hispanic?” That one has its own issues. Maybe I’ll just call people by their names or refer to their country or origin if they aren’t from the US.

As for these Mexicans, in Mexico, let’s use that term. It was either these guys or some pan flute players. I like mariachi music better than those flutes, which aren’t Mexican anyway.

I guess I know how much people treasure their cultural identities, so I want to use the words members of a particular culture prefer to use, even if they change as time goes on. It would be a LOT easier if there was universal agreement, though. I actually knew someone who preferred “negro” to “Black” or “African American.” Plus, the AA term really doesn’t apply to actual Africans or people from the Caribbean who have moved here. ARGH.

One thing the current movement toward acknowledging the great variety of gender terminology and preferences has taught me is this: it never hurts to ASK someone how they want to be referred to. So, if you don’t know, ASK if a Cajun wants to be called that. ASK what your “indigenous” friend likes their cultural identity to be called.

Let’s call this woman “Quechua” and her alpaca beautiful.

Just don’t be cheap about it. Don’t gyp me. Don’t try to jew me down. When did you start to cringe in this extra cringeworthy paragraph? Do you see why I prefer to be careful with labels and their derivations? It’s not just me being a liberal snowflake (by the way, each snowflake is unique and beautiful, so thanks for calling me that, frenemies!).

Signed,

Suna, she/her, McLeod of the Clan McLeod**


*I have known many dogs named Dixie, and it didn’t use to be controversial. Times change.

**Way too fond of one branch of my Ancestry family tree, perhaps?

Book Report: The Warmth of Other Suns

You’d think I would have finished a couple of books by now, since I’ve been mostly alone in Utah for two weeks. But, there has been knitting, and that does take away from reading time. And the book I have been reading is over 600 pages. But, I finished The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration today! It’s the 2010 first book by Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote Caste, the book that has moved me so much.

I took the photo with sun shining on it.

Many people told me I just had to read this book, and I’m glad they did, since it provided a lot of context for my life, both in the American South and my 20 years in Illinois. I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially to Black friends, because it really does a great job making sense out of both the people who migrated northward from the 1930s to the 1960s, as well as to those who stayed and stuck it out through really awful times.

For sure, reading about the struggles of “colored” people, as Wilkerson correctly calls the folks living before the 1960s, makes it clear how hard the parents and grandparents of the current generations of Black Americans worked to get us to where we are now. Whenever I think there’s been no progress, I can think of the people in this book and realize that yes, things ARE better now for Black citizens. They just aren’t good enough (as the Caste book explains and anyone with eyeballs can see for themselves).

The table runner I’m working on is certainly stripey.

I was a white child in the Deep South, and I recall how separate the worlds of our races still were in the 1960s. What I didn’t see were some of the really, really awful things a child wouldn’t see, such as how hard it was to buy a house, get an education, or get a non-menial job for the colored folks where I lived. No wonder so many people left, hoping it would be better in the North.

But wow, I now know how things got the way they were in the big cities back then, how hard it was to live anywhere but crowded areas, how quickly a neighborhood would empty of White folks (and their businesses) once integration occurred. I remember it happening in the South, where my dad told me his brothers kept moving to get away from Blacks, only that’s not what they called them. I didn’t think it was like that up in the North, where people were free. Or so I thought. Now I know.

Why we aren’t out having fun today. Ugh.

Wilkerson follows three different people and their families, who moved to Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles in this book. I like that she humanizes what could easily have been a dry, intellectual discourse, by sharing the lives of real people. The three are fallible, human, and above all, honest about their lives, and Wilkerson does an amazing job of interspersing their stories with historical background and generalizations about migrants to the North all over the US. The human element just keeps you drawn in and helps you get through the sad stories of beatings, lynchings, cruelty, and unfairness.

One thing is for sure, anyone who reads this book and learns the stories of the people in the Great Migration will not be able to figure out when the heck America was ever “great,” at least for large segments of the population. And that is why more of us should read this book, because it puts our history into perspective. We can be proud of the hard work our citizens have put in to make life better for others, but seeing what a battle it’s been clarifies WHY we still have to work so hard for all of us.

I now understand what was going on during the years I spent visiting Hyde Park in Chicago, whereas at the time I was just a frightened young woman wanting to safely get from that integrated oasis to downtown and transportation. I understand what was going on with the trains going through my hometown. I understand why it was so hard to integrate the schools there: people were scared of each other. People are still scared, perhaps for different reasons, and I realize not much has changed in that respect.

But, when I think back to how I lived 20 years next door to a Black family and had nothing but good neighborly experiences, how my children had friends whose parents had migrated from all over the world, how no one looks sideways at people dating members of other races and cultures, and how many bright and talented Black folks DO get a chance to shine now, I feel a bit better. I have no illusions that we are a “post-racial” society. But I have hope.

By reading this book, any reader will have the context to understand how and why we got to where we are in 2020. Now to keep working together to build a better world. Like my dear husband told me last week, even when there are setbacks, we have to keep trying. We’re all worth it, aren’t we?

Whew, sorry I got so pedantic there. I’ve just been thinking a lot, here by myself. Now I will go to the convenient exercise room and do my walking. Indoors.

Why I Care about Blacks, Gays, and Others Not Like Me

Like the rest of the world, I have been watching events unfold after the US election. One thing I have seen over and over is people lamenting, “How could so many people have voted for the other side?” And ooh, are they serious, as I found out when I tried to post something funny that I didn’t realize was such a hot potato for the side I’m not a member of. Oops. No opinionating on Facebook, even just to be funny, it appears. On the other hand, I guess I actually agree with the humor, and it has to do with why I’m not so surprised so many people voted on each side.

A Digression on Divisiveness

There are two different world views, and each one is “right” from their point of view.

Depending on how you were raised, your life experiences, and yes, even some genetic influence, you are just going to have different priorities. Actual scientific research concluded  “the development of political attitudes depends, on average, about 60 percent on the environment in which we grow up and live and 40 percent on our genes.” Scientific American

Blue fruit, red leaves. All beautiful.

I know there’s stuff written on this, but I’m just going to say it as my opinion: I believe that about half of us primarily act out of self preservation and keeping their group on top (safe, in power, well fed). The other half of us have a larger view of preservation and focus on preserving all of humanity and the rest of the earth, too. That’s an over-generalization, of course.

Having read the Caste book recently (sorry if I keep referring to it, but it’s just chock full of helpful information), I am very aware that the country where I live was designed to preserve the wealth and power of one group (that would be the white dudes). And yes, the Electoral College was set up to preserve the power of the right white dudes. The idea of one person’s vote counting the same as another’s really scares some of us, because it might disrupt the balance of power. A person I know said that if we didn’t use the Electoral College, people in New York and Las Angeles would count the SAME as him! Oh no! Their vote would be equal to his! All that work keeping progressives, blacks, and others from influencing things would be down the drain. I guess? I honestly don’t get it.

What Was I Writing About?

What I wanted to actually talk about today is why I care about people who are not a part of my “group.” I am lucky enough to be descended from the English and Scots people who fled the UK because the were religious outsiders, criminals, or sons who couldn’t inherit land. A fine bunch. But because of that, I am the recipient of a lot of advantages. This has never set well with me.

For example, I feel safe to go hiking all by myself in an unknown place. Privilege. If I were not a white woman, I’d be looking over my shoulder.

Part of it comes from being raised in the Deep South and experiencing a lot of discomfort about how Black people were treated. I have s strong memory of being yelled at for peeing in Versie’s toilet in the garage at my grandmother’s house. This woman could cook our food, but her toilet was forbidden? And why did she have her own toilet?

And as things went on, I ended up having more Black friends than a lot of people like me did. When my parents moved to (ugh) Plantation, Florida, I was in eighth grade. For some reason, my classmates took an initial dislike to me. I went straight from being a popular kid in a gifted class to the person no one talked to, who had to sit with the black kids. Well, it turned out the black kids felt like me. They’d been bussed into this extra white neighborhood and did not feel welcome. So, what the heck, I talked to them (as much as I could; back then there actually was quite a difference in how the two groups talked).

I ended up spending most of the year with a Black girl, Earnestine, who was smart, like me, but who also didn’t understand Algebra 1 (we were in a horrible experimental school that was one giant room and where you were supposed to teach yourself from textbooks and just ask teachers if you needed help). Earnie ended up being the first person I ever taught to crochet, and we made money from it! The moral to that whole experience was that I got to actually know a lot of these kids, learned all about their families and lives, and found we had a lot in common. (Earnie was top in her class when she graduated from the historically black high school in Ft. Lauderdale, though I didn’t see her again until senior year of high school; things might have been different if we’d had email and social media!).

I am not ashamed for believing in this. Image by @TonyTheTigersSon via Twenty20

I was glad to have my eyes opened to see that the people my peers said bad things about were actually just fine. Thank goodness I also made really good Jewish friends and Cuban-American friends (we didn’t have Mexicans) in high school, plus being really close to one of my Black friends. Poor Mom, dealing with me bringing ALL these kids home. But wow, I’m glad I made all these good friends while I was young. I simply can’t view people who aren’t like me in looks, religious tradition, or ethnicity as non-people.

In college, I just happened to fall into a group of young gay men, which was really important. This was pre-AIDS. It was also long before people were coming out in high school or earlier. Many of these guys were trying to figure out who they were, and feeling very vulnerable. Most important, though, was that they were kind to me and my straight friends, and taught us so much about what it’s like to be afraid to be yourself, but go out in the world as you really are. My deep care for these people is probably why I care SO MUCH for young people today who are exploring their gender and sexuality. I remember how hard it was for my friends.

So, no, I wasn’t born such a tree-hugging, peace-mongering, equality-promoting human. Both my genetics (from my dad) AND my experiences led me to be how I am. I totally get how someone with different genes and different experiences might feel threatened by people like me, my friends who are people of color, and all those LGBTQ folks. They are different.

I still think we will be stronger and better if we stand together. Photo by @TonyTheTigersSon via Twenty20

I know so many people I care about feel very threatened by the idea of people who aren’t white dudes being in charge. I’ve heard people say they voted against Biden because if he died in office, TWO WOMEN would be in charge! Yeah, that’s way too many vaginas in power. The thing is, those of us who care about everyone also care about people who feel threatened by change in the status quo. So, don’t worry folks. Those of us who love everybody will keep on loving them, regardless of power struggles. And we don’t expect people who are wired differently to change.

Who knows, maybe the fact that we are about 50/50 is a good thing for humanity and contributes to our continued ability to thrive in the world. Maybe it’s okay that some of us are for unity and some for division. I just want the best and the brightest to get a chance to lead, regardless of superficial differences. That makes me radical, but it’s just how I am.

Scary, but Not the Halloween Kind, the Political Kind

If I hadn’t put out decorations in my houses, I wouldn’t remember that Halloween is in a few days. All that fun spookiness and pretending to be scared has fallen by the wayside in my circles. Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY seems to have real fears right now. It doesn’t matter who you are or what social group you’re a member of, you’re probably scared, or at least really concerned.

People in the US seem to be the most scared, but friends around the world have been expressing their concerns to me or in public forums. The elections coming next Tuesday are alarming people. People are scared of fraud, roaming militias, unseemly riots, government failures, mayhem, the apocalypse, a military coup, bombs…you name it, if it’s bad, people are afraid of it.

According to an article in today’s The USA Today, 70% of US adults are anxious about the upcoming election. That obviously includes people from all parts of the political spectrum! The article describes what people around me have been saying:

The majority of American adults say they feel it. The anxiety, the fear, the dread. 

They feel it before bed and when they wake at night, at red lights and in grocery store lines, at desks and dinner tables. Quiet moments are no longer a refuge, but spaces to ruminate, contemplate, to grapple with how risky it is to hope.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2020/10/28/presidential-election-stress-how-cope-anxiety-and-fear/6049521002/

Only 52% were anxious in 2016 (I should have been MORE anxious). The thing is, no matter who wins, the other side will be doubtful about the results. I can see that. It doesn’t bode well. And taking deep breaths won’t help in that situation, will it? I have been wondering if there are any ideas I can share with y’all, my real-life friends, and my family (who run the gamut of beliefs and expectations).

For example, let’s not imagine the future this way, okay?

Thank goodness for Alia E. Dastagir, who wrote this helpful article, and thank goodness I found it when I was faliling around searching for ways to cope. I’ll share her ideas for dealing with the next few days, weeks, or months, but feel free to head on over to the original article for details.

Avoid doomscrolling. That means don’t obsess over the news and check outlets repeatedly. You could even take some time off.

Prepare for a period of uncertainty. Ugh, I don’t want to do that! I want things to be DONE. Well, too bad. We need to find ways to remain strong while waiting for things to settle down. And there’s where I’m grasping at straws. Dastagir did NOT tell me how to do that.

Dare to hope. Dastagir points out that many people in the US no longer dare hope. At least there’s a suggestion on this one, which is to focus on finding something you can actually DO. I think all the postcard writing some of my friends did helped in that way.

Avoid black-and-white thinking. That is easy to fall into, especially for some of us. WE’RE DOOMED! I have been doing a fairly good job of avoiding that kind of thing myself. I try to remind myself that we are all fellow humans, and that awful stuff has happened throughout history and at least SOME people make it through it…so, maybe I’m not doing such a great job of avoiding doom and gloom. But, we can all try together, right?

Don’t despair. This may be easier said than done, but we are implored not to despair if our candidate does not win. The psychology professor quoted in the article recommended that we try to avoid people who may be gloating or in ecstasy for the first few days after a contentious election is settled. That is what I did in 2016, though that was easier then than it is now.

This time, I may have to leave town.

This looks nice. Image by @ctayers via Twenty20.

Hey, do any of YOU have any good suggestions for how to deal with what’s going to be a hard time for at least half of us, no matter what the outcome?

Who Am I? Where Did I Come From?

We all want to know that, I guess. I did join Ancestry.com a long time ago to see where my ancestors came from and learn more. I wrote about some of my findings in 2018, and it was pretty interesting to some people other than me:

How Far Back Can You Go?

Those Menorcan Settlers

On a Learning Spree Part 5: Genealogy

Very white.

Ancestry did an update of their science, so my estimate changed. It actually makes a lot more sense now. Here’s the link to it. The main thing that changed is I’m a lot more Scots and English than I was before, and a lot less Irish. This makes sense, knowing my extra British Isles heritage on my dad’s side. There’s a lot of the Germany/Switzerland region, which is the part of my mom’s side you don’t hear much about from them. And I’m about a quarter Swedish, which they have down to the exact town my grandfather’s family lived in for centuries.

This is the current analysis

So, I’m a white person with all the rights and privileges granted thereto. Too bad I’m a woman, or I’d be running things, right? (Working hard to change all that!)

Here’s the 2018 estimate, where they didn’t separate Scotland out from Ireland, and where parts of France were in the UK search.

There were a few more details on ancestors that I enjoyed. The best one is that my second great-grandfather, William Greenberry Lafayette Butt, fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. Hey, at least I had one ancestor on the side that won (all these folks on my dad’s side settled in northeastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina). I’d assumed most were on the other side, or hiding somewhere.

That’s really all I had, just wanted to share that I’m happy to hail from Scotland way in the past. Anything north of Hadrian’s Wall makes me Celtic and happy.

Historical Naivete

Riding along through the Texas countryside, I saw lots and lots of political flags, signs, and such. It reminded me of how divided this country is today. I began to reflect on the books I’ve been reading lately, most of which touch on the history of this country, and how there’s always been a lot of cruelty to those who are not in power and a lot of fighting to keep those people “in their places.” I’m referring to pretty much anyone who isn’t a white dude, and preferably a white dude with mostly English background.

All is not lost. I have a nice photo of flowers now, which is revealed when the bathroom door is shut!

Reading about lynchings, realizing that people came to watch them for amusement and sent out postcards of themselves posing with the victims, learning how each new wave of immigrant to the US was treated, and learning how hard men fought to keep women from having the right to own land, sign their own contracts, or vote all have been turning my stomach lately.

At the top are the Germania Hall tokens.

Yesterday it came to life on our own property. The friend who likes to do metal detecting around town came over to investigate the fields behind the Ross property. He found two old pennies, some buckles, some keys and two tokens. These were tokens used as currency at a local dance hall, Germania Hall. It was a big deal at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. How cool, right?

The hall was remodeled in 1914, says the Cameron Herald.

But, it abruptly shut down. Why? Because of the huge wave of intolerance towards German immigrants around World War 1. This is also why Lee’s dad didn’t speak German, though his parents did. My friend Steve, who’s from Indiana, had the same thing happen in his family. Everyone just stopped speaking German.

By the way, parts of Germania Hall were used to construct Weid Hardware in the Dutchtown area of Cameron (Dutch secretly being Deutsch). I would love to know where the hall was, but these newspaper articles never gave addresses. Everyone knew where everything was in the early 1900s!

Cameron Herald article from June 7, 1917, when the hall was still in use.

The US has always been this way. There is always someone who is the enemy or the class viewed as less than human. I just didn’t know this when I was younger! I honestly thought there were very few ignorant and intolerant people, and that society was moving at a brisk pace toward modernism and equality for all. Women could vote! Blacks could drink out of any damn water fountain they wanted to, and went to the same schools as me.

I was way too insulated, and remained so through grad school, when I was in this happy haven of love and equality that I thought applied almost everywhere. I sure was naïve. Plus, I thought that racists, misogynists, etc., were just ignorant, and that if they realized how they were treating other human beings much like themselves, they’d have some big epiphany and stop. Really, Suna? Really?

At least I have a nice, smelly candle to soothe my worried mind.

And get this, I actually thought that surely everyone would want others to have access to health care, a living wage, and a stable, safe place to live. Nope. I totally missed the fact that there is another completely legitimate point of view where everyone is in it for themselves, and only you, your family, and people just like you deserve good things. Everyone else isn’t quite human. Oops. I was a doofus. I may think folks of this midset are worthy of respect and kindness by virtue of being fellow humans, but they don’t think that of me and all us hippies.

And we will always have the love of our dogs, who don’t care one bit about who we like or dislike. These guys were sure glad to see Lee come home yesterday.

Well, I will just wait and see what happens. I’m ready, because I know who I am and like myself. I just wish I had paid a little more attention to actual history, not what I read in watered-down books that universally praised the winners and villified the losers in any conflict. The good news is that with the world being just as it always has been and apparently always will be, people have managed to forge loving relationships, live peaceful lives, and grow spiritually. There are just more ways to do it than I thought in my youth.

We Have a Date

No, we aren’t going anywhere fun or doing anything exciting together. Darn. But, it’s almost that good, at least to our ranch community: we have a closing date for the Ross house in Cameron! Next week can’t come too soon!

Our favorite tree at the Ross house.

When I got the message from the title company that it was a go, I wanted to reach out through the internet and hug Kim, but that’s not appropriate right now. We are being asked to do an in-person closing, which makes me a bit uncomfortable, but we can wear masks and hope they have a big table!

Now that we have the date, we can make our nebulous plans for the house more concrete. While Felix was here yesterday, he figured out a way to have multiple systems, so parts of the house that aren’t in use can be closed off and only heated or cooled enough to prevent mold or frost. That will help a lot.

Hmm. The address sure changes.

Now I am going to get moving and learn as much about the house and it’s previous owners as possible (the Lesters, the Mondricks, others). I’ll be talking to a lot of people I know in Cameron and looking up information on the history of the place. All those documents in the attic will be very helpful, and perhaps the historical museum will want some of them, too. I’d hesitated to mess around with them until I was sure we’d be getting the house. And I hope we are able to save and restore some of the beautiful photographs to use in the main parlor area.

Pretty sure this is Lillian.

So far, I’ve figured out that Ross Avenue is named after former governor, Sul Ross, who was born in the first house in Cameron, where the pavilion is now. I better get started talking to people.

Book Review: Unintended Consequences (and why you should write your memoirs)

This is a different type of book review. For one thing, you can’t buy the book anywhere; I was lucky enough to receive a copy from the author.

The book comes with a free bookmark Doug and Mary made for their COVID-postponed anniversary party.

You see, Unintended Consequences, by F. Douglas Martin, is a collection of stories of the life of one of my friends from my old church. He had been sharing stories from his life on Facebook for months, and I found myself eagerly anticipating each new post from Doug. I just loved the cast of characters who went through his life, the stories of his upbringing, and tales from his fascinating career working with fish around the world. Yep. Fish. It’s fascinating, and not just to other scientists or amateur naturalists!

Apparently, I was not the only one who loved his tales, so his friends and family finally convinced him to put the stories together in a book. His wife, Mary Hengstebeck, took on the task of compiling the MANY stories, putting them in some kind of order, and adding photographs and clip-art illustrations for each story. That was some kind of job!

Sure, the book’s obviously self published, and because it’s a collection of separate stories, there’s some repetition, but that doesn’t detract from the joy of reading the tales of the amazing stuff Doug got away with doing as a child, the hilarious folks he worked with in his life, and the love story between him and Mary.

It’s just the story of a normal person’s life, but I love it. I’m still reading it, but since I read the original stories, I feel competent to say the whole book is a pleasure, and a wonderful distraction from the news of the world right now.

What This Means for YOU

Doug is just a well-educated guy who tells good stories, not a famous celebrity or politician. Still, his memoirs are a joy to read. In the past couple of days, I’ve tried to convince a couple of my friends who have led interesting lives that their stories deserve to be preserved and shared.

This katydid would not go in my memoirs, but it’s an interesting photo.

Both said that no one would care about their stories. Well, Doug probably thought his wife and children would be the only ones who would read his. Really, sharing the stories of our lives is valuable. Future historians will be happy to find details about how people actually lived in the 20th and 21st centuries, and family, friends, and interested others WILL like reading it, especially if you can write well and have lots of interesting photos.

Here’s Doug doing research at Hornsby Bend. I didn’t get permission, since this review is a surprise. But it was public on Facebook.

I know LOTS of people who fit this category. Maybe YOU are one. And even if you aren’t the greatest writer on earth, you probably know someone who can review your writing and clean it up a bit. Honest. I want to read your story.

Mine’s here on the blog.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

Subititle: ME ME ME ME ME but not ME

Yeesh. Thing number one is that I am acutely aware that the deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement is not all about me and my problems with it. So skip that lecture; I already read it here. I want to say I’m not interested in hearing how my reactions to world events are wrong, or that I don’t have a right to react because of my race, socio-economic background, or perceived intellectual status. I get to react how I react. I get to test my bravery, even if I screw up. I get to be upset.

Do I fall into the spiral, or sit on the edge and watch? Image by  @tampatra via Twenty20.

But I do want to butt out of other people’s issues. I’m all for letting the people most directly affected direct their responses, whether individual or as a group. If I’m needed, I’ll step up, but since I am reading over and over again that I’m not needed, I will stand by and do other stuff. What other stuff? Well, here’s a really long list:

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice

And I am going to point out racism, anti-free speech, and non-factual content when it’s in my face. No, I’m not gonna go troll everyone I know and shower them with my thoughts. That’s not gonna work, and I know it. But I might answer back if you troll me with your anti-liberal assertions.

It’s a hard line, which is why I gave the title I did to this post. I just have to accept that some people will damn me for not taking enough action or being silent, while others will damn me for speaking out in ways they don’t approve of. I will be taken to task for not responding to accusations or inaccuracies, then told I should just block and ignore anyone I disagree with. This is true for a lot of us right not.

It’s all an illusion, anyway. Image by @anelehbakota via Twenty20

But, I want to hear what people have to say. All of them, not just the ones like me. I can’t figure out how to listen to my more radical and more conservative associates and not talk back. My mom would laugh. I always talked back.

Luckily I spent a lot of yesterday reading Lion’s Roar, the Buddhist magazine. It reminded me that life happens, it doesn’t happen to me. And that life is hard, but that’s how you learn. It reminded me of the virtues of silent observation.

That’s the Lesson for Today

I have, at least, figured out why I feel uncomfortable (in addition to the obvious other reasons). I’m used to being a participant, going out and doing stuff, and raising my voice to work for a better world. Right now I need to be more quiet. You know, like so many people of color have to be, in order to keep from being noticed and targeted.

Right now I need to observe. That’s my lesson.

Book Report: A Hundred Suns

I gobbled up this novel, which I found via my usual method of discovering books, an interview on NPR (National Public Radio in the US). I figure anything Scott Simon likes, I’ll like. I encourage you to read or listen to the interview about A Hundred Suns, with the author, Karin Tanabe.

Nice font on that title, huh?

Tanabe is known for writing historical novels, and this one’s about Vietnam before it was Vietnam, in the 1930s when it was still French Indochina. It’s a period and place I’m interested in and wanted to learn more about, so why not learn history through a novel (it’s how I learned when I was young; those novels about Queen Elizabeth I sure were more interesting than history books, even if they weren’t 100% accurate; after all, neither are history books).

There is so much to like about the book, and I especially liked how each and every character in the book (French people, Americans, and Annamites (what Vietnamese people were called then)) had a fully developed personality. Like real people, each of them had admirable aspects and made plenty of mistakes. Each had prejudices but learned not to be so confident. You end up empathizing with each major character, even though they do some pretty icky things.

Ah, let us pause to enjoy some sedge seeds with curly tendrils. Also enjoy my lack of nails. I miss certain Vietnamese friends, who happen to also do my nails, a lot.

Tanabe, of course, weaves a lot of history into the narrative. You get to see the country from the eyes of the French colonists (ooh, la la, they were fancy), local people who tried to assimilate into French society, wealthy communist sympathizers, grass-roots communists, and of course, random mercenaries. I found it easier to understand the Vietnamese point of view on communism from this book than I did in books I read when I was younger, which all took the capitalist viewpoint exclusively (one character in the book was like me, neither colonial nor communist nor really capitalist…just wanting the best for everyone).

One thing I really liked about the book is how Tanabe portrays relationships between people of different cultures and races. As someone who’s enjoyed being close to Asians in the past and remembers how people STILL looked askance at it in the 1980s, I appreciated how the relationship between the characters Marcelle and Khoi in the 1930s was depicted. I’m so glad that people are much freer to love whoever they want to now.

I actually liked how she portrayed all relationships. She made arranged marriages make more sense, yet showed that both friendship and true love that can grow and change as people mature, as well. Here’s my favorite quote, from Khoi, the rich and handsome silk merchant, talking about two friends:

“We are not perfect people, you and I,” he said, “No one is. Even Anne-Marie and Sinh. I know we hold him up on a pedestal now, but he wasn’t perfect. We all have moments of weakness, of strength, of stupidity. But if we’re lucky, we’ll have even more moments of love.”

A Hundred Suns, page 340.

There were a couple of things that bugged me about the writing style of Tanabe. Sometimes she gets a little didactic and seems to be giving a history lesson rather than letting it come out through the characters. But, there IS a lot of historical context about rubber plantations and such to get through.

And she has a writing style that sometimes bothers me, where at the end of any utterance she inserts some bit of physical description of the character’s eyes, or skin, or something. I have no idea why that style annoys me, but it always seems like the author couldn’t find any other way to add these details, so they get stuck into the dialogue. And I always wonder if whether someone’s skin is tanned or not matters to the story (in this case, I’ll assume the main character’s deepening tan symbolizes her growing understanding of the Asian culture she finds herself immersed in).

Shoot, I’ve totally forgotten to say what the book’s plot has to do with. You see, there’s a nice social-climbing American woman named Jessie who gets her wealthy family sent to Indochine to escape her past. They are a part of the Michelin family, and the husband wanted to do more with tires and rubber and less with writing tour guides. Jessie meets up with locals, both French and Annamite, deals with her servants (fascinating in their own right), travels through the country, and gets drawn into intrigue as she begins to doubt her sanity. Mayhem ensues.

Wow, can I summarize a book, or what? Anyway, I’d say A Hundred Suns is worth getting a hold of. It will take your mind off the present, and you’ll get to meet a lot of fascinating people in an interesting historical context. You might as well learn something!