This Month in Reality: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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When I posted my “What I’m Listening to” for this book I said that, just in the first chapters, I kept getting a lot of Tupac lyrics stuck in my head. In particular the line, “Instead of a war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so police can bother me.” This book made me in turns fucking furious, and heartbroken and uncomfortable, and increasingly aware that the U.S. is doing a big thing badly and that big thing is incarcerating citizens.

In this book, Michelle Alexander examines America’s prison systems and makes the argument that mass incarceration is a system of racial control that has taken the place of Jim Crow. And, her argument is pretty convincing. She looks at how, not all at once, but little by little changes have been made that have largely affected poor people and people of color. She looks at changes in the welfare system, changes in policing, the militarization of policing, and changes in drug policy.

Last year, I heard Piper Kerman speak at a local library function and this revisited some of the things that she touched on in her talk (and that at friend of mine touched on in a chat after the talk). We send a lot of people to prison. We send people to prison for murder. We send people to prison for rape (although, not often and not for very long but that’s a topic of discussion for another day). And, we send lots and lots of people to prison for non-violent drug offenses. How are we serving these people by putting them away for non-violent crime? How are we serving their communities by taking them out of the community? How are we serving them and their communities by disenfranchising them after they have served their time? How are we serving them and their communities by making access to welfare and public housing impossible after being convicted of a felony? I get it, if people do “bad” things, you don’t want to feel like you’re rewarding them. But, if you have nothing because you’ve just spent many years in prison and you want to do right and get back into the world, how can you do that with so many avenues closed off to you?

I don’t know.

This book raised way more questions than it answered for me but I am glad that I read it even if it means I now have to spend time thinking about these issues and how I can help set them right.

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The Past Couple of Months in Reality: I listened to a Feminist Classic

So, I had a moment earlier this year where someone referenced the feminist classic the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and I realized that I hadn’t read it. It seems like something I should have read. So, I used one of my audible credits and I picked it up. And, then I spent hours cooking, cleaning and walking on the tread mill while Parker Posey read it to me.

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Isn’t that the creeepiest image?

Anyway, this classic was originally published in 1963 and it addressed a problem that women who bought (and a society that sold) the fantasy that the most fulfilling thing a woman could do with her life was get married and have children and how that not only affected those women but also had ripple effects within society. I can see, looking back, how this was a revolutionary book. It is important to know and remember that women are people and that women, all women, have capacities and interests and being stuck in and reduced to one or two roles for any person is potentially trapping.

But, this book was definitely written in a different time and was focused on different issues than the feminism is now. For one, every time Friedan wrote “women”, I found it was almost always easier to take if I added “Middle Class White” before “women”. While Friedan was probably trying to write about an ideal (and, a societal image of what a “woman” should be is certainly something everyone woman-identifying person has to contend with much like the idea of what a “man” should be is something all men-identifying people have to contend with.) most of the data she presented was about a very particular kind of woman. As already mentioned, middle class white women. And, that’s fine, but the problems that middle class white women face are not always the same as the problems that working class white women face. Or, Middle class African American women. Or, working class African American women. Or, Trans women. Or, Asian American women. Or, Native American women. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I am glad that I read it, though. It is nice to be able to look back and think about how much we have accomplished and to note how much work we still have to do.

This Month in Reality: Shonda Rhimes is my hero. 

A Year of Yes
  

Welcome to a March 32nd tradition. I am posting this month’s in reality on the last day of March! 
This book, man. It’s life changing. Life affirming. It’s… I don’t even know where to begin. Except I do. At the beginning, I had to stop listening halfway through the introduction because I was crying my eyes out. I’ve never felt so seen…by an audiobook. I guess this is why Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday nights. 
This book is a memoir about a year in which Rhimes chose to say yes to everything that scared her. And, it would seem, a bunch of things that scare her also scare me and so hearing about how she faced her fears and won was transformative.  The book is read by the author, so, if like me, you listen to books a lot with headphones on, Shonda Rhimes is literally whispering in your ear telling you how she overcame her fears and leading by example. 
I want to say yes to everything now. I even want to say yes to saying no to things that are bad for me. 
This book, man. I loved it. 

This Year in Reality 2015

When Beth and I decided we were really going to get on this thing and use this space and do some writing, we decided that we both needed a recurring series. Beth has been doing the Series You Should Check Out. These have been enjoyable to read (and have definitely put books into my TBR pile) and they’ve even gotten us a couple of author retweets. (Which, I have to say, was super exciting for both of us!) I decided to go in a different direction and review at least one non-fiction book a month. I flippantly titled this recurring series This Month in Reality. And, while not getting us any retweets, it has at least gotten me the personal satisfaction of engaging in some topics that I’ve had an interest in but have maybe not have made time for. The books that I read this year can probably be divided into three categories: Self help (dating advice,exercise, etc, New Years resolutions and Mesoamerican History! *only self-help for me because I study Mesoamerica*. ) Pop Culture Interest (the life and times of Kim Gordon, Piper Kerman and Orange is the New Black,Pop Physics,Travel as a metaphor for personal growth, Oscar winners ) meditation (Meditation and Science, meditation and practice, meditation AND pop culture). I’m so proud of my accidental consistency. I plan to continue this column in the coming year and I will also endeavor to be consistent, although more intentionally so. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year considering who holds space and who is asking for it in our society, so expect to see books that help me meditate on and answer that question in 2016. But, before we get to 2016, I’d like to say goodbye to 2015 to revisiting my favorite reads/listens in reality this year! So, in no particular order:

 

 

<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/07/31/this-month-in-reality-love-and-revolution/> Revolution by Russell Brand</a>.

 

This book hit me right in the feels. In a moment of synchronicity, I listened to this book at the exact right time for me because the messages of his book, that love is important and should be cherished and cultivated and that if something isn’t working we have to try something new and endeavor to make it better, were both things I needed to hear. It feels a little trite to say that a celebrity known for being a dirty hippie who once did a lot of drugs said the things that I needed to hear (especially when those things are stuff like, “your reality is the result of your attention and intention” and “sometimes you have to realize that the only power you have in a situation is the power to make it worse”) but it’s true so I might as well own it. I think Brand is a funny dude and I think the ideas he discusses are worthy ideas. So, if you’re feeling despairing and fed up with what the world looks like, take a break and hang out with this squirrelly English dude. Maybe he’ll say what you need to hear, too. (Or, maybe you’ll hate it and it’ll be one of those hate reads which is also cathartic. I don’t know.  You do you.)

 

<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/04/02/this-month-in-reality-travel-as-a-metaphor-for-personal-growth/>Eat, Pray, Love</a>

 

I wanted so badly to hate this book. No, really. I wanted to hate this book because knowing barely anything about Elizabeth Gilbert (except the general plot of this story) I had decided that Gilbert was a selfish person who does what she likes and (mis)uses foreign cultures to justify her self-serving decisions. Now, maybe my original judgments about her are true and maybe they aren’t. But, try as I might to hate this book, I just couldn’t.  I found this book to be tremendously enjoyable. In the book someone suggests to her that every person and every city has a word that sums them up. When you find the city that you match, you’ve found your home. This is a clue to her that it is time to move on. I really liked this idea and I spent a long time considering what my word is. I just went back through a bunch of text messages with a friend who loved the book to see if I had come to a decision about my word. I think it might be “chameleon”. But, I’m still not sure. This book was a beautiful, painful, wonderful read. I’m so happy I picked it up!

 

<a href=https://stacksexceedlifeexpectancy.com/2015/10/31/this-month-in-reality-mesoamerican-history/>Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Professor  Edwin Barnhart</a>

I picked up this lecture series from audible because I thought, “What the hell? You know practically nothing about the historical context that gave birth to this language context you study, what could it hurt?” Nothing, I decided. And, I’m so glad that I picked it up. It covers the Toltecs, Olmecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Tarascans, Aztecs, and Mayans: all of whom had empires in Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of Columbus. Did you know that? Prior to reading this audio book, these were names I knew, but I didn’t realize the the history that these names conveyed. These were huge empires that had sweeping impact on the culture, the people, and the land. How cool is that? Audible has an entire series of lectures, so if you’re interested in learning a little about anything, you might find something that will capture your interest! I, of course, recommend starting in Mesoamerica.

 

 

I hope that you have enjoyed learning a little this year along with me and that 2016 will bring us more knowledge about this cool and exciting world we live in!

 

Extra Reality This Month: Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

I never felt cool enough to be a Sonic Youth fan. Or, I’m not sure I’ve ever really understood their music and I attributed my lack of understanding to how utterly uncool I am. But, I’ve always respected them as a band (and more than once my lack of understanding because me an opportunity to flirt with a musically inclined cutie.) Plus, Kim Gordon has always been kind of a feminist icon to me. She was a shining example of how a woman could succeed in a profession dominated by men. And, the fact that she succeeded and managed to maintain a relationship with talented hottie Thurston Moore just made her even more iconic. It’s a little unfair to pin so much hope to a relationship but I know a lot of people who looked at their marriage and thought, “If they can do it, we can do it.” and the world seemed surprised and disappointed when they announced they were divorcing. I was also disappointed. It seemed like the end of a era and maybe it was. I don’t know. So, when I heard that Gordon was writing a memoir I knew I had to read it.

The book chronicles her life starting with her childhood in California and takes us all the way to the present day with a kid in college in new projects post-band. Gordon talks a lot about her relationships with her parents and brother and her mentors and how that shaped who she was and how she ended up in a band. Kim Gordon, you may not know, went to art school and studied painting. (I didn’t know that.) So, this memoir is not just a story about a band or a story of how her marriage came together and fell apart. It is also an interesting look into the art world and how the New York of today grew up.

This was a really, really neat book that made me crave 90s music and to wander around Manhattan. It was really interesting to read what Gordon had to say about the music scene and the growing gallery culture of that time period. It was also really interesting to get a perspective from an older feminist on the world then and now. As I mentioned in on periscope, Kim Gordon is the same age is Beth’s and my mother and her feminism and my feminism are not the same. It is nice to be reminded that the movement has moved.

So, if you are interested in the music and art of the 80s and 90s, I definitely recommend it.

This Month in Reality: It’s Just a F*cking Date

I picked this up in a bogo audible sale. It’s not my usual fare but Greg and Amiira seem to be doing well together and other people seem to enjoy their books so I figured, why not?

My feelings about this book are ambivalent but not because I didn’t enjoy it. Greg and Amiira are funny, smart and endearing. I think they gave me some great advice. But, some of their advice was off-putting because it meant accepting things about the world that I think need to be changed. So, my ambivalence is less about my feelings toward the book and more about my feelings towards society as a whole.

But, let’s talk about what I liked first. One of the premises of this book was that you set the bar for how people treat you. So, you have to be conscious of what you put out into the world. Potential partners not giving you a second look? Then you need to think about what you’re giving them to look at. They really hit the whole “get a life to have a life” idea hard. And, I really like that (and do that anyway). It makes sense to me to have a life I love and to invest time in making a life a love. And, if it means that I seem cool and mysterious because I’m a complete person who is not willing to drop everything to be with someone then, great. Total win. I liked the advice sections that focused on building you up. And, I liked the advice sections about how to date multiple people and to be explicit about your commitments when you are wanting to make them (and not expecting them in return).

But, all of the advice about deferring to men and letting them chase you and letting them take the lead in a conversation, blech. It’s probably something I need to hear and I probably should listen to it. (Although, that being said, ladles and jelly spoons, “So, that thing you do seems cool, tell me about it” is an imperative, not a interrogative. It’s easier to answer a question than give a speech about cool shit I do. So maybe instead of saying, “tell me about it” or “what’s that about?” say, “How did you get into that?” Just a suggestion.) I’m fine with waiting after a first date and letting the dude take the next move. (I mean, I do have a life and I expect you to have one, too. So, if you text me immediately or call the next day I might wonder about you.) I didn’t take good notes on this one so I feel like I should have better examples but suffice to say that most of my problems weren’t with the book but are with society.

So, that’s it for this one. It was pretty cool, even if society still has weird gender relations.

This Month in Reality…Waking Up 

I have been continuing my meditative practice and reading more on meditating this month.  The good news I’m getting better.  The bad news is I’ve gotten to the point where I know I’m getting better because I’m completely aware of how very, very bad I am at it.  The author of Waking Up tells me this is a real sign of progress.  You feel like you’re getting worse because you were so sure you were great at it before.  But, now that you have a little practice of recognizing a thought you realize that you were just telling yourself a story before and you weren’t actually all that awesome.  

So, that’s a total bummer if even if it is also a total victory.  

Waking Up by Sam Harris is a book about spirituality for the non-religious.  The thesis of the book is that spirituality is something human and that if we package it with religion we are missing out on something that we all need.  Specifically, religion and spirituality have traditionally been places where we have cultivated consciousness with meditative practices that leave us calmer, more focused, and feeling better about the world, ourselves and others.  Compassion, focus, these things can be taught and some traditionally religious practices can help us learn.  Meditation, particularly if you think of it as a Buddhist practice, is an excellent example of this.  There are other examples, too.  Prayer seems to be a meditative practice for many people.  But, if you don’t believe in God and/or you don’t want to follow or adhere to a set of guidelines or rules prescribed by a religion, you could still probably benefit from similar practices.  The book focuses a lot on meditation practice and how meditation can help us cultivate consciousness.  
Harris says throughout the text that he doesn’t want you to take him at his word.  He wants you to test out his theories and ideas in the ‘laboratory of your life’.  And, I liked that.  I liked that a lot.  I like being encouraged by someone selling an idea to try the idea on to see what I think about it.  I also liked that Harris presented some research on consciousness and how what we think of as consciousness relates to our brains.  This is an area of much ongoing research because we don’t know where consciousness is (if there is even one particular where to pinpoint, which there probably isn’t.)  Some of the research he presented in this book is on split-brain patients (note: this stuff is *not* for testing in the laboratory of your own life).  Split-brain patients have had their Corpus Callosum severed.  This is done surgically (as a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of epileptic seizures that are devastating other neurological processes or for other equally serious reasons) and after the procedure the hemispheres are cut off from each other.  This leads to some interesting behavior like the right and left hand both reaching for the same object.  Or, the right and left hand picking out different outfits to wear. These are really interesting studies and if you’ve never read about split-brain patients before this alone might be worth the price of admission.  
I really enjoyed this book and if you are interested in meditation practice or spirituality but can’t handle religion I’d say this isn’t a bad place to start.  

I checked this book out from the Buffalo and Erie County Public libraries

This Month in Reality: Love and Revolution

So, Russell Brand’s third book is about the state of the world and what we can all do to change it. He does his usual comedy schtick but he also presents the views of public figures, past and present, who are advocating for change. I checked this book out from the library to listen to while I cleaned my apartment and but I found myself often just listening. There were many touching and poignant things in the novel. Brand gets personal and talks about painful breakups and relationships and his history of addiction. He gets global and he talks about alternative energy and failures in many governmental systems world wide. One of the things that he keeps coming back to is small groups of people coming together to take care of themselves and effect change.

To be quite honest, I was very touched by this book. I found that it stuck with me long after I had put it down.

When people have to take to the streets because they are being injured or killed by a police service that is not part of the community and not serving the community the system isn’t working. When congress can spend an entire session not passing bills, not appointing people to positions that need to be filled, not taking care of veterans, and not debating or discussing any issues that affect the lives of the people that they actually represent, the system isn’t working. When we expect students to get a college degree to get a good job but that college degree will set them back thousands and thousands of dollars into debt (and when that degree is no guarantee that a good job will ever be available), the system is broken. When apples are shipped to another continent to be processed and then shipped back to be sold (or fish are caught, frozen, shipped to another continent thawed, scaled and boned, refrozen and shipped back) the system isn’t working.  Or, maybe it is working and it is just a stupid system.

I think we can all agree that at least some of those things sound crazy. I mean, at least the fish and the apple thing. I hope the other things as well.

So, the question is, if the system isn’t working, how do we as people, come together and fix the system or change the system or make the system work? The big question that we all have ask ourselves is what are the things that are important to us? How do we center those important things in our lives and in our policies? How do we create a government that is on the same page as we are?

Brand has some suggestions but three of the things that he keeps coming back to are meditation, people coming together to change something, and love.

These are things that have been on my mind recently. Meditation because I have become increasingly aware of how some sort of meditation practice could benefit me.  People coming together because of all of the movements that are rolling and changing things (#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and #lovewins as possible examples).    Love for a possibly bizarre reason. I have about one year left on my PhD and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do next. All of that thinking about the future has really highlighted what is important to me and it turns out that what’s important to me is a need to be near people I love. One of the things I took from reading this book was that, yes, the world is in an awful state and it can be an awful place. But, it doesn’t have to be. We can work together to make it better. We can be there for each other, we can support each other and we don’t have to take any of this as, “that’s just the way the world works.” Naw. The world works the way we work and if we want to change something, we should.

This book was full of a lot of really quotable things that as a listener I kept coming back to like: “Sometimes you have to realize that the only power you have in a situation is the power to make it worse.” (Or, not.)  I could not have heard this quote a better time.  Sometimes, you just have to be reminded that your only options are to be a dick or to be a compassionate human being.

In a discussion of suffragette Emily Davison who worked the get women the vote in England, Brand pointed out that were former leaders of past revolutions to be magically transported in time to now that they might not be encouraging people to vote but rather to riot. It is important to remember that even leaders of peaceful movements did not countenance peace in all instances and that we need to be very careful not to take their life’s work out of context. (We especially need to be careful not to take their life’s work out of context in order to silence a vocal minority that is looking to be heard or that is looking for justice.)

But, the best part of this book for me was maybe how personal it was. Brand reminds you over and over again that you don’t need a perfect solution now, that you can start where you are, that you can do something small and that you, right now, are enough and that you do not need to change. You are okay. I was a little surprised at first by how affected I was to hear that. But, I think we get messages every day about how inadequate we are and we are so habituated to seeing and hearing them that we don’t even question them. Having a weirdo comedian who has had many hilarious (possibly unintentionally so) hairstyles remind me to begin where I am was oddly comforting. Knowing that this guy, who is probably a total dick, is trying his best for his community, was moving. Listening to Brand talk about his many fuck ups and shortcomings was oddly empowering.

Brand reminds us that, “This is your planet, you can change it if you want to. You can change it by doing loads of drug or having it off with loads of women or going on a murderous rampage with a licensed weapon. Doesn’t it make more sense though to change it by binding together with your fellow man and working to create a society that is fair and just? Of course it does!”

So, if you’re interested in hearing a comedian discuss the work of forward-thinking people and talk about revolution, meditation, and power structures, I highly recommend this book.

I checked the audio for this book out from the Buffalo and Erie County Public Libraries.