Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

And I thought I knew books...

Berthoud and Elderkin have compiled a delightful reference for those in need of greater direction in their reading. Or those who may be in a reading rut and want some new ideas. Or those who don't know where to start reading. Or those who have any of the hundreds of specific ailments they list.

The cure for claustrophobia? Little House on the Prairie with its wide open Kansas skies.

The cure for hypochondria? The Secret Garden with its tale of Colin's surety he's dying and fear of life.

The cure for regret? These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine and the title character's determination to move forward with pluck and resilience from sorrow and hardship.

The "illnesses" listed range from the physical (Hay Fever, Headache, and Hemorrhoids - all on the same page) to the financial (Broke, Being; Tax Return, Fear of Doing) to the emotional and spiritual (Angst, Existential; Left Out, Feeling). They cover the serious (both Cancer, Caring for Someone with and Cancer, Having) and the less so (Tea, Unable to Find a Cup of). 

There are literary prescriptions for Control Freak, Being a and Libido, Loss of and "Ten Best" lists to address Humorlessness and Flying, Fear of.

Additionally, scattered throughout the book are ailments specifically related to reading: Skim, tendency to; Children requiring attention, too many; Vacation, not knowing what novels to take on; and both Sci-fi, fear of and Sci-fi, stuck on.

Truly, there is something for absolutely every reader here, with a delightfully cheeky humor throughout.

Oftentimes, the suggested reading offers a cure in the sense of a cautionary tale. "Don't be like Lily" the entry on Broken Spirit warns of the antiheroine in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth. And frequently, opposite ailments are highlighted side-by-side, such as with Sleep, Too Little and Sleep, Too Much or Mother-in-law, Being a and Mother-in-law, Having a (which, incidentally, are both treated by reading the same volume.

I consider myself fairly well read and as I've only gotten through perhaps a quarter of Berthoud and Elderkin's suggestions, I have quite a bit of catching up to do. Perhaps I'll start with "The Ten Best Novels for Thirtysomethings". Or Procrastination. Or Motherhood. Or Different, Being. Or Monday Morning Feeling. Or Rails, Going off the. Or...

The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You
by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin
ISBN: 9781594205163
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 133


Firsts for women are still happening all over the world. I was thrilled to see news reports that Saudi women are now registering to vote for the first time! The first elections in which women will be eligible to vote will be held in December.

Especially poignant that this is happening around the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment when women in the United States won the right to vote 95 years ago.

It's a major step forward, of course, but it certainly doesn't mean all is now well and equal for all women across the globe. There's still more to be done.


A new original Broadway musical tells the story behind the song "Amazing Grace" - John Newton's transformation from a profane atheist and slave-trader to Christian abolitionist - and the cast performed the title song on Jimmy Fallon's "The Tonight Show" last week. It gave me goose-bumps. Listen:

(Here's a link if the embedded video doesn't work.)

Powerful song.


This piece, "Question: Why must we still talk about race? Answer: Twelve," a straightforward explanation of why historical perspective is important when talking about race and racial issues. Slavery persisted in the US for twelve generations. It's only been about half that much time since slavery was abolished after the Civil War.

And I'd never heard the Brian McLaren joke she quotes:
Why did Jesus cross the road?
To get to the other.
Then I read this article in the Guardian, "Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children's genes." Of course, the scientists specifically studied Holocaust survivors, but surely twelve generations of slavery qualifies as trauma as well. It provides interesting food for thought on the lingering effects of major trauma on later generations.


A new website, Out in Zion, "attempts to deepen and enrich the conversation intersecting membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender" through blog posts and podcasts. I deeply admire many of the contributors to this site: Laura Skaggs Dulin, Tom Christofferson, Kendall Wilcox, and others.

While I haven't had a chance to listen to the podcasts yet, two recent posts touched me. Excerpts are below.

From "If I Could Reach Every Ward":
This is the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, to heal, to deliver, to set at liberty. And although Jesus’ message may have anticipated at least partially his role in the resurrection and our eternal life, his ministry demonstrates that he meant to offer these gifts for our time on earth as well.
He spent most of the years of his ministry healing bodies and minds, delivering captives from rigid beliefs, and setting at liberty those who believed they were less deserving of God’s notice: the poor, the Samaritans, even the lepers who were seen as deliberately stricken by God. It was precisely those who did not experience themselves as belonging in the religious mainstream that Jesus focused on, spent time with, and defended from others’ criticism...
It has been my experience that God is not put off by my real feelings, not even my anger, nor does he turn away if I let him know that I mistrust what I see of his plan for my life. His tender care allows him to hear our complaints and bear our burdens, and his tender care can help us find others who understand our burdens so we do not have to bear them alone.
From "In That Quest, All Are Needed and Wanted":
My hope is that each of you have received that personal confirmation that Heavenly Father knows you, uniquely and individually, that He knows the whole of you, the past, present and future of you, He knows that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and with that knowledge, not in spite of it, He loves you without reservation, completely, eternally. We do not earn His love through our obedience or sacrifice any more than we earn the privilege of resurrection, the privilege of repentance, the privilege of discipleship. His love is bestowed without condition. If you take no other message away from our time this evening, I hope you will realize the perfect love and complete knowledge that your Heavenly Father has of you.
Once that witness has been burned into our souls, we can let go of self-loathing, we can move beyond the feeling or focus on what I heard the other day referred to as “unwanted same-sex attraction”, we can embrace the knowledge that who we are is not in need of repair. Instead, we can concentrate on learning to love as He does. With the Beloved apostle John we can testify, “We love him because he first loved us.” That love is what impels us along the course of discipleship. His Spirit guides us and we can do hard things – as you well know, no path you may choose is without cost.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 132


Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver are the first two women to complete Army Ranger training.

These are impressive, strong women who "didn't come with a chip on our shoulder, like we had anything to prove," according to Lt. Haver. Captain Griest says, "I was thinking really of future generations of women, that I would like them to have that opportunity." Awesome.

(Though does anyone else find it a wee bit ironic that they are described by one of their male classmates in the linked article as "physical studs"? ;) )


In another first for women, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced (via facebook posts by several women leaders) that the women who serve at the head of the three organizations women lead (Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary) have each been appointed as permanent members of one of three prominent leadership councils.

I was mistakenly under the impression that they already were, but apparently, while they had been consulted by these councils, made presentations to the councils, and asked for input previously, this is now a permanent appointment.

'Bout time.


As a parent and as someone who has worked with teenagers for several years, I firmly believe that, while sometimes correction is necessary, focusing on the good and the positive is by far the more effective teaching method. And there is So. Much. Good. to focus on!

The author of this fabulous post seems to agree:
We, as parents, try to teach our children to be strong and confident and self-assured. We tell you to be kind and brave. We teach you to be strong and fight hard. We tell you that you are beautiful and worthy and valued. We teach you to respect your bodies and demand respect in return. We teach you how to love yourself, despite the fact that we live in a world that might not always love you back, in the hopes that you grow into good and kind and confident women and men. We teach you.
But what we forget is that there is so much that YOU teach us. You remind us what it is like to be brave, if not fearless. You urge us to take risks and jump in. You tell us that it will all be fine if we just don’t look down. You tell us that jumping is like flying, after all. You remind us that we, too, made mistakes and sometimes acted foolishly. Very foolishly. You teach us the importance of second changes and forgiveness. You teach us how to be patient and tenacious, gentle and resilient, soft and strong. You teach us to jump.
And that is one of the reasons I loved working with the young women in my church. They taught me, encouraged me, helped me see the world from a different perspective. And my children do that every day!


We've been at Yellowstone this week. The best part has been seeing these three hooligans' wonder and awe at what we've seen and experienced (The animals! The falls! The geysers! The hikes! The rock formations! The huge bowls of ice cream!)

Yes, the youngest looks like that in every picture...
Oh, how I adore them!

Monday, August 17, 2015

Book Review: Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz

26 "rad" women from diverse ethnic, economic, and social backgrounds are profiled in Rad American Women A-Z. The main criteria for inclusion in the book was that "every single one of these individuals changed America in some way," though Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl acknowledge that "one of the of making this book was choosing which people to include...there are thousands of rad women whose stories deserve to be shared."

In the introduction, they emphatically state that the word "rad" was chosen quite deliberately for several reasons:
What does it mean to be 'rad'? Well, it means a few things. 'Rad is short for 'radical,' which comes from the Latin word meaning 'from the root.' So a radical person can be someone like Ella Baker, who did grassroots organizing. A radical can be a person who wants to make big changes in society, like Angela Davis and the Grimke sisters, who fought to end discrimination of all kinds. Radical can also be used to describe something that is different from the usual, like Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial or Ursula LeGuin's innovative science fiction. 'Rad' is also a slang word that means 'cool' or 'awesome.' Like when flashy Flo-Jo ran faster than any woman in the world, or when Patti Smith takes the stage to rock out.
I was so pleased at the diversity represented among wide range of women. The 26 women include those who identify as Native American, African American, Asian American, Latina, and white women. Straight, gay, and transgender populations are represented. Temple Grandin, who is autistic, is featured alongside neurotypical women. Those with achievements in the fields of sports, entertainment, medicine, law, science, writing, social justice, and more are in these pages.

Billie Jean King crushed barriers and changed minds on the tennis court and across the nation. Carol Burnett was a pioneering comedienne. Rachel Carson studied biology and helped open minds to the impact human actions had on the environment. "Queen Bessie" Coleman earned her international pilot's license two years before Amelia Earhart, even though she had to go to France since no aviation school in the U.S. would accept a black woman. Nellie Bly revolutionized journalism.

While I'd heard of many of these women, I appreciated the opportunity to expand my education by learning about Native American activist Wilma Mankiller, Nisei humanitarian Yuri Kochiyama, legendary folk singer Odetta, transgender writer Kate Bornstein, and abolitionists the Grimke sisters, among others.

The illustrations are stark black and white on bold, bright, solid-color backgrounds that capture the movement and action of these strong women. It's an absolutely perfect pairing of text and illustration.

My boys kept coming back to one particular page, though, and it was one I wouldn't have expected.
X is for the women whose names we don't know.
It's for the women we haven't learned about yet, and the women whose stories we will never read.
X is for the women whose voices weren't heard.
For the women who aren't in the history books or the Halls of Fame, or on postage stamps and coins.
For the women who didn't get credit for their ideas and inventions.
Who couldn't own property or sign their own names.
The women who weren't taught to read or write but managed to communicate anyway. Who weren't allowed to work but still supported their families, or who worked all day but weren't paid as much as the men. 
X is for the radical histories that didn't get recorded.
X is for our mothers, our matriarchs, our ancestors.
The nurses and neighbors and aunties and teachers.
The women who made huge changes and the women who made dinner.
X is for the hands that built and shared and wrote and fought.
The bodies that birthed and worked and strained to keep going.
The feet that walked, ran, jumped, and balanced.
The minds that dreamed and desired, the hearts that loved.
X is also for all that's happening now and all that is still to come.
X is for the women in homes and offices and fields and labs and classrooms, who invent and transform and build and create.
X is for all we don't know about the past, but X is also for the future...
When my six-year-old read this page, he looked up at me and said, "That's you, Mom!" At first, I felt the need to correct him. After all, I can read and write and own property. I can earn for a fair wage. My name is known and my voice is heard, at least by a small circle.

But then again, this page is for me. I'm a mother, a neighbor, a friend. I make dinner (sometimes) and build and share and write. I balance and love and dream. I may not have changed the world or my country, but I believe I'm making a positive difference in at least a few lives.

That X is for me, too.

Rad American Women A-Z
written by Kate Schatz
illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
ISBN: 9780872866836
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 131


Our family and a few young women from our church signed up to serve with Blessings Under the Bridge this past Wednesday. Blessings Under the Bridge is a Christian organization that provides a free meal to the homeless every Wednesday at 4th & McLellan, under the freeway downtown.

Our particular assignment was to stand at the end of the food table and offer to help people carry their heavily-laden trays while they got drinks and some baked goods, and then get them settled at a table to eat their bounty. At first, the kids were a little shy about asking, but just a few minutes in, they caught the spirit of the service and started to get excited about helping. My middle child especially enjoyed asking every single person who came through the line if he could help them and would come running back after finishing with one person to help another, announcing with a big grin on his face how many people he had now helped - 25 by the end of the evening!

I was impressed by the well-oiled machine that BUTB has going. In addition to a generous spread of sandwiches, spaghetti, green salad with dressing, watermelon, cupcakes, and chips for dinner, there was a bounty of options for beverages: bottled water, various juices and pop, chocolate milk, lemonade, and sweet tea. They also had a table set up with baked goods of every kind - cookies, cakes, cinnamon rolls, donuts, croissants, and more. There was even a station for Italian sodas! And no limits. Everything was take-as-much-as-you-want and many people came back for seconds or to take extras so they'd have something to eat the next day.

After they were done eating, they could peruse a table piled high with donated clothes, collect some pet food, and gather groceries, too. There was even a Christian rock band set up in the corner playing music the whole time.

All three of the boys said they felt good about their service and wanted to do it again. We'll definitely be back!


I love this #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou Twitter campaign to reclaim Africa from the prevalent "poverty porn" images. The pictures being posted and shared are truly stunning and showcase the beauty and variety of the continent. (This article highlights just a few of the photos.)

When you stop to think about it for half a second, it's ridiculous that so many Westerners have a single image of what Africa is - a continent that covers 11.7 million square miles, is three times the size of the US, and contains more than 50 independent countries. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, there is danger in a single story. Click on the link above and learn about a few more stories of Africa today.


In my ongoing efforts to better understand racism and my part in it, as well as how to teach my children about the issues surrounding racism, I ran across this article: "4 Things We Should All Teach Kids about Racism Right Now". It provides a simple outline of four important concepts to teach kids explicitly. (Studies have shown that kids don't automatically pick up on anti-racist  messages communicated implicitly by their parents. Some things need to be spelled out clearly.)

And if you have difficulty with the idea of white privilege, read "When Whites Get a Free Pass" or watch the cartoon here.

"Colorblindness" isn't the answer either. Read "7 Reasons Why 'Colorblindness' Contributes to Racism Instead of Solves It" for a very thorough explanation of why.

And this post - "I Don't Know What to Do with Good White People" - was hard to read, but made me even more committed to educate myself, to speak up, and not to be part of the problem, even unwittingly.


To end with a little levity, I present "Book Lovers On Instagram Vs. Reality". While I am not an instagram user, and probably never will be, I can appreciate the contrast between the carefully crafted images presented to the world and the reality that is always a bit messier. And #10 is so, so true.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: Passenger on the Pearl by Winifred Conkling

In the middle of the night on April 15, 1848, Emily Edmonson and five of her thirteen siblings, sneaked out of their masters' homes in Washington, D.C., and boarded the Pearl. If all went well, they and 70 other slaves would disembark three to five days later at Frenchtown Wharf, Maryland and then travel the 16 miles to Philadelphia, where they would be free.

Unfortunately, when their absence was discovered the next morning, a disgruntled free black man named Judson Diggs, angry that two of the women escapees had not paid him for a carriage ride, pointed the search party in the right direction. Bad weather had forced the Pearl to weigh anchor at the end of Chesapeake Bay and the search party, in a steamboat, was able to catch up despite their head start.

The runaways were taken back to Washington, D.C. where they were all jailed until their owners could claim them. Eventually, many of them, including Emily and her siblings, would be sent with a slave trader down to New Orleans to sell, possibly into field work or even prostitution, as their owners no longer trusted them not to run away. Emily and her sister Mary were shipped back to Maryland to avoid a yellow fever epidemic that had broken out and their father, Paul Edmonson, pleaded with the slave trader to allow him to purchase his daughters. The price of $2,250 was set.

Paul asked everyone he knew for help raising the money, and finally some abolitionist sympathizers helped him travel to New York City to try to raise the funds. There he met Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who was horrified to hear of the fate that awaited the Edmonson sisters. His fiery preaching about "two devout and virginal christian girls who faced a life of prostitution in the South if he and his congregation failed to act" motivated the donation of the needed money and the girls were freed. They traveled to New York to thank their benefactors, to gain an education, and to fight slavery. Ultimately, thirteen of the fourteen Edmonson children would be freed. The last one, John, was sold in New Orleans, and nothing further is known of his fate.

The captain and crew of the Pearl were arrested and charged with larceny for stealing and transporting slaves, and bail set at the astronomical amount of $76,000, an even thousand dollars for each slave. Three months after the escape attempt, Daniel Drayton, the captain and primary planner of the escape, was sentenced to 20 years at hard labor and fined a total of $10,360. While he would be released by presidential pardon after only four years and four months in prison, his health would be affected for the rest of his life and he would eventually commit suicide only five years later.

Winifred Conkling condensed an enormous amount of information regarding the Pearl incident; political, social, cultural, economic, and historical context; the specifics of slavery in Washington, D.C.; and the life of slaves in general into this short middle-grade book. Sidebars cover topics like yellow fever, the Fugitive Slave Act, the American Anti-Slavery Society, terminology, and sorrow songs in greater detail. I especially appreciate the tie-ins to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Rev. Henry Beecher's sister) and how Emily's story influenced the ground-breaking novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Period illustrations include lithographs, newspaper advertisements, paintings, shipping manifests, and wood engravings that emphasize the reality and human cost of slavery. Be warned: there are some disturbing photos, and other illustrations, as well.

By using the ultimately positive story of Emily Edmonson as the scaffolding for this book, Conkling both makes it more real and immediate for the reader and allows enough distance from the most traumatic descriptions of slavery that young, tender readers aren't overwhelmed. But be prepared to discuss this book and these heavy topics with your child.

Passenger on the Pearl: The True Story of Emily Edmonson's Flight from Slavery
by Winifred Conkling
ISBN: 9781616201968
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl Dreaming has racked up an impressive list of awards since its release last summer - National Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, Newbery Honor Medal, to name a few - and all well deserved.

This middle grade memoir is written in flowing free verse and follows the author's childhood growing up between South Carolina and New York. An absent father, a long-distance mother, a religious grandmother, a cheerful aunt, a loving and independent grandfather, friends, teachers, siblings, all come to life in few, carefully chosen words. Tragedy, too, is simply and movingly expressed. The aunt who dies unexpectedly from a fall, the brother stunted mentally and physically by exposure to lead, the inevitable decline of loved ones due to old age. Events from the wider world creep in as well, filtered through a child's memory. She describes hearing about marching on the radio, avoiding downtown because of sit-ins, Black Panthers and Angela Davis.

Early in the book Jacqueline directly addresses the unreliability of memory - an interesting choice for a memoir - with the story of her birth.
You were born in the morning, Grandma Georgiana said.
I remember the sound of the birds...
You came in the late afternoon, my mother said.
Two days after I turned twenty-two.Your father was at work.Took a rush hour bustryingto get to you. Butby the time he arrived,you were already here...
You're the one that was born near night, my father says.
When I saw you, I said, She's the unlucky onecome out looking just like her daddy...
My time of birth wasn't listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people's bad memory.
Often times, small moments in childhood take on a disproportional influence on our future selves. Living with her grandmother in South Carolina, Jacqueline remembers getting on the bus and her grandmother walking them to the back, even after the laws changed.
I look around and see the ones
who walk straight to the back. See
The ones who take a seat up front, daring
anyone to make them move. And know
this is who I want to be. Not scared
like that. Brave
like that.
Constant tension runs through the book in the differences between Jacqueline's life in the South with her grandparents and her life in the North with her mother, between black and white, between the various choices people make, between her religious upbringing with her Jehovah's Witness grandmother and her love for her non-religious grandfather, whom she calls "daddy".
Jehovah's Witnesses believe
that everyone who doesn't follow
God's word will be destroyed in a great battle called
Armageddon. And when the battle is done
there will be a fresh new world
a nicer more peaceful world. 
But I want the world where my daddy is
and don't know why
anybody's God would make me
have to choose.
Some of my favorite sections show Jacqueline developing as a writer. Her awakening wonder at the moment she realizes she is able to write her full name - "Letters becoming words, words gathering meanings, becoming / thoughts outside my head" - is palpable and continues despite the skepticism of others.
When I write the first words
Wings of a butterfly whisper...
no one believe a whole book could ever come
from something as simple as
butterflies that don't even, my brother says,
live that long.
But on paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
never dies.
An influential teacher boosts her confidence with three words.
You're a writer, Ms. Vivo says,
her gray eyes bright behind
thin wire frames. Her smile bigger than anything
so I smile back, happy to hear these words
from a teacher's mouth.
The book ends with two poems, "what i believe" and "each world", that may just be the best offerings within the 320 extraordinary pages. I don't want to spoil the impact those last powerful pages will have on your when you read them, but one brief excerpt encapsulates the optimism and hope of this childhood memoir:
I believe in God and evolution.
I believe in the Bible and the Qur'an.
I believe in Christmas and the New World.
I believe that there is good in each of us
no matter who we are or what we believe in...

Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
ISBN: 9780399252518
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Friday Four, Part 130


Following up on my last book review, here are a couple more recent articles about "Internet Outrage" I found enlightening:

"Jennifer Beals is the latest victim of outrage overkill"

Jennifer Beals was confronted (and videotaped) by an outraged passerby because she left her dog in the car. Now, I'm well aware of the tragedy that can occur when animals or children are left in a hot car for even a few minutes, but read her version of the situation:
The morning was a cool 73 degrees. I and others were wearing jackets. I rolled all four windows down and left the car for five minutes to pick up laundry, my car visible to me the entire time...While I appreciate their vigilance and what must have felt like courage on their part, they were barking up the wrong tree.
The article goes on:
...there must also be room in any situation for a reasonable assessment of what’s really going on. Not every perceived problem is a cause for a public shaming and berating and posting on YouTube...When everything’s outrageous nothing’s outrageous. And how can we change things that really do need to be changed when it’s so exhausting — for all of us — if we live in a world in which everybody’s rage gun is permanently locked and loaded?
When everything's outrageous nothing's outrageous.

Once we've raised our "baseline" to "always outraged," it gets harder to maintain that constant output of anger and indignation. And when we're spending all our energy on that, where do we can the energy to actually do something positive to change the world.

Again, a plea for reasonable, proportional reactions after all the pertinent facts have been gathered, context understood, and proper perspective realized.


Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park (4516560206).jpg
Cecil the lion at Hwange National Park in 2010 (Photo credit)
"My Outrage Is Better Than Your Outrage"

In response to the outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion:
This week, the Internet has served as a bastion of judgment and vigilante justice—just like usual, except that this was a perfect storm directed at a single person. It might be called an outrage singularity... 
The Internet has served to facilitate outrage, as the Internet does: the hotter the better. And because the case is so visceral and bipartisan in its opposition to Palmer’s act, few people stepped in to suggest that the fury, the people tweeting his home address, might be too much. That argument wins no outrage points.
But then this:
Instead, the people who hadn't jumped on the Cecil-outrage bandwagon jumped on the superiority-outrage bandwagon. It’s a bandwagon of outrage one-upmanship, and it’s just as rewarding as the original outrage bandwagon...
The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground.
And then the author's cynicism really comes out:
Don’t worry about that feeling a little too on-the-nose, because it doesn’t matter, because no one will remember it. Next month the armchair lions-rights activists won’t care about lions anymore, because lions-rights outrage will not be trending. They will be on to some new outrage. Many people are drawn to defend nature and underdogs (even when they are apex predators) and to hate wealthy, lying, violent dentists. But even more than that they are drawn to feeling superior and appearing wise, and being validated accordingly.
My reading is that rather than decrying the outrage toward truly despicable events - of which there are plenty in this world - the author is denouncing the "armchair activists" for whom outrage is simply a means of feeling superior to another person. Are you committed to a cause, or do you move on quickly from one outrage to the next without doing anything to affect real change?

And then some needed perspective:

"In Zimbabwe, We Don't Cry for Lions"

Goodwell Nzou was studying the biochemistry of gene editing (he's a doctoral student at Wake Forest University) when he started getting condolence messages from friends about Cecil. The native Zimbabwean admits that "the village boy inside me instinctively cheered: One fewer lion to menace families like mine." He shares a story from his youth of when a lion terrorized his village and the joy of the villagers when it was finally killed and they were again safe.

He laments:
The American tendency to romanticize animals that have been given actual names and to jump onto a hashtag train has turned an ordinary situation — there were 800 lions legally killed over a decade by well-heeled foreigners who shelled out serious money to prove their prowess — into what seems to my Zimbabwean eyes an absurdist circus... 
We Zimbabweans are left shaking our heads, wondering why Americans care more about African animals than about African people.
Don’t tell us what to do with our animals when you allowed your own mountain lions to be hunted to near extinction in the eastern United States. Don’t bemoan the clear-cutting of our forests when you turned yours into concrete jungles.
And please, don’t offer me condolences about Cecil unless you’re also willing to offer me condolences for villagers killed or left hungry by his brethren, by political violence, or by hunger.
At first glance, this may seem to be more of the "outrage one-upmanship" mentioned in the article just above this one, but I submit that the context makes this very different. Nzou is pointedly taking down the blissful ignorance of so many Americans regarding what life is like elsewhere, our tendency to "romanticize animals" while ignoring the reality, our hypocrisy in getting outraged over actions that we are just as guilty of not so long ago, and the shocking callousness and lack of awareness toward decades of human tragedy in Africa.

He's got a point.


But before we leave, lemme show y'all a little something...

Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday

I will never believe anything I read on the internet ever again.

So maybe that's a little overboard, and I've always been, let's say, a skeptical reader of online sources, but I was floored at the deliberate and blatant manipulation Ryan Holiday describes in Trust Me, I'm Lying.

As Holiday puts it, "what rules over the media...rules over the country." How many times have you seen a single sensational story practically take over the media cycle, shunting dozens of other more worthy, more fundamentally-vital-to-life-on-this-planet stories to the side?

Follow the money, Holiday says. It's all about the clicks, the pageviews, the number of eyeballs that will see a story. The more sensational a story, the higher the views and the more money advertisers can charge. Holiday derisively calls this "pageview journalism" - though I quibble with using the term "journalism" to describe it at all - blogging with little regard for facts or accuracy just to get people on the site.
Pageview journalism puffs blogs up and fattens them on a steady diet of guaranteed traffic pullers of a mediocre variety that require little effort to produce. It pulls writers and publishers to the extremes, and only to the extremes--the shocking and the already known...Pageview journalism treats people by what they appear to want--from data that is unrepresentative to say the least--and gives them this and only this until they have forgotten that there could be anything else. It takes the audience at their worst and makes them worse.
Holiday also brings up what makes a post go viral. Virality is, of course, what media manipulators are shooting for. And he quotes research that confirms my observations on social media: "the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes." No wonder we see so much outrage all over the interwebs! It's what sells! It's what moves people to action! (But most often only the very limited action of clicking the "share" button, not actual action that would change the world in a positive direction. Hence, the rise of the term "clicktivist." But I digress.)

Of course, anger isn't the only emotion that prompts people to share:
A powerful predictor of whether content will spread online is valence, or the degree of positive or negative emotion a person is made to feel. Both extremes are more desirable than anything in the middle...No marketer is ever going to push something with the stink of reasonableness, complexity, or mixed emotions.
As a marketer, Holiday's job is straightforward. "Behind the scenes I work to crank up the valence of articles, relying on scandal, conflict, triviality, titillation, and dogmatism. Whatever will ensure transmission." In this field, "Nuance is a weakness."

Which is why the "reasonableness [and] complexity" I crave are so often missing in online discussions. When the extremes are what sells, when heightened emotions pay the bills, calm, reasoned discourse isn't high on the priority list.

The ease with which people can make up "news stories" out of the flimsiest of "facts" is disturbing. Careful, manipulative editing, mischaracterization and subtly misleading phrasing, and manufactured urgency are all basic tactics to get a "story" on a small blog. It then gets passed "upward to bigger and more credible outlets, which simply link to the previous report and don't bother to verify it." Once even a non-story gets enough online buzz, the buzz itself becomes the story and more legit outlets feel justified in picking it up. Doing real, deep, difficult investigative journalism is hard and time-consuming. "Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap." And getting it first gets you lots and lots of pageviews, even if you get every detail wrong.

There is such a human cost to this mentality. Ordinary people crucified for a one-off comment or tweet, careers ruined by rumor and innuendo, companies driven to bankruptcy. Holiday calls this a "digital blood sport."
There is nothing to be learned from the tragic rise and fall of public men [and women] we see on blogs. That is not their function. Their degradation is mere spectacle that blogs use to sublimate the general anxieties of their readers. To make us feel better by hurting others. To stress that the people we're reading about are freaks, while we are normal.
That's not something I want to be a part of. Do you?

Previous generations had powerful, influential media, too, of course. Television has been a driving force for decades as both a source of entertainment and a filter on reality. Art - television shows - imitated life, and then life imitated that art. "The dominant cultural medium...determines culture itself." Now, instead of television as the dominant cultural medium, we have the Internet. But rather than entertainment,
the Internet worships a different god: Traffic. It lives and dies by clicks, because that's what drives ad revenue and influence. The central question for the Internet is not, Is it entertaining? but, Will this get attention? Will it spread? ... Rather than turn the world into entertainment, these forces reduce it to conflict, controversy, and crap.
We are being lulled into a false sense of security about the "reality" of the world we live in. We are gradually being led to switch off our brains and to simply accept opinions delivered in an emotional way as fact. We are capable of more than "conflict, controversy, and crap."
Our knowledge and understanding is the final empty, hollow shell. What we think we know turns out to be based on nothing, or worse than nothing--misdirection and embellishment. Our facts aren't fact, they are opinions dressed up like facts. Our opinions aren't opinions; they are emotions that feel like opinions. Our information isn't information; it's just hastily assembled symbols. There is no way that is a good thing...
So what can we do? First, realize that you are a commodity to marketers. Every time you click on a "clickbait" headline to read the story, you become a product they are selling to advertisers. Stop reading the trash.

Second, recognize that you are being manipulated. The outrage you feel is sincere, of course, but is probably not based in reality. Take a deep breath, step back, and look for facts and data from various reliable and balanced sources before passing on that post that is written specifically to get you riled up. I promise, there are plenty of real stories to get angry about; don't waste your time and outrage on the sensationalized, trumped up ones.

Third, as you're reading, ask yourself "What do I plan to do with this information?" And if the answer is "nothing," reconsider what you're reading. Holiday points out that "There is no practical purpose in our lives for most of what blogs produce other than distraction." It's up to us to choose better. "When readers start demanding quality over quantity, the economics of Internet content will change." So demand better.  Read well-done, thorough analyses by experts and professional journalists, especially when they disagree. Avoid the emotionally-manipulative, explosively-outraged polemicist whose job is - and whose paycheck depends on - making you angry.

It takes work and effort to search out various viewpoints and resources, to seek for the nuance and complexities that don't make it into 100-200 word posts, especially when it's so easy to just mindlessly click those and have opinion spoon-fed to you as unassailable facts. But we have brains for a reason. Let's use them for good.

Of course, Trust Me, I'm Lying was written by a master manipulator who made millions by stoking outrage and ratcheting up the emotional impact of stories, so how much of all this can we believe?


Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator
by Ryan Holiday
ISBN: 9781591845539
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).