Born a Crime : by Trevor Noah

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"In the hood," Trevor Noah writes, "everybody knows who the best dancer in the crew is. He's like your status symbol. When you're poor you don't have cars or nice clothes, but the best dancers get the girls, so that's the guy you want to roll with. Hitler was our guy" (pg 193). 

In his New York Times best selling memoir, Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah dedicates an entire chapter to his good friend and great dancer, Hitler. And the result is absolutely brilliant. Just like Hitler.

"I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history," he continues,

But I often wonder, with African atrocities like the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don't have that the Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that's really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It's harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren't counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal?

So in Europe and America, yes, Hitler is the Greatest Madman in History. In Africa he's just another strongman from the history books . . .

Because to many South Africans, Hitler was a kind of "army tank that was helping the Germans win the war, or a man so powerful that "at some point black people had to go help white people fight against him - and if the white man has to stoop to ask the black man for help fighting someone, that someone must be the toughest guy of all time" (pg 194). So mothers named their son's Hitler. Because they wanted them to be strong and tough.

So Trevor Noah, while working and thriving as a DJ, had a friend and dancer named Hitler. And it was never a problem. Until King David School hired them for a school dance. It was a Jewish school.

A short while into their set, Trevor started getting the crowed psyched, "Are you guys ready?!" he screamed, and they were. They yelled and hollered and screamed back, "Yeeeeaaaahhhhhh!"

"All right! Give it up and make some noise for HIIIIIIIITTTTTTLLLLLEEEERRRRRR!!!!" Trevor writes. Then, "The whole room stopped. No one was dancing. The teachers, the chaperones, the parents, the hundreds of Jewish kids in their yarmulkes - they froze and stared aghast at us up on the stage" (pg 197). Seconds later, a teacher was on stage, yelling and berating and demanding that the boys apologize. But Trevor didn't understand, was she offended by his dance moves? Where they a bit too sexual and offensive? Either way, she should have know because that's what she hired, those dance moves are their culture. He hadn't a clue that the name Hitler was offensive, and she hadn't a clue that he hadn't a clue. 

They both operated from a truth they believed was universal, and they both interpreted the other through that preconceived truth. Neither was right, and neither was wrong. But they both lost. 

 

Other Favorite quotes and ideas:

“If you stop to consider the ramifications, you’ll never do anything” (pg 22).

“Language, even more than color, defines who you are to people” (pg 56).

“Racism exists. People are getting hurt, and just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening” (pg 57).

“A knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom” (pg 61).

“That is the curse of being black and poor, and it is a curse that follows you from generation to generation. My mother calls it “the black tax.” Because the generation who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero” (pg 66).

(Advice from Mother) “Learn from your past and be better because of your past, but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold on to it. Don’t be bitter” (pg 66).

“Catholic school is not the place to be creative and independent” (pg 88).

“You do not own the thing that you love” – story about Fufi (pg 100).

“When a parent is absent, you’re left in the lurch of not knowing, and it’s so easy to fill that space with negative thoughts. ‘They don’t care.’ ‘They’re selfish.’” (pg 108) . . . “Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being” (pg 110).

“That’s where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, you were white. If it stayed in, you were colored. You were what the government said you were. Sometimes that came down to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision. Depending on how high your cheekhones were or how broad your nose was, he could tick whatever box made sense to him, thereby deciding where you could live, whom you could marry, what jobs and rights and privileges you were allowed (pg 119).

For the first in my life I had money, and it was the most liberating thing in the world. The first thing I learned about having money was that it gives you choices. People don’t want to be rich. They want toe be able to choose. The richer you are, the more choices you have. That is the freedom of money” (pg 188).

“People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the first part of the analogy that’s missing” (pg 190).

“In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people (pg 221).

“There were some {parents} who’d actually do that, not pay their kid’s bail, not hire their kid a lawyer – the ultimate tough love. But it doesn’t always work, because you’re giving the kid tough love when maybe he just needs love. You’re trying to teach him a lesson, and now that lesson is the rest of his life” (pg 228).

Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag

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I thought this book was going to be about more than what it was, but I still found it worth reading because, if nothing else, it raised some pretty provocative thoughts and questions. And any book that can do that at least once is worth reading, at least once.

Here are some of the highlights:

The photographs are a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore (pg 7).

This reminded me of Jacob Riis and his revolutionary work, "How the Other Half Live" which exposed the rich and privileged to the reality of how many lower income families lived. His work is largely credited with the reform in child labour laws and opening the door to a new way of thinking about the world - Realism.

We are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy; we have failed to hold this reality in mind (pg 8).

This sentiment struck a cord with me because it doesn't simply apply to financial status, but all. To those who are emotionally wealthy, to those who are physically or mentally healthy, political or religious it doesn't matter. Those who have find it difficult, at times, to imagine a life that does not. 

In contrast to a written account – which, depending on its complexity of thought, reference, and vocabulary, is pitched at a larger or smaller readership – a photograph has only one language and is destined potentially for all (pg 20).

The slight of hand allows photographs to be both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality – a feat literature has long aspired to, but could never attain in this literal sense (pg 26).

This might apply to most writers, but whenever I ask my students to draw what they see in "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, they all draw - almost to perfection - the exact same thing. It doesn't matter the age, the ethnicity, the location, or anything else, it's all the same. And that's pretty amazing.

Photography is the only major art in which professional training and years of experience do not confer an insuperable advantage over the untrained and inexperienced  - this for many reasons, among them that large role that chance (or luck) plays in the taking of pictures, and the bias toward the spontaneous, the rough, the imperfect. (There is no comparable level playing field in literature, where virtually nothing owes to chance or luck and where refinement of language usually incurs no penalty; or in the performing arts, where genuine achievement is unattainable without exhaustive training and daily practice; or in filmmaking, which is not guided to any significant degree by the anti-art prejudices of much of contemporary art photography) – pg 28,29

This is perhaps the single most reason why photography is so popular, but also why it is so difficult. Anyone can take a good shot once or perhaps just a few times, but to capture the moment, the mood, or the spirit of a moment time and time again takes experience and expertise. Just like any other art form.

What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledge it? 

I don't know, but that's a great question. I'll have to think more on it.

But surely the wounded Taliban soldier begging for his life whose fate was pictured prominently in The New York Times also had a wife, children, parents, sisters and brothers, some of whom may one day come across the three color photographs of their husband, father, son, brother being slaughtered – if they have not already seen them (pg 73).

This quote really struck me. Because it's right. How often do I see the death and suffering of people all over the world and forget, especially in times of conflict, that they too are fathers, sons, brothers, and friends. That they too will have people weeping over the loss of life. That they too are just as human. 

For photographs to accuse, and possibly to alter conduct, they must shock” (pg 81). Yet, “Shock can become familiar. Shock can wear off (pg 82).

Which then begs for more provocative, more shocking photographs, which dulls us even more. The question here that isn't asked but should be is how long will this cycle continue before we no longer feel shock at all? Before all suffering and abuse is simply familiar?

And what can we do to fight against it?

 

Resources:

-       Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

-       Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by Walker Evans

-       Kazuo Hara’s, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On

 

To Consider:

-       The planting of the American flag on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945 by photographer Joe Rosenthal was reenacted. It was staged. Is this okay? For the purpose it was wanting to serve, was it okay to reproduce an event? It has inspired thousands and has become an iconic moment and image of American history . . . does that fact that it isn't completely authentic in time and space make it any less relevant or powerful of a moment? Of what it symbolizes? 

-       How could church going citizens create and use postcards that depict lynched and murdered African American men and woman? But even before that, how could church going citizens LYNCH AFRICAN AMERICAN MEN AND WOMAN?!?!? And how can they/we still do it today?

What will people be saying of us, in just a few short years from now?

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Reading Log 2017  :  Reading Log 2018

Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood

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My friend described it as terrifying, and I wouldn't disagree. 

Last year, around this time, I read Silence by Shusaku Endo and found it to be one of the most challenging and favorites of the year. I don't think I will say the same for The Handmaid's Tale, but for many reasons, they strike me as fairly similar, but also radically different.

If Silence is a challenging of the nuts and bolts of truth, The Handmaid's Tale questions the structure altogether, painting a pretty intense and disturbing picture in the process.

Specifically, the role and power and abuse of religion.

Like the kind of power Jesus has, in Siberia.

For me, it's almost easy to watch this and point out the weirdos, the brainwashed, and the "holy shit you can't be serious!" individuals. But then I found myself wondering, if Jesus of Nazareth were alive today, or if Vice News were around then, wouldn't the locals and surrounding communities see Him in much the same way?

Maybe. Probably. 

Because the followers of Jesus of Siberia speak much the same as those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. So what makes them sound so crazy?

(Narrator) Rocco Castoro: "Is there anything, perhaps, you disagree with here, with the teaching?"

(Follower) Tamriko Dgebuadze: "No, no, no, no."

Because, "Disagreeing with Vissarion's teachings is rare." And somewhat terrifying. 

The girls at the local school learn from "The Teacher" how to, live in peace with each other, how to behave with a man, and learn that "man is a creator", "master", because man "must build a house and comprehend masculine professions." 

And there's no other option. Because a woman taking on "leadership positions" are taking man's responsibilities, which will only lead to disharmony. If she rejects these rules, she puts her health at risk and the "harmony will punish her with a woman'd disease."

This is what makes The Handmaid's Tale so terrifying. Because it isn't that far off, it isn't that impossible. It could be right around the corner. 

 

A few favorite quotes:

But remember that forgiveness too is power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest (pg 133).

When guilt and shame weigh heavy upon the shoulders, we will do most anything to rid ourselves of it, or die trying. 

 

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn't really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn't about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it's about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it (pg 133).

Like molesting woman, like speaking the unthinkable towards men and woman of another color and country, like infidelity, dishonesty, and bigotry. Yet, given a muligan and allowed to continue, without ever having to make amends or take responsibility. 

Now that's power, The Handmaid's Tale sort of power. A God-like power. 

A terrifying sort of power.

 

Better never means better for everyone. It always means worse, for some (pg 211).

More to come on this later. But for now . . . WoW. I'll be soaking on this for a long while.

 

People will do anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning. No use, that is. No plot (pg 215).

Even follow bogus religions, ideas, philosophies, or lies. Because it lets us sleep at night and wake in the morning. Because it gives us hope. Even if it is false, and empty.

 

The Handmaid's Tale is now a Hulu special. If I can stomach to watch it, it will only be to serve as a reminder and a caution. Because truly, this scares the shit out of me.

Because truly, it could be in our future.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

"The car leaped forward and sped on. Dick cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, "You're a Lucky Bastard!" Then he laughed and hoisted the suitcase to his shoulder" because "another man in another car would come along." 

"Perry produced his harmonica and played the opening bars of what had come to be their 'marching music'; the song was one of Perry's favorites . . ." (pg 155).

Perry and Dick intended to kill whoever stopped to pick them up, drop their body in the vast Mojave Desert, and drive off with his (or her) car. But until then, they sang:

A chilling read. 

Throughout the work, a question kept coming to mind, "What am I reading this?" and "Why would anyone write this?" The answer, although unsettling, could not be ignored. Because this too is humanity. 

Seemingly random and deplorable killings are commonplace today, yet I wonder how many of those who have committed such atrocities - as well as those who have survived them - would be attracted to the thoughts and words of Truman Capote. 

A Thesis for Death:

"I'm scared Myrt."

"Of what? When your time comes, it comes. And tears won't save you . . . If there's somebody loose around here that wants to cut my throat, I wish them luck. What difference does it make? It's all the same in eternity. Just remember: If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity. So blow your nose" (pg 69).

 

A Purpose for Cruelty:

"The glory of having everybody at his mercy, that's what excited (Dick)" (pg 239). 

 

A Lesson on Life:

"If something like this could happen to them, then who' safe, I ask you? (pg 70).

"You are a human being with a free will. Which puts you above the animal level. But if you live your life without feeling and compassion for your fellow-man - you are an animal - "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" & happiness & peace of mind is not attained by living thus (pg 142). 

                     Top Picture Hickock, Richard Eugene

                    Top Picture Hickock, Richard Eugene

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the Lord", as well as the blood of an innocent family. And after Hickock's death, someone else had seen them too. Right after Hickock's death, his eyes were cut out and given to somebody else who needed them. 

 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :  Reading Log 2017  :  Reading Log 2018

Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t, by Steven Pressfield

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Like last 2017, this year is dedicated to writing (and one of these years, hopefully, something will actually come of it). I'd heard this book mentioned several times by artists of various sorts so I thought it as good a place as any to help start off the year. 

It wasn't amazing, but it didn't disappoint - I'd give it a solid B, perhaps a B+. 

Here are some of highlights:

It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy . . . so, streamline your message. Focus it and pare it down to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form . . . because The reader denotes his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you (pg 5).

If there was nothing else in the book, this is a hook I can hang my hat on: people are busy - or, as Derrick Jenson says, they could be having sex, so my writing better be worth their time. It better be better than having sex. 

“Let my countrymen discover, by their suffering without me fighting as their champion, how by far the greatest of them I am” (pg 23) – quoting Agamemnon, the Anti-hero.

The solution is embedded in the problem. If your job is to find the solution, the first step is to define the problem (pg 32).

Every piece of work operates from a thesis statement: Walter White in Breaking Bad says, “Change. Chemistry is the study of change. Elements combine and change into compounds. That’s all of life, right? Solution, dissolution. Growth. Decay. Transformation. It’s fascinating really.” This is Vince Gilligan’s statement of the theme (pg 35).

The two quotes above are gold and can/should be applied to anything, even teaching. A classroom, a novel, a movie, a TV show, even raising children or running a church should be guided be a central, clearly defined and easily applied, thesis statement. 

Because when life gets hard, when the ship rocks, or when no one knows what to do, it is the guiding and unfaltering force. So it better be a good one.

A real writer (or artist or entrepreneur) has something to give. She has lived enough and suffered enough and thought deeply enough about her experience to be able to process it into something that is of value to others, even if only as entertainment.

It's okay to seek success, as long as the purpose is greater than ourselves; if it is to serve the greater community. It's all about our motives

How to Create a {Classroom}: ask the questions (modified):

1.     What’s the theme?

2.     What’s the climax?

3.     Who’s the hero?

4.     The Villain?

5.     What are the stakes?

6.     What’s the purpose?

The American dream – you can be anything you want to be if you’re willing to work for it . . . and the American nightmare – what if we try and fail? (pg 90).

Your job as a writer is to give your hero the deepest, darkest, most hellacious All is Lost Moment possible – and then find a way out for her (pg 104) because The All is Lost Moment is followed almost immediately by a breakthrough insight or epiphany, an awakening for the hero, an “Aha!” moment (pg 105).

Write your nonfiction book as if it were a novel . . . give it an Act One, an Act Two, and Act Three. Make it cohere around a theme (pg 123).

The hardest and maybe the best way to establish authority is through the quality and integrity of the voice itself (pg 165).

The War of Art Structure:

Hook – “resistance,” the invisible negative force of self-sabotage that all writers (and creative people in all fields) face.

Build – mounts to a high point at which the problem has been defined and the answer spelled out. Leading to the question, “What does it all mean?”

Payoff – they paid off the Hook and the Build by reinforcing the reader’s own rising self-confidence that she not only identified the enemy and now knew hot to fight it, but had been turned on to the unseen, unbidden, but powerfully fortifying forces that would ineluctably come to her aid once she committed to her calling and took up the challenge (pg 169,170).

There is an evil force that is constantly defeating us as artists and bringing to naught all of our dreams. Let’s name that force, accept it as our enemy, and figure out how to overcome it.

Here’s how you know {you’ve got something worth pursuing} – you’re scared to death of it (pg 186).

Resources:

-       The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne

-       The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

-       The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp

-       Quiet, by Susan Cain

-       Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill

Perhaps the greatest takeaway was the idea that even a nonfiction book (or classroom) should be structured and designed just like a fiction novel - central theme, hero and villain, three part structure. I love that. 

For more on . . .

-N- Stuff  :   NY Times Best Books of 2017  :   Reading Log 2017  Reading Log 2018

We Need to Talk, by Celeste Headlee

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As in many other cases, this book is probably best read as a short pamphlet or heard in 18 minutes or less TedTalk. It just gets repetitive, preachy, and a bit shallow as it tries to fill the non-fiction quota of pages.

“The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ ‘problems.’ (pg 23)

It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who the two of you become in each other’s presence (pg 25)

Make a list of things people do in conversation that bother me. Do they repeat themselves? Ramble on? Interrupt? Then, ask if you do those things often or just once in a while (pg 45)

Story of Xernona and Craig – She didn’t set out to change his mind, rather change his heart, because, “you’ve got to change a man’s heart before you can change his behavior” (pg 62).

Halo and horns effect – the tendency to lump people into groups

“When we enter a conversation, all of our preconceived notions – most of which have no basis in reality – will affect its outcome. No matter how right and true your opinion feels, you consider that it may be a stereotype and not fact” (pg 68).

“ . . . assume that everyone is trying to bring about some kind of positive result in their lives (pg 69).

“It really didn’t matter if I agreed . . . or not. What mattered is” the acknowledging of pain and allowing for the opportunity to speak about it (pg 79).

Conversation Narcissim: The desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to  yourself (pg 105).

“In time of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to liste with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers” (pg 165).

Resources:

1.     Wired for Culture, by Mark Pagel

2.     Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle

3.     My students don’t know how to have a conversation, 2014 Atlantic

4.     The Norton book of Frienships, by Ronald Sharp

5.     The power of Apology, by Beverly Engel

6.     Think like a freak, by Steven Levitt

Look Into: Loving Kindness Meditation