Two decisions came out today, one from the judiciary and another from a private business. I’ve taken an interest in both of these rulings simply because they were both released on the same day, as the result of happy coincidence, and because they coincide with a general confusion, I would say, that grips present American society.
Goodbye, 2017. Time flies when you’re having fun, and also when you’re in shock. The Trump presidency is here—and so far, it seems, here to stay. I still maintain that Trump is preferable to Pence in the White House, because Trump serves as the perfect symbol for the current state of our outrageous politics; Pence, on the other hand, would mask it all off in such a way so as to be considered insidious. Mike Pence looks like a guy who would stab you, look you in the eye, and say, “The Lord told me to do it,” before pulling the knife out and smiling while he did it, in an Aw, Shucks! manner—like it couldn’t be helped! Mike Pence looks like the poster boy for denial. Mike Pence looks like he would walk through a street of beggars and make a remark on their interesting lifestyle. Mike Pence has told so many white lies that his head is snowcapped. Mike Pence has all the personality of a toothpaste commercial. If Mike Pence continues to lavish praise on Trump, Trump might consider adopting him.
On the international stage, our relationship with our allies is proceeding about as well as everyone expected. Britain holds its nose when asked if they still like us; France and Germany have already looked away; South Korea and Japan don’t know how to answer; and Russia and China are now more friends than enemies. North Korea wants us dead more than ever; Cuba is standing on a tightrope and we’re shaking the cable; Venezuela is somehow still hanging on, but Zimbabwe decided it would keep the balance of dictators by ousting its own. At least Australia legalized same-sex marriage. Thanks, Aussies.
As I look back on my book selfies, I’m reminded of the time and circumstances surrounding each one. Since I spent the first six months of this year in China, it was nice to be reminded again of my life in Nanjing through the books I had read. If the first book you read sets the tone for your entire year, then I’m super lucky to have begun this year reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho because of its optimistism and sage wisdom. How different my outlook might have been if I had made my second read book my first: George Orwell’s 1984. It was around this time that White House Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, uttered that now infamous phrase, “alternative facts,” (she seemed to have suffered a mild stroke while doing it) and my jaw couldn’t hang on long enough to believe Orwell’s prescience. I would have started this year in a much bleaker way, no doubt, had 1984 introduced me to 2017. Thankfully, it didn’t, so I instead looked for the good omens all around me.
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom had me in tears probably by the tenth page, and kept me in tears through every page turn. That’s not an exaggeration—I literally left a coffee shop because I couldn’t stop the tears. While in Thailand, I had Gabriel Garcia Marquez keep me company, with his book One Hundred Years of Solitude for beach reading. Those four fiction books were followed up by three non-fiction books that had me thirsty for facts and real-world drama. Diane Ravitch’s book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, stands out as the most relevant, given the circumstances of the time, because Betsy Davos’ nomination as the Secretary of Education was announced. It seemed fitting to read the pro-charter and pro-public school arguments—and decidedly quash Davos’ charter-everything-or-bust stance on education.
Personally, non-fiction books require a lot more focus to get through. I can only take so many of them in a row, lest I get mired in pessimism and mild depression. So I switched back to fiction after reading Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen, a book about our appalling spending and horrendous practices in response to the war on terror. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden put me in California and Arabian Nights put me in the land of the prophet Mohammed.
Andrew’s Carnegie’s autobiography was not as interesting as his essay, The Gospel of Wealth. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground could not have had more opposite protagonists, a handsome socialite in the former and a bitter recluse in the latter. I do love my juxtapositions.
While I didn’t recommend The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Regime, 1975-79, by Ben Kiernan because of its density and overall academic writing, it is worth reading because it’s like running a marathon while hearing statistic after statistic of how many people died where and when and how. That book was the literary equivalent of an endurance run, and one worth reading for anyone who views the Communist system of government through rose-colored lenses. This book will break those lenses real quick. I actually waited to leave China before publishing the selfie I took with it (in front of the Forbidden City, of all places), for fear of detainment at the airport. I’m serious. China remains Communist, but only in the political sense. Abstain from any form of political criticism and China is actually not a bad place to live.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky welcomed me back to the United States. It survived being completely submerged while on a Kayak trip, and the glue held on just long enough for me to finish reading it on Santa Monica beach. Beyond Outrage by Robert B. Reich and American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips thrust me back into political literature, before I tired and retreated to sci-fi, which is not a genre I often read—fun fact: I’ve yet to read a single fantasy novel. Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee had its moments of captivating beauty, but I was overall disappointed. It wasn’t as fantastical as I wanted and I couldn’t make myself like the characters. Thankfully, The Ramayana went beyond any conception of time I could have imagined—we’re talking eons—and left me with a sense of fulfillment, somehow. If any books exuded a special kind of energy this year, they were The Alchemist and The Ramayana.
Lastly, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which is another great juxtaposition, provided me with two ways to think about life. I intend to read more Huxley next year, but I’m glad that I started with The Doors of Perception because I enjoyed the personal tone and mind-blowing observations—mind-expanding might be the more appropriate descriptor. Atlas Shrugged I’ve been reading on and off for about five years, which is insane. I almost gave it up until I saw it on some list of books people rarely finish, so I took it as a personal challenge not to succumb to the list. Just like Aztec from last year, this is another 1000+ page book that manages to stay entertaining throughout. You’ll inevitably pick up and understand Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, since it’s hammered into you throughout the 1000+ pages, but more importantly, it’ll allow you to think critically about the philosophy. I can see myself liking Objectivism and voting Libertarian every four years, you know, if I don’t think too hard about Objectivism. But since I have thought about it, no, I don’t buy into the philosophy.
I wave goodbye to 2017 with The Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice. Honestly, not the best book to say goodbye with simply because I didn’t like it. It started off interesting, with supernatural and biblical elements, but I was as confused as the main character for the entirety of the book. Maybe that was Rice’s intention? I don’t know. I just know that I didn’t like having more questions than answers, which is a problem Cradle had as well. Both ended prematurely, but both were so unpleasant to read that they also didn’t end soon enough.
Twenty-one books later, my 2017 reading year comes to a close. Below you’ll find the list of books I finished this year. With the exception of Atlas Shrugged, all were begun and finished this year.
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garca Mrquez
- This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital by Mark Leibovich
- Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch
- Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by James Risen
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck
- Arabian Nights Volume I: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights translated by Sir Richard Francis Burton
- The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie and His Essay: The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie
- Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
- Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Regime, 1975-79 by Ben Kiernan
- Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Beyond Outrage by Robert B. Reich
- American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips
- Cradle by Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee
- The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic by Ramesh Menon
- The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley
- Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
- Servant of the Bones by Anne Rice
Happy 2018, everyone!
Trump’s whispers are heard in the atmosphere, hovering over the populace like clouds that threaten destructive floods to come. Someone reports seeing a blue bird, which has by now become the omen that foretells an inauspicious day. Another blue bird is reported, then another. The people have learned to let the flying beasts come, lest they risk attracting their attention and having the roofs of their houses collapse from the weight of the things. After a time, it becomes clear that Trump’s aviary, gold-plated and obtuse, no longer holds life, and instead hangs empty, extravagant, and dumb.
The blue birds perch on fire hydrants, stoplights, and cars. Their feathers are of such a brilliant blue as to appear celestial—somehow, they glow. The people can’t help but look at them, slack-jawed and mesmerized, in wonder of how creatures so strange could be seen every day and still look so new. But the people are careful around the blue birds, for the birds are eager to return to their aviary and feed their holder Trump with the bread crumbs gathered from the day. Added to the normal cacophony of the day are the blue birds’ cries: “McConnell! McConnell!”
“Oh, boy,” McConnell sighs. Continue reading The Ballad of Trump and McConnell
What you are about to read is biased. We can agree on this point right away—I don’t hide from making explicit my viewpoint. Read this with the knowledge, the affirmation, and my guaranteed re-confirmation that I am providing a view belonging to me. If one is to disagree with the points of an author, it does no good to say an author is biased and leave it at that. To call a source biased is to admit one’s comfort with redundancy. My reason for this introduction is the following: All too often, a source is instantly dismissed because of its biases, either obvious or implicit, and the ideas that inhabit a work receive no attention or consideration, since the author’s background, or ideology, or—as is increasingly the case—race, gender, and place of publication, prohibit serious discussion on those grounds. Everything has bias. The basic presence of bias does not merit instant dismissal of a work.
The inverse is equally true. Recognizing the inevitability of bias, favoring one bias over another, to the point of exclusively subscribing to one, at all times, and instantly writing off the other, creates the same kind of intellectual blockade I see as increasingly prevalent on the largest public space where discussions continue to exist: The internet. This great mechanism for worldwide connection gave rise to pockets of information, insular interpretations of every event one could think of, and increased the myopia of those who thought their mud was clearest. The Us vs. Them mentality has firmly entrenched itself in the minds of many, far too many, which is why, rather than keep their minds open, ideological zealots attack one another with ready-made slogans and catchphrases, you know, one is “mansplaining” and the other is a “snowflake.” The insult will either precede or proceed what’s bound to be a misunderstood reply, but the insult will always accompany the collection of words that the writer thinks combine to form a “mic drop” reply.
What Is My Problem?
Put yourself in the shoes of the rich and the poor; diseased and healthy; smart and dumb, knowledgeable and ignorant; gay and straight–do anything contrary to your lived-in reality and you’ll have willingly subjected yourself, admirably in that case, to an exercise in empathy. Notice the missing conjunction: or. Context and perspective are only possible when accompanied by a parallel yardstick, one that may even run perpendicular at certain intersections.
Citizen and immigrant are not two sides of the same coin, though our political environment on both sides tries to make us believe it. On the right, the separating line is a legal one, simply that of legal and illegal. On the left, the legal distinction isn’t a relevant one, because morality takes precedent; these are human beings, and by now I’m sure you’ve heard the latest slogan to come out of leftwing advocacy groups: No human being is illegal. I don’t agree with that sentiment, which is a dangerous thing to admit nowadays, because, while our laws aren’t perfect and can be quite cruel under certain circumstances, like those regarding immigration, the fact remains that our entire society depends upon adherence to these laws–this we call the rule of law–and to every other law that keeps this experiment in coexistence from explosive combustion. We have a process in place to amend, repeal or create new laws reflective of popular opinion, but that process is necessarily cumbersome–certainly burdensome for those trapped in the legislation–because it demands the deliberation of consequences, coupled with the consideration of those who stand to benefit or lose. The process is cruel in the same way that it’s cruel to put people in line when they are in desperate need of a heart transplant. But it’s the best we’ve got. Continue reading Born-again Immigrant
Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 both depict a future devoid of thought, but not awareness. The protagonists, Guy Montag and Winston, are interchangeable in their demeanor, so I don’t need to specify which belongs to which novel. Both recognize that something isn’t quite right in the worlds they live in, with Winston referring to an ancestral memory that is his only hint into the way things once were. Guy Montag questions whether books were always burned, and thanks to his boss, Captain Beatty, he learns that in fact, no, books were not always burned. Books asked questions that could never be answered; they encouraged dissent by always challenging present ideas, ideas held sacred, and so books were deemed dangerous—not only dangerous, but unnecessary. 1984’s world also roots out dissenters, purging anti-Party terrorists for the continuation and assurance of party purity. Rather than burn the past, though, like in Fahrenheit 451, 1984 preserves the existence of the past, but with heavy alterations, edits, and revisions—this is no past at all, Winston observes. Continue reading Inextinguishable: An Optimist Reads 1984 and Fahrenheit 451
Month 4 down. It’s time to take stock.
Porn is blocked in China and fireworks are illegal. Both, you might argue, pollute in their own way, but I’m a big fan of living in moderation, so I wouldn’t agree. I’m also a depraved individual who likes bright lights, so I wouldn’t be easily convinced, either way. While I don’t think I’ll breathe my last breath in Nanjing, I’m convinced the poor air quality here has contributed to it. On days when the Air Quality Index shines orange or red, indicating the intensity of pollutants in the air, I get the sensation of inhaling vaporized metal, both in the rusty, smoky smell akin to that of soldered chips flying from the grinder that presses against smoothing metal, and in the phlegm that accumulates in my throat throughout the day. Chinese men and women spit—a lot. It was quite off-putting when I first witnessed the phenomenon, and incredibly disconcerting when I would hear the cooks in the restaurant do it, too. But it’s a habit that emanates from necessity, because if they didn’t do it—if I didn’t do it—we’d constantly push back the mucous our bodies desperately wanted out. Like water vapor, the haze is visible, though I didn’t know it was haze when I first saw it. I remember walking across a busy intersection and seeing what I first thought was fog. Odd, I thought, since it’s early afternoon, on a dry and sunny day; I didn’t make anything of it until much later when, in retrospect, I thought, “Oh, that was haze. Interesting.”
Normally, my posts take an abstract angle at right about this point, and this one will be no different. I, however, felt like rekindling the poetic sparks that initially lit my desire to write—I’m talking my first desire to write, back in middle school. Bad writing tells you what is going to come next. It warns you and bores you with every unnecessary word inside the author’s head. Good writing is direct and demonstrative. This, right here, is an example of bad writing, but I’m doing it for stylistic reasons. I hope you’ll excuse my doing so. It’s enough to provide an explanation as to why what’s coming next, is coming next. Continue reading Witness
Three months down. It’s time to take stock.
There are condoms everywhere. Unlike in the US, where you have to go through the 7/11 clerk to ask for a pack, or wave down a supermarket associate so that she (it’s usually a woman) can unlock the glass door and know more about you than you wanted to reveal, since she has to lock the glass again after you’ve made your selection, China has condoms next to the bathing products, and the snacks, and the wine, and the miscellaneous items, and on this corner, here, because you’ve walked too far without seeing a condom pack. Family planning, after all, is part of Chinese culture. Though the one-child policy has been relaxed to allow for two children, the Communist Party still caps the number of children a family can have to avoid its 1 billion+ population from becoming a John and Kate + 8 scenario. Chinese people have very strong knees, a colleague explained to me, because of the way toilets are, or rather, aren’t. Squat toilets reign supreme here, which to me feels like an urban camping experience, but you’ll often see people squatting in the street while on their phones, to rest—in the absence of benches, squatting provides a suitable substitute. Continue reading Minority Report
We’ve reached the post-truth era. 2016 will be the year the phenomenon of soothing truth was finally recognized, truth that massages our own biases and kneads away troublesome knots of inconvenient fact. Gradients of truth, varying in their veracity, overload our supposedly shortening attention spans and we are collectively led to the newspaper’s logical conclusion: memes housing bite-sized factoids. Their intake quick and easy, memes are the fast food equivalent of news consumption. 2016 marks another epitaph for the intelligentsia. This one reads:
Here lies plethoric hubris. It declared everything fine even as the last nail pierced its ankles.
Month 2 down. It’s time to take stock.
Things made in China do not say, “Made Around the Corner.” Dogs run around, unleashed, beside their owners, and they maintain a reasonable proximity to passerby traffic. Despite their small size—poodles are popular here—they do not bark or try to intimidate like the poodles and Chihuahuas back in the US. The price of winter coats goes down during the fall, not up like in the US; I chalk that up as a victory for the socialist part of China’s socialist market economy. Gratuity is factored into the final price and every restaurant, including McDonald’s and KFC, will clean up after you. The metro system is fast, clean, and routinely cramped, sometimes to the point of bursting, on which occasion you have no choice but to wait for the next train and hope for better luck. Apartments reign supreme in Nanjing, so I have no idea what houses look like in China. Life hasn’t been very different from living in the US, save for the obvious language transposition. Oh, and I’m much closer to North Korea now. Continue reading Wary Observer