personal, psychology

The Bad Samaritan

The TV sitcom Seinfeld (in)famously ended with the foursome getting arrested for violating a Good Samaritan law. They saw something good to do and ignored it, which was typical for their characters. They only thought of themselves. Am I any different? Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are grotesques—outsized caricatures of neurosis and narcissism. I don’t like to think of myself in the same company. I laugh at the show because it’s not me; it’s a parody of real human interaction. Here’s a story that makes me think I might not be so different given the right (or should I say wrong) circumstances.

I’m late to work. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to get to school, depending on the traffic, but this morning I hit the snooze on the alarm one too many times. I hate getting out of bed—who doesn’t—but it shouldn’t be so hard to get to work at 8AM. So I’m in a hurry, driving the legal limit in town because I’m cautious even in my hurry. Mostly I worry on the inside and my actions stay the same. I maintain the appearance of calm.

I make the left onto the road to the community college where I work, still a half mile and a major intersection away. As I approach a flattened S-curve, a car coming the opposite direction out of the curve careens across the thick yellow line into my lane. Oh no. It’s going to hit me, I’m sure of it. It’s a game of chicken. There’s nowhere to turn to get out of the way. I’ll have to jerk the wheel to get out of the way, but which direction? My mind is numb. I can’t think. It’s all happening too fast. But the car kept drifting, on a vector out of the curve that takes it off the road entirely. It hops the curb and crashes through a hedgerow and a chain link fence behind the bushes and into an irrigation ditch. I’m so startled and scared. One second I think the car is going to hit me head on, the next it has crashed on the side of the road right in front of me. Houses line the left side of the road, opposite the hedgerow and ditch. I hadn’t seen what the driver looked like. I keep driving to work. I don’t know what to do. I figure someone from one of the houses will call the police or a car behind me will stop. My hands are shaking.

So that’s the story, and it raises a lot of questions I’m still trying to figure out all of these years later. Why didn’t I stop? Why did I assume that someone else would help? Here’s where it gets complicated. Let me first start by telling another story.

In 1964 a woman named Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside of her apartment in New York City. According to a New York Times article written about the incident, 37 of her neighbors heard her screams and did nothing. Readers were outraged by the story. Everyone wanted to understand why they didn’t intervene or at least call the cops. One of the neighbors famously said, “I didn’t want to get involved.” Were these people moral monsters? Or was there some rational explanation as to why they didn’t help? Psychologists were very interested in explaining how this could have happened. Researchers found evidence for something they called the bystander effect. When multiple people witness a situation where help might be needed, the responsibility to act is diffused among the bystanders, and so too is the blame for not acting. So maybe this partially explains my not helping the other driver. I was one of many bystanders.

Study after study has shown this diffusion of responsibility to do something if others are present. Everyone assumes that someone else knows what is going on, whether it is a true emergency or not. Everyone also assumes that someone else will do something about the emergency. Say three people are in a room filling out questionnaires and then smoke starts pouring in through an air vent. The three will be less likely to do anything about the smoke than a person alone in the room. Same thing happens in other helping scenarios. Another study had participants in groups of two, three, or six, (though separated physically while communicating via intercom) when a confederate would pretend to have a seizure. The bigger the group, the less likely an individual was to do anything to help the person in trouble.

Here’s how psychologists like Latané and Darley explain it. In order for someone to help in a given situation, the person must (1) notice what’s going on, (2) decide that it’s an emergency, (3) feel personal responsibility to act, (4) also feel competent to act, and then (5) consciously decide to intervene. It’s sometimes hard to determine whether a situation truly is an emergency. If there are many other bystanders, a person might wait and rely on the reactions of others to interpret the situation. So everybody freezes and waits to figure out what is going on. The diffusion of responsibility when there are many bystanders can also keep a person from going through all five steps. For instance, a person might not feel personally responsible if there are so many others around who could act instead. Or they might not feel as competent as others surely are. Besides that, a person might feel inhibited to act when others are watching and evaluating their performance.

So perhaps I was experiencing the bystander effect. Perhaps not, though. I did notice what had happened. I did know that it was an emergency. And I definitely felt some responsibility to act. But still I didn’t. So far my research into social psychology has not explained my behavior. Interestingly, a recent meta-analysis (2011) of all of the bystander effect research shows that the “the bystander effect is attenuated when situations were perceived as dangerous.” In other words, when a situation is unambiguous and serious, such as when someone is in obvious physical harm, there is little to no evidence of the bystander effect. My situation was rather unambiguous: the other driver was clearly in danger of physical harm. I should not have been subject to the bystander effect then.

As a side note, it also turns out that the standard telling of the murder of Kitty Genovese is wrong in some key details. When Kitty was first attacked, a neighbor did call out, “Leave that girl alone!” which prompted her attacker to retreat. He came after her again in the vestibule of her apartment building, now out of sight of most of the neighborhood, and raped and stabbed her. At least two neighbors did call the police, and when an ambulance arrived, a neighbor was holding Kitty in her arms, though she didn’t know the attacker was gone. Far from being the cold and heartless neighbors, some of them did intervene in the situation. The neighbor who said he didn’t want to get involved had his reasons: as a gay man he didn’t want to draw attention to himself by the police who often thought homosexuals were a menace (this being 1964 when the same New York Times ran headlines like “Growth of Overt Homosexuality in City Provokes Wide Concern” mere months before the killing). Somehow the reporting by the newspaper got some key facts wrong in the narrative. This doesn’t invalidate any of the psychology research that the killing inspired. But it does make it a less useful example of the bystander effect.

I first encountered the original NYT’s version of the story of Kitty Genovese in an anthology for a Composition course I taught for a community college. The class was composed of high school students who were dual-enrolled in high school and college, and they received college credit for the course. The high school was the poorest performing one in the city, located in the area of lowest socio-economic status. One of my students related to the incident in the story. He said he’d heard gunshots outside his home at night but done nothing about it. No one said a word against him in the class. I didn’t blame him either. What was a skinny 16 year old going to do about gun violence in his neighborhood? If he called the cops, it would only cause trouble for himself and his family. I had a real soft spot for that kid. He was clearly struggling with the work. Not that he couldn’t do it, but something was holding him back, maybe family life, or an unsafe neighborhood, or maybe he had to work. I didn’t know, and couldn’t know, how hard his life was.

* * *

My other explanation for my behavior of not helping is that I was in a hurry. In another famous psychology study, seminarians in a hurry to give a talk were less likely than non-hurried seminarians to stop and help someone slumped over and moaning and who seemed to be having trouble breathing. To add insult to injury, in one of the conditions for the study the seminarians were supposed to give a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, while in the other condition they gave a talk on a different topic unrelated to helping. Some of the hurried seminarians “literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!” (107). After they gave the talk, the seminarians were asked if they had recently seen someone in need of help and when had they last helped someone else. Most of those in a hurry realized, upon reflection, that the person who was slumped over was in need of help. But in the moment, they were too focused on the task at hand (getting to their talk) to realize the ethical dilemma in front of them. Indeed, the authors of the study even acknowledge that the seminarians were “helping” the researchers by giving the talk in the middle of the study. In other words, it was a conflict of helping. I was in a hurry to get to work. Maybe I was no worse than a seminarian. But in the moment I did realize it was an emergency. I wasn’t like the seminarians who only realized later what they should have noticed on their way to the talk. Another explanation slips away.

It still gnaws at me that I did nothing to help. I didn’t get a good look at the driver—I don’t know if it was a man or a woman. Whoever it was might have been seriously hurt. I had a cell phone in my pocket, though I didn’t have a local number at the time. Some cell phones then couldn’t call 911 anyway. Not that I was thinking all this at the time. First I was scared because the car swerved in front of me and could easily have hit me head on. My car had an airbag, and I always wear a seatbelt, but still… two cars traveling 35MPH in a head on collision is bad. Then I was shocked at what was happening. When everyone is following the traffic laws and transportation is running smoothly I hardly notice what is going on around me. But when a car careens across lanes and off the road it’s jarring. The normal patterns have been broken. But that’s the very definition of an emergency. That’s when someone has to do something that they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

I was also confounded by where to park the car if I were to stop. To my right, the road had curbs high enough that I couldn’t pull off the road into the grass. There were residential driveways on the other side, but I would’ve felt strange parking in someone’s driveway. Perhaps that’s what I should have done. Rang the doorbell. Used a landline to call emergency help. Instead I was further down the road’s curve, that much closer to the community college where I worked. With each passing second it was harder to stop, until it was too late.

So this is the truth of it, and I don’t really like it. I wanted to have social science explain my bad behavior away. But mostly it was a matter of my personal traits. I’m indecisive. While momentarily shocked by almost getting hit, I then couldn’t decide where to stop my car. I didn’t want to pull into a stranger’s driveway for fear of an awkward explanation and imposition. I hate awkward situations and making others unhappy. And each moment I remained indecisive, the inertia of doing nothing took me farther away from the entire situation until it felt too late to stop because then I might have to explain why I didn’t stop immediately. I felt guilty and ashamed, and I didn’t want to face up to my failure.

I still don’t.

About half a year ago I wrote about a time when I was a Good Samaritan, although a reluctant one (you can read it here). I’m very interested in the topic of altruism, and the reasons why sometimes we help others and sometimes turn away. I’m going to keep coming back to it.

Articles referenced:

Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. D. (1973). ‘From Jerusalem to Jericho’: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 27(1), 100-108. doi:10.1037/h0034449

Fischer, P., Krueger, J. I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., & … Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517-537. doi:10.1037/a0023304

criminal justice, personal

Criminal Injustice

A few years ago I got pulled over and received a ticket.

I became nervous when I noticed that the police car had started following me.  I tensed up and kept my hands on the wheel at ten and two.  I made sure I didn’t go over the posted limit.  I was in the van with my kids, heading to the mall so they could play indoors during the cold weather.  Soon after I turned onto the ramp for the expressway, the patrol car lights came on.  I muttered under my breath.  Immediately I pulled over to the shoulder and waited for the officer to tell me what I had done wrong.  It turned out my registration had expired.  The officer had noticed I didn’t have an updated sticker on my license plate.  We had moved a few months earlier, and I had neglected to inform the DMV of our new address.  Consequently, I didn’t receive a reminder to renew, and I didn’t remember all on my own.  Of course as luck would have it, my insurance card was also expired (though our insurance was paid up, I had also neglected to print out an updated card).

However, I wasn’t worried that our vehicle would be searched.  I wasn’t worried that the officer would presume I had drugs or a weapon, or even a criminal record.  I wasn’t worried about being arrested.  I wasn’t worried that our interaction would escalate.  I wasn’t worried about getting killed.

And while I was nervous during my interactions with the officer, it was only because of my personality.  I don’t like to get in trouble with authority figures (just ask my wife).  But I wasn’t nervous about my safety or my rights as a citizen.  I’m a white male, and those aren’t things I have to fear when interacting with the police.

I politely received my citation and that was that.  I continued on my way to the mall.

I’m not writing about this incident in order to talk about whether cops are good or bad.  That’s not the point.

Rather, my ability to take my safety for granted in an interaction with the police when racial minorities, especially African Americans, cannot is a symptom that something is wrong with our criminal justice system.  By now, the statistics may be familiar to you (And they are not under dispute.  A quick Google search led me to a NAACP fact sheet and a list of facts from Alex Jones’s InfoWars, hardly ideological companions, that agreed across the board on the situation).

  • The U.S. has 25% of the total prison population of the world, despite only having 5% of the total population. That means that the U.S. has more prisoners than either Russia or Cuba.  [Check out these graphics on Vice News that help put it into perspective]  Most individual states, including my own South Dakota, have higher incarceration rates than any other country in the world.
  • The U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980. The violent crime rate increased from the 1960s until its peak in 1991, but has decreased steadily since then.
  • The incarceration rate for African Americans is close to six times the rate for white people. African Americans and Hispanics constitute well more than half the prison population, even though they are only a quarter of the general population.

Recently I finished reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado and my eyes opened a little wider to the problems with how we in America treat criminals and dispense justice.  Originally I was planning on writing a long post synthesizing all of the things I had learned about the criminal justice system from these two books (and some other sources), but it’s too much.  Now I’m planning on breaking down my thoughts into more manageable chunks and writing separate posts on the many topics involved, such as the nature of punishment (including capital punishment), racial bias, felon disenfranchisement, manipulation of witnesses and memory, among others.  So consider this part one of a series of posts in the coming weeks, months, and years, concerning what I’m learning about criminal justice.

parenting, personal, psychology

Resistance is (Almost) Futile

The kids and I had just finished lunch when there was a knock on the door.  I saw a minivan out the window, and I thought it might be a friend.  I opened the door to find a well-dressed man who quickly handed me a spray bottle.  “Here’s a gift for you.”  Then, “Have you heard of the something something two?”  I didn’t understand what he was asking.

“No,” I said.

“Perfect!” and he bolted back to the van, grabbed a large box and came running back to the door.  Before I realized what was going on, he had come inside. As he slipped off his shoes and bounded up the stairs to the living room, he said that he was going to give me a free demo and that I didn’t have to buy anything.  Yeah right, I thought.

This was the point where a savvier person would have told him to leave the house immediately and that there was no way he was selling anything.  But I didn’t realize my critical window was closing by the second.  I was still marveling that a now-stockingfooted stranger had entered my home without bothering to wait for my permission.  As someone whose mother used to have to buy his whole box of fund-raising candy bars because he couldn’t face his neighbors’ gentle refusals, I partly admired his moxie, even as I was appalled by it.

After climbing right over the baby-gate at the top of the stairs, he beheld the filthiness of our home.  A huge pile of laundry lay strewn about.  The couch cushions and pillows were helter skelter, part of a fort or floating rocks in lava or some other grand design the kids had envisioned.  He immediately started putting together his vacuum, a Kirby Sentria II (oh! that’s what he had said at first!) and asked me what kind we had.  I dragged out our crappy Bissell so he could do his side-by-side demonstrations.

Right away he tried to establish commonality by asking where I was from and what my hobbies were.  I could tell it was fake friendliness, but I answered his questions honestly anyway.  When I told him I was from Ohio, he started talking about Columbus because he had been there before.  It didn’t matter that I’ve never lived there.  He wanted to know if I had ever gone to a football game at The Shoe.  I haven’t.  He tried another line of questioning by asking about hobbies.  I told him I didn’t have a lot of free time with three kids to care for.  But I allowed that I do like to read when I get a chance.  He jumped on that.  Told me that he had loved reading Sherlock Holmes stories and The Hobbit (long before the movies, he added), though he didn’t have a lot of time to read anymore.  All I could think was that those seemed like generic books to mention.  Sure, I like Sherlock Holmes and Tolkien’s stories too, but doesn’t everyone?

The kids were skittish.  The 3yo kept hiding behind the curtains, occasionally peeking out and giggling.  The 1yo wanted to be held the whole time, and especially when the vacuum was turned on.  The salesman didn’t let their anti-social behavior stop him.  He said they were cute and great.  I was sure he said those things to anybody’s kids, even if they were hideous and kicking him in the shins.

Once he had the vacuum all put together, he asked me if I wanted clean floors.  I answered that of course I did.  What was I going to say, no, I’d like to live in filth and squalor?  What kind of weirdo would say that?  He proceeded to do a quick demonstration.  He used our Bissell on a section of carpet, going over it 50 times.  He counted each sweep for effect.  I already knew that it wasn’t a very good vacuum.  It picks up the visible fuzz and Cheerios, but I’ve never been impressed by its suction.  Then he used his Kirby over the same stretch of carpet, but instead of using a canister or bag, he inserted these white discs that would show exactly how much dirt the vacuum was picking up.  He stayed down on his hands and knees in order to keep switching out the discs as each quickly accumulated debris.  Then he set them to the side until the dining room floor was covered with 30 or 40 paper discs, each displaying a generous pile of crud against its brilliant white background.  It was obvious which vacuum was better.  But he asked me anyway in order to make me say it out loud.

White vacuum disc with rapidly falling price

[Not the moon.  One of the white discs with the rapidly falling price on it]

After he had tried to get me to like him by showing our similarity and asked me some questions so he could later hold me to my answers, his sales patter focused more on the vacuum itself.  He proceeded to tell my why my Bissell didn’t work well and why his Kirby was superior in every way.  But it wasn’t only my Bissell that was worthless, it was every upright vacuum that could be bought at the store.  They were all terrible in the face of the all-mighty Kirby.  It was unique among vacuums.  I had to admit, I kind of wanted one now.  But he still hadn’t told me how much they were.  We’d get to that soon enough, but first he had to give me more reasons why I had to have one.

“What’s the dirtiest part of the house?” he asked next.  I thought for a few seconds and had a flashback to when we moved a few years ago.  Friends from church helped us with the big items, and when we picked up the bed, the dust bunnies were multitudinous and feral.  “Under the bed,” I answered.  He acted stunned and said I was right.  Said only three people had ever gotten the question right (and I believed him and felt good about myself!).  He said the bed is the dirtiest part of the house because of all of the dead skin cells we shed at night.  Never mind that I hadn’t actually said the bed itself, he glossed right over that in order to give me credit.  He walked down the hallway so he could demonstrate the effectiveness of the Kirby on a bed.  I wasn’t about to let him into our bedroom, which was also in disarray.  So I showed him to the boys’ room.  He vacuumed the toddler bed and sure enough, the Kirby sucked out lots of dirt and dead skin cells from the mattress just as predicted.  It was amazing!  And gross!  And I was pretty sure that I was never going to vacuum any of the mattresses in our house whether we had a Kirby or not!

The last part of the demonstration showcased the shampooing feature which involved more accessories and special soap.  I didn’t really care.  We barely manage to vacuum once in a month of Sundays.  We’re never going to shampoo the carpet.

So finally it came time for the big reveal: the price.  I was, of course, surprised that such a fine machine cost north of 2000 dollars.  How did he ever manage to sell one of these things?  But then came the discounts that I knew were coming.  The first was the trade-in.  He offered to take our ineffectual Bissell for an outrageous sum, more than twice what we had paid for it originally.  Then he asked if I knew anyone who owned a Kirby.  When I said no, he scrambled to find me another discount (only later did I find out from my mom that she had owned a Kirby once upon a time, but gave up on it because it was so heavy to lug around).  He finally hit upon the fact that I have family members who have served in the military.  Another $200 off!  Then he found out that we wouldn’t want to finance the purchase but use cash instead.  That garnered a 10% discount on top of the previous discounts.  It was down to $1710.  What a deal!

That’s when he made his first phone call to the “boss.”  I use scare quotes because it was obvious that this was the plan all along.  In fact, I suspected that this boss was actually the driver of the van, which had conveniently driven away and left him stranded at my house. He asked her how many “friends and family” discounts he had left.  After he had his answer, he proceeded to offer me one of his five remaining “friends and family” discounts.  He acted like he was doing me a big favor to the tune of $550 more off the price.  He was on my side.  He wanted me to have clean floors.  It would only cost $1160.  The price had come down just over 50% from where it started.  How could I say no?

Somehow I said no.  Couldn’t do it.  We didn’t have that kind of money.  That’s when he started to lay on the guilt.  He brought up my earlier answers that I wanted a clean floor and that his Kirby was the better machine.  How could I not buy his vacuum knowing what I knew now?  It wasn’t my fault before, but now I had been enlightened.  The Kirby was the only way that I was going to get all that dirt out of the carpet.  How could I let my kids play on a dirty carpet?  I wouldn’t put clean clothes on a dirty carpet, would I?  He kept pressing the issue.  I couldn’t look him in the eye when he laid on the guilt about the dirty floors.  I felt kind of ashamed about all of the dirt his machine had managed to get out of the carpet.

He called his boss/accomplice again.  When she asked why I didn’t want the vacuum, he told her, “He doesn’t have a reason,” after he had swatted down everything I had offered in the negative.  I tried to explain that we don’t do installment plans (which is mostly true) and we didn’t have the money right now.  So he pushed the installment plan anyway.  Then I told him that any extra money we had was going into fixing our basement from the flood damage last year (the one exception to the ban on installment plans was getting the basement waterproofed).

One last call to the boss yielded a final offer of $1000.  How could I still say no?  They were being so reasonable and accommodating.  I still said no.  I couldn’t make financial decisions like this anyway without consulting my wife. But, he said, if your wife knew all the dirt that was in here, wouldn’t she want you to get it all?  Wouldn’t she want clean floors for the kids? I mean, guy to guy, women can be pretty particular about a clean house. Boy, I thought, you do not know my wife.  She doesn’t care much about a clean house.  And she definitely would not want to spend $1000 on a vacuum.  In fact, the nagging thought that she might kill me if I did buy it kept me from being tempted to give in just to make it all stop.

The whole ordeal took over an hour and a half.  He ignored me every time I said the kids were supposed to be taking naps.  As he was packing up, which he did very slowly, drawing it out so I had to say no a few more times, I finally put down the 1yo for his nap an hour later than usual.  I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the minivan came back to pick up the vacuum and the salesman.  I was exhausted.

On the plus side, a tiny bit of our carpet was clean.

[for more on the principles of persuasion ably demonstrated by my persecutor, check out this video by researchers Cialdini and Martin]

personal, poetry

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

Lilacs closeup image

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.


Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”

(Walt Whitman, from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”)

In our backyard the lilacs are in bloom. Their sweet smell is one of the best things we inherited from the previous owner of the house (the thistles we could do without). I don’t remember noticing the smell of lilacs before, whether because of ignorance or inattention, but now I don’t think I’ll forget their scent. The sense of smell is strongly associated with memory and can stir up strong thoughts as they did for Whitman. For me, cigarette smoke always brings my grandma and her house on the lake to mind.

Last month was the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln is a mythic figure in American history. Every politician wants to claim his mantle: he’s someone that everyone, Republicans and Democrats, can agree on. It’s so easy to put Lincoln on a pedestal. Heck, we’ve already done that right here in South Dakota when we carved his 60 foot visage in rock. Normally I’m not much interested in “great man” history; that is, I’m not interested in studying merely the rulers and elites of the past as if they are all that shaped what happened. American history is so much more than the lives of the 43 men who have been president. I’m not opposed to biographies, but they by and large don’t interest me (says the person who recently read a biography of Malcolm X—my reasons in that case were more personal, to compare it with his autobiography which I had read and been impressed by many years earlier. Also, it told a lot of the history of the era, especially how his life intersected with the Civil Rights movement and the Nation of Islam.)

But Lincoln is a different matter for me. He does interest me, probably because of the unique period of the time, a time when the country was at declared war with itself. The country was built and prospered because it enslaved millions of Africans. But the Civil War was a turning point in the ongoing story of our nation as it relates to African Americans. It’s a story that is still unfolding, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement to mass incarceration and the Drug War of today (with many other aspects of the story that I’m leaving out).

I wonder how the post-bellum years would have turned out if Lincoln hadn’t been killed. His vice president, Andrew Johnson, a Tennessee Democrat, was the worst person to be in charge of putting the country back together after the war. How successful would Lincoln have been? Would he still be beloved as the savior of the Union if he had presided over the tough conflicts of Reconstruction? In some ways, his murder froze him in time right after the war ended. The Union had been saved, the slaves had been freed, and it was all because of Lincoln. The narrative had been fixed for all time.

I’m also interested in Lincoln because we named our third child Abraham, in part because of the positive associations with the 16th president (we had other reasons, too). Perhaps I’ve burdened him with the association. I can see the appeal of inventing a new name for a child so that he has no expectations to live up to, no weight to live under. He only has to be himself. But I’m going to continue to read about Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, while striving to let my son grow up and be himself.

The lilacs have already begun to droop, and the petals are falling to the ground. I’ll have to wait until next year to smell their sweetness again.

book reviews, history, literature, personal, writing

Book Reviews, April 2015

April was not a “cruel” month, as T.S. Eliot put it, but it was a month where I had a lot of trouble finishing any writing projects.  I did some writing on a few posts I hope to finish soon, but also had some false starts and days where it was hard to get anything down.  Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was both reassuring and inspiring.  She talks about the doubts and difficulties that writers face, but that you have to go on and do the work of writing anyway.  It’s no use merely thinking about writing.  I have to sit in the chair and do it.

  • Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable is a monumental biography of an important and fascinating figure.  I read Malcolm X’s Autobiography when I was in college and was deeply impressed by it.  While reading his Autobiography I felt very connected to his story, but a biography is a very different beast.  It is meant to put someone in context and evaluate his or her life.  Marable spends a lot of time explaining the Nation of Islam and its position in relation to other branches of Islam.  Later, he is put in the context of the various factions of civil rights organizations.  There is also the matter of different focus between the two projects.  In the Autobiography Malcolm tells many stories of his youth and his wayward years of crime where he was known as “Detroit Red.”  Marable quickly dispenses with these stories in the first two chapters, the first placing Malcolm in the history of race relations and the different approaches of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey, and the second mostly to debunk the exaggerated accounts of criminal activity Malcolm gave in the Autobiography.  Reading this biography is like getting cold water splashed in the face when my main knowledge of Malcolm X came from the Autobiography.  It is a life under the microscope.  Marable especially gives lots of detail concerning Malcolm X’s last two years of life.  During this period he went from being the national minister of the Nation of Islam to being disciplined and silenced by the Nation, which led to his leaving to start his own organizations.  After his break with the Nation, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca and changed his beliefs towards orthodox Islam as well as his stance on civil and human rights.  Marable also gives a lot of attention to Malcolm’s travels in Africa during his last year that show his standing as a world leader, not merely for civil rights in America.  Finally, he gives a definitive account of Malcolm’s assassination from all of the available sources (though many FBI and NYPD documents are still kept secret or heavily redacted).  I would highly recommend this book to anyone even slightly interested in the life of Malcolm X or civil rights in America.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne (with decorations by Ernest H. Shepherd) is a classic of children’s lit, but it sadly wasn’t really my cup of tea.  I didn’t grow up on Pooh, so I had no nostalgia for the characters, but about six months ago my kids saw the original Disney version of the stories.  I watched part of it and thought it was sweet.  Since then, we’ve read many picture books about the characters from the Hundred Acre Wood, but not the actual original stories, mostly because I wasn’t sure my kids were old enough to handle a chapter book.  But it seemed like a good chapter book to start with since they knew the characters so well already.  My oldest (4 going on 5) seemed to enjoy it, but I have to say that I was disappointed.  The narration is puzzling at the beginning as it speaks to the reader and to Christopher Robin (here the son of the narrator, not the Hundred Acre Wood character), with Christopher Robin frequently interrupting the first story.  The narration becomes more straightforward in later stories.  I’m not saying I was confused, but it made it more difficult to read aloud.  Not much happens in the stories, but that’s fine because it’s the characters that make the stories so beloved.  The dialogue was less clever than I was expecting, which I based on seeing bits of the movie.  It was slightly pleasing in places, but often tedious as well.  Oh well. I think I read this too late in life.  I hope my kids find it as charming as many others have.
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is a book that every writer should read at least once.  A few chapters, such as “Short Assignments” and “Shitty First Drafts” should be consulted again as often as necessary, which might mean frequently.  The title of the book comes from “Short Assignments,” where Lamott describes her brother experiencing paralysis at the prospect of writing a long research paper on birds that he had procrastinated until the day before it was due.  Their father encouraged him by telling him to “Just take it bird by bird.”  It’s good advice for any big project, but works especially well in the context of the blank page.  The daunting prospect of writing overwhelms me all the time, but it helps to break it down to a smaller, manageable task.  It’s one reason I’ve taken to writing these reviews of the books I read.  It helps me practice my writing, forcing me to sit down and write my thoughts on the latest book I’ve finished.  And that’s all writing is, sitting down and putting words one after the other, but sometimes the thought of it is so overwhelming.  And the doubts creep in, but I have to keep sitting down and composing a few more words.  Which brings me to perhaps her most important piece of advice, writers write shitty first drafts (well, most of them, anyway).  It’s the work of revising that first draft where a large portion of the work of writing gets done.  This is a concept that both reassures and shatters me.  For most of my writing life I never revised my work.  I almost always wrote my assignments for school at the deadline and turned in what was a first, and final, draft.  The sad thing, for me, is that I managed to do this over and over without repercussions.  I didn’t learn to do the next step of writing, the work of revising.  It’s what I’m learning now.
book reviews, faith, literature, personal

Book Reviews, March 2015

In March I read two books from the Girl Canon, a list of “books not necessarily for girls but which investigate, address, or represent the female experience in some essential way.”  I’ve read a few of the books on that list already, but I found it a useful guide to add even more to my ever-growing “to read” list.  It’s almost like there are too many books!  I also, sad to say, have my first negative review this month.  It’s more fun to recommend good and great books, but it is useful to know which books to steer away from.

  • Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh is a classic in children’s lit (it says so on the back cover!), but I managed to never read it.  I’m glad I did, though.  Even before we started having kids, I liked to pick up YA lit or kids’ classics that I missed growing up every once in a while.  Some of it is nostalgia, I’m sure, but some of it is a curiosity to know what kids are reading these days or what my own kids will someday read.  And I just like good stories, so I’m not bothered if they happen to come in packages meant for a younger crowd.  If it was the only thing in my reading diet, that might be a problem.  But usually it’s once or twice a year as a change of pace.  Anyway, enough about me, what about Harriet?  I enjoyed most the aspect of her spying/observing the world.  She spends much of her time each day observing her classmates or the people in her neighborhood, jotting down questions, stray thoughts, and sharp barbs.  Some of it is simplistic (she is in sixth grade, after all), but much of it is her learning about people and how they relate to the world.  It’s not explicitly said, but she is learning about social stratification and class structure and her place in that structure.  She’s practicing to be a writer someday, and she is learning the empathy necessary to write about all kinds of people.  There are lots of misadventures along the way (it is a kids’ book after all), but she learns to be a better person herself, too.
  • The Forgers by Bradford Morrow is a disappointing thriller about books and forgery.  I had high hopes when I picked up the book on the NEW shelf at the library on a whim.  I’m a sucker for books about the love of books (I’ve got a future post percolating on the subject), but they sometimes disappoint, and when they do it’s a big letdown.  The Forgers isn’t bad, but it starts with more promise than it delivers.  It starts with the blurbs.  I picked up the book based on the gushing from respectable writers like Michael Cunningham and Joyce Carol Oates.  I figured if they liked a book labeled a thriller, it must be pretty good.  But I suspect they liked it for its meditations on fakery and deception, both literary and personal.  The beginning also hooked me in with the description of a grisly murder of a man in the rare book world (possibly a forger) who has had his hands chopped off.   I was compelled by the mystery for the majority of the book, but I expected more of a payoff at the end.  It seemed that the action dragged in the final third as if the reader was expected to get more out of the contemplation of duplicity and double-ness of forgery.  I guess I expected more thriller from my literary thriller.  Though it has its moments, I’m sad to say I don’t think I’d recommend this book.
  • Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright is a helpful book on a difficult topic.  Part of my difficulty was my confusion on what exactly “the authority of scripture” means.  Wright contends that the authority of scripture only makes sense as shorthand for “the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.”  The Bible is not a rule book or a book of doctrines, or at least not primarily so.  Rather, “most of its constituent parts, and all of it when put together […] can best be described as story.”  And this story is one that is ongoing.  In Wright’s formulation, we are currently in the last act of a five-act play: “creation, ‘fall,’ Israel, Jesus, and the church.”  The culmination of the story is the salvation of all of creation, not merely individual souls.  I liked all of these ideas, but it still remained mostly on a theoretical level, so I was glad that he presented some examples at the end of the book.  The first example of how to understand the Sabbath for today was particularly enlightening for me.  I liked the discussion about how Sabbath is sacred time (analogous to the Temple as sacred space) and the related theme of Jubilee.  Jubilee occurred every seventh year with the forgiveness of debts and then a great Jubilee on the fiftieth year (after seven seven year periods) with the restoration of land and the freedom of slaves.  It is the picture of the restoration of creation that Jesus inaugurated but that is not yet complete.  He closes the book with his second example of monogamy, which is more troublesome.  He contends that one man/one woman is the intended order of creation and the polygamy of the Old Testament was a sign of the disordered-ness of humanity after the first act of the play.  While it fits with his overall system and understanding of scripture, it doesn’t take into account LGBTQ individuals.  Despite my hesitation at the end of the book, I would still recommend it for anyone interested in the Bible and how to understand it.
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is delightfully macabre story of two sisters ostracized by their community.  When we first meet the narrator Mary Catherine Blackwood (affectionately called Merricat by her sister), she is shopping in the village.  She goes into town twice a week to get groceries and other necessities.  Their large house is outside of the small village, secluded from prying eyes.  They live apart, and that suits them and the villagers both fine.  Merricat lives with her sister Constance and their uncle Julian, who is an invalid.  The rest of the family, we soon learn, all died under mysterious circumstances years ago.  The Blackwoods are the object of morbid curiosity by the villagers, leading to confrontations as the sisters would rather live cloistered away from view.  Jackson gives us a wonderful narrator in Merricat, a woman we sympathize with and root for even as she does strange things like burying trinkets and money on their property or saying secret words to ward off impending danger.  The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.  As a side note, the edition I read had an introduction by Jonathan Lethem that gave some of Jackson’s bio and explicated the story, revealing most of the key plot points.  I skipped the intro initially and read it only after I had finished the book.  I wish books that had this kind of introduction would move it to the back of the book so that readers who don’t want to read spoilers could more easily avoid them.