This is Not a Story About Mice

This isn’t a story about mice.

If you want one of those, scroll down.

This is a story about Sunny, the pound trash tabby that stalked mice when the sun went down.

This is the story of Sunny’s owners, who often got little sleep when Sunny brought in half-dead mice so his owners could try to catch the lame rodents. Or to have their morning appetites dashed when they found a mouse in the kitchen, decapitated—it’s brains eaten out of its skull.

This isn’t a story about finches or full-grown owls, either, but Sunny dispatched them as well.

This Machine Kills [Proto]Fascists

If only Woody Guthrie was around today I’m sure he would have a song or two about Donald Trump–he had one for his father. Arvind Dilawar interviews Will Kaufman author of three books on Guthrie for Jacobin

Legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie is best known for his anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” which can come off as an innocuous ode to America if you aren’t listening closely. But the singer-songwriter was a lifelong socialist. Woody Guthrie, 1970. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images) I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just…

The Radicalism of Woody Guthrie — Jacobin

Molten Lava Macchiatos

Larry liked the convenience of the corner cafe—it was an easy walk from his home. The problem was the baristas always made the coffee as hot as molten lava. Many times he asked if there was a way to make the drinks less searing, but he would receive the same icy, “No.” He was tempted to reply, “If only you had a button on that La Marzocco that reflected your attitude, that would surely cool down my macchiato,” or, “The beans are already roasted, buddy, there is no need to boil them.” Alas, he held his burnt tongue.

God’s Not a Mets Fan

“Just look at that young man in that cowboy hat,” she whispered to her husband. “He should remove that when he’s in church.” “Times change. Younger generations don’t seem to care,” her husband replied indifferently. Then, suddenly objecting, “How come it’s okay that women can wear big fancy hats? Doesn’t the Bible say a woman’s hair is her crowning glory? And why can’t I wear my New York Mets cap?” The wife, flipping through the hymnal, sighed, “Yes dear, but the Bible also says a woman is to cover her head during worship. Anyway, God’s not a Mets fan.”

Barks, Bees, and Candles, Plenty of Candles!

The hollow in the old Silver Maple had been home for squirrels. These critters angered the dog, who treated the critters as invaders. Now colonies of bees made hives in that hollow. The dog did not protest to the new tenants. The dog’s owner noticed the beauty of a muted pooch, then the beauty of a natural beehive.

Now, the dog owner takes an active part in preserving this repurposed hollow. He calls beekeepers when each hive swarms. He also discovered the wonders of a beekeeping store. The dog’s owner only hopes his family doesn’t mind candles for Christmas.

Ode to the Machine

Steve Williams, one of my favorite bloggers, posted a video on his Scooter in the Sticks blog on July 13, 2020. His silver GTS 250 and the Pennsylvania countryside are his palette. Though I don’t ride as much as I used to, I still love the idea of riding. Perhaps, when I retire–which will be soon–I will return to my weekend rides along the Sacramento and American rivers. Until then I enjoy Mr. Williams’ posts.

Observations From the Mat #6: Returning to Yoga Classes During COVID-19

After a three-month-long order from Governor Gavin Newsom to close all gyms in California, the governor lifted the closure order on June 15. Though I only practiced yoga once at home during that time, I still felt wary about going to any place where there might be a lot of people breathing hard in a small room. During the second week of the reopening, I had to get back on the horse, even if I didn’t feel entirely comfortable doing so. My wife jumped right in and reported to me how things are at the club with the group exercise schedule pared back quite a bit. In the meantime, I found a video on the club’s Facebook page explaining how the gym is addressing reopening during this time of COVID-19.

So, on the second Thursday after the reopening, I attended one of the new yoga classes offered. There are new rules that give the gym a less than warm feel to it. Still, the staff is as friendly as ever, even if you can’t see their smiles under their PPE.

A sign of the times.

When I arrived, I immediately noticed social distancing sandwich boards and other cautionary signage, a closed-down snack bar, and a friendly masked face behind the front desk that was barricaded with end tables against it to ensure I kept my distance. The nice young woman did walk up close enough to take my temperature with an infrared thermometer, though. I tried to surrender my membership card per procedure, but the young woman pointed to the scanner at the corner of the desk. It was now the member’s job to scan in their card. The lobby was as vacant of people as my office, where most of us are now working from home. I currently work once a week to perform tasks I can’t do remotely.)

Damn, I forgot my combination!

I approached the locker room wondering how the social distancing was going to work there. But if the lobby seemed sparsely populated, the men’s locker room was virtually empty, which is nice because I recall many times being uncomfortably packed into the locker areas and the showers. I’m still emotionally scarred over the time I was trying to open my locker with someone’s penis inches away from my face.

When I got my locker open after having to get the combination from the front desk, I noticed a giant hole in my mesh laundry bag with my boxer briefs halfway out of the bag. My gym shorts and shirt were gone. The standard procedure when this happens is to go to the laundry room and have someone from Housekeeping help me find my stuff in their dauntingly large bank baskets full of wayward sports garments, but my class was starting soon. I’m glad I keep two sets of gym clothes in my locker.

I dress down, put my mask back on, and head for the yoga studio all the while wondering if I will have to wear my mask during yoga. Breath is a big part of yoga, and, when I can remember, I practice Ujjayi breathing when I practice. That could lead to a very hot mask during practice. (If you want to know what Ujjayi breath, or and some aptly call it, “Darth Vader breathing,” check out one of my favorite teachers show you how it’s done.)

Entering the yoga studio, I find a bunch of Stages indoor bikes in the room. I check the group exercise bike studio and notice it now only has about half of the bikes, and they are all six feet apart. My yoga studio is now a stock room. (I would later find out another group exercise studio, as well as the once busy elliptical exercise room, had both suffered a similar fate.) Where will I be practicing yoga tonight? It turns all of the group exercise classes in these COVID-19 days are taking place in—the basketball court.

The popular online yoga site Do You Yoga offers “8 Ways Your Surroundings Can Make (or Break) Your Yoga Session.” Here they are in my own words with my comments on how the new place measured up:

  • The Right Temperature. I’ve practiced in a studio that was too hot. Well, a couple of times, then management brought in this massive fan, the teacher turned off the music, and we practiced to what sounded like a being in a hanger with a running P-52. As for the court, the temperature was about right. PASS
  • The Right Lighting. Standing at the door to the gymnasium watching two guys. dribbling and shooting hoops, I was at once struck by how tranquil this environment wasn’t; the lighting way too bright., but it was perfect for shooting some hoops! FAIL
  • Aromatherapy. As for this element, I usually don’t care too much for how a place smells, just that it doesn’t, but if there were a bunch of sweating basketball players finishing league play it would have failed at this element miserably. I have only attended one class where a teacher, with an exotic scent, visited every student during Shavasana and rubbed the necks and shoulders of each student with eucalyptus oil. I could see how aroma could benefit a practice. I’ll give the room a PASS on the aromatherapy.
  • Peace & Quiet. I couldn’t meditate before the class: the cacophony of two arrhythmic bouncing balls and the THUUUNNNGs of the vibrating basketball rims ruined any chance of preparing for the practice. “That’s it,” said a fellow practitioner as she abruptly ended her pre-session warm-up. “I can’t take the basketballs!” and left, returning just when the class started. But, to be fair, when the class started, I did experience “peace and quiet.” I’ll give it a weak PASS
  • Neat & Clean. A “neat and clean” environment was debatable, It was clean, but the towels, sanitizing spray bottles, and stacked steps and raisers (used for other classes here) made it seem more like a basketball court/storage area during a viral outbreak) Another weak PASS
  • An Inspirational Place. The place did not fill me with “inspiration,” it’s a regulation NCAA/NBA 94’ x 50’ basketball court with about ten feet extra past the sidelines and baselines, not a yoga studio, which usually fills me with inspiration. FAIL
  • Enough Personal Space. While there was plenty of “personal space,” the 6-feet markers for the mats did not make the experience intimate. But “intimate” was not a criterion, so PASS.
  • Appropriate Music. Appropriate music is more critical than someone not into yoga might think. I’ve attended classes with teachers who believe somehow MC Yogi is suitable for a yoga session. (Yeah, I know the rapper is a yogi, and I enjoy his music, but that doesn’t make his music appropriate for practice. My first class back at the club had no music, which was better than the wrong music. The second class featured music and was low enough for me to hear the teacher in the cavernous space. PASS

Therefore, the new “yoga studio” gets a barely passing grade on the Do You Yoga’s test with a 75 percent. Not great, but we’re talking about exceptional times, and my health club is not exclusively a yoga studio. I’ll have to make do with what they can offer its members. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if dedicated yoga studios have either gone out of business or cut back on their services.

We rolled out our mats over the designated spots—no chance of accidentally touching a fellow practitioner during a supine trunk rotation. Moments when you inadvertently play handzies with the student next to you were now geographically out of the question. After we warmed up, we executed a seated spinal stretch to the left. That’s when I noticed there are ten other members spread out so far that one of them was near the opposing goal line. There was one of the club’s trainers taking in the class at the free-throw line (Center), another two at opposite sides of the three-point line (Guards), another near the far baseline across from me. (That would make us both Forwards, I guess.) And five more near the mid court line and back on the opposing goal line. When I stretch the opposite way, I saw the barrel of basketballs near the door where we came in, and at once, I thought, “We have enough bodies in this gym for a pickup game!” Meditation didn’t go out the window; I never even began to go down the mindfulness path. Looking back on it now, I could have used “Alley-oop” as a mantra.

My favorite teacher, Heather, who used to teach classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, was not present. Nor was she on the schedule. Heather bailed early–a week before the club closed three months ago. In her place, now was Robert. Many yoga students and teachers have told me that Robert is one of the best yoga teachers in Sacramento, and I have practiced with more than one teacher who calls him either mentor or teacher.

He had a class at this club before the shutdown, but I had only attended it a couple of times. Many yoga peeps have told me that anyone can walk into a yoga studio never having practiced and do a session of Power Yoga or advanced Vinyasa Yoga–you just go at your own pace. But I have tried practicing in advanced classes and found it too frustrating, having to take multiple breaks and feeling as if every eye is on me–the loser (though know no one is looking at me; “no judgments” is a common motto with most, if not all yoga teachers). Still, I find trying to practice yoga above my abilities quite the opposite of beneficial and not blissful or inspirational. Anyway, Robert’s pre-COVID-19 class was too advanced for me.

For anyone who reads this blog, they might remember Robert as the kind teacher who was leading the class where I cut a loud fart. I don’t know if he recognized me as the guy who fouled his practice. Still, he did make an effort to talk to me after the class just like he hung around the front door of the club, post poot, possibly to catch me and tell me I was doing a good job [Read: “Don’t worry, Grandpa Sphincter, that’s your Root Chakra, tooting its appreciation for your practice!]. That embarrassing moment was so long ago I only hope Robert forgot about it.

One of the many amenities found in a high-end club like this one is that the establishment provides mats, blocks, rollers, straps, and as many towels as you need (or don’t need, but feel so entitled to use anyway). But these days of the novel coronavirus, the club, like everywhere else, is practicing “contactless” service, so it expects members to bring their mats. Thankfully, the front desk keeps a few mats for dullards like me. I’ve always wanted a folding mat but had only frivolous reasons to invest in one. I finally broke down and bought one, and yes, it is quite portable, but the two milometer-thickness kills my knees!

On my way out, I spoke with Housekeeping to see if my missing gym shorts and shirt were in the laundry room. My items appear to be lost; casualties to the three-month closure and a worn-out laundry bag. They gave me a new bag, but I’ll need to bring more duds.

That’s my yoga practice in a basketball court story. As I post this, COVID-19 cases have spiked in California. Governor Newsom is shutting down bars and restaurants–again. I’m guessing gyms will soon follow. (Though here’s an NPR story about how to work out as long as your gym stays open.) Perhaps I need to start a home practice, though I have mentioned on this blog countless times how undisciplined I am about following through. Just think, Jocko, you could build your own yoga space! Use the “8 Ways Your Surroundings Can Make (or Break) Your Yoga Session.” and your copy of the glossy coffee-table book Yoga At Home: Inspiration for Creating Your Home Practice by Linda Sparrowe as guidelines. I could even rub my shoulders and neck with eucalyptus oil. If only I knew how to, I shut up my chronically barking dog I might achieve zen in the middle of a pandemic!

Sheltering in Place–a Pictorial

I heard on the political podcast Left, Right, & Center that some millennials are referring to COVID-19 as the “Boomer Remover.” Of all the horrible things this virus has created, at least it has inspired someone to create a funny joke about it. I like that–and I’m one of those Boomers. I am one of the lucky ones: I’m a civil servant whose executive management has directed me to work from home. I’m not spending my days trying to get through to the Employment Development Department; monotony is the main challenge I need to overcome.

As bad as things are in this country right now, I see an opportunity for positive change. A few things have to happen first to create this opportunity. First, we need a new president. Bernie Sanders would have been perfect for this opportunity, but we may have to settle for Joe Biden–a neoliberal. Second, we need more progressive lawmakers. Bernie Sanders, Barbara Lee, Ro Khanna, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Katie Porter are not enough. Third, we need to vote out the egregious politicians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton, and Steve King, to name only a few. If we can achieve this in the next three elections, we could create a new America that would fix the economy, creating new initiatives, much like how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) helped usher in over 30 years of prosperity. The change could be/should be the death of neoliberalism and the resurrection of the long-dead benevolent government that lasted from FDR through Richard Nixon. (Yeah, I know those past administrations were racist and sexist ones, but the new one doesn’t have to be.

We can re-enact the Pre-Reagan 70 to 90 percent marginal tax rate, bring back the estate tax, and put teeth in Ocasio-Cortez-Markey Green New Deal. It was the Great Depression that shook this country up and resulted in a government that addressed the needs of its people. Now is the time for significant change. Now it is critical. The only thing that needs to change is the lawmakers and a catastrophic event to make it happen. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the novel coronavirus epidemic.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we get four more years of Donald Trump. (God, it hurt to type those words!) We may not have discovered, mass-produced, and mass distributed a vaccine for the virus until Trump is well into his second term. In the meantime, we will have to be vigilant by following what is now become as common sense as not running with scissors: practice social distancing, wearing personal protection equipment (PPE), using hand sanitizers, sheltering in place, if you can, and if you feel sick stay home. Below is my own experience over the first 53 days of sheltering in place.

My teleworking office complete with washer, dryer, incessant dog barking, some unused yoga gear, and located way too close to the TV and kitchen. Did I mention the barking dog? With me working here, I can think of four coffee houses, one nutrition store, a cookie shop, my credit union, and a half-dozen restaurants that would usually get my business that now does not. Multiply that by thousands of people no longer supporting the downtown economy, and you can see how serious this adds all of those who have lost their jobs. It’s not hard to imagine how devastating this situation is for Downtown and Midtown Sacramento. Now, multiple that by 26.5 million-plus across America who are unemployed thanks chiefly due to the pandemic, and it is genuinely tragic.
Shelter in place has allowed me the time to walk my dog every morning, instead of just the days that I have off, but unlike most of my neighbors, who appear to love walking their canines, I have never enjoyed it. When Vivian (I didn’t name her!) was young, walking her was more like a perpetual tug of war. She would take off after every dog, cat, and squirrel that came near our route. Now, at 12, she has lost a lot of that vigor, but she still wants to mix it up with most dogs and every cat and squirrel she sees. Now, on weekday walks when I’m struggling with her, all I can think about is my cozy cube and a cup of java. Damn this Coronavirus!
I’m exercising less and eating and napping more. Not good for an overweight, out of shape old man! I used to commute to work on my bike (11 miles total in a day) and practiced yoga three times a week. Those activities were never enough to combat my overeating and sedentary ways, but when my club closed down, and I started to work from home, I began to put on the weight.
I’m a bit of a YouTube junkie. (I say “a bit” because there are real YouTube junkies out there that are scary. Check out the New York Times podcast Rabbit Hole to get an idea of how dangerous this phenomenon can be.) In pre-Pandemic times, I would spend most of my lunch breaks eating and watching Democracy Now!, The Rational National and The Hill’s Rising. Now, it’s a struggle to watch no more than an hour a day. What am I going to do when I retire?

Back to work—sort of. My office is easing into returning to work. Right now, only one person from our analyst crew are allowed on-site, so we are rotating. My building is a frigging ghost town. My office is easing staff back into work. As of this posting, each of us is only putting in one day of office work. Not at our desk, but a post, no one likes but receives a lot of traffic with long gaps of inactivity. It’s a challenge trying to stay busy at this post at this time. Ironically, it reminds me of the first week of teleworking. What’s worse, I cannot leave this post. (This isn’t my usual job, nor is it my cubical. I don’t know when I will be able to return to my regular job.

On my break, I notice the coffee house that I used to frequent isn’t open yet–maybe it never will re-open. In early April, when the shelter in place commandment was in full swing, whenever I would ride through town, it looked like a scene from the Walking Dead except there were no cars in the middle of the road helter-skelter. (There were simply no cars at all.) It looked like the homeless had successfully overrun the town, and now they owned it.

Sacramento has one of the worst homeless problems in California, but you don’t know just how bad it is until you remove everyone else. Returning to work five weeks after the initial stay at home orders, I see more workers milling around and more cars on the street, but it is only a fraction of what would be typical. I’m sure this pandemic initially won’t help the homeless crisis. It will make it worse for them. More people—the people who could barely make rent and feed themselves—will end up on the streets. I say “initially” because I hope and believe–especially if we can replace the person in the Oval Office and some of the legislative representatives in Washington, we can usher in a new egalitarian society that will care for the least of us.

In the meantime, we will go through a series of shelter in place orders, followed by the opening up of businesses, followed by another spike in COVID-19 cases, followed by another shelter in place order, who knows how many times. The fastest time we ever created a vaccine and available to the public was for Mumps, and that was–wait for it–four years! Currently, labs like Johnson & Johnson are cutting corners to find a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 (the name of this novel coronavirus) that causes COVID-19 (the disease). Still, there are no guarantees the labs will find a vaccine that works any faster than four years or that doesn’t have horrible side effects.

But let me close with some good news, something I touched on in the beginning of this post. After the Great Depression and World War II, not only did the economy bounce back, but the legislation that was passed into law in the dark days of the 30s and the 40s created the greatest era in this country’s history:

  • The Social Security Act of 1935 gave all American workers 65 or older a continuing income after retirement.
  • The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (aka the GI Bill) gave needed assistance to veterans coming back into the marketplace.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 provided workers a minimum wage to an untrained workforce.
  • The Federal Housing Administration was established in 1934 for families needing assistance getting back into homes after losing theirs in the Great Depression.
  • Americans needed affordable health care and almost received it in 1945, but the GOP and the American Medical Association prevented the bill from becoming law. The fear at the time, as the Cold War began, was that it was a step towards Socialism. However, in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson enacted Medicare and Medicaid. (Perhaps this pandemic would have been administrated more efficiently if the nation had a single-payer health system. As it stands now, people of color are the most adversely affected by this pandemic.

As challenging as this pandemic is, I like to think we have a chance to make some positive changes to our country after a vaccine is found and administered. In the meantime, stay vigilant, stay inside if you can, practice social distancing, wear a mask when you should, sanitize your hands, and praying wouldn’t hurt.

The Tough Business of Our Mortality and the Legend of Super Stu – Redux

My father died on December 11, 2014. I want to get that out of the way. The post below was originally published on August 19, 2014. (His obituary can be found here for anyone who cares to read it. I wanted to re-post this for four reasons:

  1. It’s been nearly five and a half years since the original post, and I feel the age difference. I feel more vulnerable with each passing year.
  2. Despite its brevity, I think it is a serious post with a funny story in it worth sharing again.
  3. I’m trying to become a better writer, and looking over some of my older work frustrates me. I’m not claiming this a significant literary work, but it is an improvement over the original 2014 post. By the way, feel free to comment on my writing. Seriously!
  4. I haven’t posted anything in a while, and I occasionally re-post just to add activity.

Recently, my father spent a night in the hospital. His illness is not uncommon for a man his age. My brother had surgery a day or two before that. Then there’s me with some weird strain of chronic vertigo and skin cancer. It always comes in threes–or wait, is that fours? That’s dark. Still, when this stuff happens to you and the people, you love it reminds you how we are not invincible. It also reminds me of my youth. While I was so afraid of baseballs traveling in my direction in what I believed to be at a lethal velocity or riding my bicycle or trail bike faster than a crawl for fear that a limb would tear off, some kids I knew were fearless.

Enter Stewart, the next-door neighbor who held the record for most trashcans, successfully jumped with a bicycle (at least in our neighborhood). Stewart wore an old-fashioned “brain bucket”-style helmet he got from my father who no longer used it. After my dad tore up his ear while racing in an enduro or a scramble, he moved to a three-quarter Bell helmet. Stewart re-painted it and, using a magic marker, created his new personae right on the side of the helmet, “Super Stu” with a four-leaf clover for luck. As far as I could tell, he needed that charm. It scared the shit out of me seeing him start in the street, peddle like a madman jump the gutter with only a split-second to re-gain his form before his front wheel hit the ramp.

The passing of this helmet and this trashcan jumping is relevant to the hospital story. My father raced cars, boats, and motorcycles. He found enjoyment in pushing his body. He almost died in a boat racing accident years before he got into racing dirt bikes. He wasn’t a daredevil, but he had injured himself enough to know his body had limits, but that’s about as far as it went. Super Stu was just crazy, but I like to think there is poetry in the passing down of a helmet even if it is not to his son, who, let’s face it, was a pussy.

I don’t know why we set up the ramp in the area we did. While the landing zone was on grass, that’s about where the OSHA-mindfulness stopped. There was a precious little real estate at the end of the last trashcan before Super Stu’s family fence (and surely the Grim Reaper) stood. Super Stu had to hit the breaks the second his back wheel gained purchase. He only had one contender (read: someone stupid enough to try to match his record). But Dan didn’t ride a Schwinn Stingray like Super Stu and everyone else, for that matter except for Dave, who had a Huffy. (Poor Dave, always the one with colored socks when everyone else had Adidas and Puma white sweat socks, green cords when everyone else had blue jeans, loner parents whereas everyone else’s parents were social.)

Dan had a route bike. Basically, a beach cruiser with a significantly longer wheelbase than a Stingray and heavy racks in the back and on the handlebars for his newspaper sacks. I suppose Dan could have used one of the stingrays that we were all sitting on in kind of a “festival banana seating” fashion, but then again, I doubt anybody would have agreed: “No man, I’d be in Dutch if you died on my bike. I’d be grounded forever and ever.”

Dan had plenty of room for his approach, but he mistimed his peddling—hitting the gutter with one peddle down, creating a rooster-tail of sparks behind him! The gutter/peddle business made him lose his balance, and one foot and hand slipped off his bike. He shot by the ramp, missing it by only an inch, and hit my parent’s Albizia tree carving a large chunk out of the trunk. In my later years–when Dan had moved down to SoCal, and he was now only a memory to me (to manipulate in my mind at will) I used to fantasize about him not missing the ramp, but hitting it—launching him with one hand and leg flailing—into what would be the closest thing I would ever see in-person to the remarkable footage of Evel Knievel’s legendary 1967 Caesar’s Palace jump and wipe-out landing.

Here is Knievel’s jump and two other attempts others made at Caesar’s. Interesting side note: Knievel’s wife, Linda Evans, filmed the slow-mo crash segment of the film. She would go on be a successful TV actress known best for her role in the popular 1980’s evening soap “Dynasty.”

Super Stu once told me that he thought he was immortal, that he couldn’t die (unlike Dan or my mother’s poor silk tree, or me and my skin cancer and vertigo, or my father with his medical condition). I don’t know if Super Stu was joking or if it was pure hubris, but when he decided to do some urban skiing behind my brother’s Kawasaki 80, he found out that at least he could bruise. His crash and resulting rash were spectacular! I only wish I could have seen it up close and not from down the street.

Which brings me back to how we all are mortal—even Super Stu, whether he believed it or not. Sitting in my father’s hospital room hearing about his ailment and how he has had problems over the last few years or so and has just adapted to them rather than ask a doctor about them, I am reminded of how growing old is a tough business. My father has adapted, but there will be a point when his body finally fails. I don’t like to think about that. My family is taking it very well including me though I had broken down and cried a couple of times when I was alone. When that time comes, we will be left with precious memories, clear images that will stay with us the rest of our own moral lives, just like Super Stu’s record trashcan jump and Dan’s near-colossal fail!

The Best Books I Read in 2019

I listen to most books these days, but some of the books to the right of Frosty I actually read.

I eagerly anticipate this time of the year when the year’s best reads are published. I don’t compare the books I read with the writers/editors choices since most of the books I read (or listen to) in a calendar year are published in other years, I use these lists as books to consider reading next year or later.

With that said, here are my favorite reads of 2019, with only four of the titles published in the last twelve months (and one of them originally released about 1000 years ago). The list is in no specific order except for separating nonfiction from fiction; however, the first three or four titles in Nonfiction are my top reads of the year.

NONFICTION

Most books I read/listen to in a given year are nonfiction and of these titles, my favorite are political. It is a hangup of mine that I wish I could shake, but to repeat a popular term, I am a political junkie.

We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement by Ryan Grim, 2019

This should be essential reading for all progressives. The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim tells the 30-year story of a popular movement that started with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Collision and has culminated in the rise of Bernie Sanders into the national conscience and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise into American politics (who may have coined the name of the book: “We’ve got people. They’ve got money”). Grim expertly shows how Ocasio-Cortez did not grow out of a vacuum but is part of a movement that’s time may have come. If I had to pick my favorite read of the year (regardless of when it was published), it would be this one! Note to audio book listeners: Chapter 16 is a mess, but after I contacted the author via Twitter, he sent me a clean recording of the problem chapter. For audio book enthusiasts, note that reader, Sean W. Stewart must have recorded the book on his back porch—you can hear birds tweeting in the background!

Ryan Grim talks about the genesis his book.

Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman, 2017

If Grim’s book is my favorite read of 2019, “Utopia for Realists” comes in a close second. The same goes for the authors: Grim is as gracious as he is knowledgeable. Equally, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, journalist, and author is a brilliant thinker who is not afraid to tell it like it is, even when surrounded by multimillionaires and billionaires. If you haven’t seen him dressing down of the elite during the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, click here. It is a thing to behold! He has become one of the champions of universal basic income or UBI. Check out his 2017 Ted Talk. His book–that came out the same year–tackles that idea in detail as well as the 15-hour workweek, and open borders. He wasn’t convincing about the 15-hour workweek. I vaguely remember him writing about how John Maynard Keynes brought it up in the depths of the Great Depression, but reducing the workweek (without reducing pay) in America is an idea which time has come.

On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal by Naomi Klein, 2019

Naomi Klein is quite possibly the most significant thinker of our times. I once read someone saying Klein is the next Noam Chomsky. An absurd statement. Chomsky is Chomsky, and Klein is Klein. Still, the idea that the Canadian author, journalist, and activist has risen to the heights of a Chomsky is an achievement. She is absolutely essential.

“On Fire” is a continuation of one of her masterpieces, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.” It reports from the front lines of the people and ideas that are looking for solutions like The Green New Deal. It is not as thorough and as in-depth as “This Changes Everything,” but I think it is meant to be a companion piece to it. Worth a read!

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by William Pollan, 2008

Pollan’s manifesto is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, when he says “food,” he is not referring to Twinkies, Snickers, all processed foods. There are 64 Food Rules in the book. Each rule is simple, and its explanation is only about a page long. For being a tiny book, it is deceptively dense in wisdom. I’ve been trying to lose weight, and this book has helped, though “Food Rules” is not, by definition a diet book, but rather a guide on how to eat right.

What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin, 2005

For some time now, my son has been trying to get my wife and me to read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” written by someone named “Check D,” a wrapper my son apparently likes. He hasn’t been successful, but on a long car trip, he had me cornered. I finally looked up the title and found out the book is actually written by The Nation Magazine‘s sports editor Dave Zirin. (Chuck D, turned out to write the Forward.) As a long-time reader of The Nation and a one-time listener to Zirin’s podcast, “The Edge of Sports,” I knew and appreciated Zirin. So I ended up ordering the book, and in the meantime, Zirin’s previous book, “What’s My Name, Fool?” was available in audio, so I started listening to that. I was not disappointed.

“What’s My Name, Fool?” (a refrain Muhammad Ali asked his competitors who insisted on calling him by his “slave” name, Cassius Clay) is about the confluence of sports and politics. The book’s main topics are Ali and his fight for dignity against a white establishment, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power and racism 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and how the two continued to fight after the blowback. Zirin also compassionately expressed the other side of when George Foreman waved a small U.S. flag after winning his gold medal in boxing during those same Olympic Games. Zirin covers Jackie Robinson and the racism he had to face every day when playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the long-term effect that had on the ballplayer’s life. Other topics include the plantation mentality of the multi-billion-dollar NCAA, the Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match, and other issues. I’m glad my son, indirectly pointed me to this book. Perhaps n 2020, I’ll read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which, if the critics are correct, is a sequel to “What’s My Name, Fool?”

Lightly: How to Live a Simple, Sceren, Stress-Free Life by Francine Jay, 2019

I don’t read very many self-help books, but I have read a couple of books on minimalism: the elegant “Goodbye Things” by Fumio Sasaki, and my first book on the subject, “Everything That Remains” by Joshua Fields Millburn, but “Lightly” is the first book that doubles as a field guide. That is, it is part theory, part “how-to” manual that someone like Marie Kondo might appreciate. It has been a while since reading the Sasaki and Millburn books, but I believe what I really love about Jay’s beautiful book is how she addresses global issues. While the other authors focus mostly on personal issues, Jay also talks about the importance of reducing your carbon footprint.

The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang, 2018

I like Yang, even if he is against minimum wage (a deal-breaker if he wants my vote). He has some good ideas: his “Freedom Dividend” (read: UBI. No better yet, read Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists,” mentioned above). His idea on how to pay for the $1k a month to every adult American is refreshing, but I prefer Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s better. Yang doesn’t seem to want to ruffle the elite’s feathers—he believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming like a runaway train, and there’s nothing we can do about it, but take the $1k and deal with it. He does a great job here explaining how the Fourth Industrial Revolution (automation and artificial intelligence (AI)) is going to make a lot of blue-collar and even some white-collar jobs obsolete, but, as I recall, he offers few solutions besides a monthly check to remove some of the sting and the way he will pay for his “Freedom Dividend”—implementing a European-style Value Added Tax. (A tax that is placed on all products whenever value is added at each stage of the supply chain.)

Since I’m a socialist, I don’t think we should just roll over and let Big Tech and corporations steal all these jobs. AI and automation should be for the benefit of labor, not for the board of directors and shareholders. AI and automation should work to reduce the workweek, not the paycheck. Still, there are a lot of great ideas in this book. It’s worth a read.

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean, 2017

Just when I thought how the radical right took control of America, my friend at work handed me this hardbound bomb. I was ignorant enough to think the attack on the liberal gains of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society started with the Powell Memorandum in 1972. The Powell Memo was indeed destructive, but that was only one volley and Powell played a minor roll in the rise of neoliberalism in America. There was a far bigger player in this successful dismantling of the social programs and institutions that even Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon accepted as established. His name was James McGill Buchanan Jr.

“Democracy in Chains” is an explosive expose of the radical right’s most successful attempt at destroying labor unions replacing them with Right to Work laws, privatizing public education, privatizing the prison systems, hobbling health care, replacing pensions with 401k plans, launching multiple attempts to privatize Social Security, keeping as many of us as possible out of the voting booth, and, in general, disenfranchising the middle class. MacLean does an excellent job of revealing the hidden political establishment behind far-right foundations thought to be started by billionaires like the Koch Brothers. Buchanan stands head and shoulders above highly visible thinkers like Milton Friedman, Richard Fink, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.

The most fascinating thing I found about this book is Buchanan, and his like-minded thinkers attack “democracy” in favor of “freedom.” I’ve never heard of democracy referred to as a dirty word in America until reading this book. Too, the term “freedom” has the convenient definition as something that benefits wealthy white men–a greater opportunity for the rich to get richer and for everyone else (especially poor people of color) to remain disenfranchised. The Nation awarded “Democracy in Chains” Most Valuable Book of 2017. It deserves the accolade.

Nancy MacLean talks about how she came up with “Democracy in Chains.”

Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action by Seane Corn, 2019

I should take it easy on the political books and podcasts. I didn’t know who to kill after reading “Democracy in Chains”–maybe start with me? I always feel better reading/listening to works like “Revolution of the Soul.” Seane Corn is a singular yoga teacher and this is an excellent read for being her first–part memoir, part the kind of instruction Corn’s followers have come to expect from her.

Her publisher, Sounds True writes, “Seane’s real purpose is to guide us into a deep, gut-level understanding of our highest Self through yoga philosophy and other tools for emotional healing – not just as abstract ideas but as embodied, fully felt wisdom. Why? To spark a ‘revolution of the soul’ in each of us so we can awaken to our purpose and become true agents of change. Seane writes, ‘When we heal the fractured parts of ourselves and learn to love who we are and the journey we’ve embarked upon we will see that same tender humanity in all souls. This is the revolution of the soul.'”

Each chapter of this memoir includes practical tools from the author: instructions on the chakra system, pranayamas, healing, forgiveness, the subtle body, and more. Not into yoga? Perhaps this book isn’t for you. What can I say? It’s my blog.

Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg, 2016

The author traces the steps of an embattled mountain lion from the Black Hills of North Dakota, across the Great Plains, through the Midwest to Connecticut’s Gold Coast–a two-year odyssey. It’s a fascinating and, at least for me, tragic tale of how we are slowing killing off some of our most majestic mammals due to human encroachment and misunderstanding. Goodreads.com calls it “a testament to the resilience of nature, and a test of humanity’s willingness to live again beside the ultimate symbol of wildness.” I couldn’t have said it better.

The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2013 and The Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Pack by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2018

This was the first year I ever started reading about wild cats and dogs. First, I read “Heart of a Lion” then I read “The Hidden Life of Wolves” followed by the he beautiful pictorial “The Wisdom of Wolves.” I came away with a similar feeling had had when a read books on sharks after seeing the film “Jaws”: how misunderstood these predators are.

What was especially fascinating about the Dutcher books is how the couple and Manfill were able to become accepted in the Sawtooth Pack in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. (At one point Jamie Dutcher is allowed into a she-wolf’s den after after she has given birth to pups!) The products of this kind of acceptance is an excellent study on how wolves live and some absolutely stunning photography.

America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis, 2016

“Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Wallis writes, “America’s problem with race has deep roots, with the country’s foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation’s original sin. It’s time we right this unacceptable wrong.” I have read Wallis’ books and editorials for years in his Sojourners Magazine–a Christian progressive monthly.

In “America’s Original Sin,” Wallis tells of how he was driven away from his faith by a church that didn’t want to address the problems of racism in the 1960’s. He turned to working with civil rights groups. He returned to the church when he found a faith that commands racial justice. “Yet as recent tragedies confirm” he writes, “we continue to suffer from the legacy of racism. The old patterns of white privilege are colliding with the changing demographics of a diverse nation.”

Jim Wallis on his 2016 book.

FICTION

I probably read one book of fiction for every three nonfiction books, but after reading each of these books I felt I was missing out.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth, 1987

Roth won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this masterful work of loss and distrust recounted by a family friend during a high school reunion and spans about fifty years, starting in the early 20th century where Seymour “Swede” Levov’s father starts a profitable glove manufacturing business and continues through the idyllic 50’s when the son, All-American college star, Swede Levov, and his trophy wife, Dawn, watch their seemingly perfect life, with their daughter, slowly unravel through the tumultuous ’60s. For me, it is one of the most heartbreaking yet compelling books I have ever read, and the first book I have read by the lauded Philip Roth.

Ohio by Stephen Markley, 2018

Shortly after Philip Roth, one of the most significant figures in American letters died, Stephen Markley publishes his first novel. I’m not trying to claim Markley has taken Roth’s mantle, I’m only saying “Ohio” is worthy of a master’s offspring. “Ohio” is a brutally vivid story of a community in the rust belt where the American Dream is all but dead, and the opioid epidemic is in full swing. Told from the perspective of four former classmates who return home after the untimely death of a friend in Iraq. The four return on the same night, with different motives and none of their homecomings, go as planned. The novel ends with a terrifying act of violence, the culmination of a set of lives that have been destroyed by abuse, drug addiction, hatred, war and poverty.

Vox by Christina Dalcher, 2018

Something like a fundamental Christian theocracy takes over the U.S. government and begins to roll back liberties–especially for women and young girls. On the day, the government decrees that women are allowed to speak no more than 100 words a day. At first, Dr. Jean McClellan thinks this will pass, but it doesn’t. She, her daughter, and all females have a counter fascinated to their wrists to monitor and govern their speech. Soon, women lose their jobs, girls are no longer taught to read or write in school. A moment comes when McClellan can step up and do something about this injustice. This is no “Handmaiden’s Tale,” one reader commented, but “Vox” is clearly not trying to be that story. It is more subtle and, in a way, that makes “Vox” more terrifying.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, 2014

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.…”

Nope, that wasn’t a spoiler, that’s how the book starts, and it is because of this setup that everything that follows so tragic. Lydia is torn between the demands of her mother and the different expectations of her father while her own desires ans aspirations are ignored. Thus paving the way to the established climax.

The structure, while not completely novel, is executed expertly. “Everything I Never Told You” is a moving story of a Chinese American family living in a small town in 1970’s Ohio. It is a moving story about a family divided by cultures, gender, and generations.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen, 2015

Pip (Purity) Tyler, a young woman, straddled with college debt and a burning question: who is her father. Her eccentric mother knows but won’t tell her. She fled from him before Pip was born, changed her name, and retired to live in anonymity in the woods of Northern California. Pip begins an internship with the Sunlight Project, the organization founded by the famous and charismatic German leaker, Andreas Wolf (fashioned after Julian Assange). Pip moves to Bolivia, where the Sunlight Project is based, with the hope of being able to use hacker technology to discover her father’s identity.

I enjoyed the odd sexual tension between Pip and Andreas, the dark secrets revealed in intimacy, and the betrail. Like Franzen’s previous book, “Freedom,” the pacing might be slow at first, but the story picks up momentum and is well worth sticking with it.

Jonathan Franzen talks about his latest novel “Purity.”

Beowulf by Unknown, between the 8th and the early 11th century (Okay, the version I read was transcribed by Francis Barton Gummere and translated by Seamus Heaney)

I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime I have seen the The Lord of the Rings, based on J.R.R. I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime, I have seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading Beowulf, I see where he got his inspiration. It is one of the most essential works in old English literature and can take credit for a lot of European works from Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” operas to “Game of Thrones.”

The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, who has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel, and much gallantry is displayed. After reading the epic poem, I bought and enjoyed Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s large-format graphic novel version of the seminal piece of Old English lit. It was a nice encore.