The Great American Past-Time

After the ride to the station, the hum of the train, the anticipation at the ticket gate, buying a new cap for a new season, a new beginning, Clay anxiously took his seat along the third baseline.


A year had passed since he had attended one of these. Now, he’d swear he could smell the Kentucky bluegrass.


The mask he wore reminded him that not that long had passed since he could only watch them on television.


But he was here now. All he needed was to hear the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd.

Frozen in a field of Pradas

“Maximus has something in his mouth!” Janet frantically whispered to Brandon, waking him up. “He’s under the bed!”

When Brandon shined his Maglite under the bed, he saw a three-inch field mouse–scampering into their closet.

“What is it?”

“It’s a mouse, presumably drowning in your Pradas.”

“Ew!”

Brandon found the rodent poking his head out of a black pump, frozen in Brandon’s light.

“Where in the hell is that cat?” Brandon complained to no one while fetching a bag and a broom.

But Maximus was coiled on the bed, content that He did his part for his pride.

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all”

I ran across this article in Jacobin here on WordPress and wanted to share it. I have always enjoyed Oscar Wilde’s work but didn’t know he wrote a political essay supporting socialism. It just made the top of my Goodreads list! To some degree, it makes sense that he would be a socialist or an anarchist, his biting satire of the Victorian Age alludes it. He was also gay, which, in those times, almost ensured he would be on the outside. Read on.

Oscar Wilde is known today for his satirical wit and literary accomplishments. But he was also a socialist committed to the fight against oppression and exploitation. The great satirist Oscar Wilde believed that a better society was possible under socialism. (Pixabay) That Oscar Wilde found much to ridicule in the conventional values of late Victorian…

The Socialism of Oscar Wilde — Jacobin

ShoeShining Optimism

Looking through the Pennysaver, Jack found the shop where he used to have his shoes repaired before COVID-19 turned his city into a ghost town had reopened.

Besides shoe repairs, Ben, the owner, was back to shining shoes! Wouldn’t it be nice to step up on the shoeshine stand and have Ben shine his oxfords?

Jack usually shined his shoes. These days, working from home, slippers were the office footwear, but today, he would dress for work and visit Ben. The shop’s reopening was a sign of brighter times ahead, and Jack wasn’t going to ignore this auspicious moment.

The Best Books I Read in 2020

What a horrible year! While I’d like to be optimistic about 2021, I don’t
see things getting any better soon. Before the first week of the new year was
behind us, we had our nation’s capitol attacked by terrorists egged on by the sitting
president. The failing rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines and the grim fact that America
keeps getting sicker from the pandemic does not bod well for 2021. But enough
of that rot! Like 2019’s list, most of these books in this post were not published last year. Only four came out in 2020 (and two in 2019). One thing about 2020: sheltering in place gave me more time to read. It also led to me exploring subjects I rarely dip my toes
in: erotica and pandemics/epidemics.

So, out of the forty books I read/listened to this year, the following were my favorites. Let me know what you think.

NONFICTION

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry, 2004

Why not? It seemed like everyone else read it last year. If you haven’t, check it out. Barry painstakingly sets up the medical/scientific world before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. As the reader would expect, there isn’t a drop of humor or fun in this book. Reading it during what most experts called the “first wave” of the COVID-19 pandemic made for a sobering experience–the initial outbreak of the Spanish Flu was relatively tame compared to the second wave. The name of the Flu is a misnomer. The Flu had been around for a few months–mainly in military installations where there was overpopulation thanks to World War I propaganda. The first known outbreak occurred in an over-populated military base in Kansas. Most Western nations enforced a media blackout except for Spain, where the news of the sickness first made headlines in Madrid in late-May 1918.

For me, the book becomes less interesting in the last part, where Barry focused in on the scientists and their lives and challenges–it is way too technical for someone who dodged Algebra in college and spent his days in his high school science class ogling his pretty lab partner. Aside from that caveat, it is a fascinating and timely read.

Winner Takes All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas, 2018

I read this book when Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer were still in the running as Democratic Presidential hopefuls. (Howard Schultz, thankfully, had unceremoniously bailed out.) It was fortunate that I discovered this gem while listening to Bloomberg and Steyer tell America that they are the remedy to America’s woes. Most US citizens can see right through their crap–they are the problem, not the solution. Giridharadas’ brilliant book lays this all out beautifully.

The idea goes something like this: the Kochs, Bezos, Buffets, Bloombergs, and Zuckerbergs of America make billions of dollars off the backs of regular tax-paying people. They undervalue and–whenever possible–underpay their workers. They avoid taxes by moving corporate addresses to places like Ireland and the Netherlands and moving operations to places like China and Vietnam. All of this offshoring is at the American workers and taxpayers’ expense. Then, after these oligarchs have made all this money, these multimillionaire tax dodgers create foundations to give back in the form of hospital wings, art galleries, theaters, and university libraries. The new hospital wings, etc., are win-wins: the foundation makes it easy on the billionaire’s pocketbook, and Pops gets to use a shiny new dialysis machine to visit three times per week.

The more YouTube videos I see of this author, the more intense my man crush is for Giridharadas. (Now, if I could only consign that impossible last name to my failing memory!) But I’m doing a poor job explaining the idea behind this great book. Check out the author explaining it below. Winner Take All was my favorite read (in both nonfiction and fiction) of 2020.

 

The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by Thomas Frank, 2020

Another winner from the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas and Listen Liberal. I like Frank because he–like me–is a Democrat frustrated that his party has sold out to corporate interests. Frank speaks for me when I can’t find the words for my disappointment, criticism, and rage over my party’s corporate takeover. (He’s also a lot more knowledgeable on the subject, which helps!) The awkward title is an homage, of sorts, to Carl Sandburg’s populist poem The People, Yes, which Frank often references in his book.

The author gives the reader a brief history of authentic populism and the short-lived People’s Party (1892 to 1909). It was a party made up mostly of farmers, but it also had many industrial workers. One of the fascinating things about the party is that it was multi-racial less than forty years after the Civil War.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, 2019

For over 300 years, Western society has lived by a Hobbesian way of thinking of human nature. While philosophers have challenged these ideas (most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke), John Hobbes’s theories are still with us today. Rutger Bregman takes up Rousseau’s mantle in this fine book. He supports his ideas with real-life examples of hope and reveals flaws in instances that would have reinforced the Hobbesian view.

Ever since I saw Bregman’s fifteen-minute Ted Talk and read his excellent book Utopia for Realists, I have been a fan. I was not disappointed with his latest effort. In Humankind, Bregman sets out to prove that we are hardwired for kindness instead of violence and geared toward cooperation rather than competition. The Dutch historian provides a new perspective on the past 200,000 years of human history. He refutes the Hobbesian view of the nature of the life of humans as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Instead, Bregman supports the idea of man’s nature as kind, generous, and cooperative.

He criticizes others like Nobel Prize laureate William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies. Through the author’s own words, Golding was an abusive, alcoholic person who had a miserable childhood and was critical of the 1960s and reflected on World War II and the Holocaust and his tragic childhood. Bregman also provides real-life evidence that children marooned on an island would work together to create a benevolent society rather than the one in Golding’s Best Seller. He also debunks Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment, and he revisits the tragic 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York would later be called the “bystander effect.” The book’s centerpiece is the inspiring story of twin brothers (one a general in the right-wing Afrikaner People’s Front) and the other (who worked for the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa) together and worked with Nelson Mandela to create peace in South Africa. An inspiring read during a time when President Trump was failing to address the deadly pandemic.

The Americans by Robert Frank, 1958

I’ve flipped through The Americans many times in various libraries since my college years, but not until now have I studied it. I wanted to review the book again thanks to an article in The Daily, a weekday podcast I religiously listen to by the New York Times. The podcast re-released a 2015 article by Nicholas Dawidoff called The Man Who Saw America. I also finally read the Forward, which is written by Jack Kerouac.

The book is a collection of photographs taken during the 1950s as the Swiss photographer traveled around America, capturing the diversity of what made this country. The project didn’t start as a critique of America, but once Frank began looking at the effects of urbanization and Jim Crow, Frank’s lens couldn’t lie. It also didn’t help to spend an evening in jail simply because he had photographic equipment on him, and he had the accent of a “commie.”

Ultimately, The Americans is an unsettling work that peels the veneer from idyllic Americana to reveal the country’s problematic contradictions. No wonder the book was unappreciated when first released in the US. No one had ever taken pictures like that before. It was an honest depiction of America–warts and all. Frank told Dawidoff, “I photographed people who were held back, who never could step over a certain line,” and “my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.” The author captured these images years before Selma, Vietnam, and Stonewall.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out by reading the Times’ piece that Bruce Springsteen is a huge fan of the book, using it for songwriting inspiration. “The photographs are still shocking,” Springsteen told Dawidoff. “Making it created an entire American identity–that single book. To me, it’s Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited–the visual equivalent of that record. It’s an 83-picture book that has 27,000 pictures in it. That’s why Highway 61 Revisited is powerful. It’s nine songs with 12,000 songs in them.”

People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent by Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2019

In the past, I have steered clear of reading books by intellectuals like Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz. Still, I braved reading this book thanks to the title and positive book reviews from writers I trusted. Stiglitz is a former economist for the World Bank and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences and the John Bates Clark Medal. Despite his serious creds, he has written and relatively easy book for someone like me to read and understand.

I read People, Power, and Profits when the COVID-19 pandemic was picking up steam. It became depressingly appropriate as I continued reading it as unemployment skyrocketed and the economy tanked. The absence of a robust social safety net can be seen by anyone not living in a gated community, but during a time when unemployment jumps to 12 percent and the people most affected are the ones who weren’t doing all that well before the novel coronavirus hit. I got overwhelmed by Stiglitz’s research at times, but People, Power, and Profits are worth soldiering through the dense parts for all the other inspirational segments.

Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports by Dave Zirin, 2007

If you believe in social justice and enjoy sports, you’ll love Dave Zirin’s writing, the sports editor for The Nation Magazine, and the host of the podcast Edge of Sports. Like his previous book, What’s My Name, Fool?, Welcome to the Terrordome is about politics, racism, and justice in college, Olympic, and professional sports. The book covers subjects like Major League Baseball’s colonial view of players from the Caribbean in general and the Dominican Republic, specifically. His piece on the great Roberto Clemente is excellent. Zirin wrote a story of the memorial at San Jose State University honoring Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power in the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. His rebuttal to performance-enhancing drugs is very interesting and changed my opinions of Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Lance Armstrong, and others. For the uninitiated, like me: The book’s title comes from a song by the hip-hop group Public Enemy. The group’s leader, Chuck D, wrote the Foreword to this book.

Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City by Heather Ann Thompson, 2001

The author of the brilliant and bloody Blood in the Water, about the 1971 Attica prison uprising, has written a detailed account of post-World War II Detroit: white flight, police brutality, civic unrest, and shop floor rebellion, labor decline, the African American struggles for full equality and equal justice under the law, and the frustration with entrenched discrimination and the lack of meaningful remedies to achieve equal justice even after President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society liberal policies were implemented. Thompson’s book is the retelling of events and individuals, including James Johnson, Jr. (pictured on the cover of the edition I read). In 1971, he murdered two foremen and another worker at a Chrysler plant after years of racial discrimination in Detroit’s auto industry.

Henry & June: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1931-1932 by Anaïs Nin, 1986

Reading erotic literature was a product of shelter in place, a heatwave, and just being old. I read Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, the first three books of Red Phoenix’s Dominant/submissive series Brie’s Submission, and re-read The Story of O (which I originally read back in the 1980s). Of the remaining few titles in my erotic to-read list were my favorite: two short books by Anaïs Nin: Delta of Venus (see below) this memoir and a couple of other titles I just may read in 2021.

Henry & June is about the year-long love affair Nin had with the American author Henry Miller and a dalliance she had with his wife, June. The stories of Miller’s sexual conquests are legendary. Here, Nin makes him out as a sexual animal with a voracious appetite. There is no judgment in Nin’s prose–she loved and desired him. It has been years since I read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, so I might be wrong when I say I am surprised how loving and passionate Miller treated Nin. Perhaps it’s only in his writing that he becomes crude. Maybe I will take a chance and read Tropic of Capricorn this year. Regardless, Henry & June is a beautifully written, intimate account of one woman’s sexual awakening and the pain that comes with it.

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science and the Human Brain by David Shenk, 2006

I re-discovered this book while going through my stacks, looking for the few remaining books on chess I might have. I had just finished the brilliant Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit and wanted to get back into the game. I was glad I didn’t donate this one when I quit chess the last time and started thinning my collection. There are other more thorough books on the game, but David Shenk’s is a concise little gem.

The book’s title comes from a specific friendly game between two masters Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky, on June 21, 1851, in London, during a break of the first international tournament. Shenk interweaves the chess game with significant chess evolution from India’s origins, its development in Arabia, and its rebirth in the West to the modern game we play today. A must-read for all chess players, even a patzer like me.

The Vespa: Style and Passion by Valerio Boni, Stefano Cordara, 2020

The Vespa: Style and Passion is another big coffee table book on one of my favorite subjects. I’ve got two already taking up a lot of shelf space. The Vespa: Style and Passion is about the history of the Vespa. It features all the models rolled out of Piaggio from the 1946 98 to the 2018 electric Elettrica and Elettrica X, all of them beautifully photographed. Besides the gorgeous scooter pix, there are chapters on how Piaggio got started, how the Vespa came about, and marketing, rallies and racing, and Vespa in the film industry (most notably how Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn got around in Roman Holiday). The book is too big and clumsy to curl up with, but that’s part of the point–the size (9.95 x 1.15 x 11.95 inches!) allows the viewer to see the beauty with more detail of the Vespa.

FICTION

Circe by Madeline Miller, 2018

I’ve had this book in my library for nearly two years and finally got around to reading it last year. I was not aware that the Greek goddess Circe is in Homer’s epic poem is the same character in this book, or if I did, I completely forgot about it. It was fortunate that I decided to read this beautifully written novel right after I finished Homer’s epic poem. Madeline Miller had won a half-dozen awards for this work and a good reason. Circe is at once thrilling, touching, and evocative.

The book spans hundreds of years, so the reader gets a short, subjective mythology lesson. Time slows down halfway through the novel when Odysseus lands on the island of Aeaea, where Circe’s father, Helios, has banished her for practicing witchcraft.

Miller’s beautiful prose makes Circe one of those books you don’t want to end. I think Odd Billy Todd, Sharp Objects, Normal People, and Circe were the four best novels I read in 2020, but Miller’s gem was by far the best written. Perhaps I might read her other award-winning novel, The Song of Achilles, soon.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, 2005

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger, a young scion of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden, disappeared. While the family believes she either accidentally drowned in the nearby river or ran away, her aged uncle is certain his niece was murdered but wants proof. He hires Mikael Blomkvist; an investigative journalist recently sued for libel. Blomkvist hires Lisbeth Salander, a 24-year-old, pierced and tattooed research expert and hacker. As they drill down into the Vanger family history, they discover iniquity after iniquity running through the Vanger family and in the highest echelons of Swedish industrialism.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo enough to read Larsson’s sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2007). The subsequent efforts did not hold me in rapt attention, as did the first one. Larsson planned a ten-novel series with the characters antihero Lisbeth Salander and the journalist Mikael Blomkvist but died before publishing any of them. The finished books were all published posthumously.

Odd Billy Todd by N. C. Reed, 2014

In the spirit of these pandemic times, I wanted to read a post-apocalyptic novel that didn’t feature zombies. Something that could happen if a virus like the current novel coronavirus or the Spanish Flu broke out, but was far deadlier than anything the modern world has experienced. Odd Billy Todd turned out to be the ticket. The author focuses on a small rural area–the farms and small towns in and around Cedar Bend, Tennessee, wiped out by a pandemic. Our protagonist is a young man in his 20s who is developmentally disabled. His parents died in the plague, along with most people in the area. Because of his father’s vigilance (bordering on paranoia), Billy is left with plenty of handguns, long guns, ammo, a library of survival books, and how-to manuals (complete with copious notes in the margins helping Billy understand the texts better). Living on a farm, he has chickens and cows to sustain him. Billy thrives and begins to reach out to other survivors offering his assistance and surplus. He becomes the unlikely Alpha of a new community borne from the ashes of a terrible plague the has wiped out 95 percent of the world’s population.

Billy helps his neighbors, and together, they try to help others. Soon, Billy and his neighbors have run-ins with packs of wild dogs, an African lion released from a zoo, and both rag-tag and highly-organized bands of raiders, stripping towns of supplies, killing men, raping women, and capturing children.

Billy’s growing community saves women and children and is discriminate in adding men who can benefit their community. The book has moments of violence and tenderness. At times, it reminded me of the TV series The Walking Dead, sans the zombies. This story would make an excellent limited TV series.

Normal People by Sally Rooney, 2018

Usually, I don’t particularly appreciate reading the source material of a beloved film or television series: I’ve already defined the characters in my head. Exceptions to this personal rule are the movies High Fidelity and The World According to Garp. In 2020 I added two more to this rule, The Queen’s Gambit (see below) and this novel.

The story is about Connell, a high school soccer star, and Marianne, a lonely outcast. Connell takes a liking to Marianne, and they begin a secret relationship, initially based exclusively on sex. It develops into a more prosperous, more complex relationship over the years as they graduate from high school and are both accepted to the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin.

Not to take anything away from Sally Rooney’s beautiful novel about class, first love, and friendship, but perhaps I loved this book so much because I was already drawn to the principal characters in the superlative TV series. Either way, this was a great read. I liked the ended of the book a little more than the TV series.

Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin, 2015

Black-Eyed Susans is the story of Tessa, the only surviving victim of a serial killer. The sixteen-year-old was left for dead in a ditch with a strangled college student and a scattering of unidentified bones and covered in Black-eyed Susan flowers. Now 34, with a daughter, Tessa has to face the consequences of the sketchy testimony she gave at her accused killer’s trial. And this being Texas—America’s capital for capital punishment, she does not have much time until the convicted killer will be executed. Still, Tessa remembers nothing about the attack, her assailant, or how Tessa came to be in the ditch. She now works with a group of Texas lawyers dedicated to turning over unjust verdicts that believe the man on death row for the Black-eyed Susans murders is innocent.

The lawyers and her psychiatrist don’t know that Tessa is hiding a secret. For years, she’s stumbled across Black-eyed Susans planted in unique places. Is the real killer still out there, taunting her? Black-Eyed Susans is an excellent suspense mystery novel that kept me listening to this audiobook during the morning, on my afternoon walks, and into the late evenings.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, 2018

Where the Crawdads Sing is a tale about Kya, a young girl abandoned by her mother and father, and growing up alone in North Carolina’s marshes. Kya dodging social workers, Census Bureau workers, and anyone else that threatened to pull her from the rundown shack in the marshland that she calls home. In her solitude, she becomes one with her marsh surroundings and finds beauty in what most locals consider ugly swamplands. There’s a murder and a love story. The story sucked me in and held me to the end, which has an exciting twist. Full disclosure, my wife, who reads a lot more fiction than I, read it and saw the ending coming a mile away. I still liked the book and am excited that Daisy Edgar-Jones from the Normal People limited series is slated to play Kya.

The Odyssey by Homer, trans. Emily Wilson; 8th Century BCE, trans. 2017

I attempted to read The Iliad and The Odyssey last year. That wasn’t the first time I tried to read The Iliad, but when I failed yet again to finish it, I decided to hang it up. Instead, I listened to CliffsNotes on the classic and watched Netflix’s Season 1 of Troy: Fall of a City and called it a day. That’s the best I could muster. I did, however, read The Odyssey. It must have been the fact that The Odyssey is an action epic poem: Odysseus struggling for ten years to make it home after the sack of Troy.

The Odyssey delivers. There’s sex: The goddess Calypso makes Odysseus her boy toy for a year on her island. Similarly, the warrior spends a year on the island where the nymph Circe was banished. (See my entry of Madeline Miller’s novel for a modern take on that affair.) And there’s our hero, who overcomes divine and natural forces, battling storms and near-death encounters with a cyclops, a cannibal, sirens, and a six-headed beast. Great stuff! I hope to read Virgil’s The Aeneid this year to keep with my at least one classic piece of literature a year.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, 1990

As a student of Journalism and History in college in the ’80s, I read a lot of nonfiction books on the Vietnam War: Bloods, Dear America, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (chief source for the Ken Burns PBS series), and my favorite, Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And there were all those films on the subject. So, for years, I was tired of the subject matter. If it weren’t for the multiple bumps the thirty-year-old book received from a few disparate sources last year, I might not have read the book.

And that would have been a pity. The Things They Carried is an excellent work of historical fiction that contains semi-autobiographical elements. (O’Brien served in the Army and was in Vietnam 1969-70.) The Things They Carried reads like a memoir, and the book’s voice and the other characters are vibrant and clear that I forgot early on that I was reading a work of fiction.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, 2006

I’m so glad my friend Mathieu turned me on to Gillian Flynn. I read and thoroughly enjoyed Gone Girl (my favorite Flynn novel). I also liked Dark Places. Sharp Objects is about a troubled reporter given the assignment to return to her hometown, Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the unsolved murder of a girl and another’s disappearance. She moves into her childhood home with her neurotic, hypochondriac mother, disengaged stepfather, and vicious teenage half-sister and begins her investigation. The deeper she digs, the darker the story becomes.

You (Book 1) by Caroline Kepnes, 2018

I am usually turned off by book series; whenever I see “Book 1,” that’s usually my queue to keep scrolling, but the Netflix series looks compelling, so I decided to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. You is driven by the delusional internal dialogue of Joe Goldberg, an employee of a modest bookstore in the East Village who becomes obsessed with Beck, a pretty blonde who walks into the store one afternoon. The novel gets creepier as Joe finds ways to possess the unassuming young woman.

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, 2003

Along with Sally Rooney’s Normal People, The Queen’s Gambit is another novel that made a brilliant TV series. By now, the title is nearly a household name among streaming TV viewers. But for those who do not have Netflix or who haven’t read Tevis’ excellent novel. The Queen’s Gambit is the story about a brilliant orphan named Beth Harmon who learns chess from the orphanage’s janitor, who spots genius in the introverted girl. Along with her prodigious skills, she develops a severe substance abuse problem. The drama pivots between her genius and her addition. It’s a remarkable novel by the writer who brought us some excellent books: The Hustler and The Color of Money.

 

Honorable Mentions

Richard D. Wolff’s The Sickness is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself (2020) is a compilation of transcripts from his podcasts and essays published mostly during the pandemic. Whether you are watching Wolff on YouTube, listening to his podcasts, or reading his published works, Wolff is one of the most clear-headed critics of capitalism. In The Sickness is the System, he shows us how our for-profit health care system was doomed to fail us during a pandemic, with our without Donald Trump’s bumbling.

I was excited to start The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon by William M. Adler, 1994, about Joseph Hillström, the Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. The book is heavy on the details of Hill’s unjust arrest, trial, and execution and too light on the rest of his story, but I praise the author’s research.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1968) is the first book by Hunter S. Thompson that I have read since I graduated from college back in 1987 when I read his legendary Fear & Loathing in Los Vegas. In Hell’s Angels, Thompson follows the famous outlaw motorcycle club based in the Bay Area for two years. He participated in their exploits. The arrangement was tenuous, at best, and ultimately lead to the author being beaten up by some of the “one-percenters.” Thompson was an extraordinary writer with remarkable insight.

Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World by Michael Pollan, 2020. The famous food author tells us the history of caffeine–mostly by way of the two most popular delivery systems: coffee and tea. He explains how caffeine has changed the course of human history. The stimulant contributed to the winning and losing of the American Civil War (the US Army had plenty of coffee, the Confederacy didn’t). And caffeine greased the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. (With the advent of indoor lighting and the minute hand, labor moved indoors; swing and night shifts were created. The coffee (and tea in the British Empire) break was born to combat the body’s natural circadian rhythms.

Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus (1969) is a collection of fifteen short stories of passion, sensual self-discovery, seduction, and liberation in pre-World War II Paris. Despite living in a country that looks down on erotica as sinful, Nin writes about the subject with such beauty, innocence, and fun that this American reader can’t help but blush from time to time.

Backing out of Social Media: An Updated Post

The post you are reading is not new, it’s a redux (if I’m using the Latin word correctly) of the original post, but I’ve changed and added content due to recent events.

Back in January of 2018, a friend stopped me in the lobby where we both work and told me a political meme that I had posted on Facebook the day before was false–or at least Snopes.com claims it was not valid. That was good enough for me. In reflection, the quote Vice President Pence supposedly said, was crazy. He has said and done some stupid things, but saying that the American people don’t need healthcare, but Jesus Care should have sent up a red flag when I first saw it.

But it didn’t.

Before I got back on Facebook to look at the quote and the comments Facebook friends had left me, I knew it was a lie. Then why in the hell did I post it? I’m over the shame of posting this falsehood, but this kind of thing has been bugging me for a long time–people posting shit for other friends to see, and a lot of the posts are either lies or exaggerations. It’s an epidemic, as shown in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and with my meme on Mike Pence, I just added to the disease!

Ironically, I’ve been reading about this problem long before the Netflix doc, but for some reason, it never dawned on me that I was contributing to it. Maybe it is because I only have a handful of people I consider friends, and that social media acted as a boon to me, even with all its pitfalls. David Harvey, author, distinguished professor of Anthropology, Geography at the City University of New York, and leading Marxist scholar, says social media has had a radical democratizing effect on society. Still, he continues, it also is a form of social control. His solution is that people need to cultivate circles of friends to discuss issues of the day. These groups of friends works as forms of “group truthing.” He also suggests creating or joining reading groups. If only I were extraverted enough to “cultivate a circle of friends.” Truth be told, before the coronavirus put the kabash on such activities, I did enjoy attending a monthly dinner and movie group. The dinner time and the short time milling around after the film might qualify as exercising in “group truthing” though most of the subjects tossed around were about entertainment. I stopped attending a reading group put on by the Sacramento chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, but I always felt like the group dunce even though the group of young activists were very supportive.

My brother, who has cultivated and kept a circle of friends since his childhood, finds social media a colossal waste of time. My youngest son and his politically active best friend don’t have social media accounts. They value their (perceived) privacy and know whatever valuable information they can glean from Facebook, Twitter, etc., they can access directly from their sources. I would be a pompous ass if I said I left social media because of the Russian influence, QAnon, Pizzagate, the Flat Earth Conspiracy, or other things on social media. While I believe social media has become a security concern, as illustrated in the above film, the reasons I left social media are more personal. Here are the main ones.

Not Checking Sources

Too often, I don’t check my sources before posting a meme or a quote. The Mike Pence incident was the beginning of the end of my relationship with Facebook and Twitter. I posted a political meme that a friend pointed out was false. This event was very embarrassing. What’s worse, it wasn’t the first time it happened. I have probably done this half-dozen times. I have also been one to bust others on this kind of activity.

Trusted Source, Excellent Writer, Hard-Hitting Title. Meh, I’ll Read It After I Post It

I often don’t read an article all the way through before I share it, which is a big problem. Still, posting something I did not wholly read (or did not read at all) is believing in a source, but not necessarily the actual text. For example, after years of putting up with followers and sycophants, who seemed to take every word he said as the infallible truth, Noam Chomsky began to end his arguments with, “It’s all right there in the documents. Read them for yourselves.” I had the utmost confidence in the sources to my newsfeed posts or just about anything that proceedeth from Chomsky’s mouth. (Yeah, I’m one of those sycophants.) Still, it is lazy at best, arrogant at worst to tell someone they should read an article on corporate farming or climate change, assuming that whatever I posted must be the truth, whether I read it or not.

My Facebook Page is Intended for the Serious Reader (That’s why it’s on Facebook)

boxing day

I should be posting videos and pictures of cute kittens instead of damning quotes from/of politicians. Maybe I should have changed my material to better suit people like my wife. I think the only things she liked about my otherwise useless and at times harmful Facebook page were my humorous videos, family photos, and images and videos of cats (dogs too, but mostly cats). The funny thing is, I would love to share more stuff like the adjacent image, but most of my now ex-Facebook friends didn’t post that kind of stuff. That’s the Zuckerberg algorithm at work. I have friends and family members who almost exclusively use Facebook as family albums. Almost as if Facebook was created, especially for that.

Can I Get a Hallelujah, Somebody!

When it came to my political posts, I was preaching to the choir. Over the years, Facebook’s algorithm sifted out political infidels. I rarely did the sifting. The chafe separated itself–sometimes with angry adieus. The few exceptions included conservative family members who, I am confident, gaged on my political posts all the while hung on as friends for the occasional family image (not to mention a wine-drinking joke or a video of kitties sliding around on moving turntables). So this business of posting something Bernie Sanders said or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did so we can all metaphorically slap each other on the proverbial back seemed foolish when a moment like the impetus of this blog post occurs. My Facebook posts and Twitter tweets didn’t convert anybody; they only made some of my political kin feel good and, in turn, made me feel good when they click on the Thumps Up.

… and the Obvious

I spent too much time on social media. From time to time, I had looked for a time-motion tool that would tell me just how much time I burned up on social media. Between checking my feed on my phone and my PC at home and work, it had to be in the double-digit minutes each day, with a slight drop during the weekend and days off. Hanging out on Facebook and Twitter was so unproductive, but who was I kidding? When I stopped looking at my social media apps, the vacuum created was not filled with Bible study, re-thinking how I do my job, or thinking of what home improvements I could do on the weekends. I’m currently filling it with chess on my phone, reading, listening to podcasts and audiobooks, watching TV, and blogging.

The Other Time Wasters

Facebook took up the lion’s share of time I spend on social media. When I cut way back on Facebook, I initially upped my activity on Twitter, but that didn’t last long. When I finally got rid of Facebook, I did the same with Twitter. Around that time, I started amusing myself with the habitual-as- heroin social app TikTok, but I nuked that app from my phone when I realized I couldn’t stop watching it. When I wasn’t laughing my ass off I was pissed at my liberal TikTokers for bashing the MAGA crowd. Yeah, the Trump supporters are a miserable bunch, but we Democrats are, in part responsible for failing the working class of America. Hating and mocking them is not going to grown the Party of the People.

I never got into Instagram, so dropping that app was easy. I took many pictures of hamburgers back when this blog was about trying different burger joints. Other than that and the rare vacation pictures, the rest are cooking ingredients taken at a grocery stores (“Honey, is this what you want?”), photos of bike and scooter parts, and similar things that would make a boring Instagram post.

What Facebook was Not to Me

I want to say that while Facebook, and later Twitter, occupied too much of my time, I’d like to think I did not obsess over it, and it was not as addictive as I thought it would be. Nor did I, as lonely as I am, ever considered my Facebook friends real friends–except the few people I considered friends before Zuckerberg and the other Harvard guys created the app. I know people take social media too seriously, as a “news” source (Pizzagate, for example), just as some use the social tool as a vicious attack tool. I recall a young woman’s story, tired of getting harassed by an ex-boyfriend or an ex-friend on some social media platform, typed out something like “That’s it. I’m out” in response to the latest personal attack and then walked in front of a speeding subway train. I did, however, experience first hand how someone could take Facebook too seriously.

The title of the original January 25, 2018 post was “Backing out of Facebook” because I wasn’t ready to cancel my account, but I hadn’t done anything when I first wrote the post three years ago. The title and the post was a proclamation of future actions. Shortly after I posted the article here on WordPress.com, I took the first baby step: I removed all but a few followed Groups (Oakland A’s, Sacramento Burger Battle, and my church were the only ones I remember keeping. I then took a more significant step and nuked about sixty percent of my Facebook friends, keeping only family, church family, and a handful of friends I still see and childhood friends who were nice to this fat, clumsy kid.

That’s when I got the call.

I did not recognize her voice, and when she told me her name, I did not recognize her name. I struggled to communicate with her. She was angry that I unfriended her on Facebook. I had to ask twice who she was. The second time she answered, she was even more upset, but she finally explained our tenuous connection as if it should have been obvious to me from the beginning of the call. Her parents knew my parents years ago–that was it. We didn’t know each other. That was how she friended me in the first place. We never spoke on Facebook, and I believe we had only seen each other when we were children. It was this flimsy association that warranted her to friend me years ago, and I was stupid enough to accept. What would it hurt to grant Facebook friendship to a virtual stranger? What could go wrong?

Now it was the dissolution of this weak association that warranted an angry call from someone who, I’m sure, did not know the color of my eyes or that one of them was lazy. When I told the caller, I was on my way out of Facebook, and I was starting my exit by cutting out everyone except family and close friends. She wasn’t having it. To calm her down, I promised to accept her friendship if she sent another request. She said she had already sent it. Yep, there it was. I accepted it and my potential Play Misty For Me moment was averted. Okay, the Clint Eastwood film allusion is over the top. Still, I didn’t know how emotional she would get if I hung up or said no, get a life. And, yeah, I’m sure she wouldn’t come at me with a big-ass knife or throw herself in front of a moving train. Since I have canceled my Facebook account, I doubt I am in any trouble. Or am I?

What Remains

As of this post, only a couple of social media accounts have survived my purge. Being an avid reader and a nut for lists, I will always use Goodreads. Even if the few Goodreads friends I have left me, I would use it. I don’t consider it social media anyway, even though you can comment on the book someone is currenting reading or the title they have just finished. You can also leave messages. I have made suggestions to the site, like a field with each title for a short note, to remind myself why this title is in my To Read list. I add so many titles to my To Read list that I often forget why I wanted to read certain books. Anyway, they aren’t listening to me.

I can’t say how many times I have downloaded then deleted the app Nextdoor later to download it again. If you don’t know, Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods. At first, I thought it was kind of handy, and I still do today (mainly because I turned off the notifications). I have now made peace with the app. I think the notification part of the tool is supposed to make the social networking app helpful. I turn on the notifications if I see something strange in my neighborhood, the power goes out, or I can hear a police helicopter flying circles around my block. When there is some activity happening in my hood, I’ll turn on the notifications, and my phone will go off every few minutes with neighbors chiming in. About 80 percent of the announcements are dumb-ass comments or announcements from the Department of Redundancy Department. Someone posted something they thought was important without checking the thread and wasted everyone’s time. A couple of years ago, there was a murder on a street adjacent to mine—an abusive piece of shit husband, tired of dispensing black eyes to his wife decided to finish the job. A fraction of the updates were helpful–information someone got from the Sacramento Police Department. The rest of the notifications were just annoying variations on a “Do you hear the helicopter circling out the neighborhood?” When the situation, whatever it was, is over I once again turn the notifications off.

I’m also on WeChat, a Chinese multi-purpose social media app. (Think Instagram with a messaging service.) Since China restricts most of the social media tools we use in the U.S., my wife and I use WeChat to keep in touch with our older son, his beautiful wife, and our grandchildren. Though the outgoing Trump Administration may not bother now, there was a concern WeChat would be blocked. If that becomes the case, my resourceful daughter-in-law has other social media accounts that we will be able to use to keep their baby pix coming!

Now that I’m done with Facebook, I’m feeling good, but I miss my real Facebook friends (family members and the few friends I have) on the app. I also used Facebook to pimp this blog whenever I posted something new. I’m also having withdrawals from Twitter. I’m a political junkie, and that was one of my pushers (along with YouTube, which I’m still mainlining). It’s funny that I don’t miss TikTok. When I had it on my phone, I put a lot of time watching the videos on the application.

Now Joe Biden is assembling his cabinet, and besides his pick for Secretary of the Interior, I’m not happy. I could bitch about it on this platform, but I’m too lazy. Anyway, I already did a sadly not so prophetic post of my favorite Democrats back in June of 2019. I prefer posting someone else’s hard work from The Intercept, The Nation, or a David Dole video.

Oh yeah. I almost forgot.

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Watch a chess film. Start playing the game. Suck at it. Give it up. Repeat.

Recently I watched Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. The limited series is based on the novel of the same name by the late Walter Tevis. It’s an excellent read and a fantastic streaming series, and it inspired me to pick up my fickled and hopeless interest in chess.

This isn’t the first time I watched a chess film and became interested or re-energized about the game—it’s happened multiple times. I first time I became interested in chess was in the early 1990s after seeing the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. I couldn’t be happy with merely playing friendly games with friends and family. Nope, I had to buy high-quality chess set with a large vinyl rollup board and join the U.S. Chess Federation that gave me a provisional rating. I then begin signing up for and playing in correspondence chess tournaments. I could have played over the board (or OTB) games at the Sacramento Chess Club, but I was too intimidated by the players. As a result, I only visited these gatherings a few times.

And books, I bought plenty of books on chess, many of them I barely cracked. I liked books on strategy, but I seemed to think the act of buying the books would magically transfer the authors’ knowledge into my brain. The irony is I never was good at the game, but that didn’t stop me from playing and losing, and buying more chess shit and losing even more games, and buying more chess shit until I finally got tired of losing and quit so I could spend my money on some other flash-in-the-pan fancy.

Time went on, and I forgot about chess I was once so excited over. The books on the game became an embarrassment to view whenever I was looking for another book. In 1996/97, Grandmaster Gary Kasparov had two sets of matches with IBM’s chess computer Deep Blue, but I think I only watched a few minutes of one of the games. A few years later, though, I saw Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, the film based on those matches, and I became interested in chess again. At the time, my friend Mathieu from work told me his friend, Angus, liked playing correspondence chess via email. I knew Angus when he briefly worked with Mathieu and me in the past. We enjoyed playing chess via email, chatting while we posted our moves. We found out we had things in common besides a friend and an interest in chess: we were both Christians. If not genuinely close friends, we became more intimate friends talking about our faith while playing. Our games usually ended in my resigning being down material, or we would draw. There were very few games where I won. It was frustrating that I lost so often, but I liked playing and chatting with Angus.

Chess as a losing game started to get old–both my correspondence games with the U.S. Chess Federation tournaments and my friendlies with Angus. I still wanted to play chess, but I wanted to play better to make the games more exciting so, I decided to get a coach. I logged onto the Sacramento Chess Club website and checked out the best players. I can’t remember why I settled on James MacFarland, but my best guess is because he was the only top player who was a civil servant like myself, and so his email address was in a directory to which I had access. He must have been apprehensive receiving a cold call via email from a stranger about chess because he told me he would have to think about my offer. Ultimately, he emailed me back, and we set up a schedule. He would coach me for a certain amount of cash for one hour of coaching each weekend.

We ended up meeting at a coffee house in midtown, going over my correspondence games. We would play a few moves then he would ask me why I made a specific move. It frustrated him that I could never give him an intelligent answer. I would often have comments next to my chess notations like “I’m boxed in” or “congested” or some other adjective, and he would show me ways to open up the board. Other times he would look at a particular move, asked me why I moved my piece there and when I would shrug my shoulders or say, “I couldn’t think of any other move to make,” he would sigh, “Look, if you are not going to put thought into each move you make maybe you should take up checkers.”

Usually, a comment like that would have made me tell him to eat shit and break off the arrangement, but I knew he was right. I should have thought through the moves, but I also felt outgunned by most of my opponents. James would often tell me how much time he puts into studying games so he wouldn’t lose his edge. He once told me when he split his free time between studying chess and studying Go (the ancient Chinese abstract strategy board game). James wasn’t respecting either game by splitting his time between the two and ultimately dropped Go. I could see why he was disgusted with my chess moves and my crappy excuses for making them, even though he accepted my money: he loved the game and thought I was disrespectful toward it.

During the few months James and I replayed my failing games, he felt I needed to learn and memorize three Opening Games: one when I play white and two when I play black. (Two openings for black because black reacts to white’s first move: one when white opens with the King’s Pawn (e4) and one when white opens with the Queen’s Pawn (d4) or any other first move except e4.) He gave me three books–one for each opening he wanted me to study and consign to memory. I remembered most of the first five or so moves of each of the openings, but the books, though thin, were a bit much for me to remember. James also gave me some other books on strategy. Some were books he found on sale, and one or two were books from his collection that he was happy to provide me with.

Of all the books I have on chess, the best one I ever had was Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess Move by Move: Every Move Explained. I bought this one on a hunch, and it paid off. It requires the reader to keep a chessboard out and go through the exercises. For a while, it improved my chess. I was still playing with my friend Angus when I was going through the book, and about halfway through it, I beat Angus three games in a row. It rattled my even-tempered Christian chess buddy because he told me he didn’t want to play anymore unless we played OTB. I never asked him if he thought I cheated. It didn’t affect our friendship. He’s such a nice person that I doubt he thought I was cheating but insisting that we play OTB could be construed that if I was going to beat him a fourth time, he wanted to make sure I did it without the assistance of a computer or a book to get suggested moves. After Angus and I stopped playing, I lost interest in chess and, in fact, donated most of my books on chess when my wife and I spent a weekend thinning out our bookshelves.

When Pawn Sacrifice came out, I got kind of excited about chess again. Also, Angus invited me to play him on our iPhones with the app Chess with Friends. Because it was so easy to play, we probably logged in more games than ever, but I didn’t get all crazy about chess that time around, and at some point, Angus called it quits. (This time, it wasn’t because I was winning; whatever skills I gained from the Chernev book were lost.) I was happy playing until one of us died, logging moves at our leisure seemingly forever, but he didn’t want to play that way, and when he stopped playing, I stopped, too.

Now that I’ve seen The Queen’s Gambit, I am, once again, interested in the Game of Kings. I started playing on the mobile app Chess with Friends again. I also downloaded other chess apps like Shredder Chess and Dr. Wolf. I decided to read David Shenk’s book on the history of chess, The Immortal Game, which was one of the few chess books that survived a general book purge my wife and I performed years ago to make space for newer titles, and have re-ordered the excellent Logical Chess. (Unfortunately, that title didn’t survive the purge.)

I don’t know how long chess will hold my interest this time around. Right now, I am just taking it slow and playing strangers on Chess with Friends. One of the frustrating things about limiting my chess games to this app is that singles are now using the app’s chat feature to meet prospective dates. The singles usually play horrible chess or never make the first move (a-hem). I am seriously considering signing up again with the USCF and playing in correspondence chess tournaments as I did back in the 1990s. Did I say I was “taking it slow”?

Snacking Marks a Relationship

When they started dating, they drank sodas in her Mom’s kitchen. On the sly, they would taste each other’s sugary drinks whenever they kissed—which was often.

In college, they explored each other’s tastes in movies—she would pick one on one date, he would select one the next date. They enjoyed sharing snacks as they watched videos in his apartment. They were in love, and they couldn’t find faults with each other.

Two years and a little boy later, she wonders if there is anyone on the planet who can eat chips louder than her high school sweetheart.

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