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Books Current Events

Death Foretold.

I haven’t written in a while (not for enjoyment, at least) and it feels cliché and grim to start back with something on coronavirus, but Chronicle of a Death Foretold has me thinking about how we respond to slow-moving, predictable crises like COVID. 

Santiago Nasar’s death is foretold. His murderers discuss their plans openly, even boastfully. They sharpen their knives at the local meat market. By all accounts, everyone in town knew — or at least had ample warning and reason to believe — that Santiago’s death was imminent. 

But almost no one takes action. 

In retrospect, some chalk it up to thinking his murderers weren’t serious, that they were merely angrily (and/or drunkenly) ranting. Others thought maybe Santiago deserved whatever he had coming. He was not a good man. Many thought it was not their business — something for others to deal with, others with more proximity to the events that precipitated the murder. Some just got distracted! They had meant to do something, of course, but the Bishop was visiting town that day and, in all the preparatory commotion, they just didn’t get around to it in time. 

Everyone had their reasons. So Santiago winds up dead, as foretold. 

“‘The truth is I didn’t know what to do,’ he told me. ‘My first thought was that it wasn’t any business of mine but something for the civil authorities, but then I made up my mind to say something…’ Yet when he crossed the square, he’d forgotten completely. ‘You have to understand,’ he told me, ‘that the bishop was coming that day.’” 

– Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Being Gabriel García Márquez, Chronicle also deals heavily in omens and questions of fate: whether Santiago’s death was unavoidable, always in the cards. 

But Gabo makes a strong case that intervention could have averted the tragedy. 

The COVID crisis feels similar in that we saw it coming and yet mostly failed to act. Like the death foretold, it was a slow-moving crisis, simmering before boiling over, with plenty of warning. Doesn’t it feel like those kinds of crises are often harder to respond to? 

There’s something about a sudden shock that jolts us into action. Surprises can harden our resolve and set the frame for the proportionality of the response.

9/11 is the obvious example. The shock of that tragedy so deeply impacted the national psyche that, coming up on two decades later, we still haven’t returned to our pre-crisis “normal.” 

We will likely spend the rest of our lives walking bare-footed through airport security. 

Anything that catches us by surprise has potential to have the same catalytic effect, albeit typically at a smaller scale. Didn’t it feel like we moved pretty swiftly after hearing about a handful of vaping-related injuries and a couple of deaths? Compared to our relative inaction and complacency on smoking and obesity, which cause tens of thousands of deaths per month? 

Maybe most urgently, think how little we do on climate change: a slow-moving but existential threat to the entire planet. If a foreign invader threatened to sink New York and Miami, we would respond with shock and awe. But steady upticks in temperature and inch-by-inch sea level rise lull us into inaction, even as we approach points of no return. The threat is big and amorphous and we’ve been hearing about it for so long that it feels like just another news day, until it’s not. 

Which is sort of like COVID. 

We heard about the virus and its inevitable trek toward the U.S. for weeks, even months. 

What did we do? Like Santiago’s neighbor’s, we sort of did nothing. Someone else would take the lead, surely. If the threat was real, we would see action — everyone knew. It was foretold, the worst-kept secret in the world. We didn’t want to, or couldn’t bring ourselves to, grapple with it until it was already here. Too late. 

COVID and Chronicle have me reflecting on that kind of crisis: the slow-moving, everyone-knows-it’s-coming kind of threat. And how those situations can paralyze us, or lull us into complacency, even though they’re often most dangerous. 

The chronic vs. the acute. The deaths that are foretold — the ones we expect and maybe even accept — vs. the ones that come as a shock and nudge us into action.

Categories
Books Movies Nonfiction

Just Mercy – “Bryan, Rosa Parks is coming to town.”

“Bryan, Rosa Parks is coming to town… Do you want to come over and listen?”

My favorite scene from Just Mercy (the book) didn’t make it into Just Mercy (the movie). This may have been for the best, as I don’t like crying in theaters. But anyway:

The woman who invited Bryan to “listen” to a conversation with Ms. Parks was Johnnie Rebecca Daniels Carr, an under-the-radar hero of the civil rights movement.

Carr and Parks were childhood friends. While Rosa became the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Johnnie is credited with much of the behind-the-scenes organizing work that made the protest feasible.

Something I hadn’t fully processed until reading Twitter and Tear Gas was that people still had to get to work.

“The boycotters were not wealthy and needed transportation to and from their jobs.”

Black folks made up 75% of bus ridership in Montgomery. The boycott was initially conceived as a one-day protest, but community members decided they wanted to keep going. Some folks walked — some long distances — but thousands of people needed alternative rides.

Activists organized a massive carpool.

Zeynep Tufekci says that over 300 private citizens used their cars to give rides to passengers from 40 pickup and dropoff stations, from 5:00 AM until 10:00 PM, every work day.

The boycott — and the carpool — went on to last over a year.

In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson points out that it was Ms. Johnnie Carr who did much of the organizing work (“heavy lifting”) that kept this unfathomable feat of logistics up and running.

Eventually, she took over as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, succeeding Dr. King after his assassination. And she stayed active until her death in 2008.

Johnnie Carr in 1966

When she first met Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, she said: “I’m going to call you from time to time and I’m going to ask you to do this or that… You’re going to say ‘Yes, ma’am,’ okay?”

And so Bryan ends up on a porch in Alabama with Carr, Rosa Parks, and Virginia Durr, another friend and activist from the civil rights movement. He is invited to listen as the ladies talk.

Some hours into their conversation, Parks finally turns to Bryan and asks him to explain his work. He rambles a bit about EJI and fighting racial bias in the courts and trying to end the death penalty.

“Ooooh, honey,” says Rosa Parks. “All that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.”

Then Johnnie Carr leans in and raises a finger — Bryan says it was like how his grandmother used to talk to him — and says: “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”

😭😭😭

Rosa Parks is (rightfully) a household name and Bryan Stevenson is now a bestselling author portrayed on the big screen by Michael B. Jordan (😍). But it’s Johnnie Carr who makes me emotional: the organizer, the underdog, the unsung hero.

“Look back, but march forward,” she told a crowd on the 50th anniversary of the boycott.

“Look back, but march forward.”


Two thumbs up for Just Mercy (the movie), five stars for Just Mercy (the book), and — if you’re into social movements and strategy — also check out Twitter and Tear Gas.

Categories
Books Nonfiction

Devonian Dunkle

I picked up The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions thinking I might learn something about our planet and climate change and whether we are as doomed as I think we are. 

Boy, am I glad I did (!), if for no other reason than my introduction to dunkleosteus, the Devonian apex predator that gave me this magical line: 

“Our ancestors didn’t so much conquer the land as escape from the sea.” 

Some 360 million years ago, this bad boy (or girl) was swimming around above Cleveland, terrorizing — get this — the sea that used to exist above Cleveland (!!). 

Fossils show that Dunkle liked to binge and would sometimes eat so much that she would get sick and regurgitate her food.

A most relatable monster! 

Get it, girl.

Sadly, despite her armor plates and guillotine teeth, dunkleosteus went extinct because the ocean ran out of oxygen because there was too much algae due to an influx of new nutrients into the water. (Or something like that.) Things like this still happen today, albeit on a smaller and more localized scale, like when fertilizer-filled runoff from the U.S. midwest makes its way into the Gulf of Mexico and fuels supercharged algae blooms. 

Pour one out for Dunkle. 

(And maybe donate to an organization fighting climate change so we can avoid our next, self-induced mass extinction.)

Categories
Books Nonfiction

“Inspiration is trying to send me messages in every form it can”

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Pair With: Middle of the shelf rosé, on your couch by yourself, under a blanket with a journal.

One of my favorite scenes in Big Magic involves Brene Brown, the researcher turned bestselling author and self-help sensation, struggling with her writing. Brown is a masterful storyteller, which is why her TED talk is one of the most viewed on the internet. Yet her writing — perhaps owing to training in academia — brings forth none of her energy and feels impersonal and uninspired. She knows this as she reads back her progress, but the words will not flow. She is stuck. 

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s retelling, Brown eventually lands on a solution: She brings some girlfriends on a [paid] vacation, and, over nightly sessions with food and wine, delivers sections of her book orally. In exchange for their trip, the friends jot notes and transcribe. Brown is able to shine in this setting, a Texan storyteller holding court, charming and delighting friends. The change in process clears Brown’s creative block — and helps her develop a more conversational writing voice — and the notes ultimately become a book. 

Book doodle by @fml_fishtowndogtown, discovered by accident via the #PhillyArtist tag shortly after finishing Big Magic.

Big Magic is about creativity: how we find and cultivate inspiration, and also the courage that it takes to live a creative life. For Elizabeth Gilbert, there is magic in this. Ideas live and breathe. (In one case, a complex plot idea jumps from Gilbert’s brain into Ann Pachett’s — another wonderful anecdote in Big Magic.) If we make ourselves suitable conduits, the universe will conspire with us to bring creativity into the world. 

And on that note: 

Not more than 24 hours after I finished Big Magic, I attended a reading and book signing with another author, Liz Moore. Her new novel, Long Bright River, is a melding of family drama and detective thriller, and takes place in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood in the throes of the opioid epidemic. (More on this later, perhaps.

At the very end of the audience Q&A, a woman said she wanted to ask Moore a question not directly related to the book. “I teach students with special needs,” she said. “And they hate writing. What can I do to make writing more enjoyable and approachable?” 

Moore offered some thoughts, but generally deferred to the questioner’s own experience and expertise as a teacher, which was kind. But then another woman stood up in the audience. 

“I bet they like to talk,” she said. “Maybe if they just told stories to a classmate? Their classmate can take notes. Maybe they wouldn’t feel so much pressure to write if they were just telling a story. Maybe they could see that writing is really just telling stories.” 

Wait, what?

Coincidences are often subtle, but occasionally they call out more loudly. You read a book about creative “magic” — living ideas, muses, signals and signs — and immediately thereafter hear your favorite anecdote repeated back in a wholly unrelated context. 

Does it mean anything? Who knows. But being in the right place at the right time, being open to little nudges and winks from the universe, is the type of “big magic” that Gilbert describes so magically. 

I count myself fortunate to have read the book and received just such a wink.