I have long attempted to be aware and sensitive in my writing. I have a copy on my shelf of Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. It was published in 1980, and I have a paperback edition published in 1981. Perhaps parts of it are dated, but it shows that consciousness and inclusiveness in writing is not a new topic. As the world has become aware that gender identity is not always a binary matter the subject has become more visible. No doubt the pandemic lockdown gave this a boost when we were all on Zoom and many of us put our preferred pronouns next to our name. That has become a convention on LinkedIn as well.
I discovered that writing in a conscious manner is not necessarily as easy as it might seem. I recently reviewed the book How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler. Imbler identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/their/them. I attempted to respect that in my review. I thought I had done a pretty good job but searched on “she” and “her” just to be sure. Was I wrong! The review contained female pronouns throughout that I had to correct. I even wrote, “Imbler identifies as nonbinary and I use her pronouns of choice.” (And yes, I fixed that as well before hitting the Publish button).
Some people still get their knickers in a knot about singular they, but for many of us that ship has sailed. The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.” and “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” But Chicago hedges its bets. Section 5 is the “Style and Usage” section written by Bryan A. Garner. Garner writes, “For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.” Garner does, to his credit, repeat the assertion that a person’s preference is to be honored.
In the fifth edition of his Modern English Usage, published just last November, Garner provides a detailed history and analysis of the singular they. He concludes with some rather circumspect advice:
How future generations will deal with disambiguating they as either singular or plural in Standard Written English remains to be seen. Only time will tell. In the meantime, careful writers using the singular they must take care to avoid ambiguities, miscues, and awkwardness.
Of course, I’m not making any revelations in saying that singular they is nothing new. Grammarians and linguists have been making this point for a very long time. An article on the Oxford English Dictionary web site states that the usage goes back to at least 1375. I have seen it mentioned many times that Shakespeare used singular they and that he used it more than once. For example, an essay on the old Language Log web site at the University of Pennsylvania cites two examples, including this one:
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
There are plenty of other examples throughout literature, and much ink has been spilled (or many electrons rearranged) on the subject, so I won’t go on beating a horse that should be dead.
In a world filled with people like Ron DeSantis, where we are fighting battles that should have long ago been won, the least we can do is honor the wishes of our nonbinary
brothers and sisters siblings.
And if I slip up kindly let me know.
I was angered, frustrated, and disappointed, but not in the least surprised to wake up to the news that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. The best way I can respond to the news is to repost a blog entry that I originally published in 2016. I discuss why a woman’s right to choose is essential to her ability to live the life she has set out for herself. Although today’s ruling means my final statement is now outdated, I give you the post exactly as I originally published it.
The Abortion (or: are you kidding me?)
An Olive Street recollection.
Those of you who are old enough to remember Richard Brautigan will recognize the first part of my title as a reference to his novella about an abortion in Mexico that did not go well. The second part of my title represents this way of thinking: WTF? Why the bleep are we still having to fight this battle?
Last week the South Carolina legislature passed a law prohibiting abortions after twenty weeks. The governor signed the bill this week. The same week the Oklahoma legislature passed a bill making abortion a felony. Fortunately the Oklahoma governor vetoed that one. As I said, WTF?
Let me tell you a story. I’ve told this before, but it’s been some years.
I was living on Olive Street during my Claremont Cockroach days. Beth was my housemate. She was a sophomore at Scripps College. Her boyfriend Ken, who, in fact, arranged for her to help me share in the rent, came back to Claremont from his Ivy League medical school over Christmas. They did what lovers do, and the birth control failed.
Beth had a problem. She got some good advice and signed up for MediCal. Then she talked to the folks at the Planned Parenthood clinic and made an appointment for her abortion. I dropped her off at the clinic on my way to work at B. Dalton Bookseller and she had arranged for someone else to pick her up afterwards.
She had a lot of pain and Ken was a humongous jerk in grilling her over the phone as to how much of that pain was psychological. But she was free of the pregnancy.
Had Beth been required to bring that pregnancy to term her college career would have been ended and her entire future would have been in jeopardy. I don’t know where Beth is today, but I trust that she is successful and doing well.
Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. We cannot allow ourselves to backslide.
Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Lauret E. Savoy
Counterpoint (November 1, 2015), 256 pages
reprinted with a new preface by the author in 2021
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $15.94
I suppose one might classify Trace as a memoir, but there are a lot of moving parts in this book. It contains travelogue, history, geography, geology, and genealogy. Savoy is on a quest for her roots.
She opens the book with a recollection of a childhood visit to the Grand Canyon. Her parents incorporated this visit, as well as visits to other national parks, as part of the family’s move from California to Washington, DC. Her father decided he would be in a better position to fight for racial equality if he were based in the nation’s capital.
Savoy’s story is centered on the fact that her parents were both of primarily African American background, but her father was light-skinned and could (sometimes) pass for white, while her mother was dark-skinned and never had that luxury.
The author writes about Oklahoma’s geography, mentioning the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers, two rivers which I knew well back in my Oklahoma days of the 1980s. She writes about how the five civilized tribes (she uses lower case and quotes in naming the people) could own Black people as slaves, a background from which her mother might have come. She says that while only an “elite few” did so, “more than seven thousand people with African blood lived in bondage in Indian Territory on the eve of the Civil War.”
Savoy offers a history of the early days in Oklahoma when free Black people founded towns in which they thought they could create productive lives for themselves. This was before the territory became a state governed by white men.
As a nature writer (at least in part), Savoy appreciates the nature writers who came before her. As a teenager she read the iconic Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and wondered how, as an American author, his only mention of slavery could be in reference to ancient Greece. She writes, “I so feared that his ‘we’ and ‘us’ excluded me and other Americans with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, or Native America.”
Savoy describes the Washington, DC in which she lives as a youngster. She also delves deeply into the history of the city. It seems that it was located where it was partly because George Washington didn’t want to be far from his slave holdings or have the nation’s capital in a city (Philadelphia) that was antagonistic to the idea of enslaving people. Further, slave owners were a powerful lobby, and that helped ensure that slavery was legal there. (I recall Michelle Obama’s reflection in her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”)
The author offers a brief history of the Southwest and notes how the original agreed-upon border between Texas and Mexico was the Nueces River. The government in Washington, however, decided that the proper place for the border was the Rio Grande, fifty to a hundred and fifty miles to the south.
Savoy paints a vivid portrait of a military base in Arizona where her mother served as a nurse. During World War II the base held prisoners of war, including Nazis. In that era, in that environment, the white Nazi prisoners had more rights and privileges than the African Americans on the base who were United States citizens and officers in the US Army.
Laurent Savoy has much to say about American history, identity, and racism. We need to listen to her.
Viking (October 19, 2021), 320 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.35
When I saw this book reviewed I immediately knew that I had to read it. I had three reasons.
- George Orwell. I have long been a student of Orwell and his essays. I first learned to appreciate his essays when I was a senior at Pitzer College in 1975, and my first year out of college I bought everything of Orwell’s that was in print, including the Collected Essays. I still have those books.
- Rebecca Solnit. I read her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence in 2020 when it was first released. I admire her sharped-edged feminism and her love of San Francisco.
- My maternal grandfather was in the wholesale nursery business. He was a partner in Hemet Wholesale Nursery and sales manager for Howard Rose Company. I grew up around roses. The Four Seasons community where we live was built on land that once nurtured Howard Rose Company roses.
Solnit opens the book by describing a visit she made to a small house where Eric Blair, who took on the pen name George Orwell early in his writing career, once lived and planted roses, something he described in his diary. She explains she was supposed to be at home recuperating from a serious illness, but a book contract imposed a severe financial penalty if she failed to complete a book tour in the United Kingdom. She persevered rather than accept the monetary penalty and decided that since she was in England she would visit the house where Orwell planted the roses.
Orwell was always something of an outsider. He went to boarding school on scholarship, something he described in his essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” (There was, in fact, very little joy in that experience.) He then won a scholarship to the elite prep school Eaton. Solnit states he acquired “an accent that marked him as an outsider among the poor without making him an insider among the rich.”
The author covers a lot of territory. She discusses how Orwell wrote a lot about nature in many of his books, much more than we give him credit for. She recounts his time serving as a volunteer on the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, where he took a bullet through his neck that was nearly fatal. Solnit emphasizes Orwell’s poor health throughout his life, starting with a lung ailment as a child and ending with the tuberculosis that took his life. And we hear about Orwell’s decision near the end of his life to live away from civilization on an island off the coast of Scotland.
It is not just Orwell’s life that Solnit documents. She spends a chapter discussing Stalin’s politicization of science. Solnit delves into the phrase “bread and roses,” once used by social progressives and notes at least three different people were credited with the phrase. In another chapter she talks about the various breeds and varieties of roses. Solnit takes us on a visit to Columbia, the country which provides the vast majority of roses sold in Ameri can supermarkets. She documents the long hours and poor working conditions of the people who labor there.
Speaking of labor, Solnit points out that the revolutionary artist Diego Rivera painted a mural for Henry Ford’s son. She wondered why an avowed communist would paint a mural for one of America’s most successful capitalists, but then she reflects:
Gazing upon the walls filled with images of auto assembly lines and workers dwarfed by machinery, I realized that capitalists and communists of the era shared a devotion to mechanization and to industrialization as phenomena that would allow human beings to transcend the limits of nature. Looking back it seems like hubris and dangerous delusion.
One cannot, of course, forget about Orwell’s ongoing interest in language and its use. Language plays a key role in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and is the focus of his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Solnit writes:
“Politics and the English Language” addresses language that is too loose, blurring, evading, meandering, avoiding. Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts language when it is too tight, too restrictive in vocabulary and connotation, when some words have been murdered and others severed from too many of their associations.
Orwell made a point of exposing injustice when he saw it, but Solnit does not give him a pass for failing to notice sexism when it occurred. She notes he was better at seeing racism. Despite her honesty in observing Orwell’s shortcomings, Orwell the writer is a beacon for Solnit. She refers to a “cluster of sentences that has long served me as a credo.” Those sentences end with Orwell’s words, “So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.”
Solnit’s writing is clear and vivid. She takes us on a journey in which she not only offers little known details about the life of George Orwell but teaches us about a range of other topics as well.
Summer People: A Novel
Open Road Media (April 12, 2016), 477 pages
originally published by Summit Books, a Simon and Schuster imprint (June 1, 1989)
Kindle edition $10.99
After finishing my previous nonfiction book I was looking for something countercultural. I knew I could find that by turning to Marge Piercy. I selected Summer People and was not disappointed. Now this was not sixties counterculture. The narrative in the novel takes place roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the book in 1989. Piercy mentions the amber screen of a computer. Many computer screens running the good old DOS operating system (yes, I know that’s redundant) in those days had black-and white or blue-and-white screens, but my computer at home in 1989 had an amber screen.
This counterculture existed (in the novel) on Cape Cod. Susan and Willie were married. Susan was a seamstress and fashion designer. Willie was a sculptor and carpenter. Dinah, a musician and composer, moves into the house next door, which shared the driveway with Willie and Susan’s house. They quickly ended up in a three-way relationship. All went well until Susan, with her misperceptions and inflated sense of self-importance, insisted that the arrangement end. That triggered a domino effect that drives much of the novel’s action.
I wouldn’t refer to Piercy’s work as literary fiction, but she knows how to develop a plot and create believable, three-dimensional characters. The women are strong and not dependent on men. Piercy’s novels have always had a strong feminist tone, and her women take ownership of their own sex lives and responsibility for birth control. (One male character, in fact, provides his own condom).
The title Summer People is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is not about the people who arrive at Cape Cod in time for Memorial Day and leave right after Labor Day, although they do play a role. It’s the year-round residents, Willie, Susan, and Dina that are central to the novel.
So while not great literary fiction, Summer People is enjoyable reading with a serious message about how people treat each other, even if the conclusion ties things together just a little too neatly.
Always a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.
Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.
It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.
Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.
Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.
When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”
Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.
See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love
Narrated by the author
Random House Audio (June 16, 2020)
$22.05 for Audible members, more for non-members
purchased with an Audible credit
I had not heard of Valarie Kaur until she gave a brief message on All Saints’ Day at a virtual service presented by the the Episcopal National Cathedral. (The service was entitled Holding on to Hope. Valarie’s remarks begin just after the 48 minute mark.) It was shortly afterwards that I saw mention of this book. And a long book it is. The print edition is 375 pages, and the audiobook is over thirteen hours.
It is also a challenging book. Valarie is a Sikh by birth and upbringing. (I’ve always heard it pronounced “seek” but she pronounces it with a short i: sĭk.) She opens the book with a chapter on wonder, but quickly shifts to the prejudice and bullying she faced growing up in the rural Central Valley of California. She also describes the struggles her Sikh father and grandfather faced.
Kaur discusses her life as an activist, and her documentation on video of the hate crimes that Sikhs and other people of color faced after 9/11. She talks about her college and post-graduate career, originally wanting to be an academic, but ultimately choosing the law to further her activism. She writes about how a Sikh medical student (and later doctor) with whom she was in love refused to accept her activism. And she tells us about her life with a Muslim who supported her in her filmmaking and activism, the man she eventually married.
Valarie is honest and unblinking in her description of her personal life and her own body. Some of the material in this book is deserving of an NC-17 rating, both in her description of her own sexuality and health and in the description of violence instigated against non-white people. I chose the audiobook version of the book because Kaur reads it herself. Not only does her emotion come through, but she does a beautiful job of singing the Sikh shabads, the religious chants and prayers. Of course the NC-17 portions were hard to listen to, and I couldn’t skim over them as I could with a print or Kindle edition. Overall, though, I was more than happy that I chose the audio version in order to hear Valarie tell her life story in her own voice.
Bottom line: this is an important book in documenting the ongoing fight for social justice.
We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter
Harper Wave (September 19, 2017), 258 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $12.99
If you have not watched Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “Ten Ways to Have a Better Conversation” skip this blog post and go watch it now. It will be time well spent. It has had over twenty-two million views so far. Really.
This book covers much of the same territory as her TED talk, but in an expanded form. Celeste clearly explains how to have an open conversation with anyone, no matter what their beliefs, without letting your own biases interfere. That is something I find it nearly impossible to do with those who support that blustering individual with the orange hair who currently lives in the White House. But Headlee says we can do it. She has an interesting perspective on this:
There’s no evidence that people who are aware of their own biases are better able to overcome them than those who are unaware of their biases. And no matter how much thought you give to the issue, you’re probably not aware of all the prejudices that influence your thinking. They’re called unconscious biases for a reason, after all.
She goes on to say:
The goal of an honest, respectful dialogue is to open our minds,
not to change them.
Wow. Straightforward. Simple. And so difficult.
Celeste is of a mixed-race background, and she directly addresses those issues. Her grandfather was African-American composer William Grant Still and his wife was the pianist Verna Arvey, who was white. Celeste describes the challenges they faced in that marriage. She writes about when they had to drive nonstop from the west coast to the east coast because in those years neither white nor African-American motels would rent them a room.
Headlee is an experienced, skilled interviewer on NPR, yet she honestly describes her own errors and mistakes in interviewing people.
This is a great book on how to have a conversation, but really, if you haven’t seen her TED talk go watch it before reading the book.
How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do—And What It Says About You
Katherine D. Kinzler
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 21, 2020), 253 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $20.99
As a writer and as a reader I place a lot of emphasis on the written word, and I think a lot about writing and styles of writing. However, the spoken word is important to me as well. I spent nearly four years in Toastmasters, leaving only when changes to the program made the organization less appealing to me. A linguist will tell you that language is about the spoken word far more than it is about writing. That was the message in John McWhorter’s Great Courses series on language families which I recently watched. It is the spoken word that interests Katherine Kinzler in this book.
Kinzler wants to understand, and wants us to understand, how the spoken word affects how we perceive other people. She is not a linguist, rather she is a psychologist. However, in doing the research that forms the basis of this book she took a multidisciplinary approach, working with individuals in multiple fields, including linguistics. She writes with the approach of a linguist, saying, for example, “African American English is a dialect of English like any other (including Standard American English).”
The author writes about the misconceptions that people have, for example that an ethic Asian might have difficulty learning a non-Asian language such as French. She describes how bias is pervasive in the media. In children’s movies, such as Aladdin, she points out that the bad guys have accents and the good guys don’t. Kinzler explores how an accent can have a negative impact on a person being hired for a particular job, even when they are fully qualified.
This is interesting material, and it presents an important set of social issues of which we ought to be aware.
I have written quite a bit recently about plant-based meat substitutes. For six months after my surgery in February I was not allowed red meat, and those products helped satisfy my cravings. I am once again allowed to eat red meat, but those products are still a part of my diet and cooking habits.
There has, however, been something of a backlash against the Beyond Meat, Impossible, and LightLife products. I see items pop up on social media and in suggested stories on my Google iOS app. My good friend Farrell has railed against them on Facebook. In one CNBC article, John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods, said that these products are highly processed and not terribly healthy. The Impossible product has been criticized for being made with highly processed soy.
But let’s back up a minute. Beyond Meats says its burger product contains a blend of pea, mung bean, and rice proteins. The LightLife product is somewhat similar. Processed, yes, but healthy vegetable products. And these products are far healthier for the environment, as Mackey admits. The CNBC article states, “According to a study commissioned by Beyond Meat with the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a plant-based burger generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 45% less energy, has 99% less impact on water scarcity, and 93% less impact on land use than a ¼ pound of traditional U.S. beef.”
It was back in 1971 that Frances Moore Lappé, in her groundbreaking Diet for a Small Planet, pointed out that animal products are a highly inefficient way of getting protein. And within that realm, beef is far and away the most inefficient. Folks, one reason (among many) that the Amazon is burning is our insatiable desire for beef. Getting our protein from plant-based sources is far easier on the planet. These products will continue to evolve and improve. If people can shed their lust for beef by eating these products then we ought to give them a fair shake.
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.