Janelle Monae All Day

Janelle Monae’s masterpiece album, Dirty Computer, with its socially-conscious future funk and infectious grooves, is as good as it gets. Without question, it’s best-album-of-2018-good.  I’m blown away by how inventive and theatrical the album is while also blending multiple genres. And did you check the liner notes? Read them as you listen to the album to up the ante on your listening experience. Like Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., with many layers of complexity, Dirty Computer gets better with every listen.

Dirty Computer  is a painstakingly conceived and executed work of art drawing on inspiration from the late, great Prince whose presence is ubiquitously felt throughout.  Other sources of inspiration are Gloria Steinem,  Barack O’bama’s 2008 “A More Perfect Union” speech, and myriad literary works including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography, and recently release film, Black Panther, among others.  One article offers a recommended reading list “based on Monáe’s dystopian inspirations and Afrofuturist influences, based on a future that is diverse and representative of what some might consider subversion—from being pansexual to polyromantic to black.”

If Monae’s music signifies disruption, than by all means: crank the volume, and signify, people, because Monae’s America is the future. Dirty Computer’s America is not homogeneous, fixed, static, and beige,  but instead decidedly diverse, eclectic, colorful, fluid, shapeshifting, and prismatic. The May 1st 2018 issue of The Economist called the album “protest music done right” and gave it praise for delivering a societal critique without being “self-congratulatory”. This great piece from Philadelphia-based publication-The Inquirer— analyzes Dirty Computer in the context of American Protest Music and compares the the album’s final track, “Americans”, to Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is You Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”.  Author Dan DeLuca sums up the album simply as “party-starting protest music, ” and that’s exactly what it is.

But it’s a new kind of protest music. “Americans”, fused with O’bama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech,  is an electrifying anthem that conveys a powerful sense of change for the better, of a new day on the horizon. Monae states that her intent is to inspire and uplift, and those intentions are apparent from start to finish in this album.  I love rolling my window down on a sunny day, cranking the volume, and singing along with Monae: “Just love me baby / love me for who I am / fallen angels / singing clap your hands / don’t try to take my country / I will defend my land / I’m not crazy, baby / naw / I’m American / I’m American/ I’m American/ I’m American. And check these verse lyrics:

I like my woman in the kitchen/ I teach my children superstitions/ I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand/ A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes /But she’ll never ever wear my pants.
Seventy-nine cent to your dollar/ All that bullshit from white-collars /You see my color before my vision /Sometimes I wonder if you were blind / Would it help you make a better decision?

The message is powerful but you might not even realize you’re getting an education because you’ll be too busy grooving to notice, at least at first.

What I love about this album is that it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite song. In “I Like That,” Monae’s voice flows effortlessly over a deep, droning drum & bass foundation and all the hits are in the right spot, complete with that TLC shout-out: “Sometimes a mystery, sometimes I’m free / Depending on my mood or my attitude / Sometimes I wanna roll or stay at home / Walking contradiction, guess I’m factual and fiction /A little crazy, little sexy, little cool/Little rough around the edges, but I keep it smooth /I’m always left of center and that’s right where I belong /I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs /And I like that /I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one  who likes that. “I Like That” is a testament to being fearless and proud in your skin no matter what anybody else thinks. My absolute favorite line in the song appears when Monae recalls a memory from her past:  I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off /And you rated me a six /I was like, “Damn”/But even back then with the tears in my eyes / I always knew I was the shit.” The rise and fall of the lyrics–the cadence–is as smooth as Monae’s voice and perfectly executed. I’m amazed by how she sculpts a song and meshes the verse within the constraints of the song structure.

“I Got The Juice”, featuring Pharrell, is a slammin’ proclamation about owning one’s (fluid) sexuality. SPIN magazine referred to the tune as “the best of Dirty Computer’s homages to Prince.” (I can’t say I disagree although “Make Me Feel” would be a really obvious contender. More on that below.) “I Got The Juice” echoes Prince’s “Cream” in how it oozes sex appeal; but this smashing song goes to eleven on a scale of 10. Just as the song builds to a crescendo and you think it’s going to cool off, it  ramps up for one last feminist wave of authority when Monae powerfully declares: “If you try to grab this pussy cat / This pussy grab you back ” which is a clear response to President Trump’s infamous “grab her by the pussy” statement revealed from his pre-POTUS days and now haunting him eternally.  “I Got The Juice” is like an amped up “Holler Back Girl”, the femme-fatale tune recorded in 2004 by Gwen Stefani. And like Stephani, Monae does not merely holler back. If Trump could forego the catcall and move straight to the crotch grab, you know the appropriate feminist response is neither meek nor apologetic.

An incredible rapper in her own right, Monae’s lyricism in “Django Jane” is punch-you-in-the-gut good. A Guardian article entitled “You Don’t Own Or Control Me” looks closely at how personal and political apex in “Django Jane”, described as “Monáe’s rallying cry, a rebellious protest anthem for women in general (“We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you earth,” she sings….[S]he puts down mansplaining with a forceful, deadpan lyric: “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.” It’s one of Monáe’s most political songs to date, and also one of her most personal, a revelation for a singer whose critics have called her presence “cerebral”, her music “controlled”, her “constructed” look.” The song may be more aptly described as a battle cry, in that the speaker militantly confront the treatment of Black Americans, and particularly Black women. Monae says that Django is ‘a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalised in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.'”

In trying to wrap up this post, I’ll just say: give this record a spin. Be blown away by the method and the message.  Want to hear the MOST PRINCE-Y song on the album? Check out “Make Me Feel”: the Prince undertones and overtones are undeniable in the funk guitar rhythm and Monae’s vocal gymnastics – especially when Monae sings “good God / I can’t help it / Ah!”

In saving the best for last, Monae reserves the final dedication in her album notes for Prince-her muse and mentor-and you can’t help but think about how proud he would be of her incredible accomplishment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Day In The Life of Marlon Bundo

Every once in awhile, you come across a book that is not only well-written, but that had the potential to be revolutionary. A Day In The Life of Marlon Bundo is one of those books, especially because it is a bold, humorous, and heartening tribute to “any bunny who has ever felt different”.  Similarly, it is also a jab at the “Stink Bugs” of the world who don’t understand how others can lead lives unlike their own.  Check out this video of the reading, too!!

Most appropriately, this book is hot-off-the-press and just in time to hit the shelves for Pride Month, a national observance during the month of June. I am proud to work in a public institution that not only celebrates but encourages people to learn about and embrace people whose lives look differently from theirown. This wonderful book acknowledges and honors the LGBTQA community and its allies through recognizing same-sex marriages as legitimate and valid, in spite of  public figures and politicians who use their platform to discourage them.

In short, Marlon Bundo is a hula-hooping male rabbit who happens to favor the company of Wesley, another male rabbit. Marlon Bundo also lives with his Grandpa — the Vice President–who happens to be Mike Pence,  the current Vice President of the United States. When Marlon Bundo and Wesley decide that they would like to marry,  they are scornfully told that their relationship would not be recognized by law or by “The Stink Bug”, who is depicted as a lead decision-maker who is “In Charge” although he is “very stinky.” The Stink Bug tries to proclaim that “Boy Bunnies Have to Marry Girl Bunnies”; but Marlon Bundo and Wesley knew differently, that the Stink Bug’s vision is simply near-sighted and skewed.  To the astonishment of Marlon Bundo and Wesley, many of their peers come forward and begin to share how they are different from what the Stink Bug says is “normal.”  For example, Pumpernickel, the badger, eats his sandwiches crust-first while a hedgehog, Dill Prickle, reads the end of the book before the beginning!

By the end of the book, the community votes and agrees that two male rabbits should be able to marry if they love each other and want to spend their lives together because, essentially, “it doesn’t matter if you love a girl bunny or a boy bunny, or eat your sandwich backward or forward” as “stink bugs are temporary” and “Love is forever.”

Authors Marlon Bundo and Jill Twiss have written an important book that acknowledges and celebrates our differences.

 

Ink In Water: An Illustrated Memoir (Or, How I Kicked Anorexia’s Ass and Embraced Body Positivity)

Anyone who has struggled with addiction or compulsion will likely  appreciate Ink In Water and find it inspiring. Davis, described as a “young punk artist” by Library Journal, tells an autobiographical story about incredibly painful life experiences revolving around disordered eating, recovery, loss, and finally–helping others overcome similar disorders. Now a personal trainer, coach, author, and “body image advocate”, Davis’s memoir reveals how she first developed an eating disorder and got ensnared in the negative feedback loop that accompanies the psychology of self-harm.

The illustrations depicting Davis at the height (or really, rock-bottom) of her disorder show an emaciated, isolated individual who was starving herself to death. But by the end of the memoir, illustrations show a woman who has learned to cut herself some slack. In contrast, the woman in the final pages of the memoir is strong, determined, and no longer fears taking up space. To the contrary, Davis is interested in building herself up, through the practice of weight-lifting and strength training. Rather than shrinking and trying to make herself smaller, she embarks on a lifelong journey of recovery by focusing her mental and physical energy on becoming stronger.

While this graphic novel is largely about learning to love yourself, it also did a wonderful job of showing what a loving, supportive relationship can look like. I got a little teary when reading about how Davis’s partner essentially doubled-down on being loving and supportive through the hard times (rather than turning away from her when she was at her worst). When Davis experiences a particularly devastating loss of one of her best friends, mentors, and sponsors, her partner plans a trip to New York City to help her get out of her head.  Their relationship beautifully demonstrates how loving partnerships allow for being openly vulnerable and loved and supported in spite of individual faults or shortcomings.

Check it out. I didn’t really even start regularly reading graphic novels until I picked up a work of graphic medicine. As someone who genuinely enjoys non-fiction (I know — crazy!), graphic memoirs have been a really nice change of pace. This book reminds me of how resilient we are, and that we can get better and come back even stronger after being in the grips of something that threatens to destroy us.

You Do You: How To Be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got To Get What You Want by Sarah Knight

I recall George Carlin’s sardonic humor and his insight that the concept of self-help books are oxymoronic because you didn’t write them yourself. That simple yet profound insight has stuck with me for years. And I guess that’s why You Do You: How To Be Who You Are and Use What You’ve Got To Get What You Want (A No F*cks Given Guide) is one of the best self-help books I’ve read (and I’ve read more than I’ll ever admit, people).

This book is good for many reasons, but most importantly the book revolves around the concept that you should “write your own” self-help book, which is to say that you should honor yourself enough to fashion your life around your individual wants and needs – not put them on the backburner in order to comply with some pre-imposed idea of how you’re supposed to be. Novel concept, eh? And OF COURSE there is a caveat. It’s almost sad that Knight would need to write the disclaimer that “you doing you” does not translate into “sure, go ahead and be a self-serving sociopath.”  In fact, there are even a couple of places where you can physically write in this book, so the late, great Mr. Carlin might be pleased. Might.

But seriously though. So many self-help books offer prescriptions for acquiring success, wealth, and general life satisfaction; but this book places YOU at the center and starts there by helping you to reframe your “weaknesses” to view them as strengths. (In a way, the book then also reinforces the idea that there are no shortcuts and that YOU yourself are the key to unlocking your own door, so to speak). One of my favorite parts of the book is how Knight interrogates numerous social norms that leave us feeling like L7 weenies should we deviate (oh, and that pressure to confirm, comply, and fall in line is powerful, friends).  If anyone got my L7 Weenie reference, I’m super-impressed, by the way, and we’d probably be best friends or would at least be able to swap movie recommendations.  Knight explains that we should not blindly accept widely-held beliefs just because they’ve become tradition (i.e. family comes first, don’t be so selfish, etc) and that, instead, we should draw on and celebrate ourselves in order to live more fulfilling, authentic lives. I can’t say I disagree, people. But that’s apparently much easier said then done. And while that insight is not particularly new or profound, it actually KIND OF IS because she’s willing to stand up as an anti-guru on an anti-pulpit and put herself in the line of fire so you might grow a pair (of ovaries, duh) and feel inspired.

Of course if you read reviews, people will say everything from “it’s so funny and brilliant and helpful” to “it’s vapid and there were too many plugs for her other books.” Well, loddy freakin’ dah, folks. You can’t please ’em all, can you? The other criticism was that she is too liberal with her usage of expletives and irreverence which I view as one of the absolutely best and most relatable components of the book. Also, since this is book is the third in a series, I guess it’s the “weakest link” according to some (which only means I’m even more excited to read her other two books “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving A F*ck and Get Your Sh*t Together.)

This book was basically the equivalent of having my own personal, hilarious cheerleader on the sidelines of my own personal lifetime movie,  trying to help me live my life authentically, unapologetically. As I read on a plane en route to Atlanta, I  chuckled and even cackled aloud, and I didn’t even care if I looked stupid in the process. As someone who has had my own struggles with self-consciousness and self-doubt, this book was incredibly inspiring and validating.

And sometimes you just need someone in your corner, even if it’s a potty-mouthed book lady-after-your-own-heart, reminding you that YOU’RE SCREWING YOU IF YOU’RE NOT DOING YOU, and you’re doing so is a disservice to humanity.

 

 

The Stranger In The Woods: the Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

Fresh out of college as a 22 year-old, I packed 45 pounds of my belongings, including clothing, books, and camping gear into my backpack with guitar-in-hand and boarded a plane for Maine. Apparently, I thought living out of a backpack (and then a car) and laboring in the backwoods of Maine in mid-July when the black flies were thick and most brutal, was a brilliant idea. I mean, I was armed with my zeal for life, my college degree, and my personal copies of The Maine Woods, On The Road, Howl, and A Coney Island of the Mind.  I was going “suck the marrow out of life”, as Thoreau mused.

Cute idea, Erin. Really adorable.

Two weeks into my backwoods adventure I called my parents and whined (cried, actually) into the payphone that I wanted to come home. Every muscle in my body ached from doing manual labor. I was sleeping in a tent for weeks on end,  hanging pulley systems high into the treetops, quarrying rocks out of the earth and drilling them into moveable sized stone steps, and then effectively building staircases and hiking trails all over the state of Maine. But I was like a moose caught in the headlights and it took me some time to adjust to my new life.”You’re not coming home,” my dad informed me.  “You’ll wish you had stuck it out if you give up now. Give it two more weeks, and if you’re still adamant about leaving, you can come home.”

Seven months later I (again) cried into the payphone while talking with my parents, and this time it was because I didn’t want to come home. The woods changed me, and to this day, I still have dreams that I’m trying to find my way back to Maine. I’m so thrilled my dad wouldn’t allow me to just throw in the towel.

So, you might understand why I would cackle uncontrollably to hear Mark Bramall, narrating in the thickly-accented voice of Christopher Knight, describe Henry David Thoreau–one of my inspirations for joining the Maine Conservation Corps–as a “dilettante.” Yeah, so basically the one and only Henry David Thoreau, famous Transcendentalist who wrote Walden and The Maine Woods is, according to Christopher Knight, is a mere amateur. A dabbler. And if that proclamation isn’t an indication of how hardcore of a hermit Knight is, then you require a level of convincing beyond what I can provide.

A.K.A.: dude is savage. And his story is controversial. You’ll have to read it to decide if you’d consider him laudable or loathe-able. You might think it relatively easy to flat-out condemn a guy who dropped out of society and lived off of the refuse of other working people for nearly three decades. And you wouldn’t be hasty, either. I mean, he was charged for over 1,000 break-ins. Even author Finkel says he did not aim to portray Knight as some kind of hero.

Here is what Finkel says of Knight in one of his entries on Goodreads:

“He confessed to 1,000 break-ins, one of the most extensive burglary cases in U.S. history. He tormented people. But — he also never physically harmed anyone, never carried a weapon, never stole anything of great monetary value, never shattered a window or kicked down a door. He had a wildly unusual idea for how to live, and he lived in a way radically different from any other human you will ever encounter, and he has an awesome and daunting brain — he is, I feel certain, a genius — and he has insights into modern society and solitude and the meaning of life that you will find nowhere else. “Take the good with the bad,” Knight told me, when speaking of how he should be portrayed in my book, and I did. I firmly believe that in the good are some incredible insights, and in the bad is a fascinating true-crime tale. And please note — Knight is receiving no money from this project.”

Not only is Knight’s story of solitude fascinating (in that he claimed to have spoken only one word in the nearly 30 years he was alone in the woods), but the journalism and storytelling is particularly noteworthy.You will learn the details surrounding Christopher Knight’s arrest and makeshift scavenger camp, his love for Lynyrd Skynyrd, his interest in Rush Limbaugh and Dostoevsky, how he didn’t completely freeze to death during 27 brutal Main winters, and his insight that one year in jail was more damaging to his psyche than 27 years alone in the woods. Also, this book will intrigue and perplex you and leave you with much to contemplate, perhaps in solitude. Oh, and you’ll learn the storied history of hermits, including the bizarre and curious traditions of “ornamental hermits“, who were hired by rich people to hang out, not bathe, and subsequently create a “rustic” ambiance thereby increasing property and estate values.

Oh, and for the record, moneybags, I’ll gladly perch on your lands like a woodland sprite sans deodorant and makeup if the price is right, even at the cost of confirming your suspicions that I’m just some huge hippie masquerading as friendly neighborhood librarian  #Noshame.

 

 

 

Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave  by Rose McGowan, is not a “tell-all” but instead a “tell-it-like-it-is” memoir of growing up in a cult in Italy, moving to the United States, living life as a runaway, eventually becoming a Hollywood starlet, and then leaving it all behind to pursue art and activism. At times, I felt like an eavesdropper who was listening to things she probably shouldn’t be listening to; but I definitely confirmed my suspicion: that sexual assault victims will often be shamed for coming forward with accusations, especially about powerful or influential people. I think I’ve always known that victims risk public shaming and humiliation for choosing to speak out; but if you read the comment section on any of the videos or press releases that discuss Brave, you’ll see how cruel and dismissive people are behind the veil of the internet. McGowan discusses the cruelty of humanity and makes a special point to discuss how hurt she was to read such corrosive comments about herself online. Breaking the culture of silence and speaking openly and honestly about society’s elephants in the room (addiction, abuse, and mental illness come to mind) is truly heroic.

Maybe it’s not a totally shock that the Hollywood entertainment industry is exploitative at its core, but the kind of depravity and darkness that live there is probably unfathomable for outsiders. As consumers,  we need to be especially aware that what we consume – and what often appears glamorous, seductive, or exciting oftentimes conceals a dark underbelly of  disillusionment. For example, if you’ve ever seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Planet Terror”, you might not be aware that some of the movie plot bears an uncanny resemblance to some of McGowan’s personal life, and that she was made to perform feats of athleticism that would be unattainable for most women in tip-top physical condition. A more disturbing insight is that the cinema that we pay for and consume employs rape in order to tell a story, which is part and parcel of how violence, largely against women, becomes normalized. Oh, it’s just a tv show, or a movie, we say: but the unspoken truth is that it reflects social and cultural attitudes about the roles of men and women, largely that some men take what they want from women through “power” and domination. One of McGowan’s most incisive and profound questions: why are we still using rape as a method of storytelling in cinema at all?

As many people know, McGowan was one of the first women to come forward among more than 90 other women and accuse Harvey Weinstein of  rape. When she recounts her experience, she describes “depersonalization”, which occurs when you feel like you’re a stranger in your own body, viewing your life as though from the sidelines as an observer.  McGowan refers to the notoriously fallen movie “mogul” as “The Monster,” and her refusal to write or say his name, all the while spelling out other contextual details of her story, was her deliberate attempt at dethroning him. It is apparent from the tone of her voice and her unease when being interviewed on this subject that having to recall that day makes her physically ill.

McGowan has of course also been accused of being an “attention seeker” which is, in my opinion, a nasty and trite way of trying to shame her. Critics of McGowan fault her on the one hand for “telling it like it is” but in the same sentence shame for taking “hush money” and not calling Weinstein out immediately.  “Why did you wait until now to speak out?” they’ll taunt her. “You took the money,” they’ll say, without regard to any nuance or respect for her unique situation, as though the harrowing and psychologically damaging act of rape could possibly be boiled down into a black and white scenario that critics of McGowan would themselves navigate perfectly. McGowan poignantly makes her point when she says: “The only perfect rape victim is a dead rape victim and that’s a fact and it’s sad.” The simple act of speaking  is apparently so risky that it can earn you a scarlet letter; but McGowan won’t be deterred. As she says, she’s been called every awful name in the book, and worse. And still, she has the nerve and the conviction to keep her head up . I also try to keep in  mind that celebrity thrusts individuals into the line of fire and under the scope of public scrutiny.

I personally found McGowan’s candid commentary refreshing because she offers a no-holds-barred approach to honesty. In my estimation, it clearly sounds that she has spent many years thinking through these issues and can articulate herself masterfully. Brave is written by a woman who has accepted the past and wants to use her platform of celebrity to  help others, especially women, to recognize their value and to speak out when a predator is approaching.

Scheduling Time To Think

Even though I could have named this blog post “Here’s Another Cool Thing Ariana Huffington Shared On LinkedIn”, this article  by Shane Parrish entitled “Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Thoughts On Thinking” makes compelling points about carving out a time to think. Ain’t nobody got time for that, you might say. But we are mistaken, my friends.  Our hyper-tasking tendencies only create the illusion that we’re accomplishing multiple tasks simultaneously; but in reality, we are not completing any one task fully or even partially. I think the point is that if we slow down and do a little bit more contemplative work on the front end, we will save ourselves time and more importantly learn how to honor our own authentic voice above the noise of the crowd.

If you’re like me, you haven’t scheduled “Time to think” on your calendar lately but you know that twentieth-century living is marked by a type of frenetic energy and pace of “being busy”. We’ve all heard our friends, family members, teachers, doctors, significant others, servers, and others repeat the exasperated expression “I’m so busy”, or “I’m too busy to … ” and we ourselves have likely uttered these words, too. But isn’t it odd we don’t even have much “proof” of our busy-ness except for rapid heart-rates and elevated cortisol and blood pressure levels? I mean, that might be a little bit hyperbolic, but what do we have to show for scurrying about like we’re completely mad? With what, exactly, are we busying ourselves? Most of the time, and I’ll speak for myself here, the sense of urgency I feel and convey to others about my busy-ness is self-imposed. Oftentimes, we would be far better-equipped to make life’s easier and more difficult decisions if we just took the time up front to slow down and think. Parrish, the author of the article I linked to earlier, says succinctly:

“I actually schedule time to think. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I protect this time as if my livelihood depended on it because it does. Sometimes I’m in the office and sometimes I’m in a coffee shop. I’m not always thinking about a problem that I’m wrestling with. I’m often just thinking about things I already know or, more accurately, things I think I know. Setting aside time for thinking works wonders, not only for me but also for most of the people I’ve convinced to give it a try. The problem with not having time to think is nailed by William Deresiewicz, who said: ‘I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.'”

Pretty insightful, right? How well do you know your own thoughts? Have you ever taken the time to sort through your own tendencies and thought processes? Although a yoga or meditation practice is different from penciling in time to think, I would guess that the outcome is similar. In making time for yourself, you begin to know yourself more deeply, and what is more profound than that?

Bringing awareness to your thought processes, tendencies, and patterns enables you to be an active agent in your life without living merely at the mercy of your reactions and impulses. Contemplating how you think negates living as though you’re a hamster in a wheel. And maybe the better point is that patience and time are required to arrive at your authentic and original thoughts. Some things simply cannot be done well if they are done rapidly.  Maybe it’s just that there are no shortcuts to arriving at a well-conceived answer and you owe it to yourself to find out what you really think, desire, and need in your own life. What might scheduling time to think actually look like for you? Would you allow yourself that time, and if not, why?

Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

I absolutely cannot wait to get back into my car and drive from Davenport, IA to East Moline, IL across the frozen tundra that is the Quad Cities. You might think I’ve lost my mind, and perhaps I have a little bit; but let me tell you that the Ali audiobook, narrated by Kevin R Free, and based on author Jonathan Eig’s “definitive biography” is absolutely stunning. Although my experience with audiobooks is relatively limited, I have to say this one makes me want to read all 623 pages of the biography. Free, who also considers himself a storyteller,  narrates the larger-than-life biography of Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay) with conviction and eloquence, the perfect example of a well-executed audiobook and also a testament to author Eig’s finely-crafted prose.

Normally, it’s easy for me to snooze on audiobooks and lose focus in the middle of a chapter (or worse, a sentence). In fact, listening to audiobooks has proven to be an act of meditation: I’m consciously directing my attention to the narrator and, sometimes painfully attempting to stay focused on the developing story. Too often, like a child who loses interest in a new toy just moments after receiving it, I lose interest in the storyline unless the narrator is particularly emotive, funny, or engaging. But every chapter Free narrates makes me feel like I’m watching an award-winning film. The imagery, writing, and narration are that good. I’ve read a few reviews, and one commenter noted that he felt like he was “ringside” during the fight descriptions because the writing truly is that good.

Cassius Clay, who died in 2016 at the age of 74, endured 200,000 punches throughout his career. I cannot possibly conceive of what that would feel like. He was wildly inspired by Sugar Ray Robinson, a famous boxer well known for being particularly outlandish, flashy, and bold. Ali was single-mindedly focused on becoming the greatest boxer who ever lived; yet he was insanely complex as well as he came into his own in the context of segregation, The Blood of Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine. One might simply state that Ali was a fighter in every sense of the word: you can be sure he fought fiercely against racism and injustice that plagued the post-war United States.

I’m nowhere near finished with this book, but I can only imagine it gets better. Check out this article with Author Eig who concludes, after 500 hours of interviews with Ali that “no biography is complete. There’s always more to explore.” Here is what NPR , the Washington Post, and The New York Times had to say. Of course not all the reviews are shining. This particular article claims that Eig did not shed light on the last 30 or so years of Ali’s life and that the book provides “a somewhat perfunctory account of how his story fits into the larger arc of race in America.” As someone who is only about ten chapters in, I appreciated the historical backdrop that Eig establishes early on in the book; although it’s not like a few measly chapters could possibly address the terrible blight of racism on our collective history, so I will wait to see if maybe Eig delves more deeply into issues of race in America. One hopes that a “definitely” biography has earned its heavyweight title, just like the greatest boxer of all time.

A Library of Things

 If you’re anything like me, and you favor a minimalist lifestyle that prioritizes access over ownership, the prospect of a Library of Things may interest you. A Library of Things (LOT) is a most magical and sensible space where libraries, innovation, and sharing economies intersect. When you visit a LOT, you can borrow items you don’t want to commit to purchasing before you can prove the purchase is truly warranted. Not sure if you’re a fan of camping? Don’t sweat it: check out a tent before dropping the cash on new gear. Wondering if you’re likely to develop a serious interest in cake decorating but hesitant to shell out your hard-earned dollars? Check out some cake pans and decorating accessories. Ready to serenade your cat with ukulele music for any occasion? Stop by the LOT and check out a ukulele.

Since libraries are already perfectly structured to lend non-traditional items such as power tools, cake pans, outdoor/adventure gear and equipment, musical instruments and accessories, ties, seeds, and lawn kitchen appliances, it makes perfect sense that innovative libraries have already added many “things” to their circulating collections. At the Hillsboro Public Library in Oregon, for example, patrons can check out a chocolate fountain, popcorn machine, and karaoke machine among many other practical and unique things. At the Shirley M Wright Memorial Library in Wisconsin, patrons can check out bird-watching kits. The Stark County district library partnered with Stark Parks to launch a bicycle sharing program!  As you can see, the possibilities are endless. In California at Sacramento Public Library, patrons can check out yard equipment like hedge-trimmers and a lawnmower, among many other things.  In this article, Director of the Sacramento Public Library, Rivkah Sass describes libraries as “the original sharing economy” and that when developing a LOT they “were looking at the generation coming up that doesn’t necessarily want to own things. They don’t need a pressure cooker to store on a shelf and gather dust.” Can I get an Amen, people?  You don’t have to be a Millennial to appreciate the benefits of a clean, open space that isn’t crowded by a surplus of material possessions you’re likely to use a handful of times before banishing to a lifetime in your kitchen cabinets. Not only does a LOT save you money, but it also saves space, enables access, and encourages discovery and innovation.

Come visit Davenport Public Library to see the “Tech-Know Library” and view a full list of the technologies available for checkout including but not limited to:  graphing calculators, a light therapy lamp, eReaders, a Go Pro, blue-tooth blood pressure monitor, and Snapchat spectacles!

What kinds of items do you think the public library should make available for checkout?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mercy For Animals: One Man’s Quest To Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals

Nathan Runkle, author of Mercy for Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals is just one of those people whose passion is apparent from the moment he opens his mouth. Like his speaking voice, Runkle’s writing style is remarkably elegant and concise. I was shocked that he struggled with reading and writing as a young student because he is a remarkably articulate speaker and writer.

Like the farm and dairy investigation transcripts contained in its pages, this book is not for the faint-of-heart. In creating transparency within the culture of American food production practices, Runkle and his team pull the curtain back, so to speak, to reveal the brutality inherent in factory farming operations. In short, this book is about how Runkle founded Mercy for Animals, a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness about the lives of sentient farm animals and the system of which they are a part. At the core of this book lies the fundamental belief that the lives of all beings deserve respect and dignity.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of bullying or oppression will sympathize with the plight of Mercy for Animals. The sickness, disgust, and perhaps solidarity you will feel when you go behind the scenes at a factory farm will empower you to make changes in your lifestyle and better yet, how you relate to and think about animals. In short, this book spotlights Runkle, his twenty-year career, and the other investigators who obtained jobs in hatcheries and slaughterhouses across the United States and abroad in order to spotlight what goes on behind closed doors. Their work created the pressure necessary in order to affect change even at the level of national policy. The exploitation and commodication of animals and workers in a billion-dollar industry forms the bedrock of modern animal agriculture as it’s impossible to pack 60,00-100,000 chickens into a warehouse without grave consequences. Opposition to this industry was established alongside the industry itself, and you can bet Runkle smartly contextualizes his book alongside Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle published in 1908, among others.

As Runkle learned, investigators document every minute of footage with objective language rather than evocative language. For example, when the book discusses what “thumping” means in the pig-farming industry, investigators refrained from using “emotional” language. Instead, undercover investigators might describe “thumping” as a “standard practice” entailing slamming “defective” piglets into the concrete to kill them rather than saying “workers grabbed helpless piglets by their legs and swung them violently into the concrete to crush their skulls” (which is exactly what happens). In other words, investigators are not permitted to purposefully appeal to the emotions of readers and must instead focus on relaying facts and behaviors. But as Runkle knew, there really is no nice, flowery way of making a lifetime of suffering sound like standard operating procedures (even though euphemism and secrecy lies at the heart of the animal agriculture industry). As many consumers know, myself included, the majority of meat and dairy foods we consume are produced not by “humane” family farms peppered with “happy cows” grazing in green pastures but rather from massive mechanized farming operations deliberately located in remote areas out of sight…and out of mind. I’d say slaughtering 12,000 pigs per day constitutes massive AND industrial –the opposite of humane family farms. Although that seemingly innocuous cellophane-wrapped animal product in the grocery store reveals only the end product of factory farming, the animals on our plates endured a lifetime of suffering. Floors caked with excrement, dust, blood, and decaying animal bodies is commonplace–not some grotesque bit of propaganda created by bleeding-heart, tree-hugging hippies to get you to care about animals. The respect we extend to our beloved family companion animals is virtually non-existent in the lives of farm animals. After a delve into the animal liberation literature, try singing “Old MacDonald” in the year 2018 and hearing it as more nursery rhyme then pantomime.

This post isn’t the equivalent of a virtual finger-wagging, either. It has taken me decades to finally come to terms with–to accept–that the lifestyle choices I made every day absolutely matter. If you’re not particularly “sold” on animal rights, you might then take note that Runkle’s book also illuminates how the poor and people of color are particularly vulnerable fodder for the meat, dairy, and egg industries. While Runkle is more immediately concerned with the plight of farm animals and the suffering they endure at human hands, the suffering is not theirs alone as workers labor in harrowing conditions enduring illness and injury alongside the animals. I cannot help but speculate that the implications of killing and processing suffering animals in order to make a living are devastating–physically, emotionally, spiritually. But as gruesome as the reality of farming operations is, Runkle remains optimistic and steadfast in his mission to help people reconnect to the compassion they already have in their hearts for animals.

Runkle’s optimism is key as the work of Mercy for Animals isn’t for nothing: this organization and others like it are disrupting market forces and supply & demand chains that mask injustice and exploitation. Overall, this book was very well-written and executed. A powerful, animal ethics movement is gaining momentum, changing the way we relate to animals, to our environment, and each other. From a local standpoint,  I’m also excited that “plant-based” and vegan lifestyles have arrived and are celebrated more every day here in the Quad Cities, as evidenced by the Quad Cities own first Veg Fest, to be held August 11th, 2018 at Schwiebert Park on the Rock Island riverfront.