Non-Binary Lives by Jos Twist, et al (Non-Fiction)

An interesting collection of essays by and about non-binary persons. From wikipedia:  Non-binary is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine — ‌identities that are outside the gender binary.

Most of the authors are living and working in the UK, though a few were from other countries. My impression is that most are therapists and / or gender study students or professional academics.

While a few of the essays proved to be overly jargonistic or borderline offensive (one railed against the “ableist, capitalist, patriarchal, white supremist, cisgenderist dominant society” and another kept mentioning “toxic gender binary notions”), most were well-written and explored aspects of the non-binary gender concept that were new to me. Many examined the intersectionality of being non-binary within different cultures or religions as experienced by (for example) a Vietnamese Confucianist, a Jewish feminist, a Quaker, and an Hispanic. One essay explored the effect of motherhood (via the traditional biological pathway) on someone who self-identified as non-binary.

I was naively surprised by the references to infighting between differently gendered groups. Said one author: “…the phenomenon of self-identified transsexual folk who are vehemently opposed to non-binary as a concept as they feel it undermines the realness of their own identities. The vitriol they express is nearly as bad as the right-wing opponents of ‘gender ideology’ who are freaking out about the end of gender and gender roles.” Another bemoaned the fact that as a non-binary person, they were no longer able to benefit from the many women-only groups and privileges they had been enjoying. They had been happy to be part of women’s theater companies who were “dedicated to presenting lesser-told stories” as compared to the more “mainstream” companies, “dedicated to working their way through the safe Western dramatic canon of plays by dead cishet white dudes,” and were now unhappy to be automatically lumped in with the outsiders.

I’ve been fascinated with the concept of gender and gender fluidity ever since reading Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski, and I enjoyed many of the essays in this book. They forced me to examine my own perceptions and actions: Why do I care what gender a person is? Or whom they prefer as a sexual partner? And yet I notice that if I can’t tell at a glance, I spend time trying to figure it out. For some reason I feel I need to know. Does this mean I treat people differently based on gender or simply that I have a great need to keep things categorized in my head? I have no idea!

I do know that I am greatly in favor of more inclusion in society, but not at the expense of other groups. Let’s hear more stories and give more opportunities to previously unrepresented groups — but why is it necessary to exclude people simply because some perceive them to have been part of a “privileged” group? Today’s white, cishet, men should not have to suffer because in the past *some* white, cishet, men benefited at the expense of other groups. And why on Earth would we want to belittle the great works of the past simply because their creators were white men when there were others at the time who did not have the same opportunities? Shakespeare’s plays are still amazing as are the works of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Sir Isaac Newton. Let’s work on making the world a place where we can have more greatness, not less.

I hate identity politics, and I’m happy to say that most of this book was focused more on individual experiences and perceptions than on politics. Worth a read if you’re curious about the concept.

Thank you to Jessica Kingsley Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

Strangers in their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Non-fiction)

Published on the eve of Trump’s election, this book represents Hochschild’s attempt to “scale the empathy wall” and understand the “deep story” of those in the Tea Party — pretty much the antithesis of her own Berkeley, California cohort. She uses the environment as what she calls a “keyhole issue” — Louisiana has one of the most polluted environments in the country, and yet the very people suffering the ill effects of the pollution are those favoring the deregulation strategies of the Republican party. Pointing out that partyism now beats race as source of divisive prejudice, her goal is to encourage democracy with the book: “A healthy democracy depends on a collective capacity to hash things out.”

Her research is mostly anecdotal — she talks in depth to individuals and draws out the “deep story” of what matters to them, how they make decisions, and what “the emotion that underlies politics” is for them. Her thesis is that people act to serve their best emotional interest, rather than their best economic interest. The deep story that emerged from her Tea Party enthusiasts was one I could understand and even identify with: a strong work ethic, adaptability to circumstances without complaint, the importance of community, and wanting to able to be proud of what they were without someone telling them they were wrong to feel that way (see quotes below). There was a deep distrust of government and a hatred for the taxes which they felt was their money “running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with.” She did a brilliant job at contrasting the deep stories of the right and the left making it clear (to me) how the same set of “facts” could be interpreted so very differently.

Hochschild is clearly a liberal herself, and this leaks through in the way she interprets data and maintains certain liberal assumptions (my favorite is her assertion that tax breaks are equivalent to welfare-style handouts — I just had a long argument with a close friend on this one, but IMHO the government taking less of your money in taxes is not equivalent to taking your money and distributing it in a way over which you have no control) but she did an excellent job of beating through the stereotypes to really understand how people on the other side of that empathy wall work.

I learned a lot from this book and find myself still mulling it over weeks later. I’m including a lot of quotes that I feel show the different perspectives, many of which (from my firm, California, mostly liberal perch) were new to me. In particular, I don’t think I realized how strong (and nasty) the left’s stereotype of the right is. And — like most stereotypes — how incorrect as a description of the entire group.

Quotes:
“To many on the left, the Republican Party and Fox News seemed intent on dismantling much of the federal government, cutting help to the poor, and increasing the power and money of an already powerful and rich top 1 percent. To many on the right, that government itself was a power-amassing elite, creating bogus causes to increase its control and handing out easy money in return for loyal Democratic votes”

“We, on both sides, wrongly imagine that empathy with the “other” side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”

“At play are “feeling rules,” left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel — happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice. Such rules challenge the emotional core of right-wing belief.”

“Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.”

“What image of the government was at play? Was it a nosy big brother (the Coast Guard had checked for safely vests)? Was it a mind-controlling big brother (a federal instead of state Department of Education)? A bad parent playing favorites (affirmative action)? An insistent beggar at the door (taxes)?”

“A lot of liberal commentators look down on people like me. We can’t say the ’N’ word. We wouldn’t want to — it’s demeaning. So why do liberal commentators feel so free to use the ‘R’ word [redneck]?”

“A deep story is a feels-as-if story — it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgement. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world.”

“You turn to your workplace for respect — but wages are flat and jobs insecure. So you look to other sources of honor. You get no extra points for your race. You look to gender, but if you’re a man, you get no extra points for that either. If you are straight you are proud to be a married, heterosexual male, but that pride is now seen as a potential sign of homophobia — a source of dishonor. Regional honor? Not that either. You are often disparaged for the place you call home.”

“If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a “fair share” of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of “makers” and “takers.” For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right, it is down between the middle class and the poor.” For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector. Ironically, both call for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”

“In that story, strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful and afraid. A president allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land.”

“Whatever their family’s view of their own, however much sympathy they may have personally felt for blacks at the time, the public narrative was that the North had come to the South, as it had with soldiers in the 1860s and during Reconstruction in the 1870s, to tell Southern whites to change their way of life. History was on the side of the civil rights movement. the nation honored its leaders. Southern whites bore the mark of shame, again, even though, as one man told me, “We didn’t do those bad things.“

“Over time, new groups were added to older ones, and political and therapeutic cultures merged. Identity politics was born. Identities based on surviving cancer, rape, childhood sexual abuse, addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex work — these and more came to the media’s attention. It became a race “for the crown of thorns”…

“If a person said he or she was white, as a way of describing themselves in the manner of the Native American or black, they risked being seen as racist soldiers of the Aryan Nation. If they stood up to declare themselves proud to be male — unless they were part of a men’s group trying to unlearn traditional ways — they risked being seen as male chauvinists. If they called for recognition for their lifetime of experience, their age, they risked seeming like old fools in a culture focused on youth.”

Gender Mosaic by Daphna Joel and Luba Vikhanski (Non-fiction)

This book was fantastic — one of the few I’ve read that managed to completely shift the way I thought about something because the clear evidence-based ideas made so much sense in an area that has been utterly confusing to me for a long time.

Beginning with scientific studies on the structure and function of brain components and their correlation with sex, the book proceeded to question our concepts of sex and gender and ended with a discussion of what the world would be like without gender at all. The main message: get rid of the gender binary — it’s artificial and not linked (on a group level) to anything biological. Or as the authors put it — “stop dividing people by their genitals.”

Quick definitions: sex is what you are born with: XX chromosomes (female), XY chromosomes (male), and less than 1% born intersex (a mix). Gender is a social construct — socially acceptable options used to be man and woman, but the latest number of options on Facebook is 58!

Some of the main points (each illustrated with anecdotes and substantiated with solid research findings):
• There is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain — each human brain is a unique mixture — or mosaic — of features traditionally thought of as “male” or “female.”
• While there are some structures and functions in the brain (and hormonal systems) that are on average different for males and females (for example, males on average are better at spatial rotation), individually people fall on a spectrum of values for that aspect of brain function. For example, many females will be better at spatial rotation than the average for a male and the overlap for potential spatial rotation capabilities between males and females may be quite large. Very few individuals have an “all male” or “all female” brain based on those averages.
• Brain systems are not static — many influences such as stress, competition, or even spending time with an infant can shift the level of hormones in the system — including the “big 3”: testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone.
• Bias — often unintentional — exists. Most people do not want to be biased, and when it is pointed out to them in a non-confrontational and private way, they may even take steps to correct it.

The text is calm, measured, based on copious (and referenced) research and not political (thank you!). The examples and results from various research projects are absolutely fascinating. It is just technical enough to be interesting and sensical, but not overburdened by technical jargon that can muddy the point. The authors present a balanced view, explaining how gender norms can be problematic for both males and females, and they address many common questions and concerns that have been brought up during lectures. I really appreciated the non-confrontational approach to explaining bias and privilege.

On a personal level, I would be so much happier to get rid of thinking about gender at all rather than take on the cognitive load of trying to remember exactly which category each individual person wants to be part of for that particular day and having to use all the correct pronouns, names, and other associated gender paraphernalia. Wouldn’t it be easier to treat each person as an individual, complete with his or her (or some new pronoun) own preferences, habits, and interests? I know I was born female and never thought twice about it, but I never felt I was a “typical” woman — I hate shopping, don’t wear makeup, always paid my own way, and worked very comfortably in a male dominated field (computer science). I’m lucky that societal pressures never had much of an effect on me, but obviously it could have been much harder.

I underlined just about everything in this book, but here are some good quotes that I think get to the heart of their messages:

“Sex does affect the brain, and there are average differences between females and males in many brain features. But because of the interactions between sex and so many other factors, the effects of sex — that is, of being female or male — mix up in a unique way in the brain of each individual.”

“Even when they don’t find themselves in a shipwreck, men often get a raw deal by virtue of belonging to the group empowered by the patriarchal order. It is mostly men who die in droves in wars, are injured in work-related accidents, and feel compelled to become providers, often at the expense of following their hearts to a career in the arts or other non-bread-winning fields.”

“I hope that in the not-too-distant future, this idea will be taken for granted; that gender studies will be a history course; and that when the topic of gender comes up, children will need to ask their parents (or grandparents) to explain why on earth someone had once thought people had to be grouped by their genitals.”

“On the other hand, many people are happy to discover their own and others’ implicit biases, especially if you point these out to them in private and in a nonjudgemental manner (nasty comments on their Facebook wall are less likely to be welcomed). And if in the course of these revelations you become aware of the power or privileges granted to you by the gender system, why not use this power and these privileges to try to eliminate this system from our lives?”

“One objection that’s been raised at a lecture of mine is that even without gender, women and men would still behave differently because they differ biologically. I see no problem with that. On the contrary, if we believe that biology would drive the behavior of females and males apart, there’s surely no reason to introduce all those gender conventions to achieve the same end.”

“Gender is one of the prisons within which we live. It divides the world into things for males and things for females. And if we want things that are not on “our” side, we are punished by society.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger (Non Fiction)

A fascinating and thought provoking read. Guendelsberger — an unemployed journalist and previous editor of The Onion — goes “under cover” in three low-paying, highly monitored positions — all designed to handle massive amounts of personnel churn. She tries an Amazon fulfillment center at “Peak” (December), a Convergys call center, and a McDonald’s (located at the corner of Tourist and Homeless in downtown San Francisco).

This is part investigative journalism and part humorous memoir — Emily is FUNNY. I particularly valued the actual description of each job — the processes, the training, the working environment were fascinating — and her personal reflections on how each job made her feel and what coping strategies she personally had to put in place to last as long as she did. Each section included some background context (Frederick Winslow Taylor and the birth of management consultants, Henry Ford and the birth of the assembly line, the effects of long term stress on the human body, etc.) and a few interviews with co-workers.

I was less enamored of her conclusions on the “future of work” — jobs like these that are dehumanizing and “suck.” Techno-Taylorism — she may have coined this phrase — refers to applying technology to increase industrial efficiency — usually by monitoring employees’ every movement and issuing warnings, alarms, and omnipresent progress widgets to spur faster, more efficient work (and massively stressful and draining for the employee). According to Guendelsberger, the stress resulting from this externally sourced drive to suppress our humanity is the thing that is causing the American masses to spiral into depression, anger, and drug abuse. I was hoping for more of an “expose and propose” approach to the issues, but instead I got a “complain and throw up our hands” approach — suggesting that everyone simply go home and think about how to make this world a better place. I did find a lot to think about from reading this book, but I think the issues run a lot deeper than corporate greed and the stress of constant technological surveillance.

Overall a fast and completely absorbing read. Guendelsberger is an excellent writer and made the material easy to absorb. The writing was unapologetically personal. She was quite up front about knowing that she could (and would) quit any time, not having a family to support as many of her colleagues did, and admitting how personally unsuited she was for many of these tasks. There were times when I found myself thinking “ugh — another whining Millenial,” but I’m sure I would have been whining even more loudly, and although I wish there had been a few more interviews with colleagues, those that she included did present a broader and sometimes contradictory perspective to her own.

Her writing is my favorite part — I can hear The Onion in it. Some quotes:

“Right now though, exhaustion has shrunk my circle of empathy to the point that it’s barely big enough for myself. I didn’t know that could happen, and it’s not pleasant.”

“As a culture, we put far too much blind trust in data and technology. Math and logic are beautiful languages. But it’s so pretentious to pretend that they have adequate vocabulary to accurately describe a human, much less whether a human is happy or miserable. Our brains are the most complicated things in the known universe, with a hundred billion neurons making connections in a mind-bogglingly complex web that constantly changes. Our levels of technology aren’t remotely close to being able to accurately describe that mess, and they won’t be for a very long time. Numbers and statistics just aren’t up to communicating how something feels, even though that’s often extremely important information.”

“The constant monitoring I found so stressful doesn’t bother these women. I felt like someone was always watching in case I screwed up; they feel like someone’s taking note of the good work they do. All three have had to pick up slack from deadbeat coworkers at other jobs; when it’s obvious who’s working and who isn’t, you never end up doing someone else’s job on top of your own…”

“Why is the country ready to riot over jobs — immigrants taking them, trade deals killing them, Wall Street destroying them? Because these jobs suck donkey balls.”

“I frequently fantasize about MBAs from the F. Kafka School of Management cackling as they designed this system for maximum alienation, frustration and existential anxiety. I’m sure the reality is mundane, though — I’m guessing some rep figures out how to use Telegence to steal customer information, so upper management isn’t willing to risk letting any reps officially use it despite the lack of a functional replacements.”

“I often picture Crowley as the original designer of modern scheduling software, because it frequently feels like we’ve been understaffed at the precise levels that will maximize human misery on both sides of the counter.” (referring to the demon from Good Omens)

“I’ve been developing a sort of callus over the earnest part of myself that genuinely cares about the customers and wants to do a good job for them. It thickens every time someone says something terrible to me. As it gets tougher, I’ve become increasingly numb to my customer interactions, good and bad. It’s harder for angry people to upset me, but I get much less pleasure from making people happy. This dead muted feeling reminds me a lot of depression, and it worries me.”

“But at this moment, techno-Taylorism, the decline of organized labor, automation, and the ongoing destruction of the shark-cage worker protections have tipped the balance of power in the workplace way, way in favor of employers. It’s gotten so out of balance that even many workers seem to truly believe that the things that make them less efficient than sharks or robots are weaknesses — moral failings, like original sin.”

“Bezos then brainstormed a list of traits that make the public think of a company as “cool” or “uncool”. Uncool things: defeating tiny guys, rudeness, conquerors, hypocrisy, mercenaries, pandering. Cool things: the young, explorers, inventing, being polite, taking risks, empowering others, thinking big, authenticity, and winning — especially when you’re defeating bigger, unsympathetic guys.”

Generation Friends by Saul Austerlitz (Entertainment Industry)

A fun read for those of us who are big Friends fans (and apparently there are a lot of us). I’m not a big TV person — I don’t have cable, and usually just watch a single movie on DVD at night — but I loved Friends, owned all the DVDs, and it was definitely my go to in times of stress. I just never realized how popular it was with everyone else.

The book tracks the show from concept through the ten seasons to the offshoots, residuals, and “where are they now” recaps. Decent (and sometimes excellent) writing, a good structure, and comprehensive in scope, it has just the right amount of gossip and mixes plenty of pleasant recognition with surprisingly fresh insights. I also learned a lot about the making of TV — scheduling, showrunners, production companies vs networks, bidding wars, contract negotiations and some fascinating explanations of what went into the set and costume design.

I liked the first half better — the second half included a lot of bits that needed to be included to be complete but weren’t terribly interesting to me — one female writer’s hostile workplace suit, Matthew Perry’s addiction issues, etc. I didn’t always agree with the author’s conclusions, and sometimes felt there was too much episode recap, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a lot about how things work in an industry far away from my own.

Some fun quotes:
“Chase and Ungerleider had emerged from the same bookish East Coast Jewish milieu as Kauffman and Crane. Chase knew he could instantly summon that overly caffeinated, verbose, linguistically tricky voice.”

“Journalists pored over the results with the nuance of elderly Talmudists, intent on parsing the meaning of the message being sent by the American moviegoing populace.”

“Neither Crane nor Kauffman was familiar with the term going commando, but when the entire staff urged them to include it, asserting that their audience would instantly understand the reference, they acceded. (Eventually, the Oxford English Dictionary would credit Friends with one of the earliest recorded usages of the term.)”

“The world of Friends is notable, to modern eyes,” wrote New York’s Sternergh, “for what it encompasses about being young and single and carefree in the city but also for what it doesn’t encompass: social media, smartphones, student debt the sexual politics of Tinder, moving back in with your parents as a matter of course, and a national mood that vacillates between anxiety and defeatism.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (Non-fiction)

A blow by blow depiction of the sensational rise and fall of Theranos — the health technology startup founded by 19-year old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes in 2003. Her compelling vision: small devices that could perform hundreds of blood tests on a single drop within a short amount of time. For over fifteen years, she was able to convert this vision into big money (over $400 million raised) and big political connections (her board boasted big-name political enthusiasts such as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn) without any real breakthrough technology.  The scandalous story included strong-arm intimidation techniques on recalcitrant employees, drastic legal actions and threats against just about everyone, and general lying, cheating, and gross incompetence.

Easy to read and well-researched — the story is all based on interviews and depositions — and written by the man who first broke the story in the Wall Street Journal. While interesting, it’s not as cohesive or complete as it could have been and was completely one-sided. While that side is probably the correct side, I would have liked to at least hear what the other side said. However, what I’d really like to know is probably unknowable: Was Theranos always a scam or did the over-confident and over-encouraged Holmes really think she could do it, only falling into abhorrent behavior when things did pan out as expected? How did big partners such as Safeway and Walgreens agree to invest millions without any due diligence? What were people thinking as they got suckered in or were they thinking at all?  Why did Channing Robertson,  Stanford Professor of Engineering,  keep advocating for her when he of all people should have known better? (It’s just possible the 500k annual consulting fee might have something to do with that.)  The author does suggest a few answers. My favorite: “Like her idol Steve Jobs, she emitted a reality distortion field that momentarily forced people to suspend disbelief.”

For those wanting to know where Holmes is now: https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a26810723/elizabeth-holmes-now/.

The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction)

I was surprised at how much I loved this book. I’m a fiction reader and get easily bored (or horrified) by drawn out descriptions of battles, strategies, and political maneuvers. This book was fantastic because it focused on the “why.” The eponymous war (World War I) is literally the epilogue of this book. The first 600+ pages is on what happened in the 30+ years before that made the war possible … though not inevitable.

That is what really fascinated me about the story. MacMillan brings out the details of the individuals involved, the context of the time, the recent events, and the crises averted, to show that so many small things — had they gone just a little differently — might have averted the war that cost 8.5 million lives, with 8 million others missing, and 21 million wounded. Her style is ideal — every detail relevant, a cohesive structure that brings elements to light at the right time and a narrative style that brings the details together to make a coherent story. And no rambling! I don’t know why, but so many non-fiction writers seem to ramble endlessly!

In many places, the book read like a giant game of Risk. Large empires — some new (e.g. Germany had just unified in 1871), some dying (e.g. the Ottoman empire), some struggling to maintain the status quo (e.g. Austria Hungary) — each vying for status in the International community (largely by bickering over colonies and building up impressive militaries) while simultaneously dealing with internal strife in the form of nationalist movements from conquered peoples and new socialist / workers parties demanding rights. Philosophically, social Darwinism concepts had been introduced. Conrad, Austria Hungary’s chief of staff had the core belief (as did many others) that “existence was about struggle and that nations rose and fell depending on their ability to adapt.” MacMillan presents in-depth and well-documented character studies of all the players from the volatile and unpredictable Kaiser Wilhelm II, to his cousins, Britain’s Edward VII and the weak and unprepared Tsar Nicholas II (and his wife Alexandra — “a will of iron linked to not much brain and no knowledge”) to the spartan Franz Joseph of Austria Hungary as well as a panoply of prime ministers, ambassadors, military personnel and socialist leaders.

But my favorite line of all: “Finally…we should never underestimate the part played in human affairs by mistakes, muddles, or simply poor timing.”

As I read I kept having what I call my Gone With the Wind moments — I knew what was going to happen but I somehow kept hoping it would work out differently. With only verified quotes and actual events as material, MacMillan manages to convey the absolute desperation of many as the world drew closer and closer to war and the slow unraveling of the Concert of Europe. The description of this was chilling — rail and telegraph lines were cut, bank reserves were frozen, currency exchange stopped, trade stopped. “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.” (attributed to Sir Edward Grey, Britain Foreign Secretary in 1914). Although written in 2013 (pre-Trump), she often draws unnerving parallels between the situations in 1914 and those of our current time.

Some advice for reading — if you’re like me and find 600 pages of dense history overwhelming and off putting — read one chapter at a time and take as long as you like. The contents are so memorable that you can pick it up days later and not have forgotten a thing.