President Obama and His Reading Life

This January interview of President Obama and his reading life came up in my feed because of the rumor that Michiko Kakutani is leaving as book editor for the NY Times. (She is the one doing the interviewing.)

It’s such a good reminder of why we read: for the quiet reflection, for taking the time out to think about things when it’s so much easier now to switch on our phones, iPads and computers.

In my mid-twenties I traveled by myself through Europe for nine months and wouldn’t have an internet connection where I would stay. I spent a lot of time by myself reading, being a kind of hermit, and developing my own tastes. Tastes that were not dictated by popular media, what everyone else was reading, or what school or my professors told me to read. It was such a delicious way to read. There was no showmanship about it. It was such an intensely personal experience and totally mine. Those books I read during that time live in my mind. I probably have never discussed half the authors with anyone I know but they still inform and shape my point of view.

In Budapest I had cable TV and ended up watching a lot of documentaries on CNN. But I would have trouble writing about what I watched after because I would forget those bubbles of thoughts by the time I could write–at the end. It made me realize that books are made more for contemplation. A book carves out a space for silence and thinking. A book you can pick up and put down. A book you can stop and copy your favorite passages into a notebook. You can rest and think, “Wow, what a beautiful way to phrase it” or “I never thought of it in that way.” TV and movies just zoom on by in a way that are completely immersive (which I love too) but where I lose more of those interesting and provocative thoughts.

This interview is a good reminder of why I should read more and what I’m missing out by not doing it enough. Really, for the purest of reasons. To enter that space of meditation and quiet. To enjoy a book no one else may be reading, no rush, and then hold that book in my hand and think about what it means to me and if it changes how I view the world.

And what a loss to have had a president who understood the value of reading and taking the time to think more deeply about things and to where we are now.

From the Inimitable Zadie Smith

I watched an episode of the sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the one where it finally occurs to the main character that she might not be the hero of her own story. (She has this realization in song.) I’m not trying to be cute when I say that I could have written 5,000 words on it — I truly had what the Internet calls “many feels.” This is what I am looking for in art: feels. Intellectual, emotional, philosophical, religious, existential feels.

But the feels have to possess a certain amount of vertical depth. It’s like lowering a stone down into the well of yourself, and the further it goes the deeper it resounds. I am resistant to a lot of the Internet, not because I disapprove but because the feelings I personally draw from it seem to me shallow and don’t lead me anywhere useful or pleasurable. A lot of the social platforms provoke feelings in me I simply don’t enjoy. For a moment I am flattered, falsely puffed up, briefly amused, painfully hurt, or infuriated. I accept it feels different for other people, but I have to gravitate to the things that really interest and excite me while I’m alive.

It’s totally selfish on my part. I’m in the middle of my life, and I just don’t have enough years left to spend a large proportion of them inside an iPhone. For one thing, I know I would be an addict. I live inside my laptop plenty enough already. I don’t have a moderate temperate with these things. If I were going to live to 150, perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much spending half of every day online. But there’s so many things I haven’t read or seen or experienced. I want that vertical experience all the time — I’m very greedy that way.

(From Zadie Smith’s email to Lena Dunham in Lenny Letter)

From Marc Maron’s Conversation with President Obama

President Obama on Marc Maron’s podcast awhile back. I still think of this snippet of conversation a lot.

Obama: I was talking to somebody the other day about why I actually think I’m a better president and would be a better candidate if I were running again than I ever have been. And it’s sort of like an athlete—you might slow down a little bit, you might not jump as high as you used to, but I know what I’m doing and I’m fearless.

Maron: For real. You’re not pretending to be fearless.

Obama: Right, you’re not pretending to be fearless. And when you get to that point?

Maron: Freedom.

Obama: And also part of that fearlessness is because you’ve screwed up enough times that you know that—

Maron: It’s all happened.

Obama: It’s all happened. I’ve been through this, I’ve screwed up, I’ve been in the barrel tumbling down Niagara Falls, and I emerged, and I lived. And that’s such a liberating feeling. It’s one of the benefits of age. It almost compensates for the fact I can’t play basketball anymore.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Rocket Science

I told myself this today that updating a blog does not have to be rocket science. All I have to do is write what I’ve been thinking about for the last week. But it feels hard after everything that happened last week in the news.

I’ve been thinking on and off about an article I read a few weeks back called, “Choosing a School for my Daughter in a Segregated City” by Nikole Hannah-Jones:

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/12/magazine/choosing-a-school-for-my-daughter-in-a-segregated-city.html?_r=0

Hannah-Jones talks about the segregated school system in Brooklyn, New York as a microcosm for the education system in our country. How people buy and cram themselves into the good neighborhoods so their children can get into “good” schools. How schools are segregated as a result of housing costs (and a long history of housing discrimination) that it has left low-income primarily black and Latino children out of the more desirable, resource-flushed public schools in the area.

This is one of those articles that I read and stayed with me. Well-researched, especially on the history of segregation/integration in schools, and with a deeply personal angle, it hits all the marks of a resonant, thought-provoking article that really shook me up. When I was picking up my son, when I was reading up on the news last week, when I was cooking, when I was writing, and when talking with friends—it never left my brain because I knew Hannah-Jones spoke the truth. Our school systems are very, very segregated.

She writes, “Legally and culturally, we’ve come to accept segregation once again. Today, across the country, black children are more segregated than they have been at any point in nearly half a century. Except for a few remaining court-ordered desegregation programs, intentional integration almost never occurs unless it’s in the interests of white students.”

I saw it when we were at the wonderful Children’s Museum in Chicago. At the museum we saw groups of kids segregated by race all on their own separate field trips. There were groups of African-American kids, groups of white kids, and even a group of Asian-American kids (they were a Chinese school), who didn’t really mingle with one another. I remember how stark it was to see those divides before my eyes. I went home and looked it up online and found that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country. From what I see, similar things happen in the Bay Area.

But all the events from last week and this article have gotten me thinking about the racial injustices in our country. I’m starting to see some of the links: housing, education, law enforcement. And I cannot turn a blind eye. Schools play a huge part in this. It’s easy to get our kids into the “right” school system and then completely ignore the problem, but Hannah-Jones throws down the gauntlet when she writes:

True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural. Najya’s first two years in public school helped me understand this better than I ever had before. Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against. “My children,” he said, “only have one life.” But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregated schools. They have only one life, too.

A parable

Told by Rachel Naomi Remen in Krista Tippett’s Becoming Wise:

This was my fourth birthday present, this story. In the beginning there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. In the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. The wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand thousand fragments of light. And they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. This task is called Tikkun Olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world.

And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world. That story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.

—Rachel Naomi Remen (p 24-25)