Black Lives Matter

I wasn’t looking forward to writing this post. I didn’t want to feel the pain, anger, and frustration that I knew would be part of writing it. I could have chosen not to write it. And that is the definition of my privilege.

If I get off social media and avoid the news I can even in these extraordinary times avoid being confronted by and having to think about racism. I can only do that because of my white privilege. Several times this week I have been brought to tears by what I watched online or read on social media and in the newspaper. It’s tempting to wish things go “back to normal”. For many black people, “normal” means having to deal with prejudice, being called names, and having to be afraid of the police. For black people, racism is always there. If things go back to normal the only difference is that it will no longer be in the news.

For Europeans, it’s tempting to think that racism happens far away or that it happened long ago. Slavery around the world officially ended around 150 years ago. In some places, it’s not even that long. The Netherlands was one of the last countries in Europe to abolish slavery, after being pressured to do so by the British.
Once slavery was officially abolished not much changed, other than people not officially being someone’s property anymore. Governments felt bad for the slave owners, who had been accumulating wealth for a long time by working people to death in inhumane circumstances without paying them or even treating them like human beings. Because slave owners had suffered so much (yes, I’m being sarcastic), governments compensated them for the loss of their “property”.
Slaves, who had nothing, were in many cases forced to continue work on the plantations of their former owners while still hardly receiving any payment for their work, let alone compensation for the fact that they had been working in inhumane conditions and for free for years.
Remember, this was all only around 150 years ago.

We have to be honest with ourselves and recognize that racism is still happening everywhere. The idea that black people are worth less or deserve less has been part of our culture for centuries and it has been institutionalized too. In The Netherlands, we feel like we’re nice and progressive but I’m a lot less likely to be stopped by the police or have my tax returns reviewed than a black person is. I’m never asked where I’m from and I’ve never been refused entrance to public transport. Oh, and there are still plenty of people who feel “black Piet” is folklore and because of that can’t be racist. If you are a white person I challenge you to watch this short video (Being Black by Jane Elliott) and answer the question that Jane Elliot is asking honestly. Then ask yourself why you deserve to get treated better than most black people. It’s the skin color that you happen to be born with that earns you that privilege. It’s not an achievement. It’s pure luck. And (institutionalized) racism.

Now is the time to stand up and speak out against the injustice of racism. You might feel that you are only one person. That you won’t be able to make much of a difference. But you can help. Everyone can.

  • You could join one of the protest marches around the world. These huge marches are made up of a lot of people who are all just one person looking to make a change.
  • If you are in a COVID-19 risk group and can’t be outside in crowds at the moment or if you’re simply not the marching type, you can go onto social media and make sure you extend your filter bubble a bit by also following some black people. Listen to them and believe them when they share their experiences. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Then share their stories. Your friends are probably not all following the same people, so by sharing you’re extending people’s reach.
    If you’re not on social media you can help by calling out racism in your friends and family. Not by calling them a racist. No one has ever been convinced to change their opinion through name-calling. Have a calm conversation with them. Explain why you feel their views are problematic.
  • To be able to talk to your friends and family and to increase your understanding of the challenges black people face make sure you make an effort to educate yourself.

I have put together some resources that you can help to educate yourself. Many of these are mentioned all over social media at the moment and Google is your friend. If you don’t live in the US or the UK you might have to work a little bit harder to find local resources, especially if you want to donate.

If your thing is reading consider one or more of the following books. The first three are fiction, the last three are non-fiction.

  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  • Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • How to Argue With a Racist – Adam Rutherford
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • How To Be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi

The last title has an important message that you might have heard more often in these last few weeks. We are at a point where not being racist isn’t enough anymore. You have to be anti-racist. Which means taking a stand and calling out racism when you see it. At the very least.

You can also watch the following films or documentaries.

  • 13th
  • The Central Park Five
  • I am Not Your Negro
  • 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
  • And so many more that it’s easier to have a look yourself

Or if you prefer podcasts you could listen to

  • About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Code Switch by the NPR
  • The Stoop with Hana Baba and Leila Day
  • Momentum: A Race Forward Podcast
  • Scene on Radio Season 2 – Seeing White

You can also donate to help out if you have the financial means.

Whatever you do please help make sure things don’t go back to “normal”. Let’s work together to use the current momentum to bring about lasting change. It won’t be easy or quick, we have to undo hundreds of years of cultural and institutional racism. It won’t be comfortable either. We will make mistakes and be called out for it. It will hurt. Hopefully, we’ll learn from it and do better next time.
Also realize that we are so used to our privilege that equality might feel like oppression. Continue to challenge yourself. There is no excuse for treating one group of people better than another.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter2

The Inheritance

When reading the book of a play it can be hard to get into the story. The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez doesn’t have this problem. The way the story is told is very smart. It’s understated. The topics are heavy but they are dealt with in what feels like an almost breezy way.
A group of men want to write a book and we are following along as their story takes shape. When things get rough, we pop out of the main storyline to the writers talking about the story and the characters.
The book is intense and peaceful at the same time.
The writers remain unnamed. They are young man 1 to 8 without specific backgrounds and stories. It’s the characters they create that are being brought to life.

In the end we’ll all become stories. But the same life can end up being a wildly different story depending on who tells it and what is put into focus. We naturally see the world from our own point of view. We are by definition the literal center of our own lives. Do you see yourself as the hero or the victim? Are you the star or the supporting character?

In the book Toby wants to be the hero. He wants his life to be grand and compelling. If the past or the present aren’t grand enough he will tell the story so that it fits his narrative. Eric is one of the very few people who know Toby’s real story. He loves Toby and supports him in his attempts to become a successful writer.
Eric feels that his own story is unremarkable. He is happy to let Toby take center stage and to allow him to shine.

Eric likes to stay in the background and let other people grow. It’s a pattern that repeats itself throughout his life. I’d like to argue that it’s often those who feel unremarkable who go on to do extraordinary things. They don’t do it for glory. They might not even realize that what they are doing is special. When you point out their achievements to them, they often reply with “but I only” as a way to downplay their efforts and impact.
People like Eric are good company. They bring selfless joy to others while the glamorous and extravagant mostly think about themselves.

People focused on winning and being successful might not even notice who they are hurting while trying to achieve their dreams. I don’t think they are malicious. A lot of them are driven by insecurity and a need for affirmation. They would probably benefit more from therapy than from success.
After all, when you do become successful, people you don’t even know are watching your every move. Criticizing even the tiniest (perceived) stumble to compensate for their own insecurities. It’s a vicious circle.

For Toby, success also doesn’t bring what he had hoped it would. Like many who are relentlessly chasing success, he leaves behind a path of destruction and his story fizzles out well before its time.
What I’m trying to say is pay attention to the people around you. Don’t take your friends and family (and co-workers) for granted. Also take notice of people who are just passing by. To paraphrase Tim Minchin:
“Be kind. If in doubt, double down and be kinder. Not only will it make your life better, but it is really good career advice. So just be kind. It will bite you on the ass if you’re not.”

Be kind to the Eric’s in your life. To the quiet people around you who are providing support in the background. Who have a big impact by helping others find their strength and grow. We all want to be happy and live a rewarding life. We just have very different definitions of what rewarding looks like.
Don’t harass a quiet person for being non-demonstrative. Still waters run deep. They might be making extraordinary things happen.
I, for one, hope that one day I can be as selfless and as patient as Eric Glass. He’s as beautiful as the story that brought him to life.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I just read The Perks of Being a Wallflower for the first time, I hadn’t seen the film either.
The book is about 15-year old Charlie, who we get to know through his letters to an anonymous friend. The target audience of the book is probably young adults and not 40-year old’s but I enjoyed reading it.
It’s very different from most books and it kept surprising me until the very end.

Charlie is a bit different from most kids at his school but I felt he was easy to empathize with. Charlie struggles to make friends and has no idea how to connect with other people, let alone fit in.
His English teacher Bill encourages him to “participate” more. And as Charlie tries to please everyone around him he does try to participate.
While he doesn’t interact with his classmates and peers much, he does become friends with a group of seniors. At times he almost comes across as well-adjusted but internally Charlie still suffers. He doesn’t talk about his problems. He turns to alcohol and drugs to take the edge of his feelings. He chooses alcohol and drugs because it means he doesn’t have to bother anyone else with his problems.

The perks of being a wallflower3

Towards the end of the book, Charlie’s friend Sam tells him to stop trying to please everyone else and to say and do what he wants and needs. To me, this was the most touching part of the book. It made me realize that it’s a fine balance to find between trying to please everyone and forgetting about your own needs and being egocentric and only seeing things from your point of view.
We see plenty of the latter around us. Characterized by a lack of empathy and sometimes (like when people are protesting for the end of lockdowns) by a lack of intelligence. We don’t hear so much about people-pleasing others to the point where they forget about themselves. It’s not as visible and it’s usually silent.

I often lean towards the pleasing side. I don’t like conflict and I have an abundance of empathy. This makes it easy to find excuses for people’s inconsiderate behavior. For long stretches of time, the approach seems to work well until the pressure of small annoyances and not standing up for myself builds up too far. At that point, it has to come out and because it has been building it doesn’t always come out in a well thought through and moderate way.
Like Charlie, I should speak up more often.

All the working from home these days creates an interesting opportunity for experimenting. Because so many variables have become fixed it’s easier to consciously tweak the ones that are still flexible.
During the first weeks of lockdown, I felt confused and shocked, like most people I think. Once I had gotten used to it I was a bit ashamed to feel excited and happy. No commute means a lot more time to do other things. Without distractions during the day I can work very efficiently. Not having any events and dinners means that my evenings are all mine to spend as I like. I felt like life was finally being lived on my introvert terms, creating a lot of mental space and freeing up oodles of energy that would normally go towards socializing and attending events and dinners.

For a couple of weeks, I’ve spent the extra energy on running (a lot of running) and practicing piano more often. This last week being at home and in almost complete control of what happens, things have gotten too flat. I only recognized this as I finished reading the book, although I had felt restless for a couple of days. Running is only physically challenging. I’m not good enough on the piano yet to set myself a significant challenge on it.
I miss being pushed out of my comfort zone occasionally. The best solution would be for me to challenge myself more. That way I can decide the type of challenge I want to set and how hard I want to push.

One challenge that I keep thinking about is “how to be a rebel and fight injustice like an introvert?”. I would like to convince people of the errors of their ways through rational arguments and respectful conversations and exchanges of ideas. It’s probably a utopia and it’s unlikely to happen, but I’ll think about it some more.
If you also have some time and energy on your hands I recommend reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower and letting it surprise you. Who knows what unexpected inspiration it might provide for you.

The Demon-Haunted World

In The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan explains how science works and why skepticism and critical thinking are important. The book is probably more relevant today than it was when it was published in 1995. With the internet at the center of many of our lives and social media allowing everyone to publish and share information, it is critical that we are able to evaluate what we see, hear, and read.

With a lot of non-fiction books, I feel that they are longer than necessary. After about 70% it often feels like the author repeats themselves or like there are too many examples to illustrate a concept.
The Demon-Haunted World is the opposite. It starts a bit slow for me. That’s not surprising as the book aims to explain science and critical thinking for someone with no prior knowledge of either.

The subjects that Sagan touches on are very broad. He details the injustices of the witch trials and talks about people who think they have been abducted by aliens. The parallels that can be drawn between them are interesting.
There are also people, especially in the US, who believe that aliens live among us and that the government knows this but is covering it up. Perhaps that explains a thing or two about the “situation” in the White House today. On the other hand, if there are aliens who are smart enough to travel through galaxies I don’t see how they would let Trump happen. Or, if they couldn’t stop it I assume they have buggered off to their own worlds again. Who would stay for this car crash if they didn’t have to?

Most people who claim to remember things that didn’t happen are genuine. They believe that they were kidnapped by aliens. This is not as crazy as it sounds. Our memories are incredibly unreliable. It’s easy to make someone “remember” something that never happened. A remarkable example is the fact that Reagan during his presidency regularly told stories from his past that turned out to be scenes from films that made a strong impression on him. It’s also quite common to remember a memory from someone close to you as your own. Our minds are fascinating but unreliable.

To support our fallible brains Sagan has included a “baloney detection kit” in the book. Here is my top 5 from the kit:

  1. Look for independent confirmation of the “facts”
  2. Arguments from authority don’t carry more weight than other arguments. Arguments from experts do carry more weight but are still open to scrutiny
  3. Try not to get overly attached to your own hypothesis or opinion. Keep an open mind for new and better ideas and hypothesis (but if you open your mind too much your brain might fall out)
  4. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain needs to hold up to scrutiny, not just some of them
  5. Ockham’s razor: if two hypotheses explain the data equally well choose the simplest one that introduces the least amount of new assumptions

What I like about Sagan and this book is his focus on how to communicate. By “waxing superior and contemptuous” about skepticism and science you are unlikely to convince anyone. Skepticism can come across as arrogant and heartless and it doesn’t have to be either.
We all cherish our beliefs and when someone challenges them this can feel like a personal assault. Whether your beliefs are related to aliens, witches, religion, or science doesn’t matter. Sagan asks “to temper our criticism with kindness”. To apply finesse when we share our believes and opinions. We all have different backgrounds, which means that we come to these discussions with different toolkits and baselines.

The way Sagan talks about curiosity, kindness, and communication inspires me. It makes me excited about communicating complex things in simple terms. About making people feel safe but also interested in learning and gaining knowledge.
I’m not a scientist myself. I don’t naturally ask a lot of questions. Even in a fairly simple conversation, I have to remind myself to ask questions. I’m not sure why. Part of it has to do with the need to process new information before I feel comfortable enough to voice my opinion about it. Maybe another reason is that for several years while in school the safest option was to be invisible and not draw attention to myself.

The Demon-Haunted world makes me want to be more naturally curious, but it mostly makes me long to be a writer or a journalist. I would love to try and share science, skepticism, and critical thinking in a way that allows people with all sorts of different believes to open their minds a little bit. I might figure out how and where to do this eventually. Until then I encourage you to read The Demon-Haunted World. There is something in it for everyone and Carl Sagan made communicating about science an art form.

Every one of us is, in a cosmic perspective, precious.

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Fetch Phillips is in his early thirties, but he has lived more lives than most of us will in a lifetime.
He is by no means a traditional protagonist, but author Luke Arnold did a great job creating a character with many layers. Fetch has some admitted, significant character flaws but I found him easy to empathize with. He has a knack for making the wrong decisions or perhaps is just very unlucky in the way his decisions work out. Most likely it’s a combination of both.
I started reading The Last Smile in Sunder City at the recommendation of Tim Minchin and I recommend that you read it too. I loved this book.

Fetch is a Man for Hire. He is hired by the principal of Ridgerock Academy, a cross-species school. He is asked to find the school’s history and literature teacher Edmund Albert Rye. Rye is a vampire, but in a world where all magic has disappeared vampires are old and frail. Most vampires are languishing after the coda took their powers away. Not Rye though, he has made peace with the situation and is enjoying passing on some of his knowledge by teaching at the school and tutoring kids on the side too.

When the magic disappeared the world became bleak and dark and life became harsh. The elves named the moment the coda reasoning that the world had been singing a song since the day it was born, but that it was about to come to an end.
A very fitting name, looking at the definition of coda on Wikipedia:
“In music, a coda is a passage that brings a piece to an end. Technically, it is an expanded cadence. It may be as simple as a few measures, or as complex as an entire section.”

Fetch tries to live a good life and feels much better when he’s helping people and generally being a good person. However, he slips up easily and often and it makes him feel bad. Feeling bad makes him drink and fight, which makes him feel even worse. He hasn’t had it easy. He has lived with heartbreak for most of his life and he has always felt like an outcast.
Fetch, like a lot of us, shows his best side in the face of adversity. We work better together when we are trying to overcome an evil that is bigger than ourselves. Unfortunately, as soon as a glimmer of hope appears we’re willing to kill each other for it.

A lot of The Last Smile in Sunder City feels like it was written as a metaphor for the situation that we are in today. Professor Rye writes:
“And thus, we enter this strange new world. A simpler world. It may not be as bright or as loud as the eons leading up to it, but this is the time that fate has chosen for us. Life once felt so grand and meaningful. This new world is hushed. … If there is a future, that’s how it will be determined. Not by winning wars or medals or fame, but by searching out into the darkness and, when you find it, holding up the light.”
It seems fitting, but the book could also be a metaphor for being human in general. It’s about our struggle to do the right thing and how to deal with feelings of disappointment and guilt when things don’t work out as we had hoped they would.

Fetch looks towards alcohol and books to allow him to escape into another world for a bit.
I, in turn, enjoyed following him around and experiencing a bit of life in Sunder City.
I’m happy to be back home now, but I’m looking forward to visiting Sunder City again in the future.
Luke Arnold has created an intricate world and he has written a marvelous book about it.