Seeking to Understand an “Other”

In this time when states are banning medical trans care and denying the existence of trans people, it seemed important to explore memoirs written by trans people. I started with this one.

She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This well told life story is a timely read. It enables me as a cis gendered reader to come as close to understanding a trans experience as seems possible. Besides narrating James’ struggle to understand his perception of himself as a girl from an early age, it tells of his struggle to hide those thoughts and secret actions of dressing in women’s clothing. It tells of his struggle to suppress them in marriage. And it tells of the long process of determining, with professional consultation, whether to enter into transition and then once having decided, the slow steps taken toward full transition.

James/Jennifer was fortunate to have an understanding family. Occasional references to the experiences of other trans people show that is not the case for everyone. During the in between time James/Jennifer’s sons took it all in matter of factly saying on one occasion that their Daddy is a girlboy. Another time they decide no longer to call him/her “Daddy” but to shift to “Maddy.”

Much of the book was spent on others’ dealing with the secret feminine identity once it was revealed to them. Especially revealing were interactions with his/her buddy Russo and wife “Grace.” They too had to transition their relationships as Jennifer emerged. The importance of others was emphasized by ending the book with chapters by Russo and Deidre-“Grace.” It seems timely to note that many struggles occurred because Jennifer was allowed “out” only when Jennifer/James was in his/her 40s; given the advances in trans care and earlier diagnosis and treatment, many of the issues Jennifer/James faced would not have happened, like having to tell a wife.

Jennifer is a good writer, so I’m eager to read two other memoirs and some fiction

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Initials as a Design Feature

I’ve joined a small group, Rippin Robins, of my local quilt guild. This year’s project is a block swap. There are 6-8 of us and we’ll be making three blocks for each member. We’ll submit the block we want to make next meeting–have to have a back-up option in case two people choose the same block. I’ve chosen Dutchman’s Puzzle, Jacob’s Ladder, and London Roads; the latter is less common, so it is my insurance against others having chosen my choice. I’m guessing you are familiar with the first two; here is London Roads.

I love the humor of the block, but sometimes fear others will see it as carelessness.

We’ll circulate our bags with fabric and instructions once a month. Including fabric is optional. I think I want the backgrounds all to be the same so I’ll include that, plus a piece of the other two colors for people to use if they don’t have something similar in their stash and don’t want to buy fabric.

The challenge is the colors. They are to be selected based on our initials. Mine are C L A.

I started out listing colors as I thought of them, then asked friends for help and was directed to this link. I had fun browsing it for a while; then when that got cumbersome, I pulled out my Paintbox Studio Solids swatch card and looked for colors with the right starting letter. There were lots of Cs and As but very few Ls. Next I tried to find combinations I liked. The problem there was that I’d like a combination that had two Cs or two As, and that wouldn’t do. It was also difficult to get three values. But I managed.

My first choice was (L to R) Canyon, Lemon Ice, Abyss.

I like this combination, but in real life the Lemon Ice pops even more than it does in the photo. It seemed to me to be too bright for a background color, and the light would end up being the background for many blocks. So I had a back up: Canyon, Linen, Abyss. This is the one I think I’ll use.

I had another back up, Android, in case the blue turned out quite different from the swatch. (I’d had that happen once before when ordering online.)

I rather like these colors, but fear the Canyon and Android are too close in value. I like Abyss with Android, but 2 As are a no-no. Actually choosing colors by initials has been more fun than I’d expected it to be.

We aren’t limited to our initials for the setting fabric, so I’ll let my imagination wander. Just now I’m thinking of framing each block in Lemon Ice with a 1/8- to 1/2-inch frame. I’m planning ahead that all blocks might not be sized exactly, and that small bit of the brighter color will enliven the whole. As to the setting, I’ll wait till I see the blocks together to decide.

The goal is to have a finished quilt for next year’s quilt show and show them together.


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Ukrainian Novelist

Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m late to the party, since the publication date is 2018. Obviously current events drew me to a Ukrainian author writing about the area between Ukraine and the Separatist eastern area, albeit late. Now I have a new author to follow. Current events also made many place name familiar that otherwise could have been stumbling blocks. The Russian annexation of Crimea and attempted separation of Donetsk and Luhansk are past events in the novel, but fighting continues as Sergeyich and Pashka remain in the area between.

Since the two old guys are the only people left in a small town, and the story is told from the perspective of only one, there is a lot of the detail that one notices when alone, detail about surroundings and steps of performing a task. It is done well enough that it didn’t get tedious for me. And there are occasional encounters with other people in the early part, more later. There is much less flashback than I would have expected. It is a novel about survival as well as interpersonal negotiations. Yurkov gets mileage from dream sequences, from that liminal state where the dream and sounds of the actual present merge as well as his descriptions. Shifts from dream to wakeful reality are mostly clear as are the occasional ones from present to past. The pacing picks up around halfway through as encounters increase among the friendly and the unfriendly.

Sergeyich is likeable, though sometimes I find his lack of knowledge of the way the world works less than believable. When Sergeyich is in Crimea among the Tatars, his lack of knowledge of their culture is more fitting than some of his assumptions about government. His belief in the “treatment” of sleeping on the bee hives, I can accept as a rural superstition. His only neighbor, Pashka is interesting, but a little less likeable. The two, enemies from school days when Pashka was a bully, have a relationship of necessity. Sergeyich is generally closer to his bees than to people, though that begins to shift.

There is an almost constant suspense, though it increases and decreases throughout. I found myself alternately anticipating a doom that didn’t happen and blindsided by ones that do. Some of the endings I anticipated happened, others did not. And that is just about right for me.

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Birds and Neanderthals

The Smart Neanderthal: Cave Art, Bird Catching, and the Cognitive Revolution by Clive Finlayson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Actually there was more about birds than I was interested in, but the intersection of bird study with Neanderthal study was fascinating. Description of birding expeditions was more interesting than the lists of birds here and there; description of excavation strategies was extremely helpful in understanding better how the process is done.

Finlayson has a thesis that has become more common these days: Neanderthals were more cognitively able than they have been given credit for being. He approaches it through studying the birds found in the Neanderthal caves, their habitats and their behavior. He challenges the then current view that our earliest ancestors could capture and eat only slow moving animals while more advanced ancestors could develop the skills to hunt faster animals like birds and rabbits. The presence of bird remains in the Neanderthal caves is one argument. The behavior of birds that count on camouflage, so freeze rather than flee, is another. The behavior of nesting birds yet another, showing a need for Neanderthals to observe, remember, and plan the timing of their hunts rather than mere chance at capturing whatever animal came by.

He also explores ornamentation and symbolic behaviors. With the help of other experts, bones are studied. Bones are distinguished between those introduced by human action (a high percent) and those by animal action. Marks showing cooking and use of tools are explored. Some birds are shown to have marks on wing bones only, suggesting their value was feathers for decoration rather than meat–decoration being another feature reserved for early modern humans, not Neanderthals, at the time.

There are listings at the end of species mentioned through the book; it would have been more useful as an index with pages listed so that the interested could refer back to the references. An index would also have been helpful to identify the many mentioned people who worked on various aspects of the studies to aid someone interested in specific scientists. But of greater weight than the absences is the scale of data elevating the reputation of Neanderthals.

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How to Think Like a Woman: Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Love the Life of the Mind by Regan Penaluna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went to the book talk skeptically, fearing essentialism. It didn’t take long to be reassured that there was parody in the title. instead, as I listened to the talk and reading. Penaluna first read from the early chapter where she surveys what the canonical philosophers had to say about women, some comments pleasingly snarky, before telling more of her life story and a quick summary of the four women she had focused on.

Though Penaluna started in philosophy, she ended up in journalism (the book tells of the journey), so the book is quite readable. She makes the mix of memoir and survey work by fitting the survey into her life, telling how the search affected her progress toward independence from a field filled with misogyny. Not only does she expand the who (in the chapter, “Bedtime Stories,”) by surveying time and geography to list many women philosophers, she also expands the questions that are considered philosophy beyond those the of the canonical collections. I especially appreciated her shift from wanting to include women in the canon to abandoning the canon. She broadened my understanding of where philosophy could be found: sometimes in treatises, yes, but also in poetry, novels, letters and more.

A pleasant and informative read.

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Returning to the Topic of Police/Prison Abolition

No More Police: A Case for Abolition by Mariame Kaba

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Written in 2022, this book takes advantage of books written before. But there is much more than a survey of previous works. Various views are put in conversation with each other, their differences explored. And there is much that was new to me.

One thing that has been mentioned in other books I’ve read is presented more emphatically in this book: readers can’t comprehend the possibility of a world without police unless they are able to re-imagine society. And much space is devoted to that re-imagining, including a discussion of nation-states, something I’d not seen before in a discussion of prison/police abolition. More familiar was the discussion challenging the view that police make us safe. Readers are asked to envision what real safety would look and feel like. Also the authors critique some alternatives that folks have proposed (such as house arrest, mandatory drug treatment) as policing/imprisoning in a different form–by someone other than police sent somewhere other than prison–which they call “soft policing.” This type “solution” is further evidence of not re-imagining the whole of society, of not getting out of punishment mode.

I was surprised when the authors challenged the view that abolition was a new idea; not only did they claim it had been studied 20+ years, they cite many works and experiences. It occurred to me that the impression of newness may be a white thing; the concept was new to us white people with the George Floyd protests. Not new to Black people who have had a different relationship with police.

Discussions of different approaches to safety were more robust than I recall from earlier reading. There was acknowledgement that their evidence was anecdotal, but the authors claim that demanding a blueprint of the alternative society is premature for a concept in formation. They describe our tendency to be linear, to seek to have a full alternative in place before dismantling the police. Rather, they claim, the processes could be concurrent: proposed reforms that do not strengthen policing as a system can be tried alongside various smaller scale approaches to accountability that replace punishment with healing for both the victim and offender. And I appreciated their realism: everything tried may not work, but we can evaluate experiments and learn from what doesn’t work as well as from what does.

Totally unique to this book–at least among those I’ve read–is the final chapter, “Black Feminist Musings.” The chapter combines concluding summary of the book with quotations from feminist scholars, some familiar and some new to me.

If you’re new to the subject it provides an overview. If you’ve done some reading, there is much here worth adding. It ends with a twofold call to action: for those not yet convinced, stay open and keep exploring; for those convinced, start acting.

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Slow Progress SAHRR

My attention has been elsewhere, but I have been sewing a few square-in-a-square blocks together. So of course I had to see how the strips fit and how the border iss going to look.

And the first thing I saw was that the strip was bigger than the top. So I’ll have to make a coping border. I realize now why it is larger. I’d measured, and knew the blocks had to be a hair bigger, which could be accomplished by a scant seam attaching them. However, I also took seams a thread under 1/4-inch while attaching the triangles to the squares. Oops. Well it turns out for the good. Actually I think I’ll like the bit of space between the rows better than had they been side by side.

Then I noticed a corner problem.

I’d planned ‘dark’ on the outside and light on the inside, but totally spaced that the corners would need different treatment.

Of course that was easy enough to remedy.

Luckily I am no longer as allergic to ripping as I once was. So now I’m ready to stitch the other two rows and see if the four end up the same and then do the necessary adjusting and calculating of the coping border, and I’ll be on my way again.

I can also see that there is no way it looks finished, though I had already been planning to add borders to the six that were prompted by the project. Now it is good to see that the design needs more, so it won’t look like mere space filer because I need the quilt to be bigger.


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A Study of Objectvity in Journalism

The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity by Lewis Raven Wallace

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I started out reading this book already sympathetic to the view that total objectivity is not possible; we all have a position. But there was much more to learn, and Wallace opened up many aspects in general as well as those that apply specifically to journalists.

I appreciated Wallace’s breaking “objectivity” into parts: “detachment, nonpartisianship, …inverted pyramid . . . , facticity, and balance” (7). Among these, “detachment” and “balance” get the most scrutiny and “facticity” gets the strongest support. Wallace points out the conflict when organizations seek writers from various minorities to increase diversity then forbid them to write on areas they are involved in; i.e., the areas of their diversity. And challenged is a “balance” that involves right vs. left to the exclusion of other potential differences, like male/female or rich/poor to name a few.

I found the early history of objectivity in journalism, including the history of public broadcasting, quite interesting. Only Ida B. Wells was familiar to me. Wallace illustrates how the selection of what is/isn’t newsworthy depends on the perspective of the deciding editor and his/her determination of the audience more than an objective status of the event and asks, “When ‘objectivity’ responds to public perceptions, which public is it” (7). Another example shows Wallace as editor passing over an episode of a person killed while shopping for a BB gun a couple weeks before Michael Browne’s murder in Ferguson when protests brought a killing to focus that might have otherwise also been overlooked. Another example, burying a demonstration of thousands while giving front page to one of 50. Subsequent chapters focus on a particular issue and how journalists involved in the issue have been excluded and what, therefore, has been lost: labor unions, Vietnam, and AIDS among others. The book is filled with experiences and stories, those of Wallace and of other reporters, and is quite readable. Wallace identifies as transsexual, which makes the chapter explaining the need for insiders’ perspectives on trans issues helpfully clarifying in a time when transsexual issues have become the issue d’jour.

Wallace shares findings of other writers on journalistic objectivity, which adds several books to my to-read list while some feel like the summary is enough. One provides the frame for much analysis, dividing ideas into concentric circles: those commonly held, ideas that may be contested, and ideas beyond discussion. The chapter on AIDS traces the movement from fringe to center.

The conclusion emphasizes curiosity over objectivity, that objectivity usually reinforces the status quo, and in concluding offers some discussion of the difference between ‘multiple truths’ and ‘alternate facts.’ An important book as well as interesting.

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70273 Revisited

This quilt was finished and entered into my local guild show in 2020, and the show got canceled along with many other events due to Covid-19. So it finally got into the guild show this year. This year was the first year they had a professional judge, so I was extra excited to get 2nd place in art quilts. Here’s the history of the quilt for those new to my blog since then.

I have another reason for writing about it again. The book, Bloodlands, that I recently read and reviewed , gave some more information about the number. Not only had I always thought 70273 was too small, but also the leader of the quilt project said that more had likely been killed, as she accepted blocks after the 70273 goal was reached. But I’d never taken time to research it. Imagine my surprise to come across the number while reading Snyder’s book!

Snyder explains the history of the “Final Solution”: first it was to move Jews out of Germany, not to kill them, and there were three sites chosen. Two were rejected because the governments refused and the third because the British blockade prevented the transfer by ocean. Jews were initially sent to concentration camps (Snyder distinguishes concentration camps from death factories.), where they were used as laborers till they died. When lack of food was more urgent than need for labor, they were killed most often by shooting squads. However, that was inefficient, so a new method was sought and found in an earlier program.

Earlier Hitler’s attempt to “purify” the German race led to the project to exterminate people with mental or physical disabilities, and a death factory system was invented, It stopped when Hitler got too much objection to killing citizens. The total when it stopped was 70273. But the death factory system became the model for what we now know of as the Holocaust.


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A Good Mystery

I don’t usually blog about my lighter reading–but here’s one just so you know I don’t always do only serious stuff.

So Shall You Reap by Donna Leon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the better books in this series. All the pieces end up being part of the solution. (Sometimes Leon inserts side issues that remain side issues.) The family relations, especially parent/child, are interesting, Guido’s awe over Venice architecture kept to a minimum. (Some of the past volumes have erred with too much, sounding like tourist brochures.) I did read the series in order, thus have been watching the family dynamics, the young ones’ development, Guido’s evolving attitudes, and enjoy them as much as the whodunnit aspect of the novels. These have managed not to become soap operas in their repetition.

The whodunnit was convincing, clear enough for me to anticipate some, but not all, of the ending. Electra was away at a conference, so I thought maybe here would be a novel without the expected deus ex machina of her computer skills; however, she returned early and her skills did bring everything into focus. Still it wasn’t as dominant as it sometimes is. Altogether a satisfying read.

If you want to read these, I do re comment you read them in order. They start with Death at La Fenice.

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