Reflections from Yosemite and Infinite Jest-ing

Ansel Adams-style

Spending half a week in Yosemite allowed me to pause.

Just a forest, two travelers, and a tent. Well, we brought more than that with us, but the emphasis was on the basic and essential things we needed for a few days away.

I left home intending to conquer, to see Yosemite Valley from the top of some peak. Instead, I learned an important lesson from the woods: It’s not always about how far you can push yourself.

When it came down to planning our hikes, I just didn’t feel up to the ones labeled “very strenuous” that would have positioned us for those heady, breathtaking views. So over a few days we hiked the valley floor and spent a luxurious day on the shore of Lake Tenaya. It was a gorgeous and needed experience, even as I had to battle feeling guilty for not climbing something tall and unwieldy to tell stories about later.

At our campsite and hiking around I noticed that we were some of the only people of color around, which, while not a surprise, has me thinking about the culture of outdoorism and how different kids grow up. My partner and I chose to explore the woods by buying camping gear and picking campsites and choosing routes and planning tiny stove meals. We taught ourselves, it wasn’t something we remember from childhood. During this trip, I was amazed at how many white families had chosen to camp with small children, probably wanting to instill some sense of the great outdoors from a young age.

I’m wondering how the woods can become that familiar and accessible to families of color also. Without idealizing the concept of “nature,” I would hope that its concrete benefits like stress reduction, fitness, and emotional development are something that one day all people will feel comfortable enjoying. Professor Carolyn Finney has a book that I would love to read on this topic called Black Faces, White Spaces, where she explores “the perceived and real ways in which nature and the environment are racialized in America.”

Speaking of books, I started reading David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest on my trip, and so far have been blown away. Not too long ago I saw End of the Tour, the movie produced about an interview Wallace did with a Rolling Stones reporter before Wallace’s death. While I found the movie itself a little slow, it sparked my interest in him again as an author and was the impetus I needed to finally start Infinite Jest, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time.

I was surprised at first to find myself wanting to write about Wallace, a white male, on this blog which is most often about diversity and social justice. But I think what really intrigues me about his writing, aside from some astoundingly well-crafted prose, is the fact that he sought so deeply to universalize the human experience. It’s easy to go too far in that endeavor — trying to be race-blind or gender-blind, or any other kind of blind that doesn’t really further our understanding of ourselves as people — and I’ll of course be keeping an eye our for that. But as for now I’m really looking forward to giving it a more full review once I get through the 900+ pages and 200+ footnotes. Onward.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

I felt the way I often felt in this country – simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore.
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

the book of unknown americans

I picked up The Book of Unknown Americans thinking that maybe it would read as a familiar immigration narrative where a family moves to the U.S. for a better life, faces lots of hardship, and eventually works its way into a somewhat decent living and into the fabric of American culture. Pleasantly, Henríquez plays around with the story format I was familiar with and creates a new and complex one.

Maribel and her parents Alma and Arturo make up a Mexican family who decided to move to the U.S. when Maribel has an accident that causes her brain damage. They move to Delaware in hopes of getting Maribel into a special rehabilitative school that can help her regain some of her past personality and mental health. The story is rich with relationship dynamics of love, guilt, obligation, and trust, both within Maribel’s family and among the rest of the characters.

Right off the bat I loved that this story centered on someone in a different mental state from the other characters in the book. Besides reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time a long time ago, I can’t remember too many stories I’ve picked up that have mentally-variant main character.

Each chapter in the book is told by a different character in the Latino housing complex that Maribel’s family moves into. Henríquez really brings out her characters and the multitude of joys and challenges in their lives through the alternating narrative format, which I enjoyed. The word “community” rises strongly to mind.

I also really liked how the book tackles the sensitive topic of “legal” vs. “illegal” immigration status, showing the real injustice of having to have one’s visa sponsored by an employer in order to immigrate legally. All kind of unpleasant consequences are created by that system, even while it can provide some opportunities.

I won’t give away the ending, but I have to say that was the one part of the book I was a little disappointed with. I felt that some of the complexity fell away and left me a little unsatisfied. But maybe not everyone feels that way — I’d love to hear other thoughts.

4Stars24/5 stars

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.

Seeing Cities

Who Is Oakland
Intro wall for Oakland Museum’s “Who Is Oakland” exhibit.

Glancing through a national magazine this week I saw an article about Oakland that started with this:

Talk about core strength: Oakland’s urban center has gone from dodgy to trendy as newcomers fill its forgotten architectural gems with happening new restaurants, bars, and shops.

Hearing such remarks about Oakland doesn’t surprise me anymore — in fact it’s pretty much all I’ve heard about Oakland from people who don’t live here, as well as from a lot of the people who do. But it still makes me sad. The underlying message is that Oakland wasn’t a place to be before the “newcomers” arrived to make it spiffy and fun.

Full disclosure: I’ve only been in Oakland a few years myself. So I can’t say from personal experience what it was like in the past. But I know that thousands of people lived here. Diversity abounded. There were local jobs, and plenty of people grew up and raised families here. In short, Oakland was home to many, many people, just as it is today.

I would never want to sugarcoat it and say that Oakland was perfect before. The city has, and always will struggle with a variety of the issues that dense places tend to struggle with. And again, I wasn’t here to make any definitive statements about what the before looked like. But what I’m wishing is that we could at least respect peoples’ history here. I want us to stop pretending that Oakland was just some vacant wasteland of crime and poverty before the people with money decided they wanted to invest in the city again. That story just isn’t true.

I’m worried about the way that new folks approach the cities that are repopulating with wealth and whiteness across the U.S. When we get somewhere new to visit, to live, are we really looking for the good things that are already here, or are we looking to make that place ours and fill it with the things that are important to us?

Maybe it’s an overly-rosy view to think that we can all live and thrive here together, but that is where I fall. New, old, black, white, multicolored, queer, straight, differently-abled, etc. folks coexisting and supporting each other is sort of the dream of what Oakland is all about. So before we go denouncing Oakland’s past, or any other city’s past, let’s make sure we actually realize the richness that sources from it.

Quiet Place, Quiet Space


I walked into the dimly lit room and noticed one woman lying with her feet toward the window, head and shoulders propped up by a set of meditation cushions. Another man sat across the room from her, legs folded and eyes closed in inward stillness.

Neither budged as I entered and found my own spot away from them to lie down on the carpet and do some stretches. I pulled first one knee into my chest, then the other. I stretched my arms long and full above my head. I closed my eyes and let my body relax against the floor, soothed by the stillness and the cool darkness of the room.

I was on break during a daylong meditation workshop on an intense topic. While I was happy to be at the workshop, by the break time I was also ready to leave the crowded main room and carve out a space for myself in a peaceful corner. Some of my fellow workshop participants — like the two in the room with me — had similarly sought out a space to close their eyes and have quiet. Others went outside for a dose of sunshine, and some went into the kitchen to refuel with a granola bar or make a cup of tea while casually engaging with other participants.

I was struck by the luxury of each participant being given time and space to accommodate his or her needs throughout the day. I basked in the freedom to move from place to place in order to modulate my level of stimulation. Clearly the workshop coordinators deeply understood the connection between one’s immediate environment and one’s mood.

How wonderful would it be if everyone could accommodate their environmental needs like this on a daily basis? What if we had more ability to set our personal space to the level we prefer at all times — at work, running errands, socializing, and at home?

We often do try and make our setting fit our needs in a broad sense: by choosing to live in cities or suburbs or rural areas based on what we instinctively like most. Or perhaps we seek out a particular neighborhood that is more or less stimulating than others based on our needs or the needs of our family.

But so much of the time this choice isn’t completely up to us. Maybe our best shot at a job is in a busy area that feels overwhelming, or we are displaced from the vibrant, accessible areas we love by high housing prices and forced to move to an understimulating suburb where we are bored and unable to meet our social needs. And much has already been written about how so many employees don’t have the control over their immediate environment that they need to function most successfully throughout the day.

I like to think that our need to set our own space is something that we do all understand on at least a subconscious level, but maybe we just don’t talk about it enough yet, or in enough different contexts. There’s a lot to explore about neighborhood choice and individual psychology, and how the freedom to choose our environment may or may not affect our overall wellbeing. Through that connection we have yet one more lens for looking at issues of place and justice.

Book Review: Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights 2

People liked hearing that Texas was back, that they were tough and could take it and were up on their feet again. Fact and fiction merged. They liked George Bush in the same way they absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined.
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger

A few years ago I worked for an organization that focused exclusively on rural issues. It was my first foray into frequently speaking with and researching people who didn’t grow up in the liberal bubbles within which I navigated my life. I quickly realized that the things I had “known” about rural places, particularly rural white places, were often just stories and caricatures of a way of living very different from my own.

Since then there’s been this pull inside me to learn more and read more about rural places — not just the news headlines about crazy conservative politics, but first person narratives and in-depth journalism that can only come from lived experience.

A lot of my reading about rural places has been from authors of color, like Louise Erdrich’s beautiful works about Chippewa reservations (example: Love Medicine) and Isabel Wilkerson’s fantastic odyssey The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration. In picking up Friday Night Lights, I felt like I had found a thoughtful, respectful book about small-town (if not exactly rural) white America.

On face, Friday Night Lights is all about football. The author-journalist Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas in 1988 to capture the entirety of one high school football season. He moved his whole family with him, sending his kids to school in the Odessa school system and doing his best to fully embed into the community through endless interviews and longer-term profiles of the team’s coach and several key players.

Bissinger eloquently captures the frenzy that overtook Odessa every Friday night that a football game was happening — the intense pride and unity that all community members supporting Permian High School felt for “their boys,” as well as the intense pressure the football players themselves felt to be perfect both on and off the field so as to live up to their community’s dreams. There are stories of the school district chartering a jet for fans to travel to away games, of teachers giving the football players test answer sheets along with their test to help keep grades up, of players delaying X-rays on knowingly-fractured bones so as not to become ineligible for playing in the next game, of the near-celebrity status of the stars of the team.

You can see pretty early on though that this is not just a book about the craze of football. It’s also a book about the town itself — its people and its politics, as well as the way it represents a lot of small-town middle America overall and the values of much of that demographic.

Some of the parts I found most interesting were about how the town of Odessa grew and changed over the years, including the race politics of the city. Oil created Odessa, which was mostly white in its beginnings. During the boom years new people arrived and the town flourished, and in the years when oil prices were low the town fell into a stagnancy and economic depression common to so many other small-town places. The black community of course lived almost exclusively on one side of the tracks, in the least desirable part of the city. When Latinos began moving to Odessa in larger numbers, most of them lived on the black side of the tracks as well, though some were able to make it to more affluent part of the town.

As the city got bigger the eastern part of town became the most affluent, most white section and also the location of the football powerhouse high school Permian. Bissinger chronicles how football played a role in perpetuating racism as it grew. When the town was forced to integrate its schools for instance, the black high school got closed down. Permian High School got to have a larger share of the black residents bused to their high school than the third high school across town because of the belief that blacks were faster than whites and the best candidates for runningbacks on the football team. Bissinger discusses several other unsavory accounts of race biases and discrimination throughout the book.

Some of Friday Night Lights is about politics. I felt that Bissinger did a great job of capturing why conservative politics resonated so strongly with the residents of Odessa. Respect, pride, and fighting for your lot in life were values burned into them by the indignities of the economic depression and the isolation they felt from the government. A few particular chapters of the book took me forward light years in understanding (not agreeing with) conservative towns — that it’s not about the policies but the rhetoric and the ability of politicians to tap into a hazy, dreamy vision of American grit. I kept having flashbacks to that Chrysler/Eminem commercial from the Super Bowl of a few years ago as Bissinger detailed the particular political ethos of the town.

I do have some reservations however about what this book meant to the residents of Odessa. The book faced a lot of controversy when it came out, and many people in the town didn’t appreciate the way Bissinger talked about their frenzy for football or their racial dynamics. Bissinger stresses his journalistic objectivity in defending his book, but the idea that anyone can be a completely impartial reporter has never sat well with me. So I do wonder what is missing from the book — if there are ways in which it doesn’t completely capture what the town was all about.

I think it’s about being open to multiple truths. You can learn a lot through documenting a new reality or from reading someone else’s first-hand experience of a new place, but I’m sure there are even more stories to be had that rest with the people of Odessa themselves. All in all, a well-created portrait.

5Stars25/5 STARS

See a full list of my book reviews here and my book review policy here.