Service jobs were already underpaid & risky; no wonder workers don’t rush back

My family owned a small business that grew from two to eight stores during my adolescence. By the time I graduated from college, I had over a decade of work experience in retail sales, pulling orders in our small warehouse, and doing the office work supporting such an enterprise.

I grew up grateful for never having to take a job at McDonald’s to gain that first professional experience. My highly intelligent peers attending some of the best colleges in America took summer jobs as hotel maids and washers of cars on auto lots while I was already in high demand with data entry and database management skills by my late teens.

I had the great good fortune of being “the bosses’ daughter” when I took shifts behind the register in our stores, safe in the knowledge that no complaint from a customer would ever get me fired. That didn’t prevent me from seeing how precarious employment could be for minimum wage clerks and servers less favored by nepotism and auspicious birth.Pile of money

Extensive firsthand experience in retail has informed my behavior towards customer service employees ever since.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve taken pains to tip well as we’ve ordered in our groceries and occasional meals—usually double what I would have paid before March 2020, but always more than any app’s minimum. When I read about the Trader Joe’s employee fired for asking management’s permission to deny service to customers who refused to wear masks indoors, I immediately wrote to the company in support of the worker’s position. I haven’t shopped at Trader Joe’s since.

Though the pandemic may finally be waning, I continue to go out of my way to patronize companies who’ve made firm commitments—and taken more visible steps—to protect vulnerable front line employees against COVID-19 itself and from abuse by customers who don’t believe in science or follow government mandates regarding public health.

Here’s a May 1st Globe article about restaurant employees exhausted by “enforcement fatigue” due to their role as the unofficial police of health mandates for diners.

Last week, after government figures were released showing a reluctance on the part of the unemployed to return to service jobs, every major paper* seemed to run op-eds and articles pondering why workers aren’t flocking back to staff restaurants and hotels. People whom I’m guessing have never worked in service seem to sincerely believe that overly generous unemployment benefits are a primary cause of this phenomenon.

The fact that these jobs pay low wages is usually mentioned, though, as is the reality that many working parents are still required at home due to school and day care closures.

Lower income parents are realistically facing the truth that their children, like themselves, face outsized risks at returning to in-person learning inside overcrowded schools with above average local case positivity rates for COVID-19. People of color are tending to keep their children home and continue remote learning at higher than average rates in my region, probably for this reason. I have yet to see this factor noted in news coverage of the unemployment issue.

What strikes me about almost every article is the near total lack of awareness of just how terrible service work can be. It isn’t just low pay keeping the unemployed away, but the enormous physical and mental costs associated with taking that work.

From the Washington Post:

“‘Employers are hungry for candidates, but job seekers don’t seem to have noticed that yet,’ said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.

But workers are still hesitant to return, partly because they want to wait until they are vaccinated first and partly because they are discouraged after months of not getting any callbacks, says Pollak.”

I find this economist’s lack of insight into the rationale for the choices of these service workers baffling. They “haven’t noticed” job openings? I sincerely doubt that.

Realistically, the unemployed are weighing the risks of exposure to a dangerous virus which sickens them in greater proportion than it does their better-off managers vs. the paltry rewards of minimum wage in exchange for a constant barrage of abuse from the public.

The cost-benefit analysis seems obvious when the choice is below-sustenance wages vs. the risk of long term disability or even death from coronavirus. If I couldn’t afford to be out of work for weeks or months, I, too, would delay—as long as I possibly could—returning to service while persistent infirmity and death strike many thousands** of Americans every day.

Remember, these are the U.S. citizens least likely to have any paid sick time available to them. Only about one third of the lowest paid wage workers do, whereas the majority of those of us earning in the top 50%—sufficient to accrue an emergency fund—also enjoy the financial protection of paid time off.

Employers must face the fact that some of the lowest legal wages in America—a pathetic $2.13 per hour for tipped employees—are being offered to people with the highest odds of confronting unmasked customers with no recourse for self-defense: restaurant servers.

Best practices asks diners to cover their faces while staff is nearby; real world conditions never adhere perfectly to best practices. And then, a sizeable minority of Americans refuses to even acknowledge the risk they impose on servers through callous disregard of mask mandates where those rules are even still in force. Disposable surgical mask

Many COVID-19 believers themselves now act with selfish entitlement after receiving vaccines, ignoring the reality that no one knows if they could still infect people around them while basking, unmasked, in their own newfound protection.

Referencing the same Post article I mentioned above, at least one expert came closer to realizing the truth I find so obvious:

“Others say the reason workers without college degrees aren’t flooding back into restaurants and hospitality jobs is because the pay is too low.

‘We should be asking how we got to a place where service sector wages are so low and benefits are so nonexistent and workplaces are so unsafe and scheduling practices are so volatile that a mere $300 per week [on unemployment] may be better than the financial benefits and security of a job,’ tweeted Elizabeth Pancotti, a senior analyst on the Democratic-led Senate Budget Committee.”

(bolded emphasis on the coordinating conjunctions in this quote is mine)

Frankly, I’m gratified to see that an analyst for the Senate Budget Committee appears to have a better grasp on real world conditions for America’s working class clerks and servers than the labor economist at a recruiting company. I see that as evidence that someone in my government is doing her job.

Before the life-or-death threat of a pandemic, the reality was that a clerk in a shop or a server in a restaurant was treated as less than human during almost every shift.

When I last worked retail circa 2003, it was already common for customers to throw items onto the counter at my register, chatting on a cell phone and ignoring my presence except to shove a credit card or a handful of bills in my direction without any acknowledgement that I was there. I imagine the further proliferation of smart phones has made that kind of rudeness even more frequent.

I made the observation to co-workers at the time that these same people are probably the ones who complain if their calls are answered by machines when they try to contact large corporations.Contact phone

If the customers in a purely discretionary, higher end business like ours treated someone like me so poorly, it’s probable that conditions are abominable for those without my advantages.

As a teen selling beauty products, I was relatively well educated, mannerly, protected by a pale complexion and all the obvious signs of middle class economic status, never mind the confidence of being part of the ownership of our family business. At the bookstore, years later, my husband’s secure professional career sheltered me from any cost that could be incurred by protecting my dignity when customers behaved badly.

Let me add at this point that I sincerely enjoy working in customer service!

I get a charge out of delighting someone by finding what they want on my shelves. I like hearing the small stories behind someone’s search for an item in my inventory. I take pride in my ability to cope under the pressure of lines at my register, handling even a Christmas rush or malfunctioning equipment with aplomb.

For those of us who sincerely love people, there’s an instant dopamine hit of reward when you make someone happy, satisfying reasonable customers by furnishing them with what is needed or wanted. I’d always wished to work in a bookstore, and I joyfully recommended titles to interested shoppers while I did. I’ve known many healthcare workers and food service employees similarly delighted to nurture others via “caregiving” careers.

I was very good at front-facing customer service work, but, still, certain aspects of it were always dark and demoralizing.

About weekly, I would encounter a customer difficult enough that my heart would race and my body would enter an adrenaline-charged fight or flight state. And, again, I was a socially privileged person working in a well-staffed chain store in an upper middle class, suburban shopping center or a busy mall. I can’t speak to conditions in mom and pop establishments in rougher neighborhoods.

I was never robbed on the job thank God, but I did experience fear for my personal safety on numerous occasions. I faced decisions about flagrant theft, mentally ill repeat patrons, one of whom began to cross lines of appropriateness in a sexual manner in our store, and many, many customers who felt entitled to raise voices and use crude language, for example, in response to strict return policies though such policies were clearly posted and printed on receipts in accordance with state law.

It was in spite of the regular—though, admittedly, perpetrated by a small minority—dangers and degradation of dealing with the public that I opted to return to retail sales when I left my last engineering role after 9/11 but before I had my first child. Even occasional angry or violent agitators can wield outsize influence on an employee’s sense of well-being

Those of us who could step behind a counter to avoid grabby customers with wandering hands have always enjoyed more protection from unwanted sexual attention than waitresses required to come within arm’s-length of their patrons as they set down plates of food. When you’re close enough touch a diner’s tabletop, you are also within range of any airborne virus, not to mention those “Russian hands” and “Roman fingers” attempting to cop a feel.

Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable gloves

Reports abounded throughout 2020 of customers ignoring health restrictions such as mask mandates, berating and even becoming violent with service employees for asking them to comply with rules designed to protect everyone. These new insults must be added to the already poor working conditions that have always afflicted servers and clerks.

Partisan politics prevented some police departments from enforcing health mandates even when staffing levels did not, yet customer-facing service workers were already subject to dehumanization and harassment before health-related risk mitigation tactics became politicized. Even shoplifters and aggressive customers didn’t guarantee a timely visit from the authorities in my experience over a decade ago.

Employees will return to vacant jobs when the conditions and wages offered meet or exceed the risk of illness and harassment inherent to each role. There’s no mystery. Anyone who’s worked in service could explain the situation to those confused journalists and politicians, yet most of those would be amazed how rarely anyone thinks to lend an ear to the ubiquitous essential workers catering to us all.

Researching this post, I discovered a Business Insider article stating that the Trader Joe’s employee in question was rehired about a week later, possibly due to the furor on social media that ensued from his firing. I might shop there again in the future, but am personally unlikely to revisit this decision until pandemic restrictions have been lifted. As of April 27, hundreds of Americans per day are still dying of COVID-19, and tens of thousands are being diagnosed with it. Offering your employees safer working conditions only when public pressure forces you to do so does not speak to corporate values I want to support.

* Further examples from Boston Globe and the New York Times

** My reasoning for assuming thousands per day risk long term disability and death is as follows: For 29 April 2021, the New York Times reports 51,465 new COVID-19 cases and 697 deaths. A study reported in February 2021 that the percentage of coronavirus sufferers who go on to experience long term, debilitating symptoms is about 33%. One third of 51,465 new cases would suggest 17,154 “long COVID” (a.k.a., post-acute sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection or PASC) are likely.

Screen shot of calculatorOne reason I’ve avoided working in food service—since a mandatory stint in my college dining hall as part of my financial aid package—or in health care is that those products are actually essential for life. The stakes, therefore, can be sky high, potentially justifying extreme behavior on the part of the guest. I’m unaware of anyone every dying due to a lack of professional brand shampoo.

Similarly, when I took a job at a bookstore, it helped me to keep my cool in the face of irate customers to acknowledge that their desire to buy a particular book was simply not a life or death situation… except, perhaps, if they sought a first aid manual!

Anglo-Saxon ideals aren’t the primary basis of U.S. government

As if her anti-Semitic claim that PG&E and Jewish bankers started California’s 2018 wildfires with space lasers wasn’t proof enough—whether due to mental illness or plain simple-mindedness—that Georgia’s elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene is unfit for office, her latest antics show that she lacks even basic education on the history of the government of the United States of America.

Together with Paul Gosar, R-AZ, the befuddled Congresswoman Greene was reported to be forming an “America First Caucus” to  promote nativist policies. Reps. Barry Moore, R-AL, Louie Gohmert, R-TX, and moral powerhouse Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-FL all publicly lent support to this morass of historical confusion.

In a quick search on the day this news broke, I failed to find the complete seven page document referenced, so I can speak only to public claims reported in several major American newspapers. Ms. Greene, it should be noted, backpedaled furiously after this news spread, joining colleagues in statements suggesting they hadn’t even read the mission statement in question before endorsing it.

I wonder how these lazy politicians justify cashing their paychecks? This isn’t a difference of opinion, but a dereliction of duty and evidence of a near total lack of qualification for their sworn duty to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.Reproduction of the oath of office by which new United States congresspeople are sworn in

Teaching U.S. history to my own home educated teen in recent years, I was reminded that our Founding Fathers were influenced by Native American forms of government when crafting the U.S. Constitution. Here’s an entire article on the subject from The History Channel’s website. The Founders obviously didn’t seek to duplicate any indigenous government, but remarks by Benjamin Franklin* amongst others prove they were aware of, and even relatively positively disposed toward, adopting the best notions they knew of—from any source—to form their “more perfect union.”

According to the Boston Globe, “the [“America First Caucus”] document describes the United States as a place with ‘uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.’”

High school aged children are aware of the Iroquois Confederacy’s influence on the work of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Does the America First Caucus reject those former leaders as patriotic Americans, too? Is Trump the only man any of them will stand behind?USA flag - 1

I’m concerned by this new Caucus’ interest in Anglo-Saxon values in particular. The term Anglo-Saxon is out of date if meant as a reference to the British people, and the simple fact of the American Revolutionary War strongly implies to those of us with critical thinking skills that the Founding Fathers were not interested in maintaining an English form of government where colonies were taxed by the Crown without political representation.

Does the America First Caucus seek to emulate those tumultuous years in Britain between the end of Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror (a.k.a., William the Bastard)? Per the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

“[T]he various peoples commonly grouped together as Anglo-Saxons were not politically unified until the 9th century, and their reign over England was interrupted by 26 years of Danish rule that began in 1016 with the accession of Canute.”

Here’s a BBC overview explaining Anglo-Saxon Government written for children. Very little of it reminds me of American government with the exception of trials being conducted with community representation.

Speaking only for myself—but probably reflecting the will of most emotionally stable Americans—I would prefer not to live through centuries of incessant warring by disparate groups. I’m not really keen to be ruled over by Denmark, either, though I’d take orders from the current Danish government before submitting to the purported leadership of a reality-averse reactionary like Representative Greene.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania appears to be cut from the same flawed cloth. On April 27th, The Boston Globe reported that he said the following though the emphasis is mine at a Young America’s Foundation event:

“We came here and created a blank slate. We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans but, candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum

Without a doubt, the forebears of most current American citizens arrived in the New World and did not find the trappings of European society to which they would have naturally deferred. The fact that those men could not, due to religious and cultural bigotry, recognize the humanity of those they encountered—let alone their technical and cultural achievements—was their own failing, not that of the indigenous peoples they subsequently massacred.

Modern scholarship now points toward the birth of human civilization in the central Andes (i.e., in the Americas) being of equal moment to the traditional European scholars’ foci of technological and social evolution: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China’s Yellow River basin.

Being too shortsighted to notice the contributions of indigenous Americans is evidence of a lack of mental power—or intellectual rigor—on the part of the observer, not evidence of shortcomings on the part of the targeted society. Conservative culture warriors would do well to make a more careful study of the history they claim to venerate before blundering so ineptly into statements of rank ignorance.

I recognize the many contributions of Western Civilization to the formation of the United States of America. Disregarding great work—whether philosophy, art, or technical innovation—is folly, but so is ignoring the hybrid vigor of multiculturalism that led to the success that still brings scores of refugees from around the world here today in hopes of earning their own piece of our prosperity.

When I was a child, the “melting pot” analogy was falling out of favor due to a greater emphasis on appreciating diverse cultures over demands for cultural hegemony. I still recall a teacher offering the “tossed salad” metaphor to take its place. I reject that notion, too.

Tossed salad sees disparate ingredients jumbled together with no interaction between them until they’re masticated by an outside force. Shared governance and geography might be the salad dressing, then, but greens, carrots, and tomatoes have little influence over each other. They just happen to share a bowl. Separate but equal as policy failed America during that experiment in our past.

Thermal Cooker with stew-filled primary pot insertedHere’s my offering: America is more akin to a pot of stew than a melting pot or a tossed salad.

Every one of us goes into the pot—simmering required, it must be said, perhaps making my metaphor even more apt. Time and cohabitation rub our edges off, softening us from strict segregation and stark differences. Some chunks blur into pleasant similarity; others maintain more distinction, lending texture and complexity to the totality. The mass blends into richness and depth, and the whole ends up much greater than the sum of its parts.

There would be no gravy without every contribution; there could be no stew without admixture and synthesis.

When I consider the meaning of a term like America First, my mind goes to first principles. Our founders spelled out their impetus in splitting from the British Empire in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Its 56 signatories did not specify that only American men, men of European descent, or Christian men exclusively were who counted; all men, they declared, are created equal, endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights for which patriots went to war, fought, and died. That foundational document should guide any America First Caucus crafted by people informed by the history of the United States.

Rep. Gaetz is currently under investigation for paying to have sex with underage girls, underscoring the lie that the Republican Party as a group in any way deserves its claim to the title of a “Moral” Majority.

* Letter From Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, 20 March 1751:

“It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.”

We supplemented our studies with the fairly light, quite mainstream Great Courses High School Level Early American History videos. One doesn’t need to delve into the works of Howard Zinn or any left-leaning sources to discover the framers’ interest in our nation’s indigenous peoples’ best practices, which they then combined with European ideas from philosophers such as Locke and Montesquieu to craft the foundations of our own democratic republic.

Elite public schools SHOULD consider zip code + academic performance

Fourteen families in Boston recently brought suit against the Boston Public School district, alleging that the COVID-19 era adoption of zip code as a determining factor for admission to the city’s elite “exam schools” was a proxy for race.

I’m delighted that these parents lost their suit in federal court, though I’m sorry that the young scholars represented fear for their futures due to the state’s failure to supply appropriate educational opportunities.Boston Globe online edition with Civil Rights suit article circled

My reasoning? Human beings may tend to sort themselves by distinguishing characteristics—skin color or “race” amongst them—but, in spite of its history as a racist city, there are no formal color-based barriers to residence in any Boston neighborhood today. People who would like to improve their children’s odds of admission to the exam schools are free to live in neighborhoods with larger quotas assigned to them.

Even at the height of segregation, I’m not aware of any rule that ever prevented wealthier, more powerful groups from moving to areas with lower median income. Most efforts prevented the richest “undesirables” from inhabiting homes viewed as the exclusive domain of the then current “better classes” such as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs.)NZ Botanic Garden Curator's House - 1

According to the Boston Globe, when the traditional entrance examinations were deemed unsafe due to the pandemic, BPS adopted the following policy for admission to its three elite institutions including the storied Boston Latin:

“…students will be admitted to the exam schools based largely on their grades and in some cases MCAS scores. Seats will also be allocated by ZIP code, giving top priority to areas with the lowest median household income. The number of seats per ZIP code will be proportionate to the share of school-age children living there.”

Quoted from article by James Vaznis updated April 15, 2021, 10:21 p.m. (emphasis mine)

Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but nothing prevents families from moving to the suddenly more advantageous zip codes. Given that these people must live somewhere with a higher median income, affordability—by definition—can’t be a barrier. Preferring to live in a racially, ethnically, or fiscally homogeneous enclave is a choice; sometimes our choices have consequences we may not enjoy.

Richer families can afford private schools. The least well off families in higher income zip codes have the most reason to dislike the change in admissions criteria. Frankly, though, the truly objectionable reality of this case is that all students aren’t equally able to access high quality classrooms. Now that’s a worthy reason to bring a lawsuit. Backpack with textbooks and school supplies spilling out

But because of the tight link in the United States between home-ownership and wealth, those lower-middle income families are more likely to be renters. Renters can move more readily than people who own their own home. I’d call that yet another benefit to factoring zip code into BPS’ admissions criteria.

The fact that lower median household wealth correlates directly with skin color in America is an embarrassment to our nation. There is no evidence save the easily debunked rantings of white supremacists for any rational basis to this truth; it’s wholly a byproduct of long-standing cronyism and widespread, systemic bias on the part of both individuals and institutions.

In spite of the fairly obvious reality of systemic racism, the BPS admissions policy in question does not in any explicit way prefer to admit children with more, larger, and more pigmented melanosomes* over those with less. It does explicitly tie income to admission, but offering enhanced opportunities to the brightest, hardest working children in a city because they were born with the extra burden of poverty seems eminently reasonable to me.

According to the Census.gov analysis I pointed to earlier regarding household wealth, education is firmly linked to better financial outcomes.

“Higher education is associated with more wealth. Households in which the most educated member held a bachelor’s degree had a median wealth of $163,700, compared with $38,900 for households where the most educated member had a high school diploma.”

—2019 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau report and detailed tables on household wealth in 2015

I say, let’s give more children from our poorest districts the chance to prove their mettle. Let’s offer better tools to help our least advantaged young people outgrow poverty, for their own benefit, and for the benefit of our society as whole. There’s no evidence that education is a zero sum game though admission to Harvard may be.

This new—and, remember, temporary!—policy is admitting the best students from Boston’s public elementary schools into their best public high schools at a rate proportionate to how many children live in given neighborhoods. Those kids may not perform better than the second or third best students at another school in more expensive zones of the district, but so what? They remain kids who show up to class, work hard to please their teachers, and follow the rules. Great students are gaining those coveted admission slots.Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10

BPS is hardly admitting disinterested, failing students from poor schools at the expense of dutiful scholars from richer ones. The real issue is that a few kids enjoy exceptionally excellent free public education while the rest are left to endure in lower quality institutions due to the vagaries of circumstance.

Without extra household funds, the poorest kids in Boston can’t afford private tutoring. Their parents—the financial data from the Census suggests—are less likely to have been highly educated; they’re likely less able to assist their kids with their toughest assignments. In spite of that, these children excel academically at the school their limited circumstances proscribed prescribed for them. I’d argue that their success is the most deserving of acknowledgement and reward on the part of the school system because of how hard won it is.

Policies such as this one finally offer an incentive to encourage our cities to integrate. Integration benefits all of us, not just poor children or students of color. The wildly uneven quality of public schools has driven real estate bubbles and worsened multiple types of segregation, directly leading to many of the upheavals and protests that roiled America over the past year.

I applaud Boston Public Schools for taking this step toward becoming an agent of change in this dynamic. Now they—and the rest of us—should work on offering an equivalent caliber of education to those rarefied, elite “exam schools” to every child who wants it.

* Melanin is responsible for pigmentation of human skin, hair, and eyes; melanosomes are the cells in the body that synthesize the melanin responsible for darker skin tones

Books by my bedside 2021/April

I’m a little shocked by how long it’s been since I last posted about what I’m reading. Considering the rather desperate way I escaped into fiction during the pandemic, I might’ve been more forthcoming in sharing what I read for that release.

Now, back to my boilerplate:

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga

Writing (Short Story as Literature)

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by Saunders, George

Fiction

Young Adult

Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Okorafor, Nnedi

The Real Boy by Ursu, Anne

African/Feminist

Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi

Mystery/Thriller

Billionaire Blend by Coyle, Cleo

A Deadly Influence by Omer, Mike

All the Devils are Here by Penny, Louise

Water Memory by Pyne, Daniel

Open House by Sise, Katie

After Alice Fell by Taylor Blakemore, Kim

Science Fiction

Shift by Howey, Hugh

Reading Notes:

Exploring the world via fiction in a year without travel

The young adult novel, Akata Witch (like its sequel, Akata Warrior), is set in Nigeria. Please see my footnote about the derogatory term in these titles if Nigerian languages are new to you as they were to me. As I have no wish to offend anyone, I will not repeat the word except within the context of the titles chosen by the works’ creator.

Like the author—Nnedi Okorafor—herself, the heroine, Sunny, is American born. Sunny is a teen living in Nigeria, an outsider due to her foreign birth, albinism, and then… all the usual stuff that sets apart the protagonist of a fantasy novel. This is not a cookie-cutter, Western fantasy! I found Okorafor’s created world fresh and fascinating, and the heroine and her friends richly detailed, complex, and very capable of keeping my middle-aged attention. My heart does tend to ache for the girl’s worried mother, however, as Sunny undertakes dangerous quests typical of the genre.

I enjoyed being immersed in the African setting of these titles. Missing my usual travels, this scratched my itch for adventure and “seeing” new places. The American-born teens in the story helped this reader make the transition to a better understanding of Nigerian culture from a perspective with which I’m more familiar.books I read April 2021 - Okorafor fantasy novels

Of course, the bulk of the story involves magical powers and the unseen world. Even if I made it to Nigeria, I doubt I’d encounter most of the creatures or powerful wizards Okorafor brings to life on her pages. As the pandemic has taught me, living through historically exciting events is not always easy or desirable.

Aside from an enjoyable young adult narrative, I appreciate Okorafor’s thoughtful approach to her craft. Regarding her success in a genre whose “great men” were often virulent racists who may well have shunned her, Okorafor wrote on her own blog:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that .…as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.”

I believe this contemplative attitude helps explain why she opted to use a word with heavy connotations in her titles. I use her original titles as opposed to the less racially-charged British ones in an effort to show respect to the author.Copy of softbound library copy of Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga

Also set in Africa but half a continent away, I recently dove into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s masterful Nervous Conditions. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-20th Century. I devoured the novel in just a couple of days, perhaps identifying so strongly with its protagonist, Tambudzai, because of her intelligence and drive to get an education against all obstacles.

Tambu reflects upon a new school with: “Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big, bright, walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself…in…books…”

I was a girl just like that.

Quote from page 199 about the wonderful library in a girl's school

Nervous Condition is the kind of book in which I highlight multiple passages. For the library’s sake, I do that these days by photographing myself pointing to the relevant spot on the page. Less typically for me, I even highlighted some of the author’s comments in the “book club” discussion section at the back of this novel.

Tambu’s story isn’t light or easy. Colonialism, racism, sexism, and poverty all conspire against her success, though she’s quite young when the story begins. She’s complex and complicated, and Dangarembga has drawn her beautifully. Even better, the entire novel is peopled by fully dimensioned, believable characters. Dangarembga writes with a deft hand.Quote highlighted from Nervous Conditions page 183

“Marriage. I had nothing against it in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to think about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could even call it my own.”

I finished the book quite eager to read its successor, 2006’s The Book of Not. It was unavailable at my local library, though the third volume, 2020’s This Mournable Body could be had. I couldn’t even find book two in our statewide searchable catalog for inter-library loans. Resigning myself to an Amazon purchase, I discovered that a new edition of The Book of Not is due to be released in May of this year. Used copies from 2006 are selling for about $50 each, which is more than I can bear to spend on a paperback. The vagaries of international publishing, perhaps?

I opted to purchase the Audible audiobook version of This Mournable Body—Dangarembga’s only English language audio release, so far as I can tell—because I wanted to directly support the author of a powerful novel that moved me so profoundly.

Also, no lie, it drove me crazy that I still don’t know how to pronounce many names from the story. Unlike European languages and concepts, I struggled to search out definitions for unfamiliar terms, photos of garments about which I was curious, or quick phonetic pronunciation guides. I’m hoping that the audiobook recording will offer me the chance to hear these names spoken by a more educated narrator.

I’ve heard people argue about a lack of rich cultural heritage outside of their narrow conception of the “civilized world;” it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see because your back is turned!

Segueing not very neatly from far away in distance to far away in time, I must comment on Hugh Howey’s sequel to Wool: Shift. They’re both part of the Silo Saga. These are really good books—if you can tolerate a dystopian future.

My librarian friend The Priestess recommended Wool to me during a weekend away together. I was complaining about how poorly most algorithms do in offering me literary recommendations. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone else, but Amazon and Good Reads do not get me at all. She’d heard good things about it, but not read it herself, I believe.

I enjoyed Wool. It was a fun read, I finished it… then I didn’t think about it again for several years. Somehow, during the pandemic, Shift came to my attention. I think, since Mr. Howey originally self-published via Amazon, that it may have been free to read with Kindle Unlimited. I was definitely hunting that source much more actively than usual in the early shutdown days when I lost weekly library access.

Here’s why I absoluely must mention Shift: I have never before read a sequel and been so much more impressed by it than I was by its precursor. If anything, I’m used to being disappointed by middling follow-ups to novels I loved. That sounds strange, because Wool was a good book. Shift struck me as an even better one, and much more profound.

Consider the Silo Saga if you enjoy Sci Fi and don’t mind reading about the end of the world in the middle of a pandemic disaster.

Myriad mysteries

The string of casual flings I carry on with light murder mysteries continues. Thankfully, our local library opened for pre-ordered, curbside lending after a month or two of darkness, but I have also relied more heavily on the monthly free titles for Amazon Prime members (most of which are mediocre, but they do pass the time) and digital psuedo-purchases, which I loathe on principle.Two Kindle ebook readers, one labeled kids, the other says Mom's

No, if I don’t have a copy of a book or song I can pass to my heirs when I die, I have not purchased it. I’ve rented a license to use my copy during my lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with the model, if it’s what people want, but calling these transactions a purchase strikes me as fraudulent! Stepping down from soapbox…

A Deadly Influence made a pretty fun read, but a single sentence late in the book stopped me cold, prompting me to check the author’s name and confirm that he must be a man. It was a description of an outfit that the protagonist put on to go out and meet a date… and it was so laughably bad, I guessed right that moment that a non-fashionable male had written its description.

The storyline there involves a professional police negotiator, Abby, the calm presence who talks down the guy on the ledge or the hostage holding one with a gun to someone’s head. She (the protagonist) was very believable, except for her dressing up scene, realistically, lightly flawed, yet still likeable. Peeking inside life in a modern cult or two also made this novel stand out from my crowd of similar whodunits. It’s one of the few Amazon freebies I’ve read where I will watch for sequels. I’d like to see Abby’s character develop, and A Deadly Influence ended on a bit of cliffhanger though one I admittedly saw coming, but I didn’t mind.

Better writing through considered consumption of literature

Finally, I can’t leave this post without some discussion of Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’m so in love with this book at the moment! Full disclosure: I’m only 4/7 done with it as it was due back to the library and had holds so I couldn’t renew.

George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse. The premise of the book is to explore seven classic works of Russian short fiction, then tease out lessons to improve our own writing from literary greats Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.

The stories are magnificent. So are Saunders’ essays!Section heading for Tolstoy's Master & Man (1895) from the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

Perhaps the author selected just those few stories which are truly special. More likely, I have failed to read enough of the Russian masters. Technically proficient? Yes. Moving, emotionally rich? Definitely. Yet, somehow, this book is also a great deal of fun. I wish Saunders were my teacher though I’ve already spent far more time in Syracuse than I ever wished to.

I picked this up in order to plan a literature unit for my home educated teen. I thought it would complement the Russian History we’re doing this year. Note to home schoolers: it really, really does! I planned to peruse it, make some notes, then set the child to work on Saunders’ readings and my assignments over the summer term. Instead, I fell into the book myself, only reluctantly returning it on time because I’d foolishly let it sit too long on our library shelf before starting in.

Consider pairing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with viewing the Great Courses video offering History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev taught by Mark Steinberg. Lesson 21: Peasant Life & Culture is particularly apropos, but everything from Lesson 8 (The Decembrist Rebellion) to 25 (War & Revolution) will enhance your appreciation for the context of those stories Saunders offers.

† IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be aware that the unfamiliar word—if you only speak English—in the title, Akata Witch, has derogatory connotations for some Africans and African Americans.

The first book was given a new title for publication in the UK and Nigeria for that reason (What Sunny Saw in the Flames.) My internet research was cursory, of course, since I know no African languages. In spite of many contradictory definitions across the web, my best understanding is that the word is Yoruba—or possibly originated from the Fanti tribe—and is literally defined as an animal (maybe cat or fox.) The emphasis is on an uncivilized creature living outside his/her/its appropriate milieu. I’m not qualified to explain the term beyond this attempt at literal translation.

I wanted to discuss this book, but I hesitated to blindly post a sensitive phrase without this acknowledgement. Read about the term’s slang usage on Urban Dictionary if you’d like to learn more.

Passover is sweeter when we celebrate our freedoms

Passover Greetings for 5781! And also a very happy Easter to my friends and loved ones celebrating that holiday. The Spring Equinox* is nothing to sneeze at, either, except, maybe, for the allergies, a little.

May spring offer hope, renewal, and joyous freedom to everyone reading this post.

You can gauge the season in my home by the drift of matzah crumbs across the kitchen floor. Note to those new to a cracker-based diet: no, it is never a wise idea to eat matzah without a plate for catching the inevitable crumbs. Don’t let my husband or children tell you otherwise!Passover Pesach matzah

In 2021, I found myself rueful that yet another פֶסַח Pesach would be celebrated without guests or even family. Due to necessary medical appointments, we were socially if not spiritually distanced even from my in-laws who live downstairs within our home as this holiday commenced.

Yet, still, we had so much for which to be grateful.

Chief among all blessings, the festival of liberation from bondage reminds me annually of my husband’s exodus from an oppressive regime which persecuted his family for its Jewish heritage. Thank God for a United States of America welcoming refugees! My husband, his beloved parents, and his grandmother z”l all benefited from that largess.

Anyone familiar with DH’s academic record knows how the USA benefits, in turn, from his ground-breaking scholarship in—and beyond—the natural sciences. Certainly, IMHO, the likelihood of international fame ought not be a prerequisite for offering refuge to “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”** And yet, time and again, immigrants such as my husband prove their worth far beyond such beleaguered beginnings.

Cover of Richard Codor's Joyous Haggadah book

I hope that not a day goes by when I do not thank God for the blessing of my husband’s freedom, but I thank Passover for the fact that a year never could. The Haggadah—the story of Passover related by Jews at a סֵדֶר seder or order of telling—includes the answer, “It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt” to the question asked by a child who can’t even formulate a question about what the holiday means.

“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”

I must admit to not being particularly literal in my general understanding of the Torah. I believe God gave us a legacy of poetry, using metaphor to offer millennia’s worth of new understandings of the same old words, letting scripture rise to the occasion of ever-evolving human capacity.

And yet… in this case, I take scripture fairly literally. It is, frankly, because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt that everything else in my life carries so many of its multitudes of meaning.

That Egypt is a metaphor, yes. But, from where I sit, “Egypt” is a place I was, yet here I am, free.

Compared with 2020, I gave thanks in 2021 for plenty of capacity at the stores to get groceries delivered, and no shortages of either mundane or ritual items we needed for our seder.

At this time of year, in addition to counting my blessings, I am inclined to count my freedoms. The liturgy of the season Deuteronomy (26:5–8) includes the phrase:

God took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:1-5 on the page

Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:5-8 on the pageUnderstanding the mighty/strong hand tends to be trivial. God is mighty; God is great. Translation doesn’t dilute this understanding much, in my experience.

The outstretched arm is, perhaps, less obvious, but sometimes more compelling, at least, to me.

You can find Jewish scholarship on the topic of the strong hand and outstretched arm all over the internet. But here’s what that extended arm means to me.

The outstretched arm reminds me of my obligation—always!— to reach out to the wider world. I believe I must use my personal freedom as a tool to work toward the liberation of others. At my seder, I can’t help but reflect upon current events. This year, that included paying attention to the illegal coup taking place in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

The New York Times reports that:

“Ten days after seizing power in Myanmar, the generals issued their first command to journalists: Stop using the words “coup,” “regime” and “junta” to describe the military’s takeover of the government. ”

When that didn’t work, the military junta that staged the coup in Myanmar—overthrowing the legitimate, democratically elected government—arrested more than 50 journalists for continuing to report the truth.

I wish I could do more than thumb my nose at these tyrants by defying their chosen vocabulary. This is the small strength of my individual hand, however, so that’s the little bit of power I will wield today.

Page view from Haggadah describing The Simple Child

After mentioning this outrage against human dignity, I’m also inspired to consider the question: Which child of the Passover seder am I aping, as I ask?

The Pesach Haggadah prompts us to answer questions about our liberation from slavery in Egypt for the benefit of four children: the one who is wise, a wicked child, a simple son, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask what s/he needs to know.

Modernity offers most of us instant connections across the globe, yet few of us seem blessed with the wisdom to use what should probably be considered a superpower to its utmost. Staring at the atrocities in Myanmar, I wonder if I’m the child who can’t even formulate a sensible question.

Who should determine the form of government of any nation? Am I remiss in assuming the majority’s opinion offers the critical vote?

What is our obligation, as outsiders, to support those agitating and risking their lives in hopes of bringing democracy to a nation? Is it enough when I simply simply ponder their fate?

When are we called upon to act as opposed to bearing witness? How many civilians must a military coup murder before free people of the world feel obligated to take action?

Where should I draw the line between my own liberation and that of another oppressed person?

Why have I been blessed with so much more freedom than the people of Myanmar?

How can I make the world better given my limited strength and resources?

In this spring of optimism across the developed world as a pandemic God willing wanes, I hope those of us living in the bosom of privilege, safety, and freedom from want can provide some sort of meaningful support for those in  Myanmar and elsewhere living beneath a cloak of oppression.

* With a special nod to the pagan holiday of Ostara, aka Eostre, from which Christian Easter stole borrowed what it needed to convert the masses. Please note, friend Christians, that I don’t think Jesus himself is in any way incriminated in this wholesale holiday obfuscation. The social history is pretty fascinating, however, to a nerd like myself.

Hebrew acronym for zikhronah livrakha, meaning “May her memory be a blessing.” Read more about this Jewish acronym at My Jewish Learning dot com.

** Excerpted from Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, as etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Here’s one rabbi’s thought on understanding how translation affects a well known, widely “understood” passage such as the one I’ve quoted here.