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Monday, July 10, 2017

Lucky Boy and The End of Jokes

But no matter what, strangers never disappointed, because she expected nothing from them. It was the people she knew, who liked and even loved her, who could let her down most cruelly. - Shanthi Sekaran, Lucky Boy
If this thing ever takes off and people want to buy shirts, one of the shirts is going to say "I remember when Howie's Book Club had jokes in it." It's going to be a very multi-layered thing because on the one hand it's debatable if Howie's Book Club ever had jokes in it in the first place so there's the irony there, and also because it will be made of fabric so thin and cheap you'll need to wear more than one layer just to meet the very basic standards of decency.

Anyway, it's hard to write jokes when you've just read, back-to-back, two of the most emotionally draining books to grace your nightstand in the last maybe decade, and you read them both in the same week. And also you read the most recent one in two days (brag). Holy crap I read Lucky Boy in two days. Also in that week my best cat ever died. And we went camping, with three smallish children. OK but where are the jokes, Howie?

Ugh, they're in here somewhere. We'll see what happens. See, Shanthi Sekaran's Lucky Boy is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. It's also one of the toughest. But there are jokes in there, mostly in the way of clever banter between maybe the best married couple I've ever had the pleasure of meeting on the written page, but there's also just plain old observational humor.
At the farmers' market the week before, a little girl had fallen and scraped her knee. As she stood sobbing, inconsolable, her mother knelt down beside her. Here, sweetie, have some kale. The little girl had taken it, chewed on the tough, primordial leaf, and stopped crying. The stakes were high in Berkeley. The toddlers were eating their cruciferous greens.
There's so much to talk about. It's hard to know right after finishing a book if it will stick with me by the end of the year and beyond. I can't imagine ever forgetting this one, though. I imagine we as a society have covered every version of the beauty comes from adversity metaphor, what with our every rose has a thorn and our ancient, gnarled, windswept trees. But I'll be darned if I don't come up with my own.

When I was camping we had some Hershey bars in the cooler for s'mores. Now I don't get s'mores myself. I don't think I've even asked for s'me, let alone more, but I am also well-renowned for my self-control. Anyway, when you camp, you're supposed to bring the fixins or the camp host will dig through that metal tube until they find the envelope with your fee in it and they will tear it up in your face and throw the scraps in the fire. I've seen this happen and it's demoralizing to all parties.

We actually forgot to bring graham crackers (which if you need jokes, the origin of the graham cracker is the best one you'll read on this blog), but that has nothing to do with this metaphor and is just the set-up to this picture, which is amazing and good:


Anyway, I was looking at Hershey's bars and thinking about how amazing it must have been for soldiers during World War II to bite into the milk chocolate in their D-rations. Oh, what sweet joy to bite into that little taste of home, and how much sweeter it must have been given the hardship.  "Imagine," I said, while we looked into the fire and my daughter visibly vibrated from a sugar high. "Imagine being in a foreign land and scared for your life and tasting something so American as Hershey's chocolate."

Then I told my own experience away from home.I served a 2-year Mormon mission in Mexico, and while the food and drink there was amazing, there was just one thing missing: root beer. Mexicans hate root beer like we hate candy with chili in it and their music and also soccer. They think it tastes like medicine and now that I think about it, it kind of does. I hadn't had root beer in over and year and one day while walking through a street market I did a double take. There at a stand was a man selling A&W by the can. I bought it and lo, even at room temperature it was a little slice of home if you could slice a newtonian liquid.

Being a missionary isn't as hard as being a soldier, but it's dang hard. In real life I only kind of like root beer, but like how raisins can be almost barely tolerable if you're on a very long hike, plain chocolate or root beer seem like exotic delights when the going is particularly tough.

Furthering the metaphor, this is the ending screen for the unreleased California raisins game.
Were the costs too great? The rewards too sweet? Let the player decide.

A new life would begin--possibly a very good or even better life--but before it did, he and Kavya would have to journey there; they would cross a no-man's-land of uncertainty, parched and dark and crawling with vigilantes. The possibility of emerging unscathed felt slim. The search for a child would take them through stifling obscurity, and already Rishi was finding it hard to breathe.
In the passage above, we meet Rishi and Kavya, both second-generation Indian immigrants. Rishi works for an Amazon-like Silicon Valley company and Kavya is a chef for a sorority. Kavya is desperate for a baby, and that want comes across in a way that is very effective and heartbreaking for the many people I know who would love to have kids and have struggled. They start to look at other ways, including adoption and foster care. Rishi is imagining the sweetness of finally being a father, in spite of all of the obstacles in the way.

It reminded me a lot of when we started having kids. It's scary but you get pregnant anyway (ok I did not get pregnant) because even though there are hardships and terrible and gross things in between that first thing and the last, the rewards are good enough.

That is this book, you guys.

See, the other main character in Lucky Boy is Solimar Castro Valdez, who leaves her tiny village in Oaxaca because she is made out of pure potential. The economically depressed and near-vacant town has nothing for her, so she contacts her cousin Sylvia and departs for Berkeley, CA. Soli is 18 years old. The journey is rough, but would be so much rougher if she didn't meet Checo, who rescues her from shady coyotes.

It sounds like I've told the whole story but that's just how it begins. She makes it to Berkeley, and then things get nuts. I don't want to get into it more, but the stories of Kavya and Rishi and Soli become inextricably connected.

There's lots of stuff here. The beauty of motherhood. The way fathers sometimes don't feel like fathers until something happens and they realize how vital their part in their child's life can be if they let it. Kavya and Rishi are lovely together and it's so refreshing to see a healthy relationship for once. The stress they are under is sometimes immense and they screw up, but they talk to each other because they actually love each other and want it to work.

There's also the microaggressions that immigrants feel, both Indian and Mexican. Soli gets a great job as a housekeeper and nanny, and her hyper-liberal employers are mostly lovely but also very white about the whole thing. It's rough, but Soli is resourceful and hyper-intelligent and lovable. She has a tiny baby.

Then things get so bad.

Here's the thing about how we treat immigrants in detention centers: it's monstrous and horrible and each one of us will have to answer for it when our kids and grandkids learn how bad it is. We cannot treat human beings like this and call ourselves Judeo-Christian. We just can't. You can talk about obeying the law of the land and how we are a nation of laws and about jobs and about social security all day long and I'll have that conversation, but the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States is obscene.

Call them "illegals" all you want, but if you think that makes them less than human, but remember that every gulag, concentration camp, slave plantation, and internment camp in our world's history has been founded on dehumanizing people who feel emotions just as strongly as we do. They were all run by people who were "just doing their job." All these justifications may help them sleep at night, but history has never once looked kindly on the people in charge who perpetrate it.
Because such men occupied the public spaces, they kept the women locked in their rooms. Women were treated like criminals, while thieves roamed the yard like bison, and men were as free as children to play and fight. Soli was no angel. She was fairly sure she wasn't a criminal, either.
But these are criminals, you may say. Dangerous people who pose a threat to our women and children. Hmm. Let's consider the case of high school student Marco Coello, who was arrested during a peaceful protest in Venezuela and tortured: beaten with golf clubs and shocked with a car battery. He fled to the United States where he applied for asylum. While waiting for his interview he was apprehended by ICE and put in a detention center. At the same center was one Denis Davydov, an HIV positive gay man who fled Russia, where homosexuals are put into literal concentration camps. Coello is still waiting on his asylum request. Davydov has been sent back to Russia.

Guadalupe GarcĂ­a de Rayos didn't commit a crime in 2008 when she was put in handcuffs in front of her boy. Jackie, her daughter, remembers waking up at 4 AM to visit her mom at a detention center far from her home. Lupita was in the detention center for 6 months, including Christmas. She was returned to live with her family. This year, however, Lupita attended Mass before meeting with her immigration attorney. She was apprehended outside of the immigration office and put on a deportation bus. She had lived in the United States since she was 14 years old. She lived here for 20 years. But Howie! She lived here for 20 years, was she just too lazy to become a citizen? Hardly.

All of this would be bad if the detention centers were nice, but they aren't. They're awful. Inspectors at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, CA found moldy showers and meat that detainees had to rinse off before eating. They found that high risk prisoners were mixing freely with low-risk detainees, putting people innocent of all crimes aside from undocumented entry into the country at risk. They found that phones were regularly down and broken, preventing detainees from having access to lawyers and family.

People die in these things. All the time. For reasons that were easily preventable.
Manuel Cota-Domingo, detained at Eloy Detention Center, died of untreated diabetes and pneumonia after numerous delays, including a policy that placed restrictions on which staff could call 911, resulted in eight hours passing between the moment he started to have trouble breathing and his arrival at an emergency room. Tiombe Carlos died by suicide in York County Prison after being detained for two-and-a-half years. The mental health care she received was deemed “woefully inadequate” by an independent expert. Santiago Sierra-Sanchez, detained at Utah County Jail, died of a staph infection and pneumonia. A correctional health expert said of the care he received, “Medical staff essentially abandoned this patient by not properly assessing him or following up.”
In Texas and Pennsylvania, over 2,000 women and children as young as five years old are shuffled around detention centers, sometimes in shackles. One teen's mom had her gall bladder removed, she was sent back to the general population the next day with no follow up care.

Then there's this:
The OIG (Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General), tasked with investigating government wrongdoing, started categorizing “sexual abuse” complaints in 2014, and since then the agency received at least 1,016 reports — primarily from the division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — according to the complaint based on several Freedom of Information Act requests.
"That’s an average of more than one complaint of sexual abuse per day," said CIVIC Executive Director Christina Fialho.
Yet, OIG ignored almost 98 percent of those, deeming them unsubstantiated or referring them back to the agency accused of the abuse with no follow-up, she said.
In addition to those complaints of sexual abuse reported by people in detention, there were 402 complaints of "coerced sexual contact," 196 complaints of "sexual harassment," and 380 complaints of "physical or sexual abuse" lodged against ICE, according to the complaint.
I say all this not because I want to rail against what I consider the worst human rights violation taking place in the United States, well, mostly not because of that. Every Sunday I hear someone shaking with rage that gay people can marry. That transgender people can have their own bathrooms. They grimly say that this is a sign of the end of the world. It's harder to be a Christian in America, one says, than any other group of people. This while women cower in fear of the men who are paid to protect them, but who instead treat them like objects.

The real reason I put this all together is because I want you to read Lucky Boy. I want everyone to read it. I wish there was a way to prop up our lawmakers in the machine from Brazil with their eyes peeled open and personally hold each page up to them so long that they have to read each page just because there is literally nothing else to do. I want it to be read to them by women who have spent years in detention centers. And when you read it, I want you to remember the sources I cited. That this is the tip of the iceberg and there is so much more. The story is fiction, but everything in this book has happened to someone who loves and has been loved, who has hopes and fears, who has sacrificed their own well-being to give their children a better chance than they had.

And before you smugly say this is a Republican problem, that we can solve this by voting back into power the boys and girls in blue. Lucky Boy is set in 2013, and exhaustively researched. Every one of Soli's trials takes place under a Democratic president. And so, also, do the majority of the examples I've cited. We are all guilty.
And good intentions? These scared him the most: people with good intentions tended not to question themselves. And people who didn't question themselves, in the scientific world and beyond, were the ones to watch out for. 
There were times when I thought I couldn't stand it any longer. That I needed to know that it didn't end tragically. These people have been through too much. There's a tendency in contemporary, serious fiction to end novels in the worst possible way. To burn it all down. The reason I think Sekaran is a great writer, and why this book will stick with me, is that she knows that things often do turn out in a way that is--if not what we wanted--then something that we can live with. I certainly could have come up with a happier ending, but Sekaran came up with the right ending, which is so much better.