Chasing Orwell: A Life in Books


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looking for a thrill

In 2005, Chicago indie label, Thrill Jockey records released a DVD to celebrate their tenth anniversary.  It was called Looking for a Thrill: An Anthology of Inspiration, featuring nothing but interviews with 112 musicians, producers, and sound engineers, to discuss inspiration. Every artist has that moment of inspiration where they encounter a great work that helps them define what they want to do with their life. For Steve Albini, it was hearing the Ramones for the first time. For Thurston Moore, it was seeing, no—experiencing a Suicide show at Max’s Kansas City.

les miserables

For me, because I’m inherently less cool then all those people interviewed by Thrill Jockey, it was seeing a matinee of Les Misérables when I was a kid. Like most kids, the overwhelming majority of the entertainment I was exposed to was benign, and offered little in the way of direct socio-political commentary (the only thing that springs to mind is the “Feed the Birds” number in Mary Poppins). So Les Miz was a huge revelation to me on the big ideas that storytelling could tackle. It’s also significant that my parents took me to the matinee when they did. My father was a news junky, a habit that I’ve inherited, and when we got home from Les Miz, he turned on the news like always. On the news that day, the big story was the massacre in Tiananmen Square. What I had just seen enacted in the second half of a musical was now happening in real life, on the news in front of me. While I watched Les Miz, it was easy to feel a certain detachment from French guys who had lived over a century ago. But watching people in China, not much older than me, essentially repeating the same insurrection taught me that governments are still using deadly force to silence dissent. There were other parallels of course, like how the death of Hu Yaobang in China was a call to movement as much as the death of Jean Maximilien Lamarque was to French uprising in 1832. Those events are also not terribly dissimilar to what we saw in the Arab Spring in the past year.

Of course, you may be asking yourself, so why is the title of this post “Chasing Orwell?” Because if Victor Hugo planted the seed in my brain, George Orwell was standing behind him with a watering can.

animal farm 1984

Not terribly long after seeing Les Miz on stage and the Tinnemen Square massacre on the news, I had overheard my father talk with a friend about having just read 1984, and the ensuing parallels that remain between the novel and real life, even in contemporary American society. My dad and his friend also discussed that 1984 was showing up on a lot of banned book lists because of all the sex. I asked my dad about it later, and he said that it might be too advanced for me. I had recently read an abridged version of Les Miz, as well as Wuthering Heights (standard text), so I thought his concern that it was “too advanced” was just a cover for not wanting me to read all the sexy stuff—because, well, parents.

So, now that my father said I shouldn’t read it, I absolutely had to read 1984. Fortunately, the pocketbook version was very easy to smuggle. In all honesty, it was a difficult read in ways that Les Miz and Wuthering Heights weren’t. Those two books took place in the real world, in eras that their authors lived through. 1984 was a prediction of a future gone wrong, with some science fiction elements, and I had never read anything like that before. Add to that the symbolism and socio-political commentary, and this was something I really had to work at. But the payoff was worth it.

After reading 1984, my way of looking at the world changed completely. Merely putting society under the microscope reporting the facts didn’t seem to be enough—I now sought to not only examine the potential ramifications of our decisions, but why we make the choices we do. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 1984 became a gospel for me, but it was close. I read Animal Farm, which acts as a sort of foundation for the towering achievement that is 1984. Because of its parable nature, it didn’t have quite the same magic for me, and it was a while before I became reacquainted with Orwell’s work again.

we the living

I made the mistake of seeking out other novels of the dystopian variety, which landed me at Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which I especially found interesting because it was written within the same timeframe as Animal Farm and 1984. Rand and Orwell had a common enemy in Stalin (as did much of the world, really), but Rand’s own background of being Russian-born, and having lived through the Bolshevik Revolution, I couldn’t help find her more intriguing. Not to mention there remain precious few women who I would describe as writing novels of “big ideas.” So I read We the Living, her autobiographical novel of coming-of-age in the shadow of the Revolution. It’s the least pushy with her philosophy and remains the one book of hers that I recommend without any reservations; I think its enduring value also comes from the fact that, due to lengthy and oppressive Soviet censorship, first-person accounts of that era of Russian history aren’t exactly plentiful. But anyway, I went on to read the Fountainhead, then started to delve into her non-fiction works, and hit the wall. The Great Wall of Dogma. Perhaps it was going to that Catholic school, but I felt like I was getting so much “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” (especially if it’s fun and involves boys), that Rand quickly went from interesting to paternalistic, and ironically dictatorial for someone who spends so much effort exalting the will of the individual.

no one here gets out alive

It was at this point, I made a crazy detour: I hit the road with some crazy beatnik. At friend’s house, I saw the Doors, with Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. I found the Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and discovered that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a personal favorite of Morrison when he was young. So naturally, I had to read it. My appetite for Beat literature became, and remains somewhat, unquenchable. Kerouac remains, for me, one of the few authors I really enjoy in every capacity—fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poetry. I’m willing to admit he’s an acquired taste, and for most people falls into the love it or leave it category, and I’ve loved his work for years. The difficult thing with Kerouac though, is that he’s so utterly unique and individual, that any attempts at aping his style are little more than plagiarism. Although I recommend all writers trying it at least once, because it’ll definitely get you on the road to finding your own voice (I assure you, the pun was not intentional, but it stays). Also, following the arty, bohemian way of life seemed a more natural fit to my own personality; and a life filled with poetry, good wine, and Tantric sex just seemed inherently more fun being some corporate desk jockey.

on the road

And so I remained in my warm little cocoon of poetry, jazz, and navel gazing when I was assigned to read Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” for a writing class last year. Darn it. How does he do it? How did he make his internal conflict my internal conflict? Damn, that’s some good writing. How could I have abandoned this guy? So I sought out a bit more of his work than before, beginning with Down and Out in Paris and London, which in our current economy, has so much resonance. I’ve read a few articles and books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which were essentially affluent people going undercover as poor people, or at least regular working stiffs. And they all suffer from the same problem: a lack of tension, because you know that the “experiment” ends and they go back to their life of eating out with their perfect teeth. In other words, they’re poverty tourists. I know it, you know it, we all know it, but the genre presses on. Orwell tells it as he really lived it—the insects, buying and selling clothing by the pound, how some low-wage jobs manage to be more dehumanizing than homelessness, and still manages to work in a rant on the hypocrisies of the Salvation Army. And he’s not particularly generous with other Christian do-gooders either.

down out paris london

I recently discovered some essay collections of Orwell’s in my school’s library, some fancy editions donated by a long dead benefactor, and even longer out of print. But anyway, the very first essay: Why I Write. He lists the reasons he (and the rest of) writes as sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. I was actually a little mad when I read that, but I wasn’t sure why. Then it hit me: he’s right. Not only is he right, but he’s exposing our dirty little secrets. It’s almost like masturbating—sure, we all write for those reasons, but we’re not supposed to talk about it.

why i write

What stayed with me, more than anything else in the piece, was its opening paragraph: “From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon the idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.” It’s like he peered through some secret window into my brain and exposed this dormant need for expression. I found myself in a mode of constant self-analysis, finally realizing that everything I had pursued was just an avoidance of writing. Writing is long, lonely work. And yet, nothing else brings me as much fulfillment.

It’s been a bad day for a woman’s right to privacy.


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I had been working on a piece about the current compromises to a woman’s medical privacy. Some of this is because of technology, but mostly it’s because there are some really intrusive bastards out there who believe women (and their doctors) can’t be trusted to make their own decisions regarding their health. I wanted to take a little more time with it so I could be more detailed, and I’ll probably get back to it later, but today two things happened that forced me to speed things up.

The first thing that I found utterly disappointing was that in Arizona today, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed into law what has been referred to as the “Show Me Your Whore Pills” Law1: that any employer that identifies as a religious organization would be able to fire female employees for using prescription contraception, and would be able to deny contraception if they felt like it. If said woman is one of the 58% of all women who use prescription contraception for health reasons2, she’s got to open up her medical records to her employer and prove it. And did I mention that an employer can terminate an employee for using prescription contraception? Oh, I did? Well then, it’s worth mentioning again, because this whole this is just one big stupid idea. I can’t help but be reminded of the Lewis Black’s riff on how the Republicans are the part of bad ideas, and the Democrats are the party of no ideas.

What I find truly strange about this bill is all the new variables that open up. If a woman works for a big company, who are they expected to open up their medical records to? The CEO? Human resources? Their immediate supervisor? Therein also lies the potential that some suit the woman has never met who gets decide on her healthcare and her employment status based on their own morality. This law, in the hands of evil people, has the capacity to create a new kind of Gattaca-like sexual harassment. Not to mention a new market for extortionists and blackmailers.

The other big piece of bad news is the stripping down of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as it passed the House today. All the provisions that offered protection to immigrant women, women on Native American reservations, LGBT men and women—POOF! Gone! I guess to the House Republicans, women from other lands aren’t really women, or women whose ancestors were here before all those white guys, nor women who like women. Ok, I got my sarcastic hyperbole out of my system, so now I’m going to let the fabulous Valerie Jarrett explain what this really means3:

“The passage of the Violence Against Women Act nearly two decades ago was an historic moment for America’s women and girls. The law gave women new legal protections that help ensure their safety… The bill [the Senate] approved would address the high rates of domestic violence committed against Native American women, ensure that LGBT victims have access to services, and make college campuses safer places to live and study… Unfortunately, the bill being considered in the House of Representatives today would do the opposite. It…rolls back existing protections, leaving women less safe. For example, if this bill were to become law, abusive partners would have an easier time using immigration status as a tool to control and further abuse victims. It would make it harder for immigrants to cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute criminals. It would eliminate confidentiality that allows many women to leave their abusive relationships, without fear of retaliation. In other words, the bill going through the House right now would leave more women at risk.”

Thanks, Val! The italics are mine, and that, for me, is probably the scariest part: It would eliminate confidentiality for women trying to leave abusive relationships. When I read that, I felt my face morph into the sort of expression that a puppy has upon discovering their reflection in a mirror for the first time: am I seeing what I think I’m seeing? Is my face going to freeze this way? What could possibly be the motivation behind this? Well, it turns out, it’s pretty damn sinister.

Timothy Johnson, a former vice chair of the North Carolina Republican Party who was convicted of domestic battery in 1996, signed an anti-VAWA letter as part of a group curiously named Concerned Women for America4, which read: “…Further, this legislation continues to use overly broad definitions of domestic violence. These broad definitions actually squander the resources for victims of actual violence by failing to properly prioritize and assess victims. Victims who can show physical evidence of abuse should be our primary focus.” So, none of this namby-pamby emotional distress—women only need protection when they’ve had their toes or their nose broken, or punched in the breasts, or had furniture broken over their backs, which is the exact beating that Johnson dished out to his now ex-wife, Ofelia Felix-Johnson. In 1998, Johnson was arrested again for beating her and their son (charges were dropped because Felix-Johnson failed to make the court appearance). By 2009, they were divorced and she was living in Nebraska, when he ran for his vice chair seat on the North Carolina Republican Party. In his campaign, he forged a letter, claiming that she said:

“I have been made aware that my ex-husband is a candidate for the job of Vice Chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party which I whole heartedly support and were I a resident of that state I would vote for him. It has also come to my attention that people in the Republican Party are trying to use potential issues from our marriage in an attempt to smear Tim’s reputation and chances to win the race. When we took our marriage vows, we like so many including President Reagan, former speaker Newt Gingrich or even John McCain hoped that the union would last. Differences sometimes occur and words and actions may happen which require a separation; however, the love and regard for the people involved doesn’t change. My ex-husband has met his obligations to me and our children, our relationship is cordial and I support whatever positive endeavors…Tim may choose to engage in.”

However, in an interview with in 2010, she said, “I absolutely did not say that. This was not done with my consent, and I didn’t even know about it. I didn’t appreciate him putting my name out there when I had nothing to do with it.”5 So, in addition to being a convicted wife-beater, he’s also a big, fat liar. Just the sort person I want my members of Congress to listen to when making big decisions that will impact millions of people.

But wait! There’s more! And it gets freakier: one of the other signatures on the letter signed by Johnson is Peter Cook, director of Stop Abuse and Violent Environments (SAVE). Despite their very nice name, SAVE is actually a lobbying front for a Russian mail-order bride business. (I told you it got freaky!) SAVE’s treasurer, Natasha Spivack, is also the founder of Intimate Encounters, which she began in 1993 to arrange marriages between Russian women and U.S. men. According to the Huffington Post, one of their marriages went horribly wrong6:

“One of the Russian brides matched by Encounters International sued the firm, claiming that she was beaten by her American husband, that the company failed to properly screen candidates and neglected to tell her about a law allowing immigrants to escape abusive marriages without fear of automatic deportation. A jury decided in favor of the Russian bride and awarded her $434,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The case was affirmed upon appeal.”

Spivack claims that the bride was actually committing immigration fraud and was never actually beaten by her husband. She cites this as the reason for lobbying for the dropping privacy protections of immigrant victims of domestic violence. In her statement on SAVE’s website, she describes a conspiracy of VAWA advocates and money-hungry immigration attorneys out to extort American.7 Okay, I totally buy money-hungry lawyers, but everything else she claims seems rather far-fetched to me. If it turns out this the only coupling that went sour for Spivack in her nearly twenty years of international matchmaking, that’s actually a damn good track record. Not to mention, in twenty years on the job, professional hiccups are inevitable. It’s not, to me, a legitimate reason to abolish the privacy protection of the women who really need it. My point is that aside from what appears to be an isolated incident, Spivack presents no other rationale.

One last thing: There is someone out there who gets it: Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore (D). Speaking on the House floor this morning she recounted her own personal experience8:

“…In this motion, we’re simply trying to reestablish…in this bill, that we’re hoping the majority…will greatly enhance the safety of all women. This motion simply protects the victim’s identity to avoid retaliation, even the loss of life, and make sure it’s not weakened as compared to current law. Now, we’re going to be told the Manager’s Amendment does that, but it does not. Under current law, abused women are able to seek help and come forward to authorities under the condition of confidentiality. But H.R. 4970, as an amendment, does many things…For example, it delays the protection for battered victims by staying adjudications before pending investigations or prosecutions are completed. It creates a negative inference against the victim if law enforcement did not open an investigation, or prosecutors fail to prosecute the perpetrator…I can tell you that…current law provides a very delicate balance between the due process rights of the accused and the confidentiality of accusers.

“The fact that the bill was amended in this way [stimulates] me to remember an incident in my own life, where the best of rights was tipped in favor of the abuser…I got into an automobile with a man I thought was a personal friend to go get some fried chicken. And he pulled in behind some vacant buildings, raped me, [and] choked me almost to death. And when I went to the hospital, I was encouraged, by an advocate—this was in the 1970s, long before there was a VAWA, long before there was a Rape Shield Act.*…I took him to court, and indeed, I was put on trial, because…I had to prove that I was a victim, that I was not being fraudulent in my accusations…They brought up how I was an unwed mother with a baby—that maybe I seduced him. They talked about how I was dressed…they carried me through all kind[s] of bureaucratic hoops and changes and ultimately, he was found to be not guilty. Although I did everything I was told to do in terms of prosecuting this.

“I cannot stress the solemn nature of this issue*…the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is trying to escape her perpetrator, when she’s trying to do something about it, when she’s trying to turn her life—hers and her children’s—around. And when the perpetrator is given the tools that this bill gives him, to have an abuser’s rights prevail over the rights of the victim, she will have the cell phone in her hand, but she will lose her life anyway, because she cannot escape this man. The Manager’s Amendment does not fix this.”

(The Manager’s Amendment that she is referring to was added during House deliberation to fix the confidentiality problem, which it clearly doesn’t.9)

So, this watered-down, messed-up bill has passed the House and faces a likely veto by President Obama. This puts us in a very weird position. Do we want a crappy VAWA or none at all?

In closing, I can’t help being reminded of the Sleater-Kinney song, “#1 Must-Have:”

The number one must have

Is that we are safe

Watch me make up my mind

Instead of my face

I guess that says it all, doesn’t it? I believe that privacy is one of the things that keeps us safe, and when that’s compromised, our health and safety is compromised.


  1. Veracity Stew:
  2. Guttmacher Institute:
  3. Valerie Jarrett, Huffington Post:
  4. Right Wing Watch:
  6. Huffington Post:
  7. Stop Abuse and Violent Environments (SAVE):
  8. Gwen Moore Recounts Personal Story of Domestic Violence during Motion to Recommit on VAWA:
  9. Think Progress:

* I want to clear up something because I think it’s important: there is no “Rape Shield Act.” Many states have rape shield laws which protect a victim’s identity from the public, allowing them to file charges as “Jane Doe” or “John Doe.” However, if the victim’s true identity appears in court documents as a matter of public record, the media is protected under the First Amendment to publish the victim’s name if they wish (per Florida Star v. B.J.F.) without civil recourse, but most media outlets do not as a courtesy unless charges are dropped.

**In this ellipse, Rep. Moore makes a reference to a particular case, but the sound quality is off in that part, and I’m not getting everything, so I’m just jumping to what I can hear.

Stand your ground. Unless you’re a woman.


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By now, everyone and their cousin knows the story of Trayvon Martin, and how the cops used Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to not arrest George Zimmerman until there was a massive amount of media pressure and public outcry. The purpose of the “Stand Your Ground” law is to protect those who would use lethal force in self-defense. Some have argued that it’s blurring the line between homicide and justifiable homicide, and maybe it has. Under federal law (per Beard v. United States, 1895), you must believe that the perpetrator will inflict “great bodily harm” or kill you, in order to actually kill them.

This brings me to the case of Marissa Alexander, who was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison this week. According to the Huffington Post,1 “On Aug. 1, 2010, a fight between Alexander and her husband, Rico Gray, 36, left her cornered in the couple’s home. She fled into the garage to escape but was trapped behind a jammed door, she stated in court documents. She said she grabbed the gun she kept in the garage, returned to the house and, when Gray threatened to kill her, fired a single shot to ward him off.” It’s worth noting that Alexander had already filed a restraining order against Gray about four months before this incident.

During the deposition, Gray said, “I told her if she ever cheated on me, I would kill her…”If my kids weren’t there, I knew I probably would have tried to take the gun from her. If my kids wouldn’t have been there, I probably would have put my hand on her.” When Alexander’s defense attorney asked him what he meant by “put my hand on her,” Gray replied, “probably hit her. I got five baby mamas and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one.”2 Well, if you can’t trust a guy who admits to beating four out of five baby mamas, who can you trust?

After Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have gotten her three years in prison, because she believed she was protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the case went to trial. The jury found her guilty after 12 minutes of deliberation. Under Florida’s 10-20-life law, “anyone convicted of an aggravated assault when a firearm is discharged to serve a minimum of 20 years in prison with no regard to extenuating circumstances.”3 So, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years. For fighting off an abusive spouse that she’d already warned the authorities about.

And this is where I step in and get peeved. More than a few commentators have already noted the racial imbalance in this case compared to the Trayvon Martin case. While I’m not about to dismiss those claims, I can’t escape the glaring sexism.

According to the information compiled by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence,4

  • Of the almost 3.5 million violent crimes committed against family members, 49% of these were crimes against spouses.
  • 84% of spouse abuse victims were females, and 86% of victims of dating partner abuse at were female.
  • Males were 83% of spouse murderers and 75% of dating partner murderers
  • 50% of offenders in state prison for spousal abuse had killed their victims. Wives were more likely than husbands to be killed by their spouses: wives were about half of all spouses in the population in 2002, but 81% of all persons killed by their spouse.

Statistics aside, I would want to view Marissa Alexander’s case as one of those cases where everything for the defendant just went completely wrong. But the goofy political climate we’re in has me concerned on a bigger scale. The obvious starting point is the ongoing battle over renewing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Another is a general attitude from lawmakers. Like Wisconsin State Representative Don Pridemore who told a local news affiliate5 that divorce, even when there’s evidence of domestic violence, should be discouraged: “If they can refind those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place, it might help.” And then there’s Idaho State Senator Chuck Winder, who, upon introducing a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound bill into the state legislature (that eventually went nowhere), said, “I would hope that when a woman goes into a physician, with a rape issue, that that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage, was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage, or was it truly caused by a rape. I assume that’s part of the counseling that goes on.”6 In the Jennifer Hudson trial, where her former brother in-law, Daniel Balfour, was recently convicted on all three counts of killed Hudson’s mother, brother, and nephew, the defense played the Ick Card: “The defense tried to counter the portrayal of Balfour as an embittered husband by noting Julia Hudson [Jennifer Hudson’s sister] continued to have sex with him until just days before the killings.”7 I don’t understand how that, if true, is even relevant, or how it could justify killing three people.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel better knowing these guys are in charge of my well-being. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between rape and consensual, spousal sex if I didn’t have Chuck Winder there to help clear things up. If I get married, and my guy starts to slap me around, the best thing I can do is take Don Pridemore’s advice to heart, and try to “refind” the reason I fell in love with the big lug in the first place. And if my hypothetical husband tries beating the crap out of me in Florida, I shouldn’t bother with any sort of pesky self-defense—that could land me in prison, separating me from my hypothetical children. And even if he kills any of my relatives, my sex life can still be put on trial for shits and giggles—sort like the effect “refind” has had on SpellCheck.

In conclusion, American women who are victims of violence, sexual or otherwise, still need to prove their innocence. And don’t bother trying to stand your ground: that’s the domain of white guys.

  1. Huffington Post:
  2. CNN:
  3. CNN:
  4. American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence:
  5. TMJ4:
  6. Spokesman-Review:

Black & White Chocolate Chip Cookies

See? I said there would be cookies…

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
  • ¼ cup light brown sugar (better known as regular brown sugar), firmly packed
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 6 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 6 ounces white chocolate chips

  1. Preheat oven to 375*F.
  2. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl.
  3. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer at medium speed, beat the butter for 30 seconds, or until creamy. Add dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, and granulated sugar and continue beating for 2 to 3 minutes, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Scape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the egg and vanilla and beat well.
  4. At low speed, add the flour mixture a ½ cup at a time, mixing thoroughly and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Stir in all the chocolate chips.
  5. Shape the dough into balls and place on an ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.
  6. Bake 8-10 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.