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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

My father-in-law, Dick Soule, was a colorful character.  He had many sayings – some of them made more sense than others – all interesting, some timely.  And maybe none were more timely than the one I’m using as title for this post.  Lots of people have talked about the President’s fondness for ‘alternate facts,’ a behavior embodied by his press secretary and top aides.  For those who rely on digital media for their news, and tend toward information coming in fast bursts that don’t involve reading (let alone reading print publications “Of Record,”), it’s becoming tricky to know whether to believe what you hear and see.

And so the messages continue to be cranked out – about Putin, about the ‘crooked media,’ about lack of coverage of terrorist threats – even the “Bowling Green Massacre,”  which – it turns out – is one of those ‘alternate’ pieces of information ginned up by a Trump aide.

Which brings me to another of my father-in-law’s sayings.  He – and my husband as well – loved to distract our kids by pointing in a direction over their shoulder (particularly if there was, for instance, a brownie sitting on a plate in front of a child) and saying, “Look!  A Linotype!”  Linotypes, of course, haven’t been used for years…and hardly any kid (and few adults) would know what they are!  But the idea of pointing in one direction to grab the cookie off your plate, or throw you off your game (just like the old Quarterback Sneak) – now that is alive and being used with verve right now.

Because, of course, it turns out that the Administration — the one that we are supposed to respect and admire — would far rather have the media get distracted on ‘proving’ that they really HAVE covered stories of terrorist threats – and covered them enough (what the heck is enough???) to exempt themselves from the criticism of the White House.  At what point will the reputable media – the ‘failing’ New York Times, for instance; the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the like – respond to this kind of criticism by not responding and being distracted?

PT Barnum, famous showman, was well known for staging stunts.  He talked proudly about hiring a child in a town where his circus was, to carefully place six bricks outside of the tent where his show was.  People would gather, watching the child and the bricks and then, curious, they’d go inside to be entertained by acrobats, dancers, Gen Tom Thumb, and others.  They’d leave, feeling that they had experienced a great show, and spread the word to their friends.  Evidently – even though Ringling Brothers has announced the close of their circus – we haven’t learned the lessons Barnum wanted to teach us, more than 100 years ago:  we can be duped.  Over and over again, just like (as my husband likes to say) “shooting fish in a barrel.”  It’s easy, and it’s working. And more than that:  we know what this game is, yet still, we play it, over and over again.  “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump,” said WC Fields, who seemed to embody the spirit of Barnum years after the showman had passed.  Evidently we’re the chumps, not smart enough to know that our ears are wet – and no, it’s not the rain coming down on our heads.

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What’s amazing is that it feels like it was just yesterday.  It makes me wonder what it would be like to be a real time traveler, to be able to go forward or back in time by decades or more, and wake up and know where you are because you’ve lived it all before.  That’s how I’m feeling about the anniversary, tomorrow.  I’m the cajillionth in a line of people talking about this anniversary (and I won’t talk that much, I promise).  But I keep shaking my head, because the memories are SO present.

I remember not only what I was doing, but what it felt like to be on the school bus coming home, to see my mother crying when I walked in the door, to spend the wierdest Thanksgiving ever, with my aunt and uncle in a smoke-filled den, watching Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, for hours on end.

There were breaks for food, breaks for the adults to make drinks, breaks to get more tissues, and the sense that this was some bizarre drama in which we were the bit players. No one could remember when the last time was that this had happened;  all they could do was talk about Lincoln’s assassination, “Camelot,” and the beautiful young widow and the two small, adorable children in blue coats.  All I could do was watch them, and watch the TV.

And it was the end of some kind of innocence for me, and probably for many other pre-teens of my generation:  the time when it all seemed to go a little whacky, when the young hero I’d stood and waved to in Hyannisport the previous summer had been ‘disappeared’; the start of the time when people decided that if they didn’t like someone, they’d blow them away to make their lives better and fulfill some promise in their minds about how to change the world.

I started writing slogans that I found inspirational, writings from Anne Frank and Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley even, on the bedroom shades.  I’d lie there in the half-dark, looking at those words, wondering how they had been moved to write those things and wondering if I’d ever be a writer or a great thinker, or how one survived tragedy and disappointment so deep it hurt in my heart.

I started peppering my childhood minister, Rev. Wayne Shuttee, with questions about how there could be a loving God in the face of insanity and rage.  About why there was a world where such bad things happened. About how people find courage and strength to carry on in the face of such stuff.  Wayne answered some, helped me struggle some, and — with my church youth group — helped me believe that together, we could find the resources inside us to carve a new path… so that our lives, and maybe those of our children, wouldn’t be etched with the violence that wiped out those we looked up to and adored (even though we’d never really known them).

All that is hopelessly idealistic, of course.  And it was unfulfilled:  the men who wiped out Martin, Bobby, and a string of lesser heroes made sure we learned that lesson, again and again. Yet, we endure.  We continue to believe, with undying hope, that our world might be different some day.  Which brings us back, in some ways, to the unfulfilled promises of the young man who died fifty years ago.

Tomorrow, I’ll be the kid on the bus again, walking in the door and seeing my mother crying and trying to understand why the world had gone mad.  Just like yesterday.

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A week ago I finished a job as event coordinator for a large academic conference in Boston.  Although the organization bills itself as a “North American Society…” there were people in attendance from all over the world, and I — an undergraduate English major who studied romanticism quite a bit — was so far out of my league I wondered where my studies of Wordsworth and Shelley had gone.

I had four students acting as assistants for the conference. Three of them were graduate students, one was a rising senior, and all of them are headed for careers as college professors or researcher/writers in the field of romanticism.  They were terrific, each one of them in their own way, so smart and engaged and energetic.  The grad students were put on panels and so, received the opportunity to present a twelve minute paper on a subject they were studying, and to field the questions of the audience who wanted to explore their topic (or tear their thesis apart).  This was a wonderful opportunity for them, and when they weren’t helping at our registration desk or running around taking care of other errands, they were off in seminars, taking full advantage of the visiting professors who came from Australia, Ireland, across Canada, China, Denmark, and more.

Each one of these women is already impressive.  And each one of them is going to be something important, really significant, and soon.  You can see it in their drive, in their conversations with one another, in their eyes.  It made me not only remember my own days in graduate school, when I grabbed every opportunity I could get to work in professional theatre and dove deep into studies of Georg Buchner and the existentialist playwrights, days when I thought I would die of happiness just working for the eighteenth hour straight on Elizabeth Ashley’s new play, about to come into the Colonial Theatre, or work on a grad student production of Percey Shelley’s play “The Cenci” (talk about obscure romanticism).

Along the way I got a boost from some people (mostly women) that helped.  The costume designer and now business consultant Betsy Leichleiter, who sent me off to Boston’s theatre district to work because she thought I had the right stuff.  Theatre publicist Nance Movsessian, a warhorse of a woman who was legend in Boston theatre, who taught me about communication in an arts setting.  Roberta Rogovin in New Haven, who thought that I had what it would take to make the City of New Haven a place where the arts could not only survive, but thrive.  And then, as I branched away from theatre and the arts and toward other non-profit settings and the world of religion,  Denny Davidoff, an advertising and marketing powerhouse who, with former Unitarian Universalist Association Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery, not only taught me about the business of religion but about how to make your career and your life focus on making a difference in the world.

These were my uncommon women, the people who were there to give me a hand along the way, sometimes a kick in the ass as well, and who pointed me toward the next challenge and the opportunities that lay ahead.  As one of my graduate assistants at that conference agonized over a professor who had torn into her thesis, I wondered if some mentor would be there to keep her headed in the right direction.  Soon enough, one of her professors (not a woman, but a mentor and advocate for sure) showed up to help her refocus on what was important.    “If you didn’t get questions about what you wrote, it wouldn’t be worth saying.  You’re doing fine.  Keep going.”  And my comment:  “Everyone I’ve talked to at this conference has talked about how wonderful you are as a teacher.  You told me you wanted to be an English professor.  You already are.  Your students value you.  Keep working toward the goal of being the best professor you can be, and you’ll be on the right path.”

This week I’ll be at a dinner, held by another ‘uncommon woman,’ one who has been an author, one of the first female Fulbright scholars, and a foreign bureau chief for a major news outlet.  She’ll gather with a number of other impressive women around her table and they’ll be talking about their lives, who they have mentored, whether they now mentor others.  It should be a heady conversation.

I have no idea if my life will put me in the place where I need to be lifted up, again, by one of my uncommon women.  But I know what the value is of such people in our lives.  So often they show up at just the right moment.  Knowing when to say something or give you a kick in the ass is part of the treasure that such mentors hold…part of what make them so uncommon.

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We went to see “The Help” last night at our wonderful little movie theatre, the Lexington Venue.  It was as full as I’ve ever seen it, full of folks about our age, baby boomers in an upscale Boston suburb, who wanted to see what Hollywood had done with Kathryn Stockett’s novel based on a particularly sad time in our U.S. history.  I expected to hate the movie, and had squirmed in making a decision about whether to see it.  I’ve had enough anti-racism/anti-oppression/multiculturalism training and work to set off my internal radar with cheery, do-gooder versions of other peoples’ histories, and I was afraid that this movie would fall into that hole.

But it did not.  Some have called it a little too upbeat, but I squirmed in my seat as I saw mean-spirited women take on their maids to make sure they did not behave in a manner not befitting their status, watched other characters cast their eyes down as hard-working domestic workers were demeaned and dissed.  And I was transported back to the time when I recalled – as a young girl — the assassination of Medgar Evers, Jack Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

More than that, I thought about our own ‘help.’  My mother had grown up with parents who believed that African Americans were less than others.  She once handed out a stern warning to her mother, I remember, when Gram referred to the “niggers” across the street, telling her that such language was not OK while I was around.  She knew, I suspect, that she couldn’t change her parents, but she wasn’t about to let them launch a verbal attack in my presence.

When I was five and we lived in Akron, Ohio, my mother decided that she would like to go back to work, at least part time.  She signed up as a substitute teacher, and often, she got called to come in to school.  She had hired a woman name Elizabeth Baileys — large, Irish, a little rough around the edges, always wearing a blue maid’s uniform — to come and help clean the house and look after me when she wasn’t there.  On days when Mom was at a school, I’d walk home from school for lunch (as we did in those days) to find burned tomato soup and a peanut butter sandwich on my plate.  I didn’t mind, though…in fact, I got to like the burned soup, which developed when Mrs. Baileys would turn the heat on the stove and then go off to clean something, forgetting what was on the fire.  She would sit and talk to me while I ate, send me off to school again, and continue her work.

When we moved to Connecticut Mom began working at Planned Parenthood of New Haven as a volunteer, and later, board member.  She would meet women who wanted access to birth control.  Some of them needed jobs, and she would hire them to help at our house.  She’d pick the women up at the bus stop, bring them out to the house, they would clean some and talk some to Mom about ways to get better jobs, and she would share recipes for ‘economical and healthy’ food, like Sloppy Joes, food that would help stretch a dollar and feed a hungry family while getting a few servings of vegetables in at the same time.  They came and went, some with curlers in their hair (as in the film, “The Help,”), some disappearing into the social welfare system or moving away.

And then Zula Simmons came to our house.  I don’t know where Mom met Zula.  She was elderly, moved slow, and reminded me, when I saw the film, of Constantine (beautifully played by Cicely Tyson).  Zula had served all her life as a domestic worker, and I think she was grateful for the job at our house.  I don’t know that she had much energy left to clean, but she was a presence.  My mother had been hit by psoriatic arthritis and diverticulitis, and her health was not good.  I was in high school and though I was the center of the world, so I expected attention.  I’d come in the door and be greeted by Zula, shaking her finger at me:  “Now your mother is sleepin’ down the hall.  Don’t you make no noise and bother her!  She needs to rest!”  She scared me enough to pay attention — I was not going to take Zula on — so I did as she said.  She was in charge while she was there, made dinner for us, did the laundry, kept me in line, and when my father would come home from work, he would drive her to the bus stop, and off she’d go until her next date at our house.

It was a difficult time.  Our high school had a race riot, with the Italian kids fighting the Black kids, that made it into major news outlets.  On a trip across the country the summer of the Watts riots, we saw groups of restless people gathered on street corners.  The Viet Nam war added yet another element of heat to the mix.  And through it all, there was the help in our house, keeping things moving, keeping the child in line, adding a level of stability.

I’ve often wondered what happened to Zula, just as Skeeter wondered about Constantine in Stockett’s novel.  I hope that she was able to end her days with some dignity and grace, but I fear that she lived in deep poverty and privation.  And now, early in the morning, I drive through the town where I have lived for the last twenty-some years and I sometimes watch the current generation of help get off the bus.  Few of them wear uniforms now, as they walk to the large, elegant houses where they raise other women’s children and cook, clean, and do the laundry.  But they are here, and they, too, call for us to know their names and tell their stories.

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Much has been written over the last few days about the “Harry Potter generation”: those children — now teens or young adults — who grew up with J.K. Rowling’s fantasy novels as part of their lives, and who now face the wrench of discovering what life will be like without the continuing adventures of Harry, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, and the rest of the Hogwarts gang.

My daughter, Abigail, is 17 and she is one of these children.  Tonight she will go to the 12:01 AM screening of the last part of the Harry Potter saga, dressed as Hermione Granger, just as she did many years ago, for Halloween.  Then, Abby’s Hermione appeared as a young witch, complete with Hogwarts patch on her robe, custom-made broom and wand in hand.  Today, our Hermione will wear the dark skirt, Oxford shirt, grey cable-knit sweater, knee socks, and Hogwarts scarf that we have seen the teen Hogwarts pupils wear in the movie.  She’ll be accompanied by one friend dressed as Dolores Umbridge (a vision in pink, no doubt) and another portraying Harry Potter.  Snape may also make an appearance, I’m told.

What Ben and I are painfully aware of is that this is the beginning of the end of days.  Days of having a teenager living in the house, a child in public school, a dependent who we are charged with watching over.  A week ago, we marked the official beginning of ‘the year of lasts,’ as Ben calls it:  Abby’s last summer on Star Island as a member of a children’s program group.  She’ll be back to Star, gods willing, but it will be as a young adult, an employee, a woman with her own family – a child no more.

It’s the last summer before college, the last summer of free-and-easy, and, yes, the last opening of a Harry Potter movie. Abby decided to re-read the entire Rowling series before she saw this last film;  she is home as I write, finishing the final chapter of the final book.  It has been marked by laughter and many tears, as beloved characters meet their fate. These characters are her friends, her muses, and she will not say goodbye to them easily.

Years ago, Ben and I started reading Abby these books as bed time stories.  At first, she didn’t want to hear them.  She had somehow decided that they were math textbooks, and refused each time we tried to lure her into the books.  But we were eventually able to convince her that these were uncommon stories… about a magical wizard and his friends, about minotaurs and house-elves… and she, and we, succumbed to the magic.  We took summer trips to Canada listening to Jim Dale tell the stories; we queued up in line at bookstores or pre-ordered new books online so that they would arrive on the legal publication release date. Ben created a wand-making business, Preston and Wickes Wands of Distinction, which sold beautifully made, hand-crafted exotic wood wands to wizards and muggles alike.  We went to sleep dreaming of visiting Diagon Alley, we yearned to try chocolate frogs.

Now, Abby has mourned the end of the book and the series.  And, we all know, it’s not just because the story’s over.  It’s a piece of her life, and ours, too.  These kids may be known by demographers as “The Harry Potter Generation,” and they should be, for this amazing set of stories has shaped their years and their viewpoints, made them dream and believe and wonder in wondrous ways.

Abby as Hermione - Halloween, 2002

Ben and I can’t bring ourselves to run to the movie theatre right away to see the last film.  We want to string it out a little.   Probably, because we want to string out our younger daughter’s childhood a bit, too.

Oh, I will miss these books.  And I will miss that little girl I’ve loved for so long,  too.

Abby as Hermione, July 14, 2011

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Last night, Ben and I went to Lexington High School for a presentation of “Songs of Ourselves:  A Celebration of Diversity”, the culmination of a unique poetry and music project.  Our friend, the talented poet and performance artist Regie O’Hare Gibson, had run the project,  along with his colleague, Robert Rivera – a gifted cellist and composer.  The two worked with freshmen at the high school on writing poetry and presenting it with music, both written and improvised.  Twenty-five pieces were presented in the 1.5-hour presentation, and a jazz combo and a classical ensemble were on stage to add live music to the performance.  The poems were read by Regie and two students.

The excellence of the writing was smashing, and the music was perfectly suited to the poems being read.  The student readers, rehearsed by Gibson, were also excellent, and all the people on stage were clearly excited by the work that had gone into the presentation, which was recorded by the local cable television station for rebroadcast.

What completely jazzed me (pun intended) were the topics presented through the writing:  memories of childhood and middle school, the importance of Starbucks (and its competition with Peets Coffee, the other major caffeine dispensary in Lexington center), elderly relatives and neighbors, visiting foreign countries, being in nature, what it’s like to live in a town like Lexington.  The whole program showed us what it’s like to be a teen today in this typical American town.  And it also showed us just how talented these teens are, guided by their teachers and Gibson.

Rivera’s work with the student musicians was equally impressive.  They offered music that enhanced each piece, and for the last piece, which Gibson had written from snippets of many of the poems the students had produced, all the musicians improvised with style and sensitivity.

I love what the poetry unit at the high school does.  My own daughter, Abby, wrote some amazing pieces during her poetry classes, including this one:

My friends and I
run along the grass
towards the rocky shore
We speak of the things
that happened that day:
all the excitements
and fun,
the games we had played.
The smell of smoke
drifts toward us,
familiar,
like an old friend.
We begin to hear laughing
and singing.

We crowd around the fire,
reaching for sticks and cramming
as many marshmallows onto them as will fit,
all of us as excited as a pen full of puppies.

Now for the fire:
some plunge the treat
deep into the flames, waiting
for the gooey mess
that is soon to come.
others linger by the edges of the fire,
wanting that delicious golden brown.

But the marshmallows all end up
the same
squished between chocolate
and graham crackers,
the perfect trio.
As I bite into this dessert,
bits of marshmallow
and graham cracker
stick to the corners of my mouth.

I laugh with my friends
as we walk back to our rooms,
already wanting to start the next day.
And to think that this moment
will only be
once
upon
a star.
(Abby, June – 2007)

Lexington, typical American town where the Revolution began, has become a pretty diverse American place, at least in some senses.  The town cultural composition is now twenty percent Asian, is home to people from many economic groups (although overwhelmingly middle and upper-middle class), offers many religious traditions, many cultural backgrounds.  And, yes, Lexington High School is a very, very good school – currently regarded as one of the top five public schools in the state.  The efforts of a herd of teachers and administrators caused “Songs of Ourselves” to come about, and the Lexington Education Foundation helped make it so.

Most of all, though, this project showed us, once again, what the arts in education can do.  Too often, these days, as very difficult decisions have to be made about what stays and what goes in city and town education budgets, the arts end up on the cutting room floor.  “Songs of Ourselves” offered us a look at what it means to be a teen today in this little town, and showed us what kind of gorgeous magic can be unlocked when you swirl together a few talented artists, a group of dedicated teachers and administrators, the funding support of an organization that wants to support the best in education, and a group of students willing to risk.  It’s delicious, and it’s worth our support as well.

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I have felt growing dismay over the news coming from a Pew survey released in early August which shows that a growing number of Americans(18%)  believe Barack Obama to be Muslim, and (separate question and response) an increasing number also believe that Obama is not Christian.  Over 40% of those surveyed do not know what Obama’s faith tradition is, despite the fact that he regularly attended a United Church of Christ congregation prior to being elected president.

And a recent CNN survey revealed that more than 25% of those surveyed believed that Obama was either definitely or probably not born in this country (the so-called “birther” movement).  Meanwhile Sarah Palin, pundit and perhaps-candidate, has urged various political conservatives and talk show hosts to “lock and reload.”  When pressed, she’ll insist she’s just telling people to not back down, but the violent language sends a shiver down my spine.

Words are powerful.  In an information age where we’re all authorities, those who have mastered the media can promote their point of view and pass that perspective off as fact.  But it’s also true that people don’t generally invent the things they believe from whole cloth.  Those beliefs come from someone, from somewhere, and the question of where we get our news from, and what we accept on face value — rather than check out before making an informed decision — has everything to do with what we deem fact and what remains fiction.

But these recent statistics and news stories are deeply troubling to me.  In an age when we were proclaimed, with Obama’s election, to have moved past racism and segregation and discrimination, the ugly truth reveals that we have so far to go.  In a time when we like to give lip service to being “one country,” we are attacking Muslims who want to build a community center in New York, and Sikhs who wear turbans are verbally and sometimes physically harrassed, threatened, and subject to firing without cause.

Years ago, the Rogers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” offered us a scene in which Lieutenant Cable sings,

“You’ve got to be taught
to be afraid
Of people whose eyes
are oddly made
And people whose skin
is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
To hate all the people
your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

“South Pacific” was produced in 1949, based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” and debuted in a United States recovering from World War II and approaching the dawn of McCarthyism.  Rogers and Hammerstein were attacked for putting this song in their show, but they steadfastly insisted that it remain.  Good thing, but how discouraging is it to find that, more than sixty years later, we haven’t changed all that much?   This country managed to elect an African American President of the United States less than two years ago, but the smears, the campaign of misinformation, the cheap shots and lies, have all remained and, I believe, grown.

How is it that so many in our country can continue to believe that the President is not an American citizen, despite clear evidence to the contrary?  And why would people repeatedly maintain that Obama, despite his multiple statements to the contrary, is a Muslim rather than the Christian he says he is?  “Don’t bother me with the facts, Son, I’ve already made up my mind,” was a saying coined by a cartoon character decades ago.  It seems that in the digital age where rumor now passes freely as fact, the saying remains true.  Words have power and authority, and more and more — in a time when fewer people read newspapers and more get their “news” from television or the web — the things people say can be taken for fact.

I troll social media regularly, reading Twitter feeds, posting sometimes, checking out newspaper headlines and conventional wisdom on social networking sites.  But I try hard to check out the facts before repeating them.  Otherwise I’d be subject to doing what we did as kids so long ago:  playing a game of ‘telephone’ where we stand in a line, repeat things, one to another, and then wonder how it is that the original message got so darned convoluted at the end of the line. Surely, as individuals and as a nation, we owe ourselves, and others, more consideration.

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