Monday, December 17, 2012

Irony or Something Like That

I have edited and read enough literature and critical thinking and language-conscious books to realize that I am no longer certain of whether I understand the concept of irony in its true sense. I did look it up in the dictionary and see that the idea of incongruity is part of it, but I am still not certain that the story I am about to tell should truly be labeled irony. I know that the term is frequently misused and that language aficionados shake their head in dismay at the decline of Western civilization when they hear these misuses. And I am a pretty literate and language-loving person, but still, I cannot quite wrap my mind around that definition of irony. But here comes the story.
     I was out on a walk the other day, doing my usual, by which I mean picking up the detritus that others leave along the way. And there, beside the curb, was a can--one of those tall drinking cans that are so abundant these days: 24 ounces of something that I cannot imagine ever putting to my lips. I picked it up to discard in the recycling bin and discovered a brand I had never seen before. Peace Tea, it was called, with a big peace sign on it, and drawings of hippies, and a hand making the peace sign.

I wanted to make this image large so you could see the "sayings" that come on the can: "Don't tread on me," and "We are in this together," and especially this one: "True freedom comes with great responsibility."
     "Ironic," or at least incongruous or just plain depressing to find these lofty sayings on a discarded can that someone has left as litter in the gutter. Right?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Misinterpretations and Surprises

As you know, I am a walker. Every day, just about, I go for a long walk around my town. Because I live in a town that was one of the former homes of Frank Lloyd Wright, I pass a number of the homes he designed as well as the home and studio where he lived. This place attracts tourists from all over the world, and often long lines of people surround this house, gathering for the tours, and often people stop and ask me for directions, with many kinds of accents and more-or-less commands of English. I am always happy to help these people, as I have often been helped by friendly people when I was in foreign places. Sometimes people are on the right track. They simply need assurance that, yes, "It's right up there at the corner." Few people with a destination in mind want to walk blocks or miles in the wrong direction. Anyway, here is a photo of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. It plays a background kind of role in the story I am about to tell.

So there I was, one afternoon, approaching the corner on which this architectural attraction stands, and coming along at a perpendicular, I spotted a group of teenage boys. Maybe 8-10 of them. Not as stereotypical as the photo I am about to show, but you get the idea.

They were of multiple skin colors and sizes, and the timing was such that just as I was about to get to the corner, they too would reach the corner (remember, we were coming at perpendiculars), and then the situation would be that I would either find myself among them or be walking in front of them. This was in the afternoon, and we would be walking on a well-traveled street, so it wasn't EXACTLY that I felt endangered, but I never like it when someone is walking behind me at close range (I generally turn around to see who is there), and I especially didn't think I would like having a group of teenage boys behind me. A lot was going through my mind as I approached the corner.
     When I actually encountered these boys, however, I saw that some, not all, but some were carrying garbage bags. They were doing it in a kind of self-conscious way--like, please don't notice that I'm carrying this big floppy thing. But you know me and garbage bags. I'm a litter-picker-upper, and I recognized right away that this was what these boys were up to.
     "Are you guys picking up litter?" I said, in a burst of uncharacteristic friendliness and extroversion.
     "Yup," they said.
     "I do that too," I said, "but I don't have my bag today."
     And then some of them really got into it and started saying how they were good people, and doing good for the community, and giving me the peace sign, and all the rest. And we probably would have high-fived or fist-bumped, but I've never been very good at either of those, and plus I didn't want to get carried away, so I walked on (them behind me), and when I noticed a piece of litter along the way, I signaled to them.
     I mean, here's the thing. You just never know. About 15 minutes later, I ran into them again, heading toward the high school, where an adult was there to meet them to collect the garbage bags, and some of them waved to me, and I waved to them, and it felt really friendly.

And as a sidelight, on the issue of language, if you do a Google image search for "gang of teenage boys," you get a completely different set of images than you do if you search for "group of teenage boys." I'm sure you'll be able to guess what some of the differences are.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


On NPR the other day, in a story about the latest Israel-Palestine events, I heard a soldier say that his philosophy was simple: "When you're kicked, you kick back."

Okay. It does sounds simple. Along the lines of an eye for an eye, I suppose. Not quite the same thing because it describes the loss but not the nature of the aggressive act. Still, both "philosophies" make it sound as though equality is possible. So, there I was, continuing to think about it, and that notion of equality, and I realized that there are all kinds of kicks.There's the astonishingly cultivated and magnificent Bruce Lee kick, as above. If one received a kick such as that, it's hard to imagine being equipped to kick back.
     But, really, there are a whole range of kicks. From the highly athletic

to the sweet and adorable
to the elementary
to the playful
Of course, we know that's not the kind the Israeli soldier meant. But still, one doesn't always kick back. If a three year old kicks an adult, we hope the adult doesn't kick back. Not to equate Palestinians with three year olds--not at all. Just to say that one sometimes moderates one's response, or should anyway, based on circumstances and potential for harm. And sometimes one shouldn't (though it may be very, very hard to resist) kick back at all because restraint may be for the greater good.
     I don't usually dabble in Middle East politics because it's all way more complex and ancient than I can ever hope to understand. But I do think it's worth questioning the idea of "when someone kicks you, you kick back."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tired Eyes

A few days ago, I called my eye doctor to make an appointment for a checkup. I've only been to this eye doctor once before, switched reluctantly when my old eye doctor, who I'd seen for years, retired. The old eye doctor, and her office, and all the people who worked there, were beyond eccentric. Someday I will write about that place and those people but not now. Their operation was extremely inefficient, and you could pass a few hours in that waiting room while things came together--between the just plain waiting, and the waiting with drops in your eyes, and all the rest. All the while the staff at the front desk gabbed away (as if no one could hear them) about all manner of bizarre and personal subjects. Anyway . . . all that is over now. My doctor was in her 80s, I think, with very bad back problems, and she finally just couldn't do it anymore. So I switched.
     The new place is the polar opposite, multiple doctors, multiple levels of people to guide you into rooms and move you along, and it's the ultimate in efficiency, but almost completely without character, or characters. At any rate, I'd received two reminder cards from this new office, so I finally called to make an appointment. The first time I called, it was a Friday afternoon, which I discovered, is one of the times during the week that they are closed. So I called again the next Tuesday. The phone rang more times than one would expect for such an efficient operation--and a professional office--so I began to suspect that maybe I'd found another time that they were closed. But, no, someone finally answered, and when I said I needed an appointment, she asked me to hold, which is not such an unusual thing to be told, so I went along with it.
     But then the recorded voice came on, telling me that in our "youth-centered culture," tired-looking eyes can age a person, and then the voice proceeded to tell me about the many procedures this doctor could perform to overcome this problem. That was the point at which I hung up.

There are so many things wrong with this message that I barely know where to begin: (1) why should I have to be exposed to their advertising when I am being held captive so that I can make an appointment at their office? (2) why do they think that this is how I would want to spend my time? (3) aren't they even a little bit ashamed about the insulting ageism? (4) if they are afraid their patients may not know about all the wonderful services they offer, how about a brochure in the waiting room, so a person can choose to learn about his (or not)?
     I was really mad, and it seemed like a good reason NOT to go to this doctor, but I decided to be assertive. So a few hours later, I called back, and when the receptionist answered, and I told her I needed an appointment, I also told her that I did not want to be put on hold, and I did not want to listen to their advertising, that I have other things to do in my life, and if I have to be on hold, I can do without the soundtrack, and if she put me on hold, and that advertising came on again, I would hang up again, and I would find another doctor. She said okay, and somehow, she managed to make the appointment for me herself. When I go in next week, I am going to give the doctor some feedback on his marketing practices.
     Someday, all of us will look like that lovely young lady in the top photo, and no one will look like that gentleman in the second photo. And someday, every square inch of our world--visual and auditory--will be used for commercial purposes. Everything will be a brand. Everything will be branded.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

World's First Self-Defined Popthropologist

This is probably the most partisanly political post you'll ever find here at the Discomforts of Diversity. Those who have read this blog will probably have intuited that my interests lie elsewhere. However, about a month ago, my husband pointed me to an article in the Financial Times about, an American rapper, musician, songwriter, singer, entrepreneur, actor, DJ, producer, and member of the hip hop group the Black Eyed Peas. In addition to all those labels, he refers to himself as a popthropologist--a popular culture anthropologist.

The man is clever in many ways, and especially clever with words. Here's an example. He was raised by his mother in a troubled section of East L.A. But as soon as he could afford to, he moved his family to a Jewish area in the San Fernando Valley "to be near the rabbis. It was either drive-bys or rabbis. I picked the rabbis.”
     Okay. So now for the politics. The interviewer--Matthew Garrahan--asked what might happen if Romney beats Obama.
People say Romney ran businesses and that means he should be president. But America isn't a business. America needs to be like a parent--what's good for our kids, where are they going to school, how can you guide them? Imagine if your parent was Enron and raised you like that. You don't want that dad."
Thank you, I like that. One of the best pitches I've heard from anyone so far.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Knowing Someone

My family and I have lived in our house--at 328 N. L_____----for 25 years. For that same amount of time, or maybe longer, a family named the Southwicks have lived in the same town at 328 S. L_______, and for all these years, we have gotten some of their mail, and they have gotten some of ours.
  Sometimes the mail of theirs that comes to us has the right address (328 South), and sometimes it has the wrong address (328 North). When we first started getting their mail, we would simply make a note on the envelope (no such addressee) and return it to the mail slot.

At some point, several years into the 25 in this house, there was a breakthrough. It may have been the time that I was waiting on pins and needles for a FedEx package from a client, and I had a tight deadline for dealing with what it contained. All day I waited, checking the porch every few minutes, looking out my front window, eventually calling the client to see what had happened. But then the phone rang, and it was a man, Bill Southwick, saying that he had received a FedEx package for me, that he was at 328 South, and that he would bring it right over. That's a good neighbor.
     Over the years, we built on this experience. One time, the Southwicks got a bouquet of flowers that was intended for my daughter and brought it to us. One time, we got a big, beautiful holiday package that was intended for them and took it right over. Sometimes we got something for them that looked like junk mail, but we would call to make sure before we recycled it. Sometimes we ordered a cab and it would show up at their house. Our phone calls to each other about these things would be brief, but always friendly. We'd laugh as we identified ourselves to each other as "your reverse mirror image" or "polar opposite" or whatever other names we came up with.
     One time, I saw a story in the local paper about them, that their daughter had died while on a business trip to China, and they could not find out how she had died. It was an unimaginably difficult situation, and I wrote them a sympathy note. A few years later, they started a foundation in support of the arts in their daughter's name, and I made a donation. Judy Southwick, for that was the name of the woman in the house, wrote me a personal note thanking me. A few years ago, Judy wrote me a note telling me that she had read my novel and that she enjoyed it very much. Throughout it all, the mail continued to flow to the wrong houses.
Perhaps a year or two ago, a letter came to our house for Judy, and the return address indicated that it was from the oncology department of one of Chicago's hospitals. This gave me a bad feeling--wondering why the doctor would not have the correct address, knowing that whatever this letter contained would be important information for the Southwicks, feeling certain that Judy would not want just anyone to know she was getting a letter from an oncology department. I took the letter over immediately and slipped it through their mail slot, and I worried about Judy.
     About a week ago, we returned from vacation and we were going through all the mail and newspapers that had accumulated, and I saw Judy's obituary in our local paper. She died of cancer while we were away, and the memorial service had already occurred. It's an odd thing, to simultaneously know someone and not. If someone said to me, "Do you know the Southwicks?" I am not entirely sure what the short answer would be.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Vacances . . .

Back in a couple weeks . . . all best in the meantime.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Metrics and Analytics

A few weeks ago, a woman named Molly Templeton began a How-to Tumblr in response to a How-to series in the New York Times. She put out a call to women writers, to write about anything they knew how to do and to share their writings with her. She received (and continues to receive) many, many submissions, on an endless array of topics. I check in daily, partly because I am curious to see what will turn up, and partly because I submitted a how-to, which she posted (this how-to also appeared on my blog). I like to check back to look at my submission because readers can attach "notes," and I am curious to see how many notes people attach to mine (both in and of itself and in comparison to others). I do not understand how one goes about attaching a note on Tumblr (I have tried to figure it out by exploring the site, but no dice), so I am unable to attach notes to mine or anyone else's submission. I'm guessing I'd need to register with Tumblr to leave notes.

Anyway, these notes are not like comments on a blog. People don't actually say things, they just note that they liked the post or that they reblogged it. Being reblogged is kind of nice because that means the post gets spread into other corners of the Internet, and some kind people have done this with my post. You can forget what your mother used to say about "This isn't a popularity contest," because life on the Internet actually is sort of a popularity contest, and there are all sorts of metrics and analytics for determining who/what is most popular.

Everything is ranked and counted. We can easily see on the New York Times website which article is most popular, which is most emailed, and even what is recommended for me (based on metrics and algorithms, a term we hear a lot these days). We can see on people's blogs and Twitter accounts how many followers they have, how many people they follow, how many tweets they've written, how many times they've been re-tweeted, and (on blogs) how many comments one has gotten. Some blogs get 100s of commenters per post. We also have related concepts like wisdom of the crowd and crowd sourcing, and crowd funding, and crowd purchasing--all based on numbers and analysis of those numbers. The higher the numbers of course, the more marketable or valuable in some sense one is seen to be.

So I thought I'd share some of the metrics I've collected from Molly's How-to Tumblr. This is not at all a comprehensive list of all the how-tos she has posted. Just my own arbitrary and subjective selection, but here goes, and let's see what if anything we can make of this.

How to Dodge a Falling Rock—16 notes

How to Survive Your Child's Stay in the NICU—7 notes

How to Write a Poem—80 notes

How to Become a Full-Time Artist (this was the only one presented in graphic/cartoon style; the all-time favorite, so far)—230 notes

How to Travel by Yourself—175 notes

How to Spend Time with a Work of Art—43 notes

How to Move Rattlesnakes Humanely—5 notes (this one was completely fascinating to me, despite the low number of votes)

How to Read a Victorian Novel—24 notes

How to Do a Little Bit of Good for Your World—34 notes (this was mine)

How to Have a Good Attitude about Getting Bedbugs—74 notes

How to Make a Bourbon Old-Fashioned (the Right Way)—47 notes

How to Become a Digital Nomad—45 notes

How to Apply Noir (a style of drawing)—7 notes

How to Make a Found Poem—40 notes

If I wanted to make this easy for you, I would have listed the items in numerical order--largest number of notes to smallest, or vice versa. But complicating the puzzle is part of the interest I think--to notice the high interest in poetry, booze, and bed bugs, or the low interest in applying noir vs. the very high interest in becoming a full-time artist, or the fact that surviving your child's stay in the NICU is close in popularity to moving a rattlesnake.

What else? What else?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Art and Commerce

When my daughter was in town, we went to the art museum one afternoon. I haven’t been there in ages; it’s just not on my usual itinerary, and it’s expensive, and I just don’t feel very connected to it the way I do to other aspects of Chicago culture. But it seemed like a good thing to do, a place to meet my mother-in-law and spend a few interesting hours together before having dinner. The museum was featuring a big Lichtenstein retrospective. I never thought deeply about his work before—except that it was pop and edgy and bold. But there it all was . . . 100s of his creations (drawings and painting and sculptures and prints) from the numerous decades of his career. 

Walking through the rooms, looking at the images (no headphones or guided tours for us this time), I felt that I could see and understand the structural genius of the work—the way he divided up the flat space of a canvas to create whole worlds and dimensions, the complicated use of geometry and lines and dots and primary colors, the precision, the way he knew how to lead the eye and economically tell a story. Later, when we left the Lichtenstein exhibit and walked through other parts of the museum, I could better see those same kinds of artistic and structural choices and techniques in other work and also who/what influenced Lichtenstein and in turn who he influenced. I haven’t done much formal study of the visual arts, don’t know much about the vocabulary (or the sometimes-intimidating pretensions), but I felt I understood something—because of life and experience and careful looking and thinking for all these years.

The Lichtenstein exhibit included one very large painting. My mother-in-law didn’t like most of the work in the exhibit; it’s too pop for her. But she did like that big painting, said it was her favorite. Here it is.

Something about this painting was familiar to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Later, in the car, on the way home, I remembered: the sculpture I’d seen in Italy decades ago of Laocoon and his sons attacked by serpents.

I was excited to have put that together (not sure what Lichtenstein calls his painting; perhaps if I'd looked at the label, I would have known right away). My husband and daughter were very impressed when I showed them a picture of the sculpture on my Smart phone and that I had the cache of cultural knowledge and experience to draw from.

A few days later, we went shopping for clothes with our daughter, which is overall a pretty uncomfortable experience for both my daughter and me. I’m not a very good shopper: I rarely know what I want and what I don’t want and/or how to find it, and I get easily derailed by body-image issues and guilt about spending money and social/political critiques of consumerism. Still, when one’s clothes have holes in them (my daughter’s situation), one wants to replace them. I always feel I should be a better helper to her, and I usually feel that I fail--including in the sense that I have passed some of my negative attitudes on to her. She wanted some summer dresses, and nothing was fitting or working or looking good (top too big, bottom too small or vice versa), and I could see that she was starting to feel bad about herself. Ugh. All around us, hundreds of girls and women wearing summer dresses. They had all found dresses that worked for them. Surely there were dresses that would work for my daughter, who is quite lovely and very fit.

One more store, I suggested, and although she was reluctant, we went, and I saw a dress I thought could work, and then we saw some other things. And they did work (here’s one of the good ones).

Later, I told her about a conversation I had recently with one of my friends, who had been seeing a man several decades younger than she is who she found quite beautiful.
     "He doesn't even realize how beautiful he is," she said.
     “Just like we didn’t realize how beautiful we were,” I replied.
     And then my daughter asked why I was telling her this, and I said, “Just in case you don’t realize how beautiful you are.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

How to Do a Little Bit of Good for Your World

  Molly Templeton has started a how-to issue over at Tumblr, with lots of interesting submissions. This is mine.
     1. Take a walk in your neighborhood, noting details of brickwork and construction and vegetation and people and weather.
     2. Do this with as much regularity as possible, noting changes in items listed in number 1.
     3. Remind yourself that whatever surface you are walking on (sidewalk or dirt path or grassy field or blacktop), this is basically the surface of the Earth.
     4. Notice the litter—in particular, recyclables, such as plastic and glass bottles and beverage cans. Once you start noticing, you will see it everywhere, along with the cigarette packs and gum packs and candy wrappers and empty bags and Styrofoam carryout containers.
     5. Start to carry a bag with you on your walk because once you have begun to notice, you will start to feel that you could do something about this mess, and the thing you will do is pick up the litter, put it in your bag, and take it home with you or to the closest recycling bin.
     6. If you are ambitious, you can carry two bags—one for recyclables and one for everything else.
     7. Try not to be judgmental about the crude morons who think the world is their garbage can or who have not yet realized that they are moving on the surface of the Earth. If you are a writer or a reader who is interested in complex characters, you can try to understand them, why they would discard their trash here and there and everywhere.
     8. Once you have gotten into the habit of litter collection, start to notice the seasonal patterns—candy wrappers around Halloween, firework leftovers around the Fourth of July, and so on. Also develop a ranking system—e.g., glass bottles are among the highest-quality finds, as when you remove those from the street, you eliminate the possibility of broken glass, damaged tires, cuts in human flesh.  Indulge your imagination—e.g., imagine squished plastic bottles and plastic bags as jellyfish washed up on some ancient seabed. Ask yourself why we are such hungry, thirsty, and basically oral people (so much eating, drinking, smoking, and chewing going on all the time).
     9. Don’t feel obliged to pick up everything you see—nothing gross, or as a friend of mine says, “nothing wet.”
      10. Note: Once you have adopted these practices, you will see litter pretty much wherever you go. You will not always have a bag , nor will you have ready access to trash or recycling bins, and this may make you feel uncomfortable. Adopt some calming mantra, such as “The litter lady is getting perturbed.” Carry on. You are doing the best you can. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why Is this Pie Different from All Other Pies?

With all other pies, I felt certain that I would find blueberries at the farmers' market. Why with this pie did I worry that I might not?
As any halfway awake person has noticed and can confirm from personal experience, the weather and related environmental events have been . . . troublingly weird. Record-high temperatures. Drought here. Floods there. Violent storms, some with names we never heard before. Forest fires. Electrical outages. Trees falling. In Illinois, where I live (and nearby, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana), we've had the record drought and heat. Farmers are suffering, and at our local farmers market, farmers report that they lost high percentages of their peach and cherry and corn crops. As I heard and read about all this, I started to fear for the blueberry crops. I started to fear the idea of going to the farmers market at all because I feared I would see empty booths and tables that in past summers had been laden. But I forced myself to go, because it was the time of year for making the muse-inspiring blueberry pie, and to my delight and amazement, I found a wealth of blueberries.
In short, it wasn't as bad as I feared. And there were peaches, too. And ears of corn. Maybe not as much as in years past, but it was there. And none of this is to say that I dismiss the reality of environmental "problems." But it is meant to explain why my feelings about this pie are different from any other pie (that I can remember).

With all other pies, while being baked, the crust shrinks down a little bit from the sides. Why with this pie did the crust shrink down way more and the bottom-center of the crust balloon way up?
Now I realize that I should have taken a photo to show the described phenomenon. But I was so nervous about it (would the filling even fit into the shell with all that distortion?), I didn't think to take a picture of that phase. I did take a picture of an earlier phase--which may in part explain the crust behavior.
It's not a very good picture. In fact, it's a pretty bad one. But I think you might be able to see the problem. It was a very, very hot evening when I was rolling out the dough. And the butter was getting greasy--something you don't want to happen. Then, I delayed putting the crust into the refrigerator even longer as I attempted to get a photo of it, but I think my hands were unsteady (my concern with the crust, the heat of the evening), and that's why the photo is blurry. At any rate, I am thinking that the extra heat and greasiness may have contributed to the final outcome--the shrinkage and the ballooning. All of which might also be seen as weather-related.

With all other pies, the crust is visible along the sides of the pie pan above the filling. Why with this pie is the crust completely submerged?
See answer to previous question and photo at the top.

With all other pies, I have been basically by myself in the kitchen while I was baking. Why with this pie did I have company?
My daughter is home visiting, and she was in the kitchen while I worked, and she stirred the blueberries on the stove top for me--a step that has troubled me in the past, as some readers might remember, because the mixture looks so impossibly dry. Having her there was a very nice addition to the routine, as she reminded me with great practicality that everything would be fine because the berries have juice, and they would eventually release it into the dry ingredients on the stove top.

The point, I believe, is that every homemade pie is different from every other pie, as is every night. And to work back to the literary spirit that is at the heart of this pie baking, so is every writer and every writing session and every book and anxious moment and every joyous moment, and every literary rejection and every literary success. The crust sides may shrink and the crust bottom may balloon, and the result may be unconventional and unexpected in multiple ways, but it may still end up to be quite delicious, as my pie did this time.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stories from Readers

It's good to get out. Last night I went to the home of a neighbor for a meeting of her book group. Her group--ten to twelve women--had read my book, Grand River and Joy. The novel has been out three years this month, and I am grateful and also thrilled that people are still reading and discussing it. A few weeks ago, my sister's book group in New Jersey discussed it. This morning, first thing, I had an email from a woman in Israel (an old friend of my husband's family) who read my book and plans to discuss it with her book group near the end of the month.
     The women at the group last night were excellent readers and thinkers, and the questions and comments were insightful and thought-provoking. Because they just read the book, they remembered details I had almost forgotten (Curtis's response to white women playing with their hair; the grandmother's disapproval in the bicycle giveaway; the way Curtis and Harry step on each others' toes, trying to give each other parenting advice).
     Anyway . . . a couple stories that these women told from real life stayed with me and also fit well with the topic of this blog, from which I have so often strayed.
     1. One woman is a children's librarian in a suburban library where the community is relatively affluent and mostly white. She says that they track circulation statistics, and books with ethnically diverse characters or with black characters portrayed on the cover tend to circulate very little. I asked whether circulation statistics influence purchasing decisions, and she said that the library staff try not to give in too much--she believes that in a homogenous community like that, it's particularly important for children to be exposed in some way to people who don't look exactly like they do)--but budgets are limited, and so the collection tends to track with popularity. Sigh.

     2. Another woman--the host for the evening--said she had recently gone to a spelling bee at the neighborhood elementary school. This is the school my daughter went to, and it is well-integrated in the racial/ethnic sense. It is the school that offered the gospel choir I referred to a couple posts back. At any rate, the spelling bee was for all grades, and there were about 100 or more children there, all very excited and eager to participate. The worrisome thing, she said, was that of all these children, only perhaps three or four were black. Why is this? she wondered. Although I can never again think of a spelling bee without thinking of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (what a little jewel of a book), I wondered too.

     3. Then there were the two women--one who grew up in a Chicago neighborhood called "Back of the Yards" (where the stockyards used to be when Chicago was "Hog Butcher to the World") and the other who grew up in an Illinois town called Bensenville--who had never met a black person or a Jew until they went to college. As I often explain when discussing my book, pretty much the ONLY people I knew growing up were blacks and Jews. And so we all reflected on how we're shaped by the place where we grow up. Although several women in the group last night grew up in various parts of Chicago and had families who moved as part of "White Flight," the woman from Back of the Yards said that her neighborhood--which was very poor--never became integrated. Books, stories, life, books, stories, life. So many stories. So much life. So many books.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


photo by John Thomas Grant, cemetery photographer
 Once upon a time, my father was leveled by grief at my mother's sudden death. Really, it seemed impossible that we (he, my two sisters, and I) would be able to accommodate the idea that this had really happened. For him, especially, however, the question of how to go on, to find a path through life without her, loomed. My sisters and I lived scattered across the country from him, and he did a pretty good job of feigning adjustment and recovery in addition to (gradually) actually adjusting and recovering, as widows and widowers have done since time immemorial.This was more than 25 years ago.
     One day, as my father become more lively, he began to speak of meeting new women. My mother had often joked that he would not be at a loss for women if she was no longer around. And I believe that he did meet several, but then suddenly, there was Trudi. Full name: Gertrude Haftka. They met at an anti-war march, and she lived in the same town as he did, not far away, and they seemed to have a lot in common in addition to political activism and hopes for peace.
     They both liked to walk, be active, think, read, discuss, travel. Book groups. Study groups. Soon, he introduced Trudi to his family, as she introduced him to hers--her daughter, Judy. Her son, Harold. Their spouses and children. And then they were talking about moving in together, and then they broke up, and then they got back together, and then she moved into his house, and then they got married. And she was Trudi Messer. We (meaning his daughters) had many complicated feelings about this, as we tend toward complicated feelings in our family, but overall, we could see how happy Trudi made our father, how she helped him come out of his shell, with the same extroverted spirit our mother had.
     One thing about Trudi: She was very good with her hands, with the fine-motor skills--sewing and knitting and so forth. She had long, graceful fingers, and even now I can remember how they looked when they were working and when they were still. As a charitable project for her temple, she used to launder and press  other people's fancy table cloths (she had a way with fabric). She did one for me once, and it was so beautiful (every stain gone; crisp and perfect) that it brought me to tears. Here she is, with my father and my daughter and her knitting--about 15 years ago.

     It is not an easy thing to sum a person up, to do them justice with a brief description, and I will not claim to even be trying to do that here. The point is that my father died in 1998, and this was difficult for her, of course, to lose her true love, and it was also difficult for us, his daughters, to lose our second parent.
Trudi continued to be part of our family's life after that. She came to Chicago when one of my stories was "performed" at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And she also came for my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, where she drank a lot of wine at the party and appeared to have a wonderful time.
     Then, she became ill, and her slow withdrawal from life began. And this morning her daughter called me to tell me that Trudi had died. I told her daughter that my sister and I often quote Trudi--one memorable quote in particular. Whenever we were feeling discouraged or downhearted and hoping for change and revival, Trudi would say, "Look. I don't know when it's going to happen. I don't know how it's going to happen. I don't know where it's going to happen. But I KNOW it's going to happen."
     Why, just last week, when I was talking to my sister (neither of us having any inkling that Trudi was in decline), she used the Trudi quote on me, and I think we both felt better. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The man, out walking

The other day, I was out on my usual walk. From a distance, I saw a man, walking in the middle of the street. Something was odd about his gait, his carriage, some kind of combination of physical and mental limitation or condition. I'd seen him before, maybe once or twice, same thing, middle of the street, walking fast, and reciting, rhythmically as he walked, repeating the same phrase (or approximately the same phrase) again and again, completely in his own world. What was he saying?
     What he was saying seemed to be divided into two parts.
     I was quite certain I could hear the first part: "Thanks to God." But the second part I translated into "Bum-pa-bump." "Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump." I don't actually think he was saying "bum-pa-bump," but it was the closest I could figure.I thought that he was wearing earbuds, so perhaps he was listening to a tape and repeating as he went.
     At any rate, before I knew it, I had taken up the chant, became a hipster, walking to a rhythm, almost like John Travolta strutting down the street (Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump). I felt newly alive in my walking, more energetic. It wasn't the God part. It was the rhythm that was fueling me. And very quickly I was transported to two faraway memories. The first, from more than 35 years ago, and a summer night in Ann Arbor, at a party (Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump), out on a terrace, with some curly-haired young man I hardly knew, doing the bump. No strings attached, nothing at stake, a moment of pure summer (Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump).

The second memory (Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump) was about my daughter, from 10-15 years ago. One of the teachers at her school had started a gospel choir, and that music was so alive and so soulful, that gospel choir became one of the most popular after-school activities. The teacher/leader was black, but the students who came to sing were a diverse lot, including my daughter. When the group performed, the students wore long scarves draped over their shoulders--the colors of Africa--and came down the aisles, in long rows, stepping in a slow, rocking procession, up to the stage.
     One night, I took my daughter out to a local Thai place for dinner after gospel practice, and she was so jazzed up, she starting singing one of their songs, swaying and clapping "Jesus is Mine." This was somewhat astonishing, seeing her so loose and so free, but the most amusing part was when I noticed my daughter's Hebrew School teacher just a few tables down, looking at us oddly. We still laugh about that memory sometimes.
     I love the way a walk (Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump), and oddly crossing paths with another human can open up whole worlds. Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump. Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump. Thanks to God, bum-pa-bump.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Something that Made Me Mad

The other day, on NPR, the place where I get a lot of my news, I heard the story about the fundraising battle of the two presidential candidates--mounting into the multimillions on both sides, one striving to outdo the other, two gladiators fighting with dollars. This broke my heart at the same time that it prompted the anger surge that could turn a vulnerable type into a monster. What a waste, I thought. Put the multimillions into the schools and the refrigerators of hungry people. Use it to fix the infrastructure and clean up environmental disasters and provide health care for people who need it. Don't piss it away on attack ads and all the rest of the stupidity. I wonder how many people really are undecided as to their vote (I mean, really undecided, not just in the answers they give in opinion polls) and/or are swayed by all those speeches and ads and bus tours. And by the way, as Gail Collins wrote in the Times a couple weeks ago, why are we even going to bother with the Democratic and Republican conventions--and all the waste of money and time and resources they entail--when we already know the outcome of both?

Anyway, it made me mad--with a bitter feeling--more than I usually feel about political issues or questions. I'm far more interested in literature and art and sociological/anthropological questions. It rattled me (and by the way, that's not a rattlesnake up there; it's a python). And it was a feeling that's been hard to let go of. At the same time, it's a feeling that's hard to know what to DO with.

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon with my friend Margaret. She lives in DC, and I hadn't seen her for a long time, and it was wonderful to see her, and we had a great afternoon, sitting in my yard and drinking homemade ginger limeade and catching up on old times as well as the present. But as it approached the time for her to leave, our conversation sort of veered into the dark territory of uncertainty about the future and the economy and all the rest.

It seemed important not to part from each other with that kind of darkness in the air, so I told her about Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif's commitment to optimism as a moral imperative, which I have written about here before. And that seemed to soothe Margaret a bit. And then she told me how living in DC had gotten her addicted to following the news, in every detail, including reading every opinion piece, and how this had really come to wear her down, especially last summer, during all the budget shenanigans. And she told me that she had decided to almost 100% swear off reading the news, and especially opinion pieces ("They're just opinions," she said), and that as a result, she has come to feel far more centered and peaceful, focusing on the pieces of the world that matter most to her and that she can actually affect. She also mentioned how much she appreciates Jon Stewart and his take on politics, as well as the rally he held last year, and which she attended. And together we expressed awe at what he did that day, and especially (in my opinion) the piece he did at the end, about how humans really do know how to cooperate. Look at what they do every single day to get through the Holland Tunnel.
 And with that, we finished our ginger limeade, and Margaret had to move on to her next stop.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Some Things I've Been Thinking

1. Several of the bloggers I've enjoyed following for years are slowing down, posting less often, possibly losing interest, and/or transferring their energies elsewhere. I'm sure this is true of any activity, and some of my favorites continue as energetically and stimulatingly as ever, but I remember when blogging seemed so new. And now, with so many other ways of communicating and posting and having one's say--Twitter and Trumblr and Instagram and Facebook, and so on--is blogging becoming a bit . . . dowdy?

2. As with so many other "Others," when most of us (me, at least) think of Muslims, we think of some huge, undifferentiated sea of people, and at times, this thinking has some fear attached to it. It turns out, however, that Muslims as a group are as divided as any other group. As noted in the New York Times, "while many non-Muslims are now aware that there is a sectarian divide in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites, it is less commonly known that Syria is ruled largely by members of an esoteric Islamic sect, the Alawites, whose belief in the divinity of Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, is just one of the reasons that they were oppressed as infidels for centuries by other Muslims." These schisms continue to be enormously divisive and, in many places, deadly, leading to civil war and brutality and mayhem of all varieties. Since I was thinking about all this, I just googled to learn that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were/are Sunni. Are they the ones were supposed to be scared of? Is it possible that there are Sunnis who aren't scary? Most likely.

I suppose these could be questions for my pal the Discomfort Czar, who seemed to be unavailable the past couple weeks. Guess there's a lot of activity to take care of in the discomfort department.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dear Discomfort Czar, #3

Dear Discomfort Czar,
Thank you for answering the questions from previous weeks. This has encouraged me to write in with my own question. Here it is. A few years ago, after Obama was elected, one of my neighbors hung that ugly poster of Obama-as-the-joker on his front porch. It bothered me because it's so insulting. When Bush was president, I didn't like him, but I would never hang one of those Bush-as-chimp posters, or anything like it. This neighbor is a very right-wing type (maybe even Tea Party; I'm not sure) living in a very Leftie kind of town, which I'm sure isn't entirely easy for him. He's actually a really smart guy, and a friendly guy, and an admirable guy in many ways, and kind of self-conscious about certain things, but also a bit of a clown. I know he's worried about this country, and he especially fears that the Muslims are going to take over and impose Sharia Law. He is definitely not stupid. This is just what he believes.
Anyway, a few months after he put the poster up, I noticed that he had taken it down, which was a relief, to not have to see it all the time. But I noticed a couple weeks ago that he put it up again. Probably has something to do with the election season getting into gear. When the poster was up the first time, I thought about going to talk to him about it, not to ask him to take it down. I believe it's his right to hang whatever he wants from his house (within limits, of course). My purpose would be just to ask him why he put it up and to tell him why I didn't like seeing it. What do you think?
A neighborly neighbor

Dear neighborly neighbor,
As your post highlights, ideological diversity can be as uncomfortable as any other kind. How do we talk about our differences? Can we talk about our differences? There are no right answers here. The first step might be an examination of your own motivation. If you think you can approach your neighbor in an open, nonjudgmental way, with willingness to listen to his position, you might learn something and/or feel more connected with him.

Now, this might not be at all relevant, but I wonder if your neighbor knows that the person who created that image did not do it with a demeaning political agenda in mind. According to the LA Times, he was a bored college student experimenting with Adobe Photoshop software. He posted the finished image online, et voila, as they say in the digital age. And he does not see what the connection with socialism is, which is the label that somehow got attached to the image he created.
Even if you don't end up talking to your neighbor about the poster, I'm glad to hear that you're thinking about it, and that you can see your neighbor's good qualities even if he might be a bit buffoon-ish in how he presents himself to the world.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dear Discomfort Czar, #2

Dear Discomfort Czar,
Do you ever feel comfortable?
I'm sincerely wondering.
--A reader

Dear Reader,
No. Or very rarely. Thanks for writing.
The Discomfort Czar

Dear Discomfort Czar,
Do you have anything to add to the conversation on the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida? It seems like a topic you would have something to say about.
--A concerned citizen

Dear Concerned Citizen,
I, like you, have been concerned with these tragic events and have read and listened to many thoughts and insights about what happened that night in Florida between those two humans. Unfortunately, no one besides those two will ever know what really happened, and even if both were still alive to tell about it, their versions could differ dramatically because of everything we know about memory and perception and so forth.

We have been told that Trayvon Martin was black, and more recently we've been told that George Zimmerman is Hispanic. One thing that occurred to me, and that I haven't heard anyone else mention, is that the name Zimmerman, at least in the world I come from, is usually Jewish. I feel that the label black definitely has meaning, or is meant to have meaning, in the context of the shooting, but I am not sure what meaning the label Hispanic might have, except to suggest some inherent tension between the two ethnic groups? And if George Zimmerman is Jewish as well as Hispanic, I'm not sure what that would mean or why no one has mentioned it. But as the Discomfort Czar, my job is not really to figure out meaning, but to acknowledge and illuminate the full range of potential discomforts that relate to diversity.
--The Discomfort Czar 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Dear Discomfort Czar

This week, we begin a new feature, in which readers are invited to send in their discomfort questions and have a chance at an answer from an esteemed guest: THE DISCOMFORT CZAR. We seem to have a couple of questions already in the hopper, so let's begin with those.


Dear Discomfort Czar,
Why is the word "dilema" misspelled in that graphic at the top? How can I be expected to trust someone who either doesn't know how to spell or doesn't proofread carefully?
--An anxious reader


 Dear Anxious Reader,
We use what we have. I did notice the misspelling. I am a pretty good speller and also a pretty good proofreader, but I like the look of that graphic, so I decided to go with it despite its shortcomings. I'm sorry if it adds to your anxiety. 


Dear Discomfort Czar,
I was out walking the other afternoon, approaching the high school. There weren't many people on the street at the time. One young man was walking behind me (I know, because I saw him making a diagonal across the tennis courts, and then I passed him), and one ahead. The one behind me, with ear buds installed, crossed over to the other side of the street. The one ahead of me was pivoting and pacing, broadcasting a kind of restlessness. He was African American, and the one who had crossed to the other side was white, as am I. The African American youth (let's call him a youth; it sounds clinical) was NOT wearing a hoodie, but something about him made me consider crossing the street, as the other youth had. Still, I decided to stay the course, look this youth in the eye and acknowledge him with a head nod, perhaps even a hello. When I did, he said, "Ma'am, do you have a phone I could use?"
     I did not have a phone with me, and I held up my hands, sort of to show that they were empty, and I said, "Sorry. I don't have one with me." I was actually sort of . . . well, not . . . happy . . . but . . . relieved that I didn't have one with me because I don't think I would have wanted to lie, but I don't think I would have wanted to hand my phone over to him--a stranger, regardless of race or age or style of dress (at least that's what I'm thinking, or wondering, as I'm writing and trying to be honest).
     My question to you, Discomfort Czar, is whether you think he was out of line for asking, and what you would have done if you had a phone with you.
--Another anxious reader (I swear I'm not the one who asked that first question)


 Dear Another Anxious Reader,
Why don't you just stop mulling it over and be happy you didn't have a phone? Some people can't seem to give themselves a break, and you seem to be one of them. But, honestly, he may have had an actual need for a phone (you say he was pacing and/or restless, so maybe he was waiting for someone and wanted to know where they were). This doesn't mean, however, that you would have needed to hand over your phone to a stranger. If there had been a clear emergency, you would likely have offered to make the call yourself. But hand a highly portable and valuable item over to a stranger? I'm sure I wouldn't have. Which doesn't mean that the experience wouldn't have made me uncomfortable as I looked at myself and considered my values and/or my race-based instincts. After all, I am the Discomfort Czar.