Tuesday, March 27, 2012



If you think I look worried in that photo above, you should see the one of Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the photo that introduces his editorial for the organization's spring Intelligence Report. I've been a member of the Center for years and, in turn, receiving this publication for years, and I honestly think that M. Potok looks more and more worried every time. I don't save the issues, so I can't go back and check to be certain, but . . . wow. Although I support the work of his organization (Fighting Hate -- Teaching Tolerance -- Seeking Justice), I can't say I look forward to receiving this publication. Sometimes it sits on my table for a long time before I have the nerve to open it. Sometimes I don't open it at all, but move it into the recycling pile when the table gets too cluttered with things I think I will eventually read. The purpose of the publication is to report on the activities of extremist groups and hate groups, and the people who join such groups are indeed a scary bunch. 
     In this issue, they have an extensive feature called "The Year in Hate & Extremism," and they print their annual map of Hate Groups, which informs us that for the third year in a row, the number of such groups has expanded dramatically. I know I've written about this before on this blog, but I can't help presenting you once again with the categories of hate groups represented. As a former indexer, I am fascinated with categories. So here goes: Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, Racist Skinheads, Christian Identity, Neo-Confederate, Black Separatist, and the clincher: General Hate. 
     The people of this world have plenty of legitimate reasons for being riled up. Who doesn't want to find a way to solve at least some of its problems? But why someone would choose hate and violence as The Way . . . it speaks to a level of desperation that is simply beyond me.
     Which brings me to something I've been thinking about for several weeks--from a blog called Novel Readings that I admire very much and a post on this blog about Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif, whose work I also admire very much. And this thing I've been thinking of is the idea that "optimism--belief in the possibility of a good outcome--is a moral duty." Soueif's point, and that of the blog proprietor Rohan Maitzen, was that although the future of Egypt is uncertain, possibly dark, one need not lose touch with the exuberance felt in Tahrir Square. This is no plastered-on smiley-face I'm talking about, but an urgent need to hold onto that light, to contribute to a critical mass of light, to serve as a model for others, especially young people. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Comforts of Diversity

One of my favorite online events is currently taking place: The Tournament of Books. I can't remember right now how many years this event has been going on, but the idea is that novels published during the past year are pitted against each other in competitive fashion, despite their having nothing in common except being works of literature, having been published in the past year, and being selected for the Tournament of Books. The Tournament adopts the model of the NCAA basketball tournament, with its brackets (something I have never understood). A different judge decides the outcome of each match-up, despite the oft-repeated point that it's truly impossible to say that one book is "better" that the other or that one can "win" over another. For more details about the methodology and so on--and the delightful and insightful commentaries--visit the tournament pages. The overriding idea is that people are out here who love literature and love to read it, read about it, think about it, and talk about it. Count me in.
     On this blog, I often talk about the discomforts of diversity. In fact, that is the title of the blog, though I know I often drift. The point today is that one thing I love about the Tournament of Books is seeing the enormous diversity and variety of points of view on any book--from best of the year to couldn't stand it, couldn't even read it, with everything in between. And these being articulate and literary folks (the judges, the color commentators, and the public commenters), they know how to explain why the love or the annoyance or repugnance or indifference or whatever it may be.
     Although divergent opinions can sometimes cause discomfort, in this context, I find that range and diversity to be extremely comforting. This is because as a writer, as my book baby-steps out into the world, uncertain what kind of welcome or unwelcome reception it will receive from possible shepherds and advocates and publishers, I can remind myself of that diversity.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Plastic Bag in Context

Once a month, my husband organizes a dinner for about 50 people at a homeless shelter. He recruits the people who contribute and cook the food. He nudges them when they forget. He cooks some of the dishes himself. He arrives at the church about an hour before the meal to supervise the volunteers who plate and serve the food to the guests. Although I usually help from behind the scenes (shopping for food; preparing), I had never before gone with him to the church during the actual preparation and serving--not until last Thursday night. I'd never gone because mainly it was his project, and evenings are my time for writing. But this past Thursday, we had so many things to bring (mistakes in the schedule, one family who dropped out a the last moment, one who dropped their contribution at our house rather than the church) that I wanted to go with him and help.
 There are many things to say about this experience, but my focus in this post is the plastic bag. And here is the story: Among the people at the church was an older, somewhat street-wizened man who came into the kitchen as we were preparing and told us not to throw out an food. If there were any leftovers, he said, he would make sure that some hungry person got them to eat. I'm not sure what his official capacity was with the shelter, or even if he had one, but of course, we would not want any food to go to waste.
     As we were cooking and arranging and cleaning and so forth, I noticed that he was organizing plastic bags--smoothing them, grouping them, arraying them on one of the long tables in clusters (bags within bags). My husband and I had brought some of our items in a plastic bag, and when we came into the kitchen and unpacked, I had stuffed the bag in my back pocket. When I saw that he seemed to want/need bags, I asked if he wanted mine.
     "I think I have enough now," he said. "But over there, in the lower cupboard, is where they store the bags, so you can put yours there if you don't need it and it's in good shape."
     "I'll do that," I said, and I pulled it out to look at it, but I saw that it had a small tear in it--maybe a half-inch long. "I guess this isn't so good after all," I said, showing him the tear.
     He laughed. "That's a lot better than a lot of the ones I've seen."
     So I put it in the cupboard. I guess if a plastic bag is your suitcase, and you really need a suitcase, a small tear doesn't amount to much.