Friday, August 23, 2013

Litter Redux





The Litter Lady (LL) would like to share with her readers this recent exchange she had with a perceptive reader (PR).

 PR: The Litter Lady will be amazed to learn that since 1974, littering has been a crime in the State of Illinois under the Litter Control Act. The Litter Lady is all too aware that the Litter Control Act suffers from a lack of enforcement. However, the Litter Lady will be cheered to learn that the minimum penalty for violating the Act is now, brace yourself, $50.

I anxiously await to hear whether the Litter Lady ascertains that this tougher sanction deters the crime of littering.

Doubtless, the Litter Lady regrets that the Litter Control Act does not reward citizens who pick up litter. Assuredly, the Litter Lady believes that the carrot works better than the stick.

LL: The Litter Lady is quite certain (as her charming walking companion surely also has noted) that the paltry sanction is NOT doing its job and that a public information campaign along with many carrots (and many rich rewards for the Litter Lady and her charming companion) are essential.

PR: The Litter Lady's charming companion wholeheartedly concurs that many rich rewards are indeed essential.

The Litter Lady wonders whether she could publicize the Litter Control Act by a well-timed citizen's arrest in plain view of the local media (and also garner the fabulous $50 fine), but on second thought, the Litter Lady prefers to deal with litter, not ruffians.

LL: One of the Litter Lady's famous sayings:

                Ruffians resist. Litter rarely does.

PR: Truer words were never uttered or inscribed. Which explains why the Litter Lady pursues litter, not ruffians. The Litter Lady is no fool.

LL: 'tis safer to pick up AFTER a ruffian than to pick up the ruffian him/herself.
                                                                                                                                --LL
PR: Indeed, safer and wiser

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Another Walk with Me

Today, I was approaching the high school on my mid-day walk. Yes, the big local high school with it's broad Frank Lloyd Wright eves. I've written about it before. Here it is.
School has just begun for the year--a day or two ago. And as I approached, I saw a small cluster of students on the sidewalk about a block in front of me, and I heard a loud, adult-male voice that seemed to be shouting commands. The voice sounded possibly Caribbean, reminding me of the man from Trinidad who often does work around our house. I could not make out the words, but they kept coming.
     As I got closer, I was able to discern that this man was some official from the high school, and he was telling the young people to move down the street, away from the house beside which they stood. Our town is densely populated, with houses all around the high school, and over the years, there have been complaints from those who live nearby about students being disruptive or loud, or littering. I will say right off that the man who was telling the students to move was black, and the students were white. None of them looked like trouble makers (the man or the kids). One girl was trying to eat a piece of pizza.
     Because it took me a while to come up into the action, I missed some of the dialogue, but the kids did begrudgingly begin to move themselves along, and I heard one boy say, "We're not on private property. We're not on anyone's property." Which was certainly true. As I passed the man, I nodded in sympathy with him and said, "Hard job." And he nodded to show casual agreement.
     As I continued on, turning this scene over in my mind, as I so often do with scenes I witness along my way, I thought I could have said to the group, and especially to the boy who made the protest about the private property, that he was correct. But correct does not always mean right. For example, what if someone in the house that they were clustered beside had been up all night working, and needed to sleep but couldn't because of the noise they were making?
     What if an exhausted parent was trying to put a child down for a nap?
     What if someone had a home office and was trying to concentrate on an important and complex problem?
     What if someone was ill and in pain and need to rest?
     Wouldn't they want to make life easier for those people in the house? 
Life becomes less carefree, perhaps, when one has to think about such matters. And I'm all for carefree youth, to the extent it is possible. But I do wish I could have engaged those kids in conversation. That I'd thought to. That I had the courage. Perhaps they would have rolled their eyes. But perhaps, they would have gone right back to school to join this club.



Sunday, August 4, 2013

Pie, Blueberries, and Literature

This past Friday night, my husband and I hosted our book group in our home. The book up for discussion was The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson--the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year, and even more important in my opinion, the winner of the marvelous Tournament of Books. I don't want to talk about the book, at least not here. What I want to talk about is the blueberry pie I served.
     As those who read my blog will know, I have a very particular attachment to blueberry pie, and every summer, some time during blueberry season, I go to the local farmers market, buy my blueberries, and I bake this particular pie (a layer of whipped cream under a layer of berries)--an offering to the literary muse as well as an offering of gratitude for (and an affirmation of) the friendship I formed with writer Patry Francis, some years ago, in a time before time, via a wonderful no-longer-existing website and on-line forum called Readerville.
Making the pie for my reading group had several benefits: (1) it was a literary event and thus compatible with the literary theme that Patry and I have interwoven with the pie and (2) it brought me an audience of eaters.
     Every year, I am very attentive to the making of the pie--how it feels and how I feel and what I can learn from it, about inspiration and concentration and stress and uncertainty--all ingredients in the writing process. This year, to add a new level of immersion, I followed the recipe instructions to look the berries over--discarding leaves and stems and the little green unripe ones and overripe squished ones. I usually conduct this step in the most cursory way, but this year, I looked deeply into the colander, taking the time to sort thoroughly and carefully. How and why this may apply to my current writing project, I cannot say. I only know that I felt compelled to complete this step and that I enjoyed it. Then, as I went, I took a picture of each additional step, emailing it to Patry as I went, thus constructing a photo essay of pie making. I had mixed up the crust (a pate brisee), rolled it out, and frozen it the week before, so forgive me for not including those steps in the essay.

1. The crust lined with foil and filled with rice, ready for the first baking.
2. crust, baked and golden (a little shrinkage, but okay).
3. 1-1/2 cups berries, simmered with sugar and corn starch, butter melting.
4. all berries added, ready for chilling.
5. the whipping of the cream.
6. the spreading of the cream in the crust/
7. Ta-da!
I meant to take a  photo of the group sitting around the coffee table, eating the pie post-discussion, the paperbacks and e-readers arrayed on the table among the plates and forks and napkins, and the chair that held the laptop via which two of our members Skype in from Colorado (alas, no pie for them), but I became so caught up in the experience, and the pie was so very delicious, that I forgot to do so. Sometimes the experience trumps the photo.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Reverse Embezzlement

Today is my father's yahrzeit--the anniversary of his death by the Jewish calendar. He died in 1998, so he's been gone quite a while now, but I've been thinking of this story about him, so I came here (after a long absence, I see; last post was in mid-May) to tell it. It's not really a story about him, but a story about me and about how I think/thought of him. It's not the only thing I think/thought about him (what parent-child relationship is not terribly entangled and complex?), but it is the thing I want to tell now.
When I was in my twenties, rambling from here to there, working one job and then another, not thinking much about my future or a career, not earning very much money and not really much concerned with doing so, I sometimes had a secret suspicion that my father was making secret deposits into my bank account--so secret that they never showed up on the bank statement but so consistent that I always seemed to have as much money as I needed for whatever I wanted. Granted, my needs were simple, but still . . . the money was always there in the bank account when I needed or wanted to spend it. My father was not a wealthy man, nor was I a wealthy young woman, but I had a feeling of security about money.
 My daughter was home visiting recently, and the subject of money came up. Her situation is similar to what mine was when I was that age. Her income is small, but she always has what she needs when she needs it--to the extent that it feels somewhat mysterious and inexplicable to her. I suggested that perhaps my father is carrying on the tradition . . . the reverse embezzlement, as I think of it. So skilled and crafty is he that no one has ever come up with definitive proof.

A friend of mine recently said that this is what she thinks of as faith . . . not religious, but the feeling that you'll always have what you need when you need it.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

In the Neighborhood


We have lived in our house for over 25 years. For most of these years, we have been blessed with great neighbors on both sides--people with whom we've had more-than-cordial relationships, people who we have helped, people who have helped us, people we've laughed with, communed with, dined with, and so forth. At the same time, we have always respected each others' privacy--maintaining a cordial distance, as seemed appropriate. We're not in each others' face, or business.
     A couple of years ago, a new couple moved in, and we attempted once again to reach out, to be welcoming and friendly. Perhaps our reaching out was a bit much by their standards. So although they seem to be fine people, we have not gotten to know them very well, at least not nearly as well as the others who have lived in that house before them, and this has left an unsettled feeling in me--as if an empty spot of unknowing lies to the south of me. The story I am about to tell relates to this empty spot.
     A few years back, I flew to San Francisco to visit my sister. On the airplane, I was seated on the aisle (my favorite position), a man was seated at the window, and the middle seat was empty.

As the plane filled up, a large man with a shaved head and sophisticated earphones stopped at my row and indicated that the center seat was his. You know how it is on airplanes--tight quarters--and most often my strategy is to simply withdraw as much as possible so I can avoid awareness of the discomfort of the experience. Part of this withdrawal involves not looking very closely at the people around me. But as the head-shaved man settled in, then began a long phone conversation while we waited for the plane to take off, I began to wonder whether he was actually my neighbor. My neighbor is a large man with a shaved head. My neighbor is a sound technician, so the fancy headphones would make sense. From the phone conversation, I gathered that my seatmate was not happy being in a center seat, but that he had overslept and missed his real flight, which was how he got stuck with such a bad seat. This might fit my neighbor as well, since he works late nights, sometimes not coming home until 3 or so (he has told me this in the few conversations we've had; I don't spy on him). So oversleeping . . . check.
This was so very odd. Could I actually be seated--squished actually--beside my next-door neighbor and not know it for certain--all the way to California? Could I actually be that unfamiliar with my own next-door neighbor--me, who considers herself to be so community minded? The answer to both questions was an uncomfortable yes.
     I was thinking that that the look of this guy was somewhat generic--the shaved head (a lot of guys have them these days), the largeness, the headphones. Which could have been an argument for or against. But I was thinking that I too have a somewhat generic look--that everyone sort of does when it comes down to it. It's only by really looking into the face of another, engaging with them, that we are able to recognize all their unique characteristics.
     I could not bring myself to say, "Excuse me, but you don't happen to me my neighbor by any chance?" So I sat. I focused on my book. I focused on my withdrawal techniques. I tried to steal looks at him without seeming like a weirdo.
The crucial moment arrived when he ordered his second vodka with soda, and I was able to catch a glance at the name on his credit card as he passed it to the crew member. It was not my neighbor's name. And this was a great relief to me. So I loosened up, and actually told the guy next to me that for a while I had thought he might be my neighbor, which we laughed over.
     Now, today, a couple years into being neighbors with these people, I do believe I would recognize the husband on the street (or an airplane), but the wife . . .  I don't think so. And this is not a happy thing for me.





Monday, April 29, 2013

The Pony Farm



Many years ago, on a summer day, high on some psychedelic substance, I was a passenger in a van with three other people who also were high. J and L were a couple, and they were sitting in the back. D was driving, and I sat beside him in the front seat, though we were not a couple--a fact I was well aware of. Not that I wanted to be a couple with him necessarily, nor he with me, but I wanted to be a couple with SOMEONE, and J and L were likely canoodling in the back. They were an intense couple . . . always processing this or that, their conflicts, their hurts and misunderstandings. So there were all these vibes. And it was summer . . . straw hats and T-shirts, bare feet and cutoffs.

We lived in Ann Arbor, but we had been driving around for a while, somewhat directionless adventurers, and we were out on country roads--the green of summer, the song and screech of summer insects all around us, the dust of the road rising up around us. After a while, D suggested that we go to the pony farm. He said it as if he knew the place, as if he'd been there before, as if he knew how to find it. I didn't know anything about any pony farm--where or what it was, or even if I'd want to be there. I'd never been a horse-girl, though I knew others who had been--who knew how to ride, who went to horseback-riding camps, who took lessons, and so forth. I didn't know, really, what one did at a pony farm, but we all agreed, Why not?

But it seemed that he didn't really know how to get there, and it did seem that we were going in circles. A few times, when we saw people along the road, he'd stop and ask directions to the pony farm. One time it was a man, and he gave a set of incomprehensible (to me) directions as I watched a skinny green caterpillar or worm or some such climb up the side of his neck. D thanked him, and we drove on.

As we went, I began to develop this thought or question about the pony farm, which I articulated by saying, "Are we really going to the pony farm?" The answer, as I recall, was yes, if we could find it. But it didn't seem that we could find it, and so I asked my question again, and again. I tried other ways of asking it, but I could not figure out how to explain what I meant, and I believe that my companions became annoyed with me and my question, about which I was dead serious.

We never did get to the pony farm because, I think, D could not find it. Instead, we ended up at a beach, where we all ran into the lake and dove in, fully clothed.

All these years later, after I have worked so hard and long to learn about words and how to find the ones that say precisely what I mean, I still am not certain I can explain, but I can at least get closer. What I wanted to know was whether the "pony farm" was a real place or whether it was a metaphor for a place that one seeks but cannot quite find, whether the childlike sound of the metaphor was intended to reflect something about the stage of life we were in (just finished with college), whether we four were on a journey of discovery that went beyond any particular destination, which for some reason that day had the title of pony farm.

I expect the answer would have been yes and no.
Addendum:
Now it is 8/12/15, and last night I was on the phone with L from the above story. I was also on the phone with J, who is not the J of the above story, but a completely different J, but this J on the phone last night knew all of us during this era. With L and J on the phone (via conference call), the story of that era of our friendship and the pony farm came up. And this morning, I have finally settled on a simpler, more precise way of explaining what I meant by "Are we really going to the pony farm?"

What I meant was, "Is this a dream? And if it is, how do I interpret it? What is the meaning of the central image pony farm? Why is that the destination in this dream?"

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Detroit?




This amazing image comes courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory. There's that narrow place--Mitzrayim--and this is the first day of Passover. Appropriate, then, perhaps, that my review essay about Detroit was posted last night on the website of Triquarterly--Northwestern University's literary magazine. Go have a look. Dream the dream of liberation.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Snow ----

Snowflake, snowboard, snowman, snow shovel, snow boot, snowstorm, snowsuit, snowplow, snow ski, snowfall, snow drift, snowmobile, snow angel, snow fight, snow fort, snow sprite, snow shower, snow squall, snow, snow, snow ball.

Snow ball.

The past two days, as I was out walking, and because we now have so much snow, I decided to pick some up. Why not? I have been missing it. Now that we have it, why not interact with it? Many others have done so . . . with the variety of snowmen (with their hats and their carrot noses and scarves, coal buttons, eyes and noses) that stand or lean on the lawns and in the yards of these houses I pass.
     The weather is on the warm side (high 30s), so the snow is heavy, sticky, and when one picks it up, it easily forms into a solid ball. As I walked, I tossed it back and forth between my hands, and it became denser, denser. I ran my gloves over the surface, shaping it, and it became smoother, icier, more perfectly rounded. I carried it all the way home and kept working it, throwing it, hard, into one hand, then the other. Very satisfying, picturing baseball players with the balls and mitts.
    It had some destructive potential, I thought. If I threw it at close range at a window, perhaps the window would break. If I threw it at a person--into the stomach or the face, it would hurt. I felt that I was carrying a weapon, and what it would feel like to carry a weapon--a sense of power, of being able to defend myself if need be.
Then, the memory came swiftly. When I was a girl, I used to walk home from school with my friend Ruth, who lived across the street from me. There were some boys who walked in the same direction we did, and on snowy days, they used to seriously and sincerely bother and hurt us by following behind us and throwing snowballs, hard, at us. This became such a problem that Ruth devised a strategy by which we would move in fast zigzag patterns on the sidewalk to become difficult targets. I guess that telling them to stop did not work, and the walk home became something to dread.
     As I remember it, there were three boys who did this, but the only one I remember clearly was named Kenny. He was stout and red-haired and covered with freckles, prone to blushing, and his last name, which I will not repeat here for the sake of anonymity, probably caused some people to make fun of him. The reason, I believe, that he is the only one I remember is what happened next. One snowy day, when I could no longer tolerate the situation, I made my own snowball, and slowed down to let the boys come close, and when they passed, with an energy and force that seemed beyond my control, I slammed the snowball into the nearest boy, who turned out to be Kenny, and because I had my eyes closed (fear, I think), I did not have much sense of aim, and the hard snowball went right into the side of his head. I can still see the snow in his red, fleshy ear.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Entrepreneurship and Snow

We haven't had a lot of snow this year. Nor did we have much snow last year. And it has been unusually warm. People notice these things and talk about them--how odd it feels, to have a winter without snow. Not to mention the fact of last summer's drought and the overall need to have our earth drenched in whatever way nature wants to provide it, snow being one option.
     Because we're in the Midwest, where snow used to be a given, we have all kinds of routines for dealing with it--the big plows that the cities own, the huge storehouses of salt, the shovels and snow blowers and bags of salt and snow boots that we civilians have. What happens to all that equipment, and the industries around them, if the snow goes away?
     Well, we don't have to worry about that today, because we are having a very respectable and commodious snowfall--beautiful and fluffy, clinging to the trees and pine needles and shrubs and everything in sight. Also, collecting on the streets and sidewalks and making difficulty for travelers of all kinds.
But at least it feels normal.
Anyway, in my neighborhood, when it snows, men go from house to house, snow shovel in hand, asking for work shoveling. Years ago, I seem to remember that it would be neighborhood kids going around asking to shovel, but for a long time now, partly because of where I live (on the border with the West Side of Chicago), it's grown men, and I think they need the money for more than comic books and movies. But because we haven't had any snow for a while, I hadn't thought much about that whole topic. And then today came, mid-morning, and the snow was falling, and my doorbell rang.
     I looked through the window, and it was a young man--really, I would guess that he was a teenager (why wasn't he in school?).
     "Can I shovel your snow?" he asked.
     "No, thanks. I'm going to do it myself later." Which is true. I actually kind of like shoveling snow--the exertion, the cold air.
     "I only charge five dollars."
     "But it hasn't snowed very much yet. It's supposed to keep snowing, so I'd like it to fill in a bit." This was also true. The prediction was for 10 inches, and we barely had two yet. And as a sidenote, this whole conversation was going on through the locked front door, so we both kind of had to shout. I don't open my door to strangers. And especially, I'll admit, not to a teenage stranger who looks West Side-ish (whatever that means; I'll let you hypothesize).
     "Do you want me to come back later?"
     "Ahhhhh. Let's see how it goes." Which I realize is a bit of a meaningless statement. And he left. And it continued to snow. And then mid-afternoon, I went out and shoveled.
But I thought about that young man a lot. I felt that he might have some kind of business sense (stating a price like that, right off; offering to come back later) and that perhaps I should have rewarded him for that, encouraged him. On the other hand, I hadn't asked what the $5 included . . . front and back . . . just the walk up to our house . . . the whole public sidewalk in front of our house? I wasn't sure what I would do if he didn't do a good job. I wasn't sure if I'd want to open the door to him to pay him even if he did. By the end of the day, I was questioning whether his business model made any sense at all. Why come out and ask to shovel before hardly any snow had fallen? Even if you're trying to beat the competition, when you're too early, the gesture can seem or actually be meaningless. Which was it for him--a meaningless gesture or an entrepreneurial heart? Good grief. Life is complicated.



Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Social Contract

Today, when I was out on my walk, it occurred to me, several times, how much we all depend on each other to behave appropriately, to adhere to social norms, and to generally be honorable and trustworthy. The stakes are very, very high in  this respect. The first thing that made me think of this today was when I saw a workman at the top of a very tall ladder that was balanced against a brick building. The bottom of the ladder was in the middle of the sidewalk, and the man was about three stories up. No one stood beside the ladder, to steady it or protect it in any way.

It made me think that this man was very trusting. He was trusting me, and everyone else who happened to pass, to be fully in control of her body--that is, not prone to stumbling or losing one's balance and knocking against things--fully sighted, not under the influence of some substance that would make one do destructive or ghastly things, not sadistic, not a sociopath. Of course, he might also have just been desperate for work, had no choice but to climb up and do it. All in all, though, there seemed to be a lot to it.

About 15 minutes later, when I was crossing a semi-busy street at an intersection without a traffic light, I had a similar thought . . . that the drivers were depending on me and trusting me to wait for a clearing in traffic, to know the rules of the road, to be cognitively intact, or sufficiently so, and not suicidal, so that I would not simply cross the street, place myself directly in their path, at their mercy.

Drivers, of course, depend on every other driver to obey the rules of the road, stop at stoplights and stop signs, use their turn signals, and all the rest. These are only a few of the ways that we are all held together in a net of relationships and dependencies and trust. This is what I think of as the social contract. Not that it doesn't fray, and fray seriously. But overall, it's a pretty solid document.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

From Here to There



The other night on NPR, I heard a story about the Sundance Film Festival, and  some push-back it had received from a conservative think tank in Utah, where the festival is held. Some of the folks at the think tank don't like the idea of state subsidies to the festival, in particular because of the nature of some of the films shown there. Paul Mero, president of the think tank had this to say: 

"A lot of these film festivals are held in major cities and elite enclaves. In those circles, maybe it complements their values," Mero says. "But these highly sexualized films don't complement the values of most Americans, let alone Utahans."

Robert Redford, who started the festival, responded by pointing out all the economic benefits Utahans get from the festival and the influx of visitors. But I wonder whether Mero is right that the films "don't complement the values of most Americans," and I wonder how he would know that.
Meanwhile, back in the elite enclave of Chicago, my husband and I just went to see The Book of Mormon. It was enormously energetic and well-done and clever, and it's wildly irreverent and also wildly popular--sold out every night, run extended now until September. But what struck me the most about it (and actually pleased me the most) was how enthusiastic the audience was at the complete gloves-off irreverence.
So as we rode home on the El that night after the show, and in the days following, I was exuberantly celebrating the thought that I live in a place and a time when people don't have to be afraid to push things to the very edge. At at the very same time, back in Utah, it was a different story. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Which Side?

A few weeks ago, I went to a memorial service for the father of a good friend of mine. Norm Adelman, the father of my friend, was a fine person, but I only knew him during his last ten or so years of life, when he had been visited by Parkinson's. In his earlier life, which I learned about mainly from his daughter, he had been a vigorous political activist--pushing for integration in the Milwaukee of the 1960s--and a social activist, leading a community organization that sponsored summer camps that were not only coed (considered scandalous when he first proposed the idea) but also racially integrated (unheard of!). I think he knew that no one could overcome racial/ethnic fears and misconceptions without exposure to "The Other" in a daily and communal context. And, as my husband said, he likely also thought that the artificial divisions set up between people and groups based on sex and race/ethnicity were just stupid--and also damaging and diminishing.
     Norm and his family were/are extremely musical, and camps always have music (camp songs) associated with them. So the memorial had much music--from this family members, including daughters and grandchildren, as well as former campers and camp staff. It was pretty great--all the variety of styles and voices and sounds.
     One song we heard that day was "Which Side Are You On?" which was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. This song made a lot of sense in those union-organizing times and also in the context of Norm's memorial--because of the era in which he came of age and his political activism.

As I listened to the song, though, I thought about how much times have changed--not just the attitudes about unions (imagine, Michigan, a right-to-work state!), but how we've come to see (in these post-modern times) things as not so clear anymore, or to use an old (and perhaps racist) expression, not so black and white. There are no longer just two side to be on (though I realize the state of the polarized US political system likely belies what I am saying here). To me, the idea of having to choose a side, declare which one I'm on, is pretty terrifying. We live far more in the era of nuance than sides. At least that's how it seems to me. Though I still feel a thrill at the images from that era, and the courage, to declare which side one was on and stand with it, despite the high stakes and the consequences, which were often dire.