Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Remembering the Ladies

Thursday, June 15, 2017

We were in a hotel room in Austin when James Comey was testifying before Congress. We sat, mesmerized, but then realized our time in Austin was short and there would be coverage of Comey that we could catch up with later. So we went to the LBJ Library to learn, to remember, and to mourn the America we thought we lived in.

Of course, Vietnam, a war without popular support and without apparent rationale at any level, throws its shadow over the Johnson presidency. But, even with that, what he accomplished! Civil rights, voting rights, Medicare, Medicaid, the Office of Economic Opportunity, creation of HUD, the NEA, PBS, and VISTA, automobile safety, vocational education, and on and on—it’s an impressive list centered around education, the arts, civil rights, and what we now talk about as economic inequality. Basically whatever’s getting dismantled now can probably be traced back to then.

But what particularly grabbed me was an exhibit of pictures of each of the  country’s First Ladies. These pictures—either painted or photographed—were at some level “official” portraits, hung in official places and at some level selected and sanctioned enough so we can assume this is how each woman chose, or was comfortable with, being portrayed. It’s a fascinating collection. Here are my snap-shot impressions of some of the often surprisingly revealing portraits:
Martha Washington—looks as if she, like George, was conscious that “history has its eyes on (them)”. She looks dignified and--despite clothes that look ornate to us--modest and unpretentious.
Dolley’s got some cleavage!
Early 19th century Elizabeth Monroe’s portrait looks slightly 17th century Dutch, but her burgher husband would have to have been prosperous: she’s wearing black and crimson with ermine-trimmed sleeves. Angelica Van Buren also looks fortunate as she stands beside a bust of her husband.
By contrast Anna Harrison looks awful (terrible hat--call Aretha stat!) but she had good cause: her husband died 31 days after his inauguration. It’s said he died of pneumonia after catching a cold while giving the country’s longest inaugural address on a frigid March day without a hat, gloves, or overcoat. Anna, by contrast, was ill at home in Ohio and didn’t plan on moving to Washington until spring. Hmm.
John Tyler, of whom I know little, looks slightly unkempt, but both of his wives (at separate times) look kind of triumphant to be having official portraits done.
Sarah Polk looks moody in her Italian-Renaissance-looking portrait, while both Margaret Taylor and husband Zachary look like they come from hardy stock.
Jane Pierce looks as unembellished as her name. But Harriet Lane, James Buchanan’s niece appears ready to make the most of her time in the limelight, with flowers trailing from her hair to her waist. Mary Lincoln is a visual spoiler alert, looking sad, distracted, and haunted.
Frances Cleveland looks elegant, light falling on her amply exposed skin. Helen Taft looks imperious. Grace Coolidge, who, it turns out, taught at a school for the deaf, is stunning, posed in a red dress beside a white dog, a long gauzy wrap floating from her arm past trees to a distant White House.
Mamie Eisenhower’s portrait shocked me with its little girl pinkness—pink dress, pink gloves, pink bag—and a vague smile beneath those tiny bangs.
Jackie, too, was a surprise. In her portrait painted nearly a decade after she left the White House this most fashion-savvy of first ladies is wearing a long high-necked thing that looks like maybe a dressing gown for Dame Edna.
Lady Bird is also a surprise, radiant and beautiful as she looks directly at the camera. Pat Nixon, as one might expect, looks pained, sitting in her blue lace dress her hair a little too blond. And Rosalynn Carter, whom I think of as capable and outspoken, looks as if she’s made herself smaller for the picture with arms at her sides, hands in her lap, and a slightly upward look.
Barbara Bush looks In. Control.—confidant and at home—while Laura looks as if she’ll be glad to get back to Texas.
Hillary, looking very young, is posed between a chair and a small round able that holds a few items that could be White House mementos, slight poised between two worlds.
And Michelle—thoroughly modern Michelle with her strong bare arms and her decidedly non-matronly double strand of pearls—looks like tomorrow even though she is, sadly, yesterday.
The current First Lady’s portrait has not yet been hung.

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Writing about other people?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

I just finished reading a book about Nora Ephron. It was by “her best friend” and it made me grateful that most of  my closest friends are not writers.

Nora Ephron was, to me, one of those women like Wendy Wasserstein, whom we don’t know personally and yet feel we know. We feel they know us, too, and we are certain we and they would be meeting regularly for lunch or trading recipes or book recommendations or names of hairdressers…if only we had ever met.

Or maybe not. The Nora in this book isn’t really the girlfriend with the crepey neck or the not-so-much bosom buddy. She isn’t the relatably imperfect Meg Ryan characters in the movies that touched us—she was, instead, the frighteningly accomplished director creating the films anddon’tyouforgetit. She was the uber-connected person who always knew how to do or where to buy everything, cook like a four-star chef, and charm everyone in sight. She was also apparently overbearing,  intimidating, and not inclined to let kindness get in the way of making a witty or brutally honest comment. I felt relieved to have never had her personally in my life. Just reading about her left me in despair at the puniness of my life and in need of major validation. She would not have been my girlfriend: she would not have noticed my existence.

And no reason she would have. And no reason to admire her enormous and pleasure-giving achievements any less.

But all these more human qualities laid out in print by the “best friend” gave me pause. The book did not really offer a glimpse into the friendship. I had no insight into the comfort they may have offered each other in the wake of dissolved marriages or advice they may have shared on nurturing children or careers. The whole fact of the friendship was, as they say in writing workshops, told not shown. But shown, though I am guessing unconsciously, was the writer’s small nastiness and glee at exposing Nora’s flaws.

And while I was reading this, I also happened to read a magazine essay so shocking in its ugliness that it was, like an unfolding accident, impossible to tear my eyes from. The author was “celebrating” her mother’s 75th birthday by presenting her with the harsh evidence of a traumatic family event both had stayed silent about for decades. In the course of the essay, small ungenerous details, clearly added in hostility, made the reader feel sympathy for the mother instead of for the author, as was very obviously intended.

We writers are always writing about other people for a variety of reasons. They are our own reasons and it might be useful for us to remember that what the reader takes in often says a bit about us, too.


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Barricades and snapshots

Monday, April 17, 2017

 Two days apart I walked past two lengths of police barricades and took two very different photographs.

On Saturday in New York, in a taxi going west on 44th Street, I passed blocks of barricades and a large law enforcement presence on 6th Avenue.  Is it a holiday? What’s today’s date? There must be a parade.  Later, walking along 6th, I saw the barricades being stacked and loaded onto trucks.

“What was the parade?” I asked a police officer.

“No parade. Protest,” he answered, telling me that this block, just a few away from Trump Tower, was the scene of protests every week now, though that day’s—coming as it did on April 15—was bigger than usual and was specifically directed at the President’s refusal to release his tax returns.

Back in Boston, in my neighborhood two blocks from the finish line of today’s Boston Marathon, there were barricades, too.  A little while ago, I went to watch. The elite runners had crossed the finish line, the late stragglers were still to come. The runners I saw—or almost saw as I stood on tiptoe and peered over the crowds—were running strong and in solid numbers. The announcer called out their names and home towns as they came in and we all were applauding. All of us spectators had passed through security lines and there could have been no one standing there unaware that this was exactly where the second bomb had gone off four years ago. There was a City of Boston sand truck across the intersection of Exeter and Newbury, blocking vehicle access to the race and the grand stands. There were police everywhere, and, of course, barricades.

The barricades will, if history prevails, be neatly stacked by evening and carted away tomorrow, to wait until they are needed for the next public gathering. The next public celebration, show of strength, show of determination, show of courage. The next show of public engagement. Yes, they are “crowd control”; yes, they “hold back” the crowd. And yet, the barricades in a way enable us to form ourselves into a group to send a message outward.  On Saturday in New York and other cities it was a message of defiance and determination. Today in Boston it was a message that honored human accomplishment and courage. Barricades, but not obstructions. Not barriers to a mass message sent.

Today I also took photos. I recently became the one of the last people in the world to buy an iPhone, and I took videos (!) of the cheering crowd and, holding the phone high, the heads of the runners. I captured the sounds of the cheers and of the announcer.

On Saturday, heading to the suburbs after my day in the city, I took a picture, too, not as celebratory. It was on the train, the back of the set in front of me: a graffiti swastika. The conductor, like the policeman on 6th Avenue, said this, too, has become a common occurrence recently.

“I think I know who’s responsible for this,” he said. “There was a blond fellow, strange hair style, lots of money in his pockets. I heard he got a new job in Washington.”

Back to the barricades.

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Reading "The Underground Railroad"

Thursday, January 12, 2017

 I should have read “The Underground Railroad” sooner. I should have read it as soon as I heard about it or as soon as I read the spell-binding excerpt that arrived with my New York Times on a Sunday in August. I should have read it in mid-October after I heard its author, ColsonWhitehead, speak at the Boston Book Festival. I should never have left it to read after November 8.

It is an astounding book. The writing is so vivid that I had a moment of questioning whether the Underground Railroad had been, in fact, an actual rail line running below ground. It is also unsparing in its depictions of barbaric cruelty inflicted with sick and sickening gusto, and its portrayal of Cora and other former slaves who, balanced on a razor edge between fear and hope, are nearly numbed to either. The book indicts not only the “peculiar institution” of slavery with its unspeakable inhumanity, but also the whole white supremacist outlook, from the “manifest destiny” of claiming Native American territory to the new reality we are grappling with since Donald Trump’s ascendancy made America hate again.

Late in the book a woman in the early 20th century, hearing about “The Great War,” will feel it was misnamed. “The Great War was the one between black and white. It always would be.”  And here we are now at a moment when we are hearing every day about post-election acts of hatred-- including the march scheduled for this weekend in Whitefish, Montana-- directed at all “others” who are not white, Christian, and male,.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever felt what people seem to call patriotic, though I have revered the country’s institutions and its promise. Now that America is over, though, I am despondent. For my grandparents it was the land of milk and honey where dreams could be made reality. I am guessing that was the case for most of the immigrant ancestors of the currently American.

“Stolen valor” is a concept I happened upon recently, the dishonest claiming of unearned military honors. It is a term that feels strangely appropriate, as well, to describe how what is being loudly claimed as “American” now feels so constricted, exclusionary, and antithetical to the promise I always thought it embodied.

In “The Underground Railroad” a character says, “Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.” If America is to exist as America again, at the very least don’t we each have to be a good full moon to our neighbors?

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