Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Facing Atticus and Ourselves

Monday, July 13, 2015

Say it isn’t so, Atticus. Isn’t that what we’re all thinking? For generations he has been the hero, the decent guy, the mensch we all hoped we would be in the circumstances. Didn’t hurt that we also picture him as Gregory Peck, standing tall and leaning down to explain to Scout about walking a mile in another person’s shoes.

I’ve been thinking--and talking with friends about--why the idea of Atticus’s feet of clay causes such distress. Even though the new book was written decades ago, I find it hard not to see it in current political terms: “To Kill a Mockingbird” was the magic of November 4, 2008, in Chicago’s Grant Park, that beautiful young family center stage, so much ugliness behind us, and that feeling that everything was possible. “Go Set a Watchman” is John Boehner’s declaration two days later that the Republicans’ top goal was to make Barack Obama “a one-term president.” It’s Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act. It’s the racism we’ve been seeing in the news over the past year and so much more, the scar on our country’s heart since the 17th century. 

This new Atticus wounds us because he was us at our best.  It is the gift of fiction to allow us the chance to have our own mental picture of the characters on the page. We've carried Atticus in our minds and hearts, taking in what we thought he was saying about human dignity. Children were named for him. People went to law school because of him. And now it turns out he was against racism before he was for it? He anti-evolved? Or we did. Just as Scout grows into Jean Louise and recognizes the messiness of real life, we have come to terms over and over with schoolbook heroes--Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt--whose lives and actions were significantly more complicated than elementary school let on. 

So now what? I haven’t read the book yet, of course, but I’ve been reading the articles about it, about Harper Lee, about Harper Lee’s editor. Big front page articles by thoughtful writers. I’ve read the first chapter, released ahead of the book’s debut. And I guess that what I’m thinking right now is that along with my great misgivings is also the great pleasure of seeing how a work of fiction can still spark heated discussion and soul-searching thought.  Whatever the fortunes of fictional characters, the power of books endures. 

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Reading the sound bites

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Sometimes all you need are the quick quotes--the print version of the sound bite. Like today, when I’m looking at the online version of The New York Times.

Of course the overwhelming news is the shooting of nine people in a church in Charleston. Nine black people in one of the country’s oldest black churches. The shooter was white. If it weren’t so horrifying it would sound like a game of Clue. In a church with a gun. In a church with a gun??? 

We do not know the details yet. But we can guess. We can speculate about the role of hate-filled public rhetoric. We can guess that here are nine more victims of racial hatred. 

And nine more victims of guns available everywhere.  I’ve seen a bumper sticker that says, “motorcycles are everywhere.” I have no idea what that means or if it’s true. But what are truly everywhere are guns.  Why not in church where, let’s face it, you can easily envision the need, right?

It could have been in a movie theater or in a school, or some other place where those gun-toting sportsmen (and, sadly--let’s be fair--sportswomen) feel the need to be armed.  Don’t the pandering politicians talk about shooting for sport? Why not be ready? Never can tell when you might see a deer. On college campuses, in Starbucks (guns and caffeine--what could possibly go wrong?), carried in pockets and purses just in case. And if we couldn’t control gun ownership when a classroom full of first graders was mowed down, we know it’s never going to happen.

The Charleston gunman has apparently been found and arrested. In his Facebook photo shows he wears a jacket decorated with apartheid insignia. No surprise.

I saw this sound bite, the Times “quotation of the day.”  It’s from one Jeff Funicello, who is apparently selling his 1975 armored truck, which has bulletproof windows and sliding rifle portholes. Mr. Funicello’s quote is, “This is America. I should be able to have a howitzer or a bazooka if I want one.”

Not much of a surprise there either, unfortunately. Yes, let’s protect our right to firepower, our right to stand our ground and shoot from the hip. Let’s gut food stamps, reproductive choice, workers’ rights to organize, scientific research. Let’s keep our tax rates low, education and infrastructure be damned. But above all, don’t pry our guns out of our warm, live hands.

One other little sound bite caught my eye, this one the “On This Day” feature. It felt to me as if it might somehow be related to the news from Charleston:  on this day, June 18, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted its International Declaration of Human Rights. That was in 1948. The United States has never endorsed it.

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Thinking about typewriters

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

This blog post comes with a sound track:  A few months ago Dr. D. and I went to see “Red Hot Patriot,” a play about Molly Ivins. It was presented at the Lyric Stage, with fine acting, our brand of politics, and lines that left us weeping with laughter. As a final pleasure, as we left the theater I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years. But, in addition to all that, I found myself afterwards consumed by thoughts of one of the play’s props, a typewriter--manual, portable, powder blue, just like my old beloved Smith Corona. 

I know that belongs to a different age.  I am more than happy to do my work now on my nimble little MacBook. I like correcting mistakes with a keystroke instead of with whiteout or that little round eraser with the attached brush. I like printing out as many copies as I want instead of layering carbon and onionskin. I remember marveling at my first sight of line wrap--that miracle of coming to the end of a line and having the type move down to the next line without my involvement.  I would never want to give those up. And yet....

There was something satisfying about the little bell that announced the end of the line, the zip of the carriage return--a tiny accomplishment.  All those non-mysterious parts had names I knew--the platen, the ribbon guide, the slim type hammers each with its single mission. Well, two missions--upper and lower case. The typewriter was straightforward, never down. If there was a problem, I could fix it--change the ribbon, unjam the keys. The only thing that needed restarting was me. Even the electric wasn’t mysterious though if you weren’t quick you could end up with a long line of a letter you only wanted one offffffffffffff. 

Before the portable Smith Corona there was an Underwood in my  life, square and important looking. It was portable only in the sense that it was actually possible to lift it, though not without effort and sometimes inky marks on your arms. It was my gateway device, a clunky thing, but magical, turning my words into something that looked like what books were made of. Even to-do lists looked more to-doable typed. As for fonts, I debated for days over whether my new portable should have pica or elite. 

I sometimes think difference between using a typewriter and a computer is like the difference between stick shift and automatic transmission on a car. The quality of attention and engagement is different. I used to sit and figure out what words deserved the effort of being put on the page. I made notes, tried them out in writing first before I made the commitment of type. Now I watch my thoughts spilling onto the screen almost before they register.  Change my mind--zip it’s gone. 

I’m not going back, of course. Just reminiscing. I’m hearing the sound in my head.

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Thinking and not thinking about The Great War

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Last night Dr. D. and I were talking about World War I.  We had attended an excellent presentation at the Museum of Fine Arts about the arts in the early 20th century.  The speakers were Christopher Capozzola, a history professor at MIT; Edward Saywell, an MFA curator of contemporary; and Lloyd Schwartz, poet, music critic, and all-around delightful person. The discussion, with its focus on World War I’s impact on visual arts and poetry, left us curious about why, at this moment of its centennial, that war feels so distant to us. 

Why does World War I feel so unknown? (As I write these words, the clock on my desk reads 11:11; we all know at least that much about it.) Even hearing a sampling of the poetry last night--Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon--makes the question feel surprising. No one can read or hear those words and pretend not to know the unspeakable horrors the WWI poets witnessed; they remain the iconic truth-tellers. 

World War II, by contrast, feels familiar, almost current.  We still obsess over it in  films (a recent smattering-- “The Imitation Game,” “Unbroken,” “Monuments Men”).  And books--fiction, non-fiction--where to begin? One of the best novels I’ve read recently was Anthony Doerr’s captivating, beautifully written “All the Light We Cannot See.” 

Obviously World War II had that clear good-versus-evil story line that has made it such enduringly inviting subject material.  But, beyond that, was it that the first world war began, not with a sudden invasion a la September 1, 1939, but with a dramatic event followed by a muddled, hapless slide into inevitability? It’s hard to grasp exactly how it started, why it continued, and what, after all, was the result. And it's made even more distant by thoughts of its participants--Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Montenegro, Rhodesia. 

Maybe the fact that that war led so clearly to that other and even more others makes us collectively want to forget it. Maybe it’s this: that the war to end all wars didn’t. 

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The Occasional Recipe: Tomato Sauce

Thursday, January 29, 2015

There are always two kinds of bloggers. There are those who post regularly, predictably, reliably. I’m one of the others. Lots of ideas have come and gone and still no new post. So here’s a quick dive back in, and, given what it looks like outside here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge, maybe something welcome--a quick and delicious dish to make from the materials at hand.

This is the best basic tomato sauce I’ve ever made. It’s from the incomparable Marcella Hazan and is so iconic that it ran in the New York Times with her obituary a few years ago. Not only is it delicious and easy, but it’s almost certain that you have every ingredient (all four of them) on hand so you can make it right this minute without going out in the snow.

Here’s the whole thing: open a can of whole tomatoes, and I’m hoping you have some good San Marzano ones. Put them in a saucepan with 5 tablespoons of butter. Right away you know this is going to be good, because what doesn’t taste good if it has five tablespoons of butter in it? Add a peeled onion cut in half. Again, easy peasy--no slicing, dicing, mincing. Just cut the onion in half. Bring it to the slowest simmer your stove can manage and let it cook about 45 minutes. Stir it once in a while. Here comes the fourth ingredient: at some point taste it and add some salt. Magic. No wonder people went to the ends of the earth for salt. Maybe just a little more. That’s it. Perfection.

When it’s ready, throw out the onion halves and pour the sauce over rice, pasta, whatever. Add something. My plan for tonight is rigatoni and some Italian sausage. But big chunks of vegetables could work, as could throwing in leftover chicken. Canned tuna and black olives, maybe? (And about the tuna--a couple of years ago I realized that, since I was using olive oil on just about everything, why not give up the cardboard-tasting packed-in-water tuna for the good kind packed in olive oil.) Or just a grating of Parm.

Whew, that was easy--dinner and a blog post. 

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The ribbons: what now?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

So about the ribbons, the black and white ribbons I put on after the shooting of Michael Brown because I wanted an outward sign of my sadness. I said I would wear them for 100 days and hundredth day was November 28, right after the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson. Not the day I wanted to shed that sign, but I did. Not the right day, but what day would be?

Some people assumed they were kriah ribbons, the torn black mourning ribbon which, in the Jewish tradition, is worn for the first 30 days after the death of a close relative. Just as taking off the kriah ribbon doesn’t mean the end of mourning, taking off my ribbons doesn’t mean the end of my thinking about the privilege that comes with being white and the injustices that come with being black.  

So this is what I’m thinking my tall, hoodie-wearing grandsons do not have to be raised with warnings about not looking somehow “threatening” ....about what kind of downside could there be to a society in which everyone felt included...about people who voice support for the police yet don’t seem to respect them enough to hold them them to a higher standard of maintaining civic order....about ubuntu, the African concept of our interconnectedness, the idea that I cannot be free to be fully human unless you are also. 

In this video I saw online, Tory Bullock talks about how the daily realities of being a young black man make Ferguson not a watershed moment, but just one more in a long line of heartbreaks. Sort of the way it turned out that Sandy Hook was just one more gun-related tragedy. 

So I took the ribbons off. I carry my sadness now where it doesn’t show as much. I offer you this poem, written in 1938 by Langston Hughes, and I hope we can do better.

Let America be America Again

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

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Wearing the ribbons: Day 37

Friday, September 26, 2014

“You’re going to need more ribbons,” Dr. D. said to me this morning as he read the paper. 

Oh, indeed.  There was that state trooper who shot the man who, at the officer’s request, was reaching for his driver’s license. There was the shooting of the Wal-Mart customer who was holding an air rifle from the store’s shelves. There was the unbearable prevalence of incidents reported with the gratuitous line, “(Insert name of wounded or killed man here) was black; Officer (insert name here) is white.”

About the ribbons: 37 days ago, I felt I needed to recreate some publicly visible sign of my anguish over the shooting of Michael Brown, so I made a little “awareness pin” of black and white ribbons which I committed to wearing for 100 days. I felt it was an acknowledgement of the unearned privilege I have because of my white skin. It also represented my hope that the people I interacted with during the day would treat me with the same respect and consideration if I were black. A lot of weight for two  little ribbons to carry.

I also have extra ribbons with me in in case anyone else wants one. Two people have. A few people asked about the ribbons. But mostly the awareness ribbons seem to be as invisible as...awareness.

In my Day 7 post, I noted that the awareness was primarily mine, and that continues. Also my sadness. This week, as I wear the ribbons, I am watching the Ken Burns series on the Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The series is extraordinary. Likewise the three subjects. For all of TR’s and FDR’s accomplishments, it is Eleanor who is emerging, for me, as the true star of self-invention, resilience, and, most importantly, beacon of the nation’s highest ideals. Given the times that the series is set in, there are horrifying pictures and instances of racial injustice, that I am taking in as I read about the most recent assaults on voting rights as well as on human beings’ persons and dignity.

Years ago I had the privilege of working with the late Jonathan Mann on a manuscript, never completed, on how to be an activist for human rights. The first step, according to him--and a hugely powerful one--was according dignity to every other human being simply in acknowledgement of their humanity. A simple concept, but so powerful. A quick look at what exists on the subject of human rights activism talks about first steps including joining organizations, going to meetings, monitoring abuses, large and important things, certainly. But this one simple step is something we can all do right now wherever we are:

Just treat other people with respect. 

Doesn’t even take a ribbon.

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