April 5, 2019

What Irony Is, with Our Guide Jane Austen

Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh

On and off for years I've tried to define irony for myself. Coming closest was the idea of discrepancy. One thing aimed for, another thing attained. But you must add to that the idea of similarity or mirroring to turn it from bad luck into irony.

An example from Pride and Prejudice: Toward the end of the novel, the aristocrat (and hero Darcy's aunt) Lady Catherine de Bourgh arrives at Elizabeth's humble abode to wield her power and glory over the Bennet family. Lady Catherine is filthy rich, owner of a grand estate, old, and imperious. She has caught wind that her nephew Darcy is interested in the relatively low-born Elizabeth and has arrived to demand that Elizabeth deny it and renounce any hope of Darcy in the future.

At this Lady Catherine fails. Elizabeth admits that she has no engagement with Darcy but refuses to promise never to enter into an engagement with him. Lady Catherine leaves the Bennets in high dudgeon.

If the novel had ended there, there would be no irony, just a failed try. There is discrepancy because Lady Catherine wanted one outcome and got another. But there is no mirroring. She doesn't achieve the opposite of what she wanted; she merely failed to reach what she did want.

But the next day or so, Darcy shows up on Elizabeth's doorstep and proposes. The kicker: Darcy had given up hope of Elizabeth's affections until he hears that his aunt confronted her and she refused to renounce him. One whiff of this opening and Darcy high-tailed it to Longbourn to pop the question.

THIS is irony. Lady Catherine's visit did not simply fail to effect her goal; it actually caused the opposite outcome that she had sought to avoid.  Discrepancy plus mirroring.

March 8, 2019

The Green Book, Neverland, and the Possibilities of Tainted Art



Song as old as time: Can we enjoy art by awful people? Can we enjoy art that is compromised by outdated social tropes?

These questions have dogged us ever since Wagner and Homer were unpacked by twentieth-century social critics, and they've come up again this month. Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Michael Jackson's music has been taken out of rotation by some radio stations in the wake of the damning documentary Leaving Neverland.

Green Book is an interesting case. It's a film about an Italian-American bouncer, Tony Vallelonga,  who takes a job driving a black classcial pianist, Don Shirley, around the South on a concert tour. In its favor: It's well-intentioned regarding race, it features two fantastic performances by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortenson, and it's funny as hell. But it makes the white character the star; it has a bit of a fairy tale quality to it in how well the two soon get along; it's perceived by many black people as condescending; and, it is alleged, it makes racism seem like a problem that can be solved by people getting to know each other and being friends.

I'm aware that the movie offends many black actors, movie makers, and audience members. And really, they are better judges of its offensiveness than I am. I'm aware, too, of how many black intellectuals have asked that white people, even allies, just kind of shut up and listen rather than jumping into the fray with their opinions and dominating the dialogue. Ultimately I like giving my opinion too much to do this, but I do acknowledge the secondary worth of my reactions here.

I would not have given Green Book Best Picture, but it is a very well-made film. Acting, plot, pace, wit . . . there's a lot to like. The script was written by the white character's son, so it's hard to fault it for telling the story from his perspective. While the movie focuses on the growing friendship between the two men, I don't think it posits personal friendship as the solution to racism. The trip through the South reveals all sorts of embedded nastiness, some of which is only "solved" because Shirley has friends in powerful places. His fame and talent are enough to rescue him from the worst outcomes (being taken in police custody) but not all of them; he is still forced to use an outhouse at one concert venue and is barred from the hotel's dining room at another. The white managers of these places sometimes try to downplay the insult and sometimes take a nasty satisfaction in holding the line against an acclaimed black man. The film portrays Shirley as gay, which adds another layer of difficulty to his journey, and he's portrayed as someone in limbo, not quite fitting in any social world. He doesn't connect to traditional black culture (the much-maligned fried chicken scene), he's humiliated within the white world of high-brow art, and his gayness puts him in a further vulnerable position within both worlds.

Critics denounce the film as a white-savior narrative, and defenders argue that the two characters instead save each other. Vallelonga exposes Shirley to the joys of the low brow, and Shirley opens Vallelonga's eyes to the finer things, as well as to the humanity of a black man and the difficulties of racism. Here's a link to a podcast that argues that this dynamic was real, the two enjoyed each other, that Shirley felt he "improved" Vallelonga, and that Vallelonga was genuinely changed by his year and a half chaffeuring Shirley through the South.




But while their friendship appears to have been real, the movie fails in portraying an equal friendship. When the movie starts, Vallelonga is in a bit of trouble when the nightclub he works at closes, his prospects are shaky, and he is upset when his wife allows two black workmen into their home (he throws away the two glasses that the men drank from when his wife offered them some water). Don Shirley, on the other hand, is esconced in his grand apartment above Carnegie Hall. He's dressed in robes and sits on a kind of gold throne while he interviews Vallelonga for the chauffeur job. There's a bit of African king to him here, presiding over a luxury apartment and his eclectic possessions.



By the end of the movie, Shirley seems a bit beaten down. He has declined in status in a way, being caught with another man and being so consistently saved by Vallelonga in his travels. He comes home to an empty apartment and eventually accepts Vallelonga's invitation to come to his house and meet his large, talkative, fun Italian family. While the "saving" may have gone both ways in the film, by the end it has taken a turn. Where are Shirley's friends? Where is the vulnerability on Vallelonga's part? Where is the scene that shows Shirley giving Vallelonga something that only he can give, that puts Vallelonga in the role of grateful recipient?



This sense of imbalance is heightened by the fact that, while Vallelonga's attitude toward black people genuinely changed as a result of his year and a half with Shirley, this transformation is shown to occur really, really quickly and easily. He takes to his role as a subordinate to Shirley rather easily and, once they hit the road, he's shown as open, friendly, and even compassionate. This is less white savior than Cinderella. Vallelonga's racism seems to disappear with the wave of a wand. It's unfortunate that some tone-deafness in these couple of scenes compromised the film.

As I've gotten older, I've focused more on what is good and interesting in a work of art than what is bad or what fails. You can be aware of failings without them filling the whole of your vision of what a work of art is. Until, that is, they are so big and glaring that they do fill your vision. When that might happen is a post for another day, but it's certainly different for different people.

This is a question, too, for the music of Michael Jackson after the release of the documentary Leaving Neverland. I never had any doubt that Jackson was a pedophile but many have been newly shaken by the testimony of the two men featured in the documentary. I find I can listen to covers of Jackson's music without a whiff of guilt or discomfort, but it's been years since I've deliberately listened to Jackson himself. Jackson designed his entire life around the abuse of boys, from his gloves and his skin color and his resculpted nose to his sequined toy soldier dress and his Neverland Ranch. He insinuated his way into families, married to cover his tracks, developed an entire mythology of himself as lover of children, lover of peace, ambassador to the world, and it was all—every bit of it—a cover for heinous acts of child abuse. If you haven't seen it already, the documentary is a must-watch. I also recommend highly the article on pedophiles published by the Baltimore City Paper in the 1990s. If I can find a link online, I'll post it.

February 5, 2019

Longbourn and the Bull of Wall Street


Charging Bull, a bronze statue by Arturo Di Modica at Bowling Green, Manhattan, New York City.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 License.

As I was thinking about Jo Baker's appropriation of Pride and Prejudice for her novel Longbourn, another work of art came to mind: Charging Bull, the great bronze sculpture by Arturo Di Modica near Wall Street in New York. Right from the start, this iconic work became a tourist favorite. People the world over come to take pictures beside it. Installed in 1989, it was intended by the artist to represent the optimism and vigor of Wall Street.

Somewhere along the way, however, things took a turn. 

Who knows who the first person was to sit below the bull's haunches and grasp its monumental balls, but doing so has proved to be an irresistible temptation. For millions. Some go further and "explore the artwork" in ways I can't bring myself to detail. 

I'm not sure how Di Modica feels about the indignities visited upon this noble creature by enthusiastic tourists, but I do know how he feels about the second sculpture that was installed just a few yards away from Charging Bull in 2017. In March of that year, sculptor Kristen Visbal placed Fearless Girl, a smaller bronze of a girl with hands on hips, directly opposite Charging Bull. Visbal has said that girl is intended to look strong and proud, not belligerent. Nonetheless, many viewers perceive her as standing in opposition to the bull with a look of defiance that turns the bull, as Di Modica claims, into a villain, a symbol of greed and aggression. 

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fearless_Girl.jpg

Di Modica feels that he has been forced into a collaboration that he never agreed to, and he has asked that Fearless Girl be removed, since it intrudes upon and subverts his work. But whether she is read as a companion piece sharing strength and optimism with the bull or as a kind of David to the bull's Goliath, there is no doubt that Fearless Girl is just as beloved as Charging Bull. Do Fearless Girl's quality and popularity override the Di Modica's intention? Can the two pieces still be perceived independently, without the shadow of one being an inescapable part of the other? 

Interestingly, both pieces originated as a kind of guerrilla art. Both were installed without permission under cover of dark, and both survived their illegal installation only because of the instant love they garnered. In 2018 New York mayor Bill De Blasio announced that Fearless Girl would be moved to another site near Wall Street, citing safety concerns because of the hundreds of people who are daily gathered around tiny Bowling Green Park, where the statues were situated. The move happened in December 2018, and it appears that, because of Di Modica's incessant threats of legal action, the two may be permanently separated. It will certainly be a long time before they are separated in American cultural memory.  

February 4, 2019

Longbourn and the Art of Stealing



Longbourn is a 2013 novel by Jo Baker that revisits the world of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants, principally the young housemaid Sarah. (Note: Spoilers, mostly of a vague kind, follow.)

I've always been hostile toward works that feed off other novels. I've never read Wide Sargasso Sea, the alternate history of Jane Eyre, my favorite novel. I eschew the mountains of detective spin-offs in which, say, Jane Austen herself or Sherlock Holmes's imagined wife is the detective. But a trusted reader-friend loved Longbourn, and I decided it was time to move past my prejudices and stretch into a literary discomfort zone.

First things first: Longbourn is a fantastic novel. The writing is wonderful on a line-by-line basis (something that even Austen wasn't that good at). Every single page is worth reading for its detail, vividness, cleverness, and insight.

But the novel as a whole is subversive. It takes something given (in this case a work of art) and uses it to communicate or value something other than originally intended. Subversion refers to acts intended to destroy an established system. In this case, that system is the one that Jane Austen created in Pride and Prejudice—and elite literature created as a whole. This system is often labeled bourgeois, in which these conditions prevail:

* The experiences of certain classes are attended to, while other classes are unexamined.

* The experiences of certain nations or ethnicities are attended to, while others are marginalized.

* Personal conflicts are attended to, while labor, the material bases of existence, and the sufferings of others—history, in other words—are erased.

Baker approaches this task in a couple of ways. First, the protagonists are all from the servant class. Sarah is the principal character, but others include Mrs. Hill, the cook; James Smith, the footman; Polly, a young girl working at Longbourn; and Ptolemy Bingley, a black former slave from the Bingleys' estate in the Caribbean now working for the Bingley family in England. (In the Austenverse, the source of families' wealth is elsewhere touched on only in Patricia Rozema's film adaptation of Mansfield Park.) The protagonists from Pride and Prejudice appear as side characters. Baker does a beautiful job of using the timeline of the original novel while keeping the servants' stories as the driver of the plot.

Second, the physical labor demanded of the servants in the initially idyllic world of Longbourn is insisted upon. This includes the servants washing out menstrual stains and chamberpots; a boy who has ridden through the night to deliver a letter to the Bennets; a footman waiting outside of a ball on a hard plank in the cold. The return of Baker's eye to the labor and suffering of those who make the upper class's lives possible is relentless. And Baker pointedly includes not just general work but work related to some of the most beloved elements of the original novel. For example, she takes aim at Elizabeth's love of long walks tromping across fields—and to readers' love of this trait in Lizzie—with the line: "If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them."

Third, Baker highlights how the emotional drama of the servants' lives is as vivid and important as that of their employers. We see a man finding a way to be homosexual in a closed society; a woman dealing with heartache and no resources to comfort herself; a young girl vulnerable to the depredations of a privileged man; and most of all, we see the servant Sarah in love and we feel the absolute necessity for this love to succeed, just as we do in Pride and Prejudice. But to the rich personal lives of the servants another layer is added: how dwelling on their personal lives and acting on their emotional needs are luxuries they can't often afford.

Finally, Baker employs a kind of historical probability to the Bennets' treatment of their servants and other matters. This feels tricky since she is now not only adding new characters to the story but creating facets of the original characters' personalities that Austen didn't intend (best case) or positively rejected (worst case). In one scene, Sarah, desperate for news of the footman James Smith, approaches Col. Forster to ask if he has heard any news of him. Col. Forster is appalled that a servant would dare to approach him and dismisses her heartlessly, dramatizing the gulf between the tremendous needs of the lower class and the upper class's refusal to extend the smallest effort to relieve them. It can be argued that this would be a normal reaction in that social world, and Austen certainly doesn't paint a completely enough portrait of Col. Forster to make it incompatible with his character in Pride and Prejudice. I don't think the same can be said of Lizzie Bennet when, as a newly married Mrs. Darcy, she is not only insecure and alienated from Darcy but unfeeling and even cruel to Sarah as a result. 

This casual cruelty of the upper classes, the refusal to give a second's thought to the harm they do to others, was poignantly rendered in E. M. Forster's Howards End. The wealthy Wilcox family is responsible for poor Leonard Bast losing his job, a loss that devastates his fortunes and his ability to provide for his pregnant companion, but the Wilcoxes reject any responsibility for their life-destroying carelessness. It's a plot line that I've always admired and a theme that is important to me. But it feels different when when an author is lassoing and distorting someone else's creation to do it. 

Bringing to light the material bases of life and the people who are indispensable to it is more than a good thing. Artists throughout history have done this, but it feels like an especially modern project, to bring everyone into focus and to unmask the full circumstances of our world. Books like Longbourn are testimony to something noble in our modern consciousness. An allegiance to the full truth and the recognition that you can't be virtuous if you don't acknowledge social injustice. That's why, on its own, I love Longbourn.

But Longbourn doesn't exist on its own. I doubt that anyone who has read it will ever be able to read of Lizzie tramping across the fields to Netherfield without thinking of those petticoats. Longbourn intrudes, possibly irreversibly, on Pride and Prejudice the way that a film adaptation intrudes on a novel. A reader can still enter the novel's world but the film always colors it just a bit. 

I admit that my own bourgeois sensibility bristles at this (I like my pretty love story and don't want the characters changed), but I think there are legitimate reasons to object. Much of literature has elements of fantasy, and I would defend this. If labor is erased from Pride and Prejudice, it is in Harry Potter as well; in fact, Harry Potter is a world where labor has been rendered completely obsolete because of magic—there can hardly be a more complete erasure than that. Perhaps ignoring labor can be a matter of focus rather than masking. Longbourn's setting in the past rather than the current day is a masking of its own. It's not, after all, the story of a London writer going about her business while children in Asian factories assemble the iPhones she uses or poor workers in India, in horribly hazardous conditions, disassemble the container ships that delivered her electronics to England. Why pick on Jane Austen and not ourselves?

In spite of Baker's dedication to realism, she creates an out for Sarah and her lover, a way to be neither servant nor master, a "third way" that is one of the great fantasies in literature. It's most evident in novels like The Lord of the Rings and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. In these novels there is almost always some class of creatures that is presented as unaligned with good or evil and only concerned with their own sovereignty. In The Lord of the Rings, it is the eagles—fiercely independent and beholden to no one. In The Golden Compass it is the Gyptians—fiercely independent and, um, beholden to no one. It's a lovely idea, that when you are trying to be good and the forces of evil are at your tail, there is someplace or some people outside the arena of conflict who will provide safe haven. In a strange way, the life that Sarah ends up living feels very much like one of these places.

Obviously, reading Longbourn was a conflicting experience. On the one hand it espouses values that are cherished to me. On the other hand it does so at the expense of someone else's labor and imagination. In interviews Jo Baker affirms her love and admiration of Pride and Prejudice, but it's hard not to read hostility into the way every character is re-formed: sympathetically for Mrs. Bennet and Lydia and not so sympathetically for Lizzie, Jane, and Mr. Bennet. Nonetheless, this is a moving, truthful novel that, if one is going to allow for stealing, manages the art of stealing beautifully.

January 29, 2019

"The Coldest Winter"


The Coldest Winter (January 20, 2017)
Lynn Weber

Snow falls outside the White House, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It’s different this year.
The dog hardly moves from his polyfill bed.
The heat pump grinds haplessly.
Layers are applied.
Doorflaps are rigged.
“If your feet are cold, put on a hat,”
my father always said. So I do.

But nothing quite buffers us from the outside,
the chill that’s made our bones brittle.

I always boasted that the cold didn’t bother me.
I loved the snow,
the trees silhouetted at twilight.
Maybe it’s the cancer, but for the first time in my life
I think of moving,
the hope of beauty frozen still by the
wicked, wicked winter of 2017.

January 17, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk


Spoilers, natch.

Barry Jenkins’ latest is a powerful art film. I specify “art film” because, at the beginning, I was put off by its lack of naturalism. The two young stars are too quiet and stare too much; they don’t come across as real people walking the streets—a complaint I have about French art dramas too, in which the characters always seem affected and unnatural. But as the movie went on, I accepted this (to my mind) flaw and a few others (did they really think inviting Fonny’s family over for an impromptu party was going to work out?) and began to feel the beauty and pathos of a remarkable movie.

If Beale Street Could Talk tells the story of two young people in the early 1970s, Fonny and Tish, who have fallen in love and are ready to start a life together when Fonny is framed for rape by a vengeful white New York cop. Soon Tish discovers that she’s pregnant, and the rest of the movie shows Tish’s attempts to clear his name as her pregnancy progresses. She’s helped by her father and mother, Joseph and Sharon, and Fonny’s young lawyer. Through their journey, Jenkins, who adapted James Baldwin’s novel into a screenplay, shows the myriad stresses that living in a racist society causes.

Jenkins has the gift of visual expression. It sounds funny to mention it because, well, it’s a film. But not every filmmaker creates the kind of meaning that Jenkins does through his imagery, nor has his subtlety. The most common visual motif is hands: hands held in love, hands separated by glass, hands grasped and released, hands employed in violence, hands used to subtly oppress, and hands used to work.



Jenkins is also partial to faces in profile and straight on. The movie is punctuated with Tish’s visits to Fonny in prison, where the camera focuses on each of their faces straight on. With each visit, Fonny’s face changes: from relative confidence, to fear, to injury, to hopelessness and cynicism. Midway through Tish visits and finds Fonny’s face pummeled with bruises. He’s clearly been beaten, but it isn’t until the end of the visit, when Fonny briefly turns in profile, that the audience can see the full of extent of his injuries, the white of his eye completely red. It felt like a razor-quick commentary on black men’s pain, the way they must present a face to the world, and how only by looking carefully, or obliquely, can the extent of their injury be glimpsed. The myriad frontal shots of characters’ faces seem designed to elevate them to portraiture as well as document their progressive emotions and challenges.




Jenkins conveys the particular misery of being oppressed in a society in which the lack of oppression is touted as its greatest virtue—true for most but not for black Americans, who are forced to live with freedom and respect tantalizingly out of reach. Fonny is a sculptor, and he and Tish are poised for a bohemian life in a warehouse district where buildings are beginning to be converted to apartments. The landlord escorts them into a wide concrete space, and he and Fonny attempt to convince Tish of its potential: Imagine the walls here, imagine the refrigerator here, imagine the neighbors who might stop by. She laughs and gives in to their enthusiasm, but for the viewer, the empty warehouse floor seems like a stand-in for America and its promise its black citizens: See how our system has such great bones, how much potential it has, see how if you just wait a little while longer, it will be livable for you, comfortable for you, home.

You get that sense also in the scenes where Fonny is working on his sculpture, chiseling away at the block of wood little by little. The pair—and everyone they know—is also sculpting their lives, stroke by stroke, day by day, fashioning happiness and meaning for themselves, trying to turn potential into reality, materiality. In the end, the studio is empty, the work arrested, by Fonny’s imprisonment.


Without a bit of preaching the film conveys how this state of oppression threatens to distort every relationship in the film and every person’s sense of self. Tish must walk a tightrope at work in an upscale department store. Her mother Sharon (played by Regina King) must find a way to present herself and argue her case in a way that might convince the rape victim to retract her identification of Fonny as her attacker. The sheer emotional toll of putting on her wig and, again, sculpting herself to be acceptable to the outside world (in this case the Puerto Rican family of the victim)— knowing that lives depend on her successful presentation—is only outweighed by the agony of her failure. (It should be noted that Jenkins’ treatment of the rape storyline is excellent. The victim’s identification of Fonny was coerced by the police, and her utter, shattering pain is given full acknowledgment and respect.)




And in one of the most poignant scenes, you see the potential of black male friendship, as Fonny runs into a friend from the old neighborhood. The scene is told in flashback (the whole movie moves forward and backward in time), and Daniel, the friend, eventually reveals that he has just been released from prison on false charges. As he talks, his face in profile, he gives Fonny a glimpse of the hell that he endured there. It’s unbearably sad, but you see the comfort these two men can provide each other, the openness and intimacy they are sharing. It’s a beautiful thing, or would be if you didn’t already know that, a short time later, the police rearrest Daniel to pressure him to recant his (honest) alibi for Fonny. We are never told what happens when the police rearrest him because Jenkins is such a smart and efficient storyteller; watching this terrible scene, we know that Daniel, under threat of being returned to prison, will not be able to resist the pressure to recant. Another relationship warped and deformed by oppression, which pits the oppressed not just against the powerful but against each other in order to survive.


If this litany of sadness seems daunting, be assured that there is beauty and joy as well. Many critics have praised the film’s portrayal of black romantic love. There is a mother’s love, a new life, a demonstration of our ability to adapt and survive, a father’s energy and agency, the protection that community can provide. These are people who, to borrow the phrase, lean in. Jenkins’ incredible talents allow us to lean in toward them too.


January 15, 2019

The Art of the PET Scan



Sitting in my oncologist's office yesterday, I was relieved to hear that while my abdominal tumor had grown, the cancer had not spread further into my system. These days I get a PET scan about every three months, and sitting in the oncologist's office while he explains the scan has become a familiar ritual. The doctor pulls it up and goes through each layer, pointing out organs, bones, and cancer.

The scan results in two images. One is of a cross-section of the body in which you can see each layer as you travel through the tissue from head to toe. Think of the body image like a loaf of bread that has been cut into thin slices. Each slice is an image of that portion of the body—cross-section of neck, cross-section of chest, cross-section of abdomen, and so on. These slices are thin and numerous, so that, put together, they allow you to travel up and down the body seeing what's there.

The other image is more like a TSA scan—a picture of the body from all sides that can be spun around 360. You see an outline of your naked form, along with a few interior objects and every fold and flap in the skin to boot. In my latest PET, you could see exactly three objects: my tumor, my heart, and my nipples (okay, four objects). It looked roughly like this:

Venus of Willendorf, by Don Hitchcock - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16414348.


Except, since I'm laying down, everything is further squashed. I guess like this:



So as the entire appointment proceeds, discussing treatment options, timing, and so on, this image is on his computer, spinning slowly and inexorably in a cruel 360, like a ballerina spinning on top of a music box. It's there in my peripheral vision as we talk surgery, growth rates, second opinions . . . turning, turning, turning.

Good times.

[Because of the issues that women generally have with body image, I am compelled to add that this bothers me not a bit. I find it hilarious, not distressing. We have got to stop feeling bad about ourselves. Fight the power, ladies!]


January 14, 2019

Achtung


Here are some things I wished I would have known before I was diagnosed with cancer:

One of the surest signs of cancer is unexplained weight loss. It needn’t be dramatic or super rapid. But if you are losing weight when you aren’t doing much different to warrant it, that is one of the biggest alarms your body will give you. I had lost about 30 pounds over the two to three years before my diagnosis. When my doctor asked if it was deliberate, I said, “Well, you know, I’m always trying to lose weight . . .” and she let it go at that. I might have even mentioned that the weight seemed to be coming off without much effort, but doctors are often too harried to really hear these faint alarms.

If you are feeling pings and pangs in what seem to be your organs (which we don’t normally feel at all), ask your doctor for a scan. It’s not normal. This was another thing I mentioned—to a different doctor with a similarly frantic schedule.

Lumps and masses are well-known later signs, but these two earlier signs are critical for early detection.

January 9, 2019

Monday's Question, Answered

How about this: Children who read Harry Potter grow up to be more tolerant, compassionate people. Science says so. 


January 7, 2019

Rings, Wands, and He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (that’s Tr*mp, not Voldemort)




At the end of the Battle of Hogwarts, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after the flashy heroics—Harry having let himself be killed (albeit with the Resurrection Stone in his pocket), Neville having killed Nagini with the great Sword of Gryffindor, Mrs. Weasley having dispatched Bellatrix Lestrange to hell—after all of those great deeds are finished and done, the greatest act of all takes place on a bridge. It is a quiet moment. Harry is there with Ron and Hermione, standing over a great chasm with the Elder Wand in his hand. The Elder Wand is the most powerful wand on earth, and Harry is its rightful owner, having taken it from Voldemort. He stares at the wand for a moment, then breaks it in half and drops it into the gorge.

The moment is remarkably similar to the climax of The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo takes the One Ring to Mount Doom to throw it in the fire and undo its power forever. In The Lord of the Rings, this act is even more central to its story than the Elder Wand’s destruction is to Harry Potter. The destruction of the One Ring is the raison d’etre of the entire three-novel series, the purpose of the hero’s journey from beginning to end. And the terrible challenge of letting it go—for both the power-hungry (or perhaps “power-desperate”) like Boromir and the pure-hearted like Frodo alike—is the central challenge and driver of the plot. While the journey may seem to be about enduring avalanches, battles, and subterranean horrors, it is actually about enduring temptation. It is about the difficult, heroic task of renunciation.

Renunciation is a tough sell in our culture. It can be unhealthy (cf. those wild-eyed, anorexic, teenage nuns of the Middle Ages, or the evangelical men enduring conversion therapy), but maybe we’ve gone overboard in renouncing renunciation. It’s the key to all moral behavior and is the basis of one of our enduring national myths (myth referring here not to a fiction but to an important, identity-building story). George Washington was revered in early America and was a military commander to boot, yet he gave up the presidency willingly, setting the example of a two-term limit that endured nearly 200 years. Interestingly, his reasons for retiring after his second term included excessive partisanship and the toll that political attacks and character assassination took on him, along with the simple desire to enjoy some leisure. But he also was wary of the corrupting influence of ambition and very much wanted to avoid the appearance of dictatorship.

This is why Tr*mp is so disturbing—he idealizes power rather than renunciation. When he attacks the press for negative coverage or federal judges for ruling against him, he is not just being indecorous in a way we have never seen from a president in our lifetime. He is assailing the very idea that there should be any obstacles to his power and believes that any denial of his wishes—irrational, whimsical, random as they may be—is an injustice unique in the annals of history. He discards the very idea that embracing limits of power is a treasured American ideal. For him the pursuit of the greatest possible power is natural, and he is not a person who believes in the restraint of natural urges.

When Tr*mp  was being briefed by a military transition team after his election, he asked “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” This is exactly what Boromir asks about the One Ring, and what Ron briefly suggests regarding the Elder Wand. In those stories, which we so love, heroic renunciation—of great powers and great weapons—by Gandalf and Galadriel, Harry and Dumbledore, prevail. So it’s a shocking development to have a president presenting so much like a Dark Lord, with his bottomless desire for worship, his casual cruelty, his dispatch of underlings who displease him, his command of vindictive throngs. One would think that the historical examples of fascism and Nazism would make these danger signs repellent to the older generation. If not—if the ideal of renunciation has lost its place in our national mythology and its seat of defense in the White House—it will be a telling test of the influence of literature to see whether the great literary mythologies of our time can rescue the younger generation from the seduction of power.


January 4, 2019

New Year, New Blog




When I first started this blog in 2012, I was determined to keep it focused on art and avoid the intrusion of the personal. Going into the second year of my cancer diagnosis, this is no longer possible. I’ve been mostly MIA from the blog in 2018 but am hoping for new energy to write this year, with whatever leeway is needed to make that happen. My interests remain the same: truthfulness, compassion, thoughtfulness, the beauty of art and nature.

Happy New Year, and I hope to see you here at the blog in 2019.


February 13, 2018

A Damn Good Prayer

From Boethius, circa 521 CE:

O Thou who bindest bonds of things
Look down on all earth’s wretchedness;
Of this great work is man so mean
A part, by Fortune to be tossed?
Lord, hold the rushing waves in check,
And with the bond thou rul’st the stars,
Make stable all the lands of earth.

November 29, 2017

Babette's Feast



Grounded by surgery, I spent Thanksgiving eating burgers and watching Babette's Feast, which I had not seen for many years. I first saw it in the 80s, during the heyday of foreign films in art houses, before their screens were taken over by the American indie wave of the 90s. Although some shots seem overly obvious now, it still has its magic.


The story is of a pair of spinster sisters in 19th-century Denmark. They live in a tiny village where their father was the leader of a small congregation. We see them in flashbacks as young women, passing by the opportunity for love in order to care for their father and his flock. Now they are old women, bringing soup to the infirm and trying to keep their increasing querulous congregation in a state of grace and harmony. One day a woman arrives on the doorstep from Paris, fleeing political persecution. She has nothing, is cold and homeless, and the sisters take her in. A note from a long ago acquaintance asks them to welcome her, mentioning that she can cook.


To say more would ruin any first viewings, but there is a feast, of course, heralded by the title, and it brings moments both comic and poignant. The movie touches on themes of loss, ascetic and self-indulgent tendencies, and the evanescence of both beauty and pain. Most of all, it offers slow art, which we are so in need of. To reap its rewards, you have to sink into the film's own rhythm and timeline—which turns out to be a lovely place to be.

November 17, 2017

How Life Informs Good Art

Today I’m watching Arrival on TV as I rest at home after surgery.

As Amy Adams’s character ascends into the alien spaceship with her protective jumpsuit on, after getting some inoculations and experiencing the ship’s weird gravity, she struggles for breath as others in her party exchange information and banter.

I find myself riveted by her drama, which is the drama of biological survival. I now know what it is like to struggle for breath and consciousness while the world carries on as normal around me. The bad feeling all through my body. The way everything else is a blur. How is takes all of my resources—attention, effort, muscle power—just to breathe. Everything else is kind of gray and fuzzy. And I recognize the way her team leader speaks to her: authoritative but kind and encouraging. How many times have I heard that precise tone from EMTs, nurses, and orderlies over the last few months.

Suffering leads to wisdom—one of the great truths of human life. Experiencing that wisdom in art feels like a little blessing.

October 22, 2017

The Mountain between Us


I'm a fan of the wilderness survival genre in film, so this movie was a must-see with Kate Winslet and Idris Elba starring. Elba plays Ben, a neurosurgeon, and Winslet plays Alex, a conflict photojournalist. Both are stranded at the top of a mountain in the Rockies when their prop plane goes down. Alex is badly hurt, Ben less so. After some back and forth, they ultimately decide that help is not on the way and they will try to go down the mountain together to look for help.

Like most of the critics, I found it to be a good movie, not a great one. The cinematography was beautiful, but the biggest surprise was the script, which went light on some of the movie cliches about a man and woman thrown together. The two were strangers at the beginning and they acted like it, polite but not chummy. They chit-chatted like you do with acquaintances, neither hostile nor overly intimate. There were no overreactions, no stupid arguments, no undermotivated blow-ups.

At first I wondered about Ben being the neurosurgeon and Alex, the woman, being the severely injured party. On the surface it looks like a repetition of an old dynamic in which the man is competent and the woman is helpless but feisty in a way that is both nonsensical and allegedly charming. But my fears were quickly dispersed. Alex is a war-hardened professional photographer and is tough in her way without being a capital-T Tough Lady. They interact like equals, and Alex ultimately gets her moment of saving Ben as well.

Most importantly the script allows Alex to be Helpless While Female. That is, her injury doesn't reek of femininity, doesn't have a gendered feel to it, and neither does his medical competence. This is tricky in the way that so many artistic decisions are in an era of sincere attempts at acceptance and equality. Is it okay for a woman to be portrayed as dependent on a man? Is it okay for a dyke-y lesbian to be the villain of a short story? Can non-gay comics joke about effeminate gay men? It's a tightrope but, in terms of the male/female dynamic, I want women to be allowed to be weak or injured or just average. One romance novel writer said that she allowed her heroines to be in need of help or healing from the male lead because, although it echoed the old damsel-in-distress trope, doing otherwise put the heroine in the position of always serving to nurse the needs of the hero.

Here's how I would put it: The film was non-gendered. You could have flipped the gender of the two leading roles without it feeling off. And that's a rare experience in the movies.

October 7, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi



It's impossible for me to write about this memoir as anything but a person with cancer. Paul Kalanithi was a talented neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties and died two years after diagnosis. In the last year of his life he wrote this memoir. He's a good writer, but for me the value of his book is in those moments of recognition along the cancer journey.

The state of mind that Kalanithi tries to convey is the one that has dominated my own mind since I was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer earlier this year: confusion. It's hard to even relate what the confusion is—it's that confusing. There is nothing new, in a way. None of us know how long we will live. All of us know that we are way behind the eight ball in achieving our dreams.

But the imminence and certainty of death throws everything into disarray. Nearly every day brings an image or idea that I have to immediately backpedal on: "I guess I'll never . . . "  get to Paris, write my book, start a career in graphic design, hike the Appalachian Trail. But that's just the beginning. There's also:  learn Photoshop, repaint the bedroom, know what it's like to live without financial worry, build library shelves, live in the country on a lake, own a little motor boat, lose weight, sit on the porch with my husband in our quiet years drinking tea and reading poetry to each other, be there for my beloved dog when he dies.

Not knowing if you have six months, two years, or six years is disorienting. Kalanithi knew how he would spend each of those time budgets: six months—quit work and spend all his time with his family; two years—write his book; six years—continue pursuing his career dream of running a neurosurgery and research center. The uncertainty manifested in him—and in me—in a reverse five stages of grief: acceptance, depression, bargaining, anger, and denial. I found this extraordinary to read about since I had this exact same thought. My first stage was utter acceptance: I'm going to die, and soon. Then depression at that fact. Then a sort of bargaining, I suppose, though perhaps not the one Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described; more of a bargaining with myself than with God or life. How much do I need to give meaning to the time I have left? Do I devote my time to fighting for the kind of world I believe in? To spending time with friends and family? To plowing through all the pleasures I'd hoped to spend my later years enjoying, from Tolstoy to Tarantino? Or is it acceptable to just sit in my recliner and play Candy Crush? I mean, who really cares, other than me, and do I really care? However I spend the days, they will be spent.

I can't quite relate to the anger stage, though that may come. But I found myself recently in the denial phase that Kalanithi described so well. After about a year of treatment, Kalanithi had a CT scan that revealed beautifully clear lungs. The mottled scan of his early diagnosis was gone, and he was looking at something that looked very much like remission and hope. He started doing surgery again. He went on an interview for his dream job. He started thinking about the future. But his next scan was catastrophic. The mottled scan and the clear scan were now replaced with a scan of a monolithic tumor that took up half his lung. I related so well to this. I'd seen my blood markers fall from 1150 to 38, the latter number well within the under-50 normal reading. I began to think that this was an illness, like the flu. Something to get through. Kind of no big deal. I suppose it may still turn out to be that, but I'm not counting on it. A new tingling in my fingers or the caginess of a doctor's response and the knowledge of reversals keeps me aware.

Kalanithi comes to some conclusions about how to give meaning to his life in these tragic circumstances. For me, however, the greatest value of his testament is how he documents the disorienting difficulty of that when the very bedrock of meaning—time and future—are removed from the equation.



July 23, 2017

"The Past Is a Devourer"

"The Past Is a Devourer"
 Lynn Weber

I can still feel the album cover in my hands
the smooth thin cardboard
the vinyl inside not yet embossing its surface
the tall, thin man-child with his flowing blond hair
his beauty, his high cut cheekbones
He's an old man now, bald with a round puffy face
Like mine
I see him online, a grandfather, his magic vanished
like the vanished romance of life altogether
So little thrills me now—a geysir, my namesake's girlish ponytail,
my nephew's height and happiness
Even the mountains of Alaska seemed to pass me by
as I sat on the deck, squinting at their grandeur

I want to throw myself on a clifftop in Iceland
exposed to the stars and the dark and the night
and all those beautiful words and things
till I'm crushed, destroyed, decimated
like a crying newborn, red in the face, starting over.

July 8, 2017

Audiobook Recommendations

Here is the list of recommendations for good audiobooks from my friend Debbie Justice.

Deb, when exposed to bad writing

Debbie listens to a lot of audiobooks (she's a marathon runner), and she is also the best writer that I know. Even a seemingly plain request like “Send me your favorite audiobooks” results in a mini-masterpiece like the following:

Books Both Well-Written and Well-Produced Audiobook-wise: In No Particular Order

all Tana French Dublin Murder Squad books

Forward, Abby Wambach’s memoir

Wild, Cheryl Strayed—THO: a cancer tragedy features, so avoid if this will eff with your peace of mind.

all Malcolm Gladwell—He's right up there with Ta-Nehisi and Barack in amazing self-narration.

As You Wish, Cary Elwes’s delightful recollections of filming The Princess Bride

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Shrill, Lindy West’s memoir—hilarious and smarty-pants. Best combo.
anything narrated by Anna Bentinck, especially the production of Jane Eyre she did

Born to Run, Christopher McDougall—not just for runners! A seriously fascinating story.
all David Sedaris

Orange Is the New Black, Piper Kerman (I was so impressed with this voice actor)

Love, Nina, Nina Stibbe—next-level funny; this would be my first pick for you.

The Real Jane Austen, Paula Byrne—catnip history of our girl's life, times, and cultural milieux

Crocodile on the Sandbank Elizabeth Peters—tho u will have to navigate some effed-up racism that was sadly invisible in 1980-whatever to this otherwise forward-thinking author.

Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand—Dude. This story. This guy. I mean.

The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama—Worth it cuz he narrates it.

all the Harry Potter books—seriously, Jim Dale's narration is a revelation. He brings something completely separately masterful to this amazing series.

anything else narrated by Jim Dale

Ruth Ware’s thrillers—excellently narrated, which could possibly get you over the this-book-is-annoying-me hump; my theory is that I liked them so much more than you did because I listened to them on audiobook.

same with the Sonali Dev romances; I was really taken with the voice actor’s skill.

same w Paula Hawkins's thrillers—possibly awesomer to me than to u bec. = audio.

Sunshine, Robin McKinley—excellent sci-fi/fantasy w hot vampire, written long before Edward Cullen was a twinkle in his father's eye. U will crave cinnamon rolls I’d u listen so #Beware.

Big History, David Christian—about thirty-ish hours of Damn, Son!-level macro history; SOWORTHIT. Became famous after Bill Gates mentioned in an interview that he was making his way thru the series and was riveted. SOGOOD.

I have listened to maybe two different Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (the inimitable Dorothy L. Sayers), by different publishers, and both productions were quality; so, worth considering; if you're not interested in the whole series, I'd say to read the ones that feature Harriet Vane (Strong Poison, then, I think, Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon).

Books I Loved but Have Only Ever Read: Yet Still I Think You Should Try Audiobooking/Good Luck

Troublemaker, Leah Remini—I read this and loved it, but I can only imagine Leah’s reading of it will be superb

the Mary Russell books by Laurie R. King—Wonderful reimagining of Sherlock Holmes’s world, plus competent feminism infusion. A delight.

Amy Poehler’s and Tina Fey’s memoirs—these have to be super well-narrated, right?

all Kinsale—she hired a legit actor and is a control freak, so these have to be pretty good productions, right?

Open, Andre Agassi—either still, bemulleted waters run deep or this is the best ghost writer in the business. Either way, impressive if you were conscious during The Age of Acid-Washing.

The Writing Class, Jincy Willet—I was belly laughing; I just hope there's somewhere an audiobook production worthy of this book.

the Reverend Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mysteries by Julia Spencer Fleming—excellent books, alternating between cold-weather and hot-weather mysteries (finally an author with a brain who recognizes the importance of body temperature as it relates to murder mystery enjoyment!!!)

Morning Glory, LaVyrle Spencer—Oh, I hope they found a good voice actor. Yearning. Heart-breaky. Poemical. Sadly, think this is a one-off coup for Spencer; I have been trying for about three-ish years to get through another of her titles, which is hoooooorribly dated/sexist/awful/blech.

Sweet Everlasting, Patricia Gaffney—Exact same as above (except for all I know her other stuff # awesomesauce. Haven’t read anything else.)

Try the Leo Demidov books by Tom Rob Smith; solid Soviet-era thrillers.

Endurance, Alfred Lancing—Of a piece with Unbreakable; astounding stories of the triumph of the human spirit and blah-blah-blah except for really.

Consider revisiting any Sittenfeld! Of course, my favorite of hers is Prep.

The John Carlisle and Lise Delorme thrillers by Giles Blunt were quite captivating on the page; I think I read maybe the first two point five? Cold weather all, if I recall.

Worth Mentioning

The Gillian Flynn thrillers are likely super well-produced, right? I was really mad at how Gone Girl ended, but I still bet the rest are worth checking out.

I kind of a little bit suspect that in real life Mindy Kaling is petty, superficial, self-servingish, and Republican? But she narrates her memoirs well enough and has some fun celebrity dish.

I wonder if the Fever sci-fi/fantasy series—Karen Marie Moning—would be awesome in audiobook; I found the reading frustrating, but they have a rabid following, and maybe excellent voice acting is what's needed to bridge the persnickety reader divide; in any case, worth trying the first one as a litmus test.

Ooh! Do you think they let Carrie Fisher narrate her own books??

Podcasts that Will Make Your Life a Better Place to Live

Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is like a master’s lit seminar led by your most-ever compassionate, clever, smarty-pants friends; listen in order. They recap every chapter under discussion at the top of each episode, so no need to reread beforehand if you don’t want to. I went to a live recording of one of their Book 3 chapters last month! It was awesome.

Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell; if you love his books, you’ll love his podcast, tho he’s definitely saltier/judgier here (which is a delight and all oh-girl-no-he-di’int when I agree with him, which is often, because he’s very convincing).

Nancy—funny LGBTQ-celebratory series with heart

This American Life—Ira Glass and his team always manage to tell a great story; plus, HIS BALMER ACCENT THO

Radio Lab—same (except for accent thing)

Radio Lab Presents: More Perfect—spin-off series deep-diving into SCOTUS.

Mystery Show hasn’t posted anything since 2015, but the lone season that stands is a delightful and absurdist exploration of little, rando mysteries (like, for example, How tall is Jake Gyllenhal really? A deep-dive into a roiling Internet conspiracy theory; With a cameo by the actor himself), by one of the producers at This American Life.

If you haven’t listened to season 1 of Serial yet (Baltimore teen murdered; ex-boyfriend is in provision for it; but did he really do it?), you haven't lived. Season 2 (How the hell did it go down wi Bowe Bergdahl?) is pretty good, too. This show is what made podcast a word-thing. Another TAL producer.

Code Switch is a brief, thoughtful, weekly look at a story concerning people of color; NPR produced.

The NPR Politics Podcast team has garnered a pretty damned devoted fan base since their RNC/DNC coverage last summer; they are like THEBEST dinner party w your smartest, informedest, considerate-est, dad-jokest friends ever. I love them. They made my first post-Trump foray into news not scary. Well, less scary.

Podcasts I Will Be All the Hell Over When They Finally Drop

Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel—famed psychologist SOMEHOW GETS HER THERAPY PATIENTS TO CONSENT TO RECORDING THEIR REAL SESSIONS. I listened to an intro episode This American Life presented this past spring and was riveted. Episodes to be released in October. I think she maybe specializes in working with couples trying to heal after an infidelity?

Worth Mentioning

Revolutions is just some amateur history buff self-nollijing like crazy on history's most notorious revolutions and Cliff’s Notesing them for us over the course of multiple episodes; I listened to maybe the first couple (starting to cover the English civil wars/House of Stuart/Commonwealth) and plan to one day get back to it. This reminded me of your Great Books: A Linear History reading project.

And Consider

. . . nerding out on the Hamilton cast recording. Almost the entire show is sung, so you can get virtually the entire plot line by carefully listening. I enjoyed my first go-through, began to pick it apart in my second, and was well nigh on my way to rabidity by my third. If you enjoy it and wish to further nerd out, Lin-Manuel Miranda has published a history of the making of the musical, under the same name, ably narrated by Mariska Hargitay, and the Ron Chernow History on which the musical is based is also available on audiobook (and on my holds list at my local library).

This should get you started.

July 3, 2017

The Joshua Tree, U2



I played his album obsessively when it came out in 1987. I listened to it recently for the first time in probably 25 years, and I love it even more. It's complex and poetic—my favorite combination in music.

The last song on the album, "Mothers of the Disappeared," has always been a favorite. It refers to the group of mothers and grandmothers who started protesting daily in front of Argentina's Casa Rosada, the presidential residence, to find out what happened to their sons and daughters who were "disappeared" during Argentina's "Dirty War" in the 1980s. During this time, the military government would come for young people who opposed the regime and they would never be heard from again. Much later we learned that some had been tortured and killed, some dropped from airplanes, young pregnant women kept alive until they gave birth—blindfolded and in silence—and their babies taken away from them. Two good movies about this time period and the aftermath are The Official Story and Captive (Cautiva).

Here are Bono's lyrics to "Mothers of the Disappeared":

Midnight, our sons and daughters
Were cut down and taken from us.
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat.

In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears.
Hear their heartbeat, we hear their heartbeat.

Night hangs like a prisoner
Stretched over black and blue.
Hear their heartbeats
We hear their heartbeats.

In the trees our sons stand naked
Through the walls our daughters cry
See their tears in the rainfall.

We live in a political moment when right and wrong, compassion and justice, are openly dismissed as immaterial, risible at best and tyrannical at worst. Since the 1960s liberals have incessantly demanded we right our wrongs—to pay attention to race, the environment, the effects of our foreign policies, to the poor. 2016 felt like a revolt against the psychological pressure that this moral responsibility was exerting, and those who have revolted are glorying in their freedom. How nice to be able to boast about one's whiteness, to dismiss responsibility for the suffering, to be cruel and not feel ashamed of it; this, for some, is a liberating state.

The revolting right wing fancies itself strong and daring, the new punk, the heirs to Howard Roark and John Galt. But it's just weakness, being unable to tolerate the discomfort that conscience and knowledge bring.

Taking care of each other is all that we are here for. Those young people in Argentina had lives, parents who loved them, dreams, and something really terrible happened to them. The experience and memory of suffering are sacred. This song . . . this is what we are supposed to be.




June 18, 2017

"Life with a Candle," by Hiram Larew


Photo by Lynn Weber

I discovered the poetry of Hiram Larew at the recent launch party for the Summer 2017 issue of the Little Patuxent Review. Among others, he read this poem, "Life with a Candle," which I found extraordinary for its ability to convey the wonder and depth of feeling that we sometimes feel in nature. This is a very time-worn theme in poetry, so the fact that he could summon the actual feeling anew is an achievement.

Equally poignant is the theme of longing:
Before there were hills
Or even eyes to up over
There was a distance beyond us
A long far away that can never be near
No matter how fortunate we are, how much we have, what we dreams we have seen realized, there's is always, always, a longing for something—eternity, perfection, childhood, a place, a time, some expression or experience of the fullness of love—that remains, a sore spot in our soul that can flare up when poked.

When you read it, aloud or in your mind's voice, go slowly, like Larew did when he read it.

LIFE WITH A CANDLE
Hiram Larew

I want to marry this field
Truly and simply
With its wings curving the corners
And its smoothness stunning my knees
My heart is here far around me
And there’s humming and leaning—
Even the trifling breeze

I want this field for my living
To vow to its edges
That nothing comes true
Without greening
Nothing seems bold as my longings
Except sloping
Nothing wakes on my shoulder
But rustling
I hope the strangest hopes in this field
Ever bending

From here
I know that this much of my all is clear—
Before there were hills
Or even eyes to up over
There was a distance beyond us
A long far away that can never be near
There was wishing

I want to carry this field
In my arms
By its being and dust
To a maybe that’s certain
So that our future flickers on grasses
And our children wave from the clouds.

June 17, 2017

Legacy: Alice Porter Schafer Weber

Here she is, my mother as a young woman, passed away eleven years ago today:



Here is one of the things I most admired about my mom: She was very traditional, in all the right ways. We had dinner together every night, made from scratch—a meat, a vegetable, and a starch, and usually a dessert, even if it was just canned pears on a piece of lettuce with some cheddar shredded on top. We said prayers on our knees by our bed every night. There was no swearing in our house. We went to church every Sunday. She taught us to be polite and friendly. She was the straightest of arrows.


She was also a feminist. She hated that her friend, age 50, had to ride her bike to work every day, even in cold and snow, because the husband wouldn't "allow" them to buy a car for her. (Needless to say, he did not bike to work.) She hated how women were treated around the world. One of my favorite stories from her college days at University of Maryland was when  she and a friend, walking across campus, were gestured to by a man in a car. My mom said, "I'm not going over there. He doesn't have any business with us." But her friend couldn't resist the social pressure of ignoring him, so she went to the car—where he exposed himself. She had backbone, agency, and self-respect. She always said that if she won the lottery, her dream for the money would be to start a foundation to help women develop self-esteem.

For her, there was no contradiction between being traditional and being modern, in being a feminist and a homemaker, a professional (nurse, in her case) and a family-first mother. Values were values. She embraced the new ones without rejecting the traditional ones that had true worth.

In her honor, my sisters and I created a group called Team Alice with the charitable organization Kiva. Kiva makes micro-loans to people all over the world to help them pursue their potential and become self-sufficient. Even $25 can go a long way for someone in Bolivia or Pakistan. And when the loan is repaid, you can lend the money out again, blessing person after person with the same initial investment.

If you are interested in supporting women in this way, please go to the Team Alice page on Kiva.com to learn more:

https://www.kiva.org/team/team_alice



May 23, 2017

Falling on Black Days


Photo by Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely


Viktor Frankl lived the darkest of black days, stubbornly refusing to die in Auschwitz and helping others whenever he could. He expressed his formula for life in the concentration camp—and anywhere else, for that matter—like this:






May 19, 2017

Water on the Rock, Boughs Shaken on a Tree



Suicide is nearly incomprehensible. Wanting to end pain, whether psychic or physical—and they both can feel unbearable—we understand. Putting your loved ones in that hurt locker like no other . . . we can't.

Chris Cornell was the last celebrity I would have expected to kill himself. He had talent, a creative life, and a family he was very close to. Like Eddie Vedder, he seemed to have emerged into a mid-life that was healthy and happy while still being a compelling artist.

We don't know what was going on with him leading up to his death, and it's possible that his death was the result of a prescription drug related state rather than a truly deliberate suicide. But two artists have helped me make sense of at least the idea of suicide this week.

One is the singer-songwriter Sara Groves, who wrote a song about addiction called "On Your Mark." (Listen to the song here.) These are the lyrics that struck me:

Days they turn into lifetimes
Water it drips on a rock
What could be stronger in time
Than our fears and our thoughts

Soft water wearing down hard rock is a well-used analogy, for good reason. The relentless pressure of bad thoughts can wear down even the strongest rocks of our lives: love, children, hope, reason, even the fun and thrills and small delights that light up existence. This is the power of time.

The other artist is John Knowles, who wrote the high school curriculum classic A Separate Peace. If you haven't read this short novel, you may want to skip the rest. In the novel, the teenage protagonist makes a split-second decision that has terrible repercussions. Simmering with resentment at the annoying good fortune and charm of his best friend, he has an impulse to shake the bough of a tree that his friend is perched on. This friend, this golden boy, falls to the ground and breaks his back.

The frailty of the human body has always seemed one of the best arguments against intelligent design. Who would design a body that, if deprived of air for a minute or two, expires? That can be destroyed by a passing accident? Bill Cosby described how, when he was a child, his older brother died and he stood by the coffin thinking, "Just get up." It seemed crazy that his brother's death was irreversible. It just takes a second to alter everything. This is the power of the moment.

Suicide is the lethal collision of the power of time and the power of the moment. The wearing down of the mind—whose attachment to family and the prospect of happiness normally keep us bolted to life—weakens us so that our momentary bad judgment becomes irreversible.

A man who survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge spoke with NPR about the experience. He was, of course, depressed and suicidal. But, he said, the moment he jumped, he instantly regretted it. He knew immediately that it was a terrible mistake. He miraculously survived, but for most, immediately is just not quick enough.

May 18, 2017

Chris Cornell




"Times are gone for honest men
 and sometimes far too long for snakes"

May 4, 2017

The Virtue of Cheerfulness

Let me introduce you to someone. This is my father:



He has some faults, like all of us. Some that have annoyed me quite a bit over the years. But it is only recently that I have realized that his seemingly innate cheerfulness is not just a personality feature (one that I, sadly, do not have). It is a virtue. A moral virtue.

The day after the 2016 presidential election, I was inadvertently exposed to the official meeting between Barack Obama and the putative winner of the election. The election of an amoral fraud and narcissist was devastating to me, and the fact that Obama would have to shake his hand and make nice . . . it made me ill. Still, I watched the clip, dreading what I would see.

What I saw was so improbable: Barack Obama looking as chipper as ever, conducting himself with grace and self-possession. And as I watched him, I felt something I didn't expect: a lightening of my heart. I hadn't realized till then how fearful I was of the devastation that Obama must have felt. Nor how critically important his lack of devastation would be.

In the months following the disastrous political travesty of Trump's election, I have mostly been depressed—and kind of militantly so. My war-weary liberal friends would post on Facebook with a forced tenacity that we couldn't crumple, that there were people in the world who needed us to be fierce and fight for them. I was all, Eff that—I'm crumpling. Something terrible has just happened. Can't we take a minute and mourn it?

But then I think of Barack Obama on November 9 in the White House with Trump, looking confident and unruffled. And I think of Hillary Clinton on November 9, hiking in New York and looking chill and happy with a supporter she met on the trail. And I think of my father at 90 years of age, battling sciatica and still ending each phone call with "Call me if you need me!" And I think of the doctor's office I visited today after getting lost and arriving late, and how nice and upbeat the staff was, such a balm on a difficult day. I thought of my own guilt as I've crawled inside my sadness for weeks on end, and my husband who still always has a smile and a sympathetic ear, no matter how high up the laundry piles and how many times a night he has to listen to me sigh like a martyr.

Cheerfulness is powerful because it lifts people's spirits. And when their spirits are raised, people feel like they can fight another day. Cheerfulness puts a mosquito net around our own pains and tries, as much as is practical and healthy, to protect those around us from being stung a hundred times a day by our misery. Cheerfulness acknowledges that the world is more than us, that whatever we're feeling and going through, others have their own worries and cares and joys and jobs to do.

I'm not good at cheerfulness. And I'm cognizant of the way a melancholy temperament can free people to be open about their own sadness, to let down their guard, to feel like they don't have to be striving and winning every damn second of the day. But I appreciate cheerfulness, the expression of a resilient spirit that rallies us to change.

March 2, 2017

Hometown Boy: John Rawls


No, this is not John Rawls:



The foremost political philosopher of the twentieth century was born right here in Baltimore in 1921. John Rawls' philosophy is especially relevant in these times when so many government policies that were enacted to promote fairness and the common good are under attack.

Rawls said that we should decide upon what kind of society we want in the following way: Imagine yourself in a room with other people tasked with making up the rules and format of society. You are all under a "veil of ignorance," however: You know nothing about your identities—male or female, black or white, rich or poor, handicapped or not, brilliant or slow-minded. How would you then want society to work? Rawls called this the original position.

Rawls also endorsed the difference principle, which would ensure that (quoted from Wikipedia) "those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances and that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged."

People like Trump and his supporters believe, among other things, that government should spend the least money possible on public projects—essentially enough military spending to ensure our supremacy and not much else. Nearly everything else—from public beautification to potable water—should be cut so taxes remain extremely low. While this proposition is often defended on principles of frugality and freedom, here is what it would really do: turn the United States into a Third World country.

Third World countries are not defined by poverty; there is plenty of money in those countries. They are defined by inequality and the privatization of the common good. In Third World countries, a small sliver of the population has the wealth to provide for themselves the goods and services that First World countries' governments provide for all: security, infrastructure, safe food and water, beauty, nature. The wealthy have houses that are fortresses, with security systems and guards. They buy safe water. They fund roads that they themselves need. They go on vacation and hold land. They fly to Europe or the United States for medical treatment. The rest of society is left to fend for themselves. The roads are dilapidated, the communities filthy, the food and water of poor quality, the health care very basic.

The Republican hegemony in government right now is cutting school lunches while paying for Trump to maintain three "White Houses"—New York, Mar-a-Lago, and the real one. They are killing off the EPA (and planning on axing employees) while arranging additional tax breaks for the rich. The problem with our country isn't that we don't have money; it's that we have ceased to care about the common good. 

Looked at this way, there are multiple reasons, even for the rich, to expand the public sector:

First, it means that, in the long run, your children will inherit a First World country rather than a Third World country. They will live in a variant of Switzerland or France rather than a variant of Nigeria or Bangladesh.

Second, it passes the veil of ignorance test. If, right now, you had to enter a lottery in which there was a ticket for every person in the United States showing their exact history, education, physical condition, and level of wealth or poverty—if in essence your life were randomly switched with another US resident—how then would you want society to function? You might end up as a middle-class person in Ohio; a wealthy Texas oil man; a white construction worker with chronic health problems; or poor black man in prison. Informed of the odds, knowing your likelihood of being assigned any of these lives, would you vote for more tax breaks for the rich, or would you vote for universal health care, green spaces in cities, school lunches, and prison reform?

Of course, you would have to know what life is like for other people. This is something many well-off people resist knowing. Studies show that wealthy people who live far away from struggling people tend to contribute to charities geared toward arts and higher education, whereas wealthy people who live close to poor communities contribute to food banks and housing and the like. There may be self-interest involved, but they may also simply be more familiar with the struggles of poor people.

Third, expanding the public sector means we are honest about something: our circumstances may change. The "life lottery" described above isn't simply a thought experiment—it's a real risk. The stock market could crash, we could develop a debilitating illness, natural disaster could destroy our homes, a cyberattack could debilitate our economy. We may individually fall, or a chunk of the comfortable class we feel securely part of could be sheared off like a glacier calving.

A small, unlikely image may best convey this reality: the handicap-accessible crosswalk.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 as a type of overarching legislation guaranteeing rights and protections, much like the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Among its provisions was that public services and spaces must be made accessible to those with disabilities (within reasonable limits). There was some hue and cry about the cost and "pampering" people—conservatives' eternal complaint when it comes to anyone but themselves—but the law was passed and accessible crosswalks and entrances became the norm.

It was when I worked for a publisher specializing in disability issues that I first ran across this truth: nearly all of us will at some time be disabled. We will break a leg or be recovering from surgery. We will walk with groceries in one hand and steer a baby stroller with another. We will walk alongside an elderly relative in a wheelchair. We will ourselves become that elderly relative.

This is the upside of the common good. We may pursue it because of our moral obligation to care for others. But we are part of the commons ourselves. Behind the veil of ignorance, we may allow for inequality: not everyone has to be a millionaire. But we would surely choose for a baseline quality of life for all.