Sunday, December 28, 2008

Welcome to a New Human

Image courtesy of Jack's proud daddy
Here's Baby Jackson Rendleman, born the day after Christmas to Eliot Rendleman and McKenna Rose -- a dad and mom who are sure to be wonderful parents to this new little human. He's getting treatment for some initial jaundice -- not uncommon for little guys. Or wait, could this REALLY be him in his space ship, just before arriving from outer space to save us all?

Monday, December 22, 2008

From Ted to Tonga

It's beginning to creep me out how many of my blog entries start with, well, the aging body and its ailments. One hopes the writing doesn't stop there -- one hopes this seemingly inevitably burgeoning body of material (so to speak) will lead, like all decent material, to other considerations, deeper understanding, connections to others, and humor (okay, wry, dark and absurd).

Well, here's another one. It starts with Ted's colonoscopy last week and takes me back 32 years to Tonga. It turns out this potent life experience of mine, that intense two years in the South Pacific, is not so far in the past after all.

I was sitting in the endoscopy waiting room at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, waiting for my husband to wake up after his procedure. I'd already had the pleasure of regreeting our ace colonoscopy doc, Oren Zaidel, who came out and cheerfully said, "It's nice to see you on this end of things!" Must be hard saying anything that's not a double entendre in his business, but who doesn't need a chuckle when skimpy smocks, exposed derrieres and long tubes are the order of the day? Anyway, Dr. Zaidel said my beloved had done a fine job of cleaning himself out (this is the kind of thing that gives us oldsters a renewed burst of self-esteem). He said Ted had one mere polyp and was blissfully sleeping off the blessed dose of demerol.

I settled back to read my New Yorker and check out the others in the room: a sweet, fretful silver-haired lady , whose befuddled husband was being admitted after his test, a trio of 30-somethings waiting out their father's procedure -- they looked upwardly mobile and were chatting alternately in Spanish and English -- a bilingual virtuosity I greatly envy. And then there was another couple -- a honey-skinned, stocky duo, a man and woman who looked to be in their 40s. I wasn't paying much attention until I started recognizing a word here and there: "Io." "Ikai." "Mahalo," "Oiaue," I once knew that vocabulary well: it was a language I once adored for its delightful blend of consonants and sliding, sensual vowels. They were speaking Tongan.

In Michigan there aren't many Tongans -- and I hadn't heard the language spoken by a native for years. At first I simply sat back quietly and took it in, my memory rushing back to 1976, when I first landed in the overwhelmingly exotic and noisy Kingdom and tried to make sense of the language while surrounded by it. It was an exciting, infuriating and deeply satisfying time. Finally I couldn't resist.

"You're Tongan!" I said. They looked up mildly and said yes. I quickly spilled out a bunch of commentary -- how I had been a Peace Corps volunteer long, long ago, and how I loved the language though I'd forgotten it all, how I was deeply changed by my two years in their country, how I met my husband there, how I still dream about it from time to time, blah blah blah.

I am such an American, always talking, always talking about myself.

The two sat quietly, smiling. They said they had left Tonga after high school, 17 years ago, and had never been back. They said yes, they'd heard about the riots and fires in Nuku'alofa, the capital city, two years ago. They said they liked the U.S. better because, the man said, after all, Tonga is just a little island and there isn't any opportunity. Eventually they told me they were Mormons -- not a surprise, considering the long-standing influence of Mormons in the Kingdom.

I continued my Yankee gushing. I said how much I loved the Tongan proverbs, and managed to spit out two of my favorites: Longolongo pusi kai moa (It's the quiet cat that eats the chicken) and Kai lu fa ihe tu'unga u -- Eating the "lu" (a Tongan delicacy, a sort of coconut and taro leaf tamale) found by surprise in the pit after the feast. That last one stands for serendipity and plucky hope to me -- you never would have guessed there'd be anything left in that pit, but you looked anyway and eureka! Food!

The woman smiled again at my probably awkward pronunciation and repeated both proverbs. She and the man exchanged a few phrases in Tongan. Then I babbled what a beautiful country they came from: how I'd gone up to Vava'u, one of the northern island groups, and loved it. How I'd hitched a ride on a boat to the islands of Kao and Tofua. They admitted they had never been to Vava'u themselves -- nor Kao or Tofua -- that they stayed close to home on the main island of Tongatapu.

Then, in a classic Peace Corps conversation, the woman and I determined that we had lived within blocks of each other, and that she not only knew my Tongan father, Sione 'Osamu, but vividly remembered him and his kids in Ma'ufanga, the neighborhood where I lived. I mentioned the crotchety grandfather, Pasikala (Bicycle). When I said "Man, that guy didn't like Americans much," the woman said "Don't worry -- Pasikala didn't like anybody."

I explained my husband and I had met on New Year's Eve in 1976 at the King's palace, and the two murmured pleasantly. Then I remembered I had a bunch of Tongan kava music on the very laptop I was toting, and within a minute I had opened iTunes and had the sweet sounds of Tonga filtering into the overly warm little room.

"See?" I said. "See how much your country still stays with me?"

The man and woman continued smiling, and in the Tongan way, maintained a dignified reserve, declining comment -- never volunteering their names or many details about themselves. Certainly I would not press: that would be rude. I began to feel like a big floppy dog, so happy to be talking about Tonga, but after all a little bit embarrassing. But one never knows. I hope they found my interest entertaining, at least. Who knows what they think about their little South Pacific homeland? Who knows what they think about Peace Corps? Who knows why they have never gone back, or how hard their life in LA might be? Who knows if they've experienced racism or poverty? A whole vast set of possibilities remained unsaid, and an old, familiar Peace Corps guilt crept in. I remember how one of my Tongan colleagues used to make fun of the U.S. volunteers -- noting that all we wanted was a little hut and a black British bicycle -- naively ignorant of how VERY dissatisfying those minimal expectations were to the Tongans themselves, who wanted concrete block houses, big cars and, in many cases, an escape route out of there.

Eventually somebody came and told me Ted was ready to go, and when I said, "mo nofo a, eh?" (you two stay, right?) the two smiled even more broadly and said, "she remembers" and answered "alu a, eh?" (You're going, then?) and then there was Ted, upright and only a little discombobulated, and we went out into the rainy LA afternoon in a present that was rich with the past.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"What is left is undetermined but I'll do fine"

First day off the Levaquin, and I'm hopeful I might get a night's sleep. I feel fairly "normal" tonight -- grateful I'm off the drug that seemed to hit my body hard. I have felt old and creaky and dispirited. In the meantime, I am off all dairy foods, have lost about seven pounds (which I needed to lose) and have been reminded yet again of the fragility of the body.

Classes are over and I'm almost done grading, so this blessed evening is proceeding with the glow of leisure that I haven't been able to afford for weeks -- months. The cats have been especially affectionate, Joey II particularly, with a loud purr as he settles into my lap. I'm watching "I Am Legend" except for the bad parts when I have to look away, walk away (and now I'm putting it on mute altogether, and the caption says "ominous music playing," a measure of serenity being the goal of the evening.)

And speaking of a return to innocence, earlier today, I actually finished reading a novel, the first one in ages I've had time to read -- Jim Harrison's The English Major. While there's something a bit lightweight in his easygoing prose and ambling narratives, this story about a depressed 60-year-old Michigan guy, a farmer and one-time high school teacher who travels from state to state after his wife dumps him, well, it was just what I was in the mood for. Harrison's vitality and love of life's sensual pleasures -- the good food, the good wine, the de rigueur humorous Harrison sexuality (his guy Cliff clearly is a "butt man" in this novel) -- make for enjoyable reading on a winter Saturday. I think it's interesting his protagonist is essentially a naif, yet manages to eat and drink very well thanks to his gay son, go-getter realtor ex and boozed up physician friend A.D. Yep, this is what every 21st Century English major needs -- lord knows the "free market" ain't coming through. Good Read

After his car dies -- conveniently after he arrives at his son's lavish accommodations -- the boy signs over an SUV, with Onstar and everything, for the rest of the journey. And his ex, who'd left him for Fred, a gold-digger they'd re-met at their high school reunion, eventually sets him up with a property that once belonged to his grandfather. He's a Luddite -- flushing a cell phone down the toilet in one satisfying scene -- and aches for a return to Eden.

And he gets it -- is given it -- not by striving, but by his ex-wife's potty-mouthed pragmatism. Does she still kind of like him, and his Emerson- and Rilke-quoting ways? Once resettled, he goes back to work on his big creative project: renaming the states and the birds of North America. (For the record, Michigan is Potawatomi, California is Chumash, and Ohio is Wyandot. The brown thrush becomes the "beige dolorosa," which I really like, and the robin is renamed "Rubens"). this the Baby Boomer man today -- his "noodle" still frisky and his expectations scaled down to a good dog, a good meal, a twiddly-wink bit of whimsical work, and some lucky tenderness? It's a gentle tale, and it's nice when a story ends with "This won't be a bad life, I thought happily. What there is left of it is undetermined but I'll do fine."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Up Early

So, what are the benefits of sleeplessness? I've been up since about 5:30 a.m. -- and I'm NOT a morning person -- probably the side effect of the powerful antibiotic, Levaquin, I've been on for the past nine days. It's clearing up my two-month-long sinus infection, but has its cost. I'm grateful for this drug but really wouldn't mind a decent night's sleep. Before Levaquin, I'd also been having trouble sleeping, as I've amply noted here, partly due to recurring congestion and trouble breathing, and now I'm at least getting through the whole night (or whatever part of it I'm asleep) without producing a damp mountain of kleenex at my bedside. (The kind with Vicks and lotion is my favorite -- addictive comfort.)

In the meantime, is anybody else finding it almost impossible to listen to the news these days? Just a few of the items barraging the airwaves: more elephants being slaughtered for ivory, the Tribune Company filing for bankruptcy, the Baltimore Opera going bankrupt, a fiery jet crash killing three in San Diego, worsening strife in Zimbabwe as a cholera outbreak kills hundreds, workers sitting in at their factory at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, the housing crisis hitting hard in Nevada, the auto bailout triggering hours of hot air, jobless numbers abysmal, and snow and sleet predicted -- again -- for my neighborhood this bleak December day.

I find myself simply turning off the stream. Stepping out of the river. Clicked off the TV last night during the elephant segment: I couldn't stand one more second of the horror of the piles of immense, brutalized bodies. Turned off NPR during the Zimbabwe report, even though Jimmy Carter's voice -- the true Christian, one of an international group of peacemakers called "The Elders" on the scene -- provided momentary reassurance.

So, I ask myself, contemplating my wakeful healing process, what is good about all this?

First, of course, I am lucky there are drugs that help. And I'm especially lucky I have health insurance to help me buy them. I'm well aware others are left hanging out there, unable to afford care. Isn't it time our society figures out universal health care? (Note to readers: Watch Sicko again: the Brits, the Canadians, the French all get it...why are we so doggedly compassion-challenged?)

Second, it is good to be alert to the world. Morning Edition has been running a series called "American Moxie" and I find the stories inspiring and encouraging. It takes moxie to get through this life. A galvanizing reminder.

I'm reminded of a time in my life when, mired in emotional pain as I left my first marriage, I tried to get my therapist to prescribe me a tranquilizer. She refused, contending that in my case, I "needed to feel" what I was going through. I never forgot her infuriating wisdom. In that instance, I believe she was right, and I'm grateful she was there helping me navigate those rough seas. By paying attention, by letting my body and mind deeply experience all the grief and doubt, I somehow began to heal and hope.

But now it feels as if the whole earth is quaking with troubles, and I find myself muttering, damn, let's just prescribe anti-depressants for everybody: drugs all around, Prozac on the house!

But it's not a time for somnolence. We need to keep our wits about us, and like those employees refusing to leave Republic Door and Window, we need to stay put, stay the course, feel what we feel, and let our resilience and dignity and hope help us find a way forward, looking for the open doors, making new windows to fresh air and blue sky.

Through a crack in the heavy green curtains here in my sitting room, a space I cherish and which makes me very happy, I see light is beginning to break. Time to feed the cats and start the day.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Sweet Melancholy for a Saturday Night at Home

Today a quiet requiem for Virginia, Teddy's mother, who passed peacefully yesterday at 90. She was a good woman with many complexities and charms, and she raised a remarkable daughter; for that alone, for giving life to my wonderful friend , I am deeply grateful to Virginia.

So then, trying to recover from a pesky sinus infection, eschewing alcohol and pumping antibiotics, I painfully turned down a chance to show up at what's probably the holiday party of the season and opted to stay home with the kitties tonight. They cleave close by, furry little epitomies of peacefulness, while I coax myself to relax in the sitting room that used to be our dining room. It's a cozy space now, with our oriental rug filling the room -- the hutch, my personal symbol of plenty, along one wall, and the couch I bought for my early life after my divorce providing soft solace. On my dad's barrister bookcase rescued from his pastoral study from long ago, is my funky little stereo/CD player, and I'm listening to Nick Spitzer's American Routes on Michigan Radio.

In the midst of a sad and unnerving time, it's momentary bliss. Tonight's show is a tribute Sam Cooke, and right now I'm hearing "You Got to Move," after other soulful favorites like "Little Red Rooster" and "Bring it On Home" and "Lost and Loving." Damn that guy could get down to it. I know I'm missing a great party tonight but Sam Cooke's soulful voice is making my melancholy seem not just okay, but right for this winter night.

And of course, it's a story with a tragic, mournful end. He was shot dead on Dec. 11, 1964. The music is a legacy not just of deep gospel roots and badboy energy, but something bigger about the human condition. Now he's singing the classic that wraps it all up: A Change Gonna Come. I'm shedding a tear -- soothing saltiness for the body and soul. My thoughts are with Teddy tonight, who is entering a whole new phase of life. Here's to our mothers, and the rich weave of gifts -- both troublesome and full of blessings -- they give us. Here's to Virginia.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Flint Poem by Danny Rendleman: Shooting Nine-Ball with My Father at the Rainbow Bar

And Weesner's novel -- centered in a wrenching father-and-son relationship -- brought me back to a poem by another Flint native, Danny Rendleman, a poet whose depictions of growing up among "shop rats" in the Fifties and Sixties will break your heart. Here's one of my all-time favorites, from Danny's amazing 1989 chapbook from Ridgeway Press, Skilled Trades.

Shooting Nine-Ball With My Father at the Rainbow Bar

This is his second home, my mother says,
and not just for the money he leaves here Fridays.
No phone: no one is ever taking calls. Tonight
I am beating my father at nine-ball
and not just because he is drunk and old.

I'm pretty good, he's finding out, not just
some sissy boy who's always reading, though
pretty drunk, too. We are the last customers
and Trigger, the owner, wants us to leave.

But it's not even last call, and my father wants
one more Corby's on the rocks and one more game,
just about to get his touch back, to break even,
to show his son what's what. But he keeps scratching or
miscuing or missing widely, and I'm up about ten bucks,
but I'm starting to miss some gimme's myself
and not liking it, and beginning to sweat
and fret and wonder why we're here.

But we can't quit, though we know mother
is waiting, we hope, and Trigger is waiting to close up, and
we're going to hurt in some
important places in a few hours.

My father, as handsome as he's ever going to be, and as
fine, leans over as I line up a money shot and says to me,
"Look here, Danny,

how you doing, son?" What we both want from this life won't
come clear for some time.
At that moment, he will be dead and I will be
contemplating a not dissimilar plot ending. We walk out
back to his '57 Oldsmobile and try
to decide who'll drive
as well as the where and why of it.

A Poignant Novel Set in Flint

In one of the other blogs I follow, Flint Expatriates, energetically run by former Flint boy Gordon Young, somebody recently brought up a novel by Theodore Weesner titled The Car Thief. This wonderful first novel, which came out in 1972 (above is the original cover) was reissued by Grove Press in 2001 and apparently still is selling respectably and regarded highly. Weesner, who grew up in Flint and got his high school diploma via GED, is a longtime New Hampshire resident. Rereading the first few pages of the novel on a cold, dark Flint night, I'm struck by how Weesner gets at something so bleak about this town -- a bleakness that lurks here still, in the opening images of his bitter yet vulnerable teenage anti-hero.

Here's how it starts:

Again today Alex Housman drove the Buick Riviera. The Buick, coppertone, white sidewalls, was the model of the year, a ’59, although the 1960 models were already out. Its upholstery was black, its windshield was tinted a thin color of motor oil. The car’s heater was issuing a stale and odorous warmth, but Alex remained chilled. He had walked several blocks through snow and slush, wearing neither hat nor gloves nor boots, to where he had left the car the night before. The steering wheel was icy in his hands, and he felt icy within, throughout his veins and bones. Alex was sixteen; the Buick was his fourteenth car.

The storm, the falling snow, had come early to Michigan’s Thumb, for it was not yet November…By evening, a chilling breeze had begun moving through the city, blowing over the wide by-passes and elevated freeways. Now in the morning the snow-covering was overall. It was four or five inches deep, as wet as a blanket soaked in water, as gray and full in the sky as smoke from the city’s concentrations of automobile factories.

A cigarette Alex had not wanted so early in the morning was wedged in the teeth of the ashtray drawer. He could not remember having lighted it, and he thought about snuffing it out but made no move to do so. The dry smoke reached over the dashboard like a girl’s hair in water. Picking up the cigarette, discovering either weakness or nervousness in his fingers, he drew his lungs full and replaced it in the teeth of the drawer. The smoke burned his eyes, as if from within, and he squinted as they watered.

Monday, December 01, 2008

What's Keeping Flintoids Awake?

Graphic by Patty Warner/Stix Design

Here's a sneak peek at my upcoming column in East Village Magazine. I'm indebted to John Sonnega, a sleep researcher at the University of Michigan - Flint. As you can see, I've been working out what this insomnia thing means since my own "sleep study."

Something is keeping us awake in Flint. Did you realize? Are you one of the ones who takes a pill, even a teensy one, to get yourself to sleep?

If so, you’re not alone. Here’s something to think about the next time you’re pacing the floor at 4 a.m.: according to a 2008 survey from the Prevention Research Center of Michigan, one in nine Genesee County residents reports trouble sleeping every single night, and a stunning one-third of us rate our sleep quality as “fair” or “poor.” On average, we pop pills to get to sleep three nights a week and, for our trouble, still manage an average of only 6.45 hours per night, less than the recommended seven.

In this, amazingly, our county is not so different from the rest of the country, though the City of Flint itself is somewhat worse off than our snoozier out-county neighbors. Whether the onset of the Obama administration or the re-opening at last of the Olympic Grill, with its happy cries of “Opa!” have calmed any insomniac fears has yet to be determined. But we still have, well, the Mayor, the collapse of Generous Motors, polluted brownfields by the acre, copper thieves plundering empty houses, and plunging 401ks.

And as a very good friend of mine recently said over the last dregs of a bottle of Bushmill’s, we’re all gonna die.

When UM- Flint professor and sleep researcher John Sonnega offered the above sleep results in a talk to one of my classes recently, I took the news personally. That very day, I was groggy from a virtually sleepless night, one of many; recovering from sinusitis, I’d had trouble breathing and imagined dark scenarios. My husband said I often up wake gasping and snorting, not exactly my image of myself as a middle-aged babe. Scary apnea, he confessed, had been going on awhile.

Prof. Sonnega said there were several sleep labs in town to study us bedraggled insomniacs. My doctor sympathized, and two weeks later, my symptoms not much improved, I reported at 10 p.m. for a “sleep study” at a hard-to-find Westside lab.

It was one of the first cold nights of the year, a Tuesday, the chill offering needed relief to this year’s allergy sufferers. For the past eight hours, as directed, I’d refrained from chocolate and caffeine. I’d packed a little bag with red flannel PJs and a toothbrush.

At the end of a long maze in the dim clinic, I saw I wasn't the only one. Three others sat on the edge of low-slung beds in other rooms, getting electrodes pasted onto anxious foreheads, chests, fingertips and calves.

The tech who tended me said she can't sleep either. She works 10 p.m to 6:30 a.m., and goes home and lies on the couch. She uses the CPAP machine, just like I might have to, depending on how I do. She looks forward to winter when the snow makes the world quiet; she lives by a school and the children make a lot of noise. At night while she's watching her subjects, she reads books and studies for a sleep certificate.

She was kind and friendly, but I have to say that lab was like a cheap motel: hard pillows, bad mattress, no art on the walls, thin bedspread. How could a person, wired up like a high-tech Shiva, fall asleep like this?

At least a TV had all the channels. The box of leads slung over my top, plastic air fork up my nose, I watched Jon Stewart interview an oddly unfunny Steve Martin. Then the tech came back, turned off the lights and left me alone.

I felt claustrophobic and a bit nauseous, watching an orange light blink on a plastic thimble on my thumb. It was strange knowing somebody was watching me, monitoring my vitals. In another room, somebody coughed, and coughed again. She's worse off than me, I thought.

I muttered my mantra, a string of trusty repetitions. And then, astonishingly, I fell asleep. The next thing I knew the tech woke me up and it was 6 a.m. She peeled off all the wires and I went home.

Insomnia, of course, is not just a physiological but a spiritual problem. In the tossing and turning, the body’s anxious refusal to do what it’s supposed to do, something fearful and irrational sweeps in. Often, I turn on NPR; all night, it’s the BBC. I used to like the voices, liquid and steady as a salmon run. But lately there’s too much Congo, Zimbabwe, Darfur: too much bloodshed and pain. Couldn’t they report just one little light-hearted feature about, say, a French accordionist? Or a placid potter in Rotterdam? A recipe for butternut squash? The sad litany morphs into despair: this poor old planet, I murmur, and then I lapse into fruitless loops.

If I lived right, wouldn’t I fall asleep like my cats, who stretch out blissfully? If I only knew what’s bothering me, what I need to resolve, could I sleep then? Or maybe it’s hormones, or what I ate, or what I drank? And thus the wheel goes round.

In the meantime, the trains kachunk-kachunk along the Court Street crossings; there are sirens, the morning paper drops on the doorstep, a good neighbor scrapes snow, two joggers pad down Maxine, chatting, as they always do, at precisely 5:58. I wonder if they sleep well.

I am trying to find the peace in this. I’m trying to figure out how to tell my frayed mind that all is well, that all will be well. But the deep unconscious, like the Loch Ness monster slicing back and forth in dark water, seems to know better.

I’m still waiting for my sleep study results. But at least now I know I’m not alone – for whatever reason, a third of you are out there too, waging a similar war. Prof. Sonnega’s research suggests that neighborhood factors like fear of crime might play a role in sleep – sobering results that say we need to work together on what happens after dark. There’s a plank to lay your head on: a good night’s sleep for us all, sleep like a honeyed drink whose only hangover is waking up feeling kind of good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fire and Ice

The Harbor at 6:30 a.m. last Sunday.
Even though it's been a couple of days ago and the fires have receded for now, I'm still struck by how we left LA Sunday in deep smoke and arrived at Flint to ice on the car at the long-term lot at Bishop Airport. We had to scrape the windshields for the first time this year. It shocks the body. What happened to that beautiful autumn? Gone in the space of two days and a hard frost. So of course, it's time to repeat that Robert Frost poem:

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Nov. 15 in LA: Fires and Stained Glass

Smoke from the Yorba Linda fires, facing southeast from Pedro

The sun has set now in a blanket of orange smoke. Here's how it looked from our balcony at about 3:30 p.m. And on a lighter note, here is Ted's birthday gift to me: a custom-made stained glass window showing some of our favorite things in San Pedro: the Korean Bell, cliffs, ocean, marine layer, a pelican, and three special palm trees -- the ones we see from our bedroom we've named Fred, Ethel and Einstein.

The "Jan and Ted" Window by San Pedro artisan Mark Schoem

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Contented Sunday in the Real America

I love the winter vegetables. After I took the photo above, I put that butternut squash in the oven, baked it with the Farmer's Market Chicken for an hour, and took it out and started nibbling on it while sitting at the kitchen table working on a writing project. It's an overcast autumn day here, the back yard burnished with gold leaves from the little maple that has almost doubled in size since Ted and I bought this place. Gus/Joey has decided to take a nap on the table next to the laptop, and I can hear him purring loudly as I type. He idly lifts his head up only when the gusty wind scares up a stick or two, but he never stops purring. Knowing that Obama and his crew will be running the country, this weekend feels mellow -- a break from anxieties which will surely return. But for now, it still feels good, as Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times column today. Here's how he concluded the essay:

The actual real America is everywhere. It is the America that has been in shell shock since the aftermath of 9/11, when our government wielded a brutal attack by terrorists as a club to ratchet up our fears, betray our deepest constitutional values and turn Americans against one another in the name of “patriotism.” What we started to remember the morning after Election Day was what we had forgotten over the past eight years, as our abusive relationship with the Bush administration and its press enablers dragged on: That’s not who we are.

So even as we celebrated our first black president, we looked around and rediscovered the nation that had elected him. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Obama said in February, and indeed millions of such Americans were here all along, waiting for a leader. This was the week that they reclaimed their country.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Thoughts on Day Two

Ted continues to reflect on the Obama win. I especially appreciate his comment about process over ideology.

"This is day two of the new Obama era. I continue to celebrate this historic event and ponder upon its meaning and implications. At this point, it seems to me a victory of process over ideology, pragmatism over dogmatism, humanism over primalism, problem solving over partisan warfare, and coming together rather than wedging apart. I don’t fear that Obama will move us left, as many Republicans do. That was not the point of his campaign or his rhetoric. He is not an ideologue--he is a problem solver. He is a community organizer par excellence. Left and right, conservative and liberal--these are lose/lose concepts that he rejects. He leads by setting the tone, not dictating the outcome. He is a process guide, not a knight of the holy grail. He articulates the dream and coaches us in working together to realize it. He is a breath of fresh air in a badly polluted environment. He is precisely the right person at precisely the right time. I am fully over my initial preference for Hillary--she would have been a great President, I’m sure, but the past few months have convinced me that Obama is exactly what this country needs at the moment. I voted for him with no reservations, and I look forward to his presidency with both hope and trepidation. These are very dangerous times, and very exciting and hopeful times."

Good morning!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Wow. A New Era Begins

Like many others, I cried a lot last night. And now it's a beautiful sunny morning and I'm so hopeful for our country. Here's what Ted wrote as he considered what happened:

"I’m still in shock. Obama’s victory speech blew me away. When he adapted MLK’s “Mountaintop” speech and talked about the promised land, it ripped through my spirit like a hot wind, and forty years of history was wrapped up and made whole in a tornado of emotion. A promise made by one man was fulfilled by another--a dream was made real. For several minutes I wept without control or restraint. On so many levels, and in so many ways, today’s election was a transformational event--a completion of one episode in our history and the start of another. This was an excellent and exquisite day for the USA. We had a long and hard fought election campaign and democracy put on its best and most honorable face. We lived up to the best of what the world expected of us, in one dramatic moment recapturing our tarnished reputation and bringing new hope to all people of good will. The opportunity and power in this moment are awesome, as are the perils. I believe that McCain played his part admirably this evening, and Obama was magnificent in setting the tone for this new journey. The only shadow in this moment is my fear for his safety and survival during this trip. May the Secret Service protect him well."

For some reason it particularly touches me that Obama will be the president as I move into my sixties -- it's an immense comfort to think that a president I can be proud of will be at the helm as I make my transition into old ladyhood -- like a good son who will try his best to take care of me, and of our country.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

An Emotional and Historic Day

I just got back from standing in line to vote for 2 1/2 hours, and I didn't mind. I got there at 6:55 a.m., and already there was a huge line snaking all around the Sarvis Center. But people were in a great mood and I thought hell, I'm going to be crying all day -- this is the way it's supposed to be in my country. It's a beautiful warm day, a blessing for everybody waiting in line. I saw a lot of people I knew, of course, and at one point, somebody got the crowd singing "We Shall Overcome." It was awesome. I was in line with two middle-aged African American men -- Bernie and Melvin -- and a young kid who's an anthropology grad student at UMF -- sweet, sweet. Steve and Cary were there, along with Jake and Helen (VERY pregnant) with their twin boys Micah and Jonas in arm. My old friend and colleague Diane from Family Service Agency. And many, many more. The line just kept coming and growing and was still all around the outside of Sarvis Center when I left. Is it possible then, that the times and the country can change?? I proudly cast my vote for Barack Obama, feeling that my vote has never mattered more.

When I got home, I had this message from my husband, who went back to LA in time to vote at one of the most beautiful polling places in the world at Pt. Fermin Park overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Here's what he wrote:

Good morning, my beloved wife and voter. This is truly a great and historic day. I confess to some very powerful emotions about this event, this agonizingly important election. Forty years ago, 1968, was a year of tear gas, assassination, protest, Richard Nixon, the Poor People’s Campaign, and I was in the thick of it. It was the year that my own political and social soul was forged. It was one of the most intense years of my life. What I worked and struggled for then manifests itself today in this election. Today is the opportunity I thought might never happen in my lifetime--to vote in a presidential election of awesome significance where the forces of humanism and rationality have an excellent chance of prevailing. I know that when I stand in line to vote this morning, with the Korean Bell, Point Fermin, and the Pacific in the background (and maybe some pelicans), my feelings will be running high. I will be particularly touched if I end up standing in a long line. This is the way it should be. And if Obama wins, as it seems he will, this will be a defining day in our history, and not just because he will be our first Black president. You would think that 67 years of kicking around would have turned me into a cynic, but I really believe that this could be the beginning of something sweet. Forty years is a long time to wait. I will take pleasure in sharing this experience with Jesse. This is a good day for the United States of America and my heart is glad.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A walk in Flint

This town never looked better than yesterday, when Ted and I took an hour long walk through the College/Cultural neighborhood, Burroughs and Woodlawn Parks with our camera. Here are some of the results.
Late afternoon sun through the trees of Burroughs Park
Looking east at Burroughs Park

Path along Gilkey Creek
Entrance to Woodlawn Park Drive
Red tree on Lynwood

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Comfort Food and Welcoming an Old Friend Back

In the exuberance of the day after my "sleep test," Ted and I wandered down to the Temple Dining Room again for lunch. I don't know if it's that a night hooked up to electrodes made my immune system kick in to high gear or what, but I felt finally somewhat returned to myself, healthy for once. I had a cup of vegetable soup, Copper River salmon with dill sauce, and a side of whipped butternut squash. Oh my god, every bite tasted fantastic. In the weeks of the sinus infection, I'd lost my appetite and yesterday's lunch was the first thing that really tasted good for ages. The food at the Temple, cooked with care by family chef Larry Battiste, is made fresh from fresh ingredients, and it felt like The Cure. I wanted to go back to the kitchen and kiss him.

Halfway through the salmon, I noticed a distinguished looking man in a gray suit eating lunch alone at a nearby table, and realized it was Steve Wilson, who recently came back to Flint from Grand Rapids to be executive director of the Ruth Mott Foundation. It was wonderful to see him again and to welcome him back. In the Eighties he was the Flint tourism director -- a punishing time for that job -- and was one of the people utterly unfairly humiliated by his portrayal in Michael Moore's Roger and Me. I never forgave Moore for so indiscriminately making people look foolish -- even though he's gotten better at selective rancor, I think, especially in Sicko, the scars of his earlier random cruelties remain. Anyway, back then Steve Wilson wrote a play about Flint and for a time hung around the downtown poetry scene, which was quite lively in those years. I was fond of him; I read the play in an early iteration and did my best to encourage him.

Now he's back, looking stylishly mature, in a position that may make it hard for him to keep up with his personal creative projects, but it's so great to see that he's here in an important position in an institution that makes a big difference to Flint. He says he's still writing, when he gets a chance. It's heartening when good people find their way back to this old burg.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Awake after MIA

Yeah, yeah, I've been gone. Life is more important than blogging.

Last night I went to the Genesys Sleep Lab in West Flint for a so-called "sleep study," due to reports from my beloved that I was having occasional -- but scary -- apnea episodes. So I packed up my toothpaste and iPhone, donned my red flowered pajama pants and my Good Beans Cafe teeshirt (thanks StixDesign) and reported in.

Apparently a lot of people in Flint can't sleep. At the end of a long maze-like hallway in the dim afterhours clinic, I discovered I wasn't the only one. There were at least four of us last night getting electrodes pasted onto our anxious foreheads, chests, fingertips and calves.

The tech who tended me said she can't sleep either. She works 10 p.m to 6:30 a.m. every day, and goes home and sleeps through the day on the couch. She uses the CPAP machine, just like I might have to, depending on how I do. She looks forward to winter when the snow makes the world quieter; she lives close to a school and the children make a lot of noise. Sometimes she can sleep through it but not always. While she's watching the sleep subjects at work, she reads books and is studying for her sleep certificate. She was kind and friendly and was wearing a jaunty nurses uniform with Elvis Presley snapshots on it. "I couldn't believe it when he got married," she said, smiling. "My mom said, 'what did you think?'" She is 56 and remembers that moment vividly. She's been sleeping on the couch for six years, since her husband died. Back then she had to start her life all over.

I sort of started my life over at 50, too. The thought of that abandoned bed, empty from the funeral on -- a sad and poignant image. And understandable.

Lordy, the sleep lab felt like a cheap motel. Hard miserable pillows, a bad mattress, no art on the walls, a bedspread that looked like a reject from a hot pillow joint. How could a person, wired up like a weird Shiva, fall asleep like this? At least there was a TV with all the channels. The box of leads slung over my teeshirt, a plastic air fork in my nose, I watched Jon Stewart interview a strangely unfunny Steve Martin. Then the tech came back, turned off the lights and turned on the computer.

I felt momentarily claustrophobic and a bit nauseous, watching an orange light blink on the small plastic helmut on my thumb. It was strange thinking somebody would be watching me, listening to me, monitoring all my vitals, for the next six or seven hours. In another room, somebody coughed, and coughed again. She's worse off than me, I thought. I called Ted and said good night. It was our first night apart in Flint.

I muttered my mantra, a string of trusty repetitions, two syllables again and again, fighting off a wave of despair about my mysterious body, the way each of us is trapped in one body for life -- the same one, always the same and always changing, never quite telling the whole story. I appreciated the widow with the Elvis Presley tunic watching my heart rate and listening to my breathing and noting my brain waves, while slowly turning the pages to her sleep certificate textbook. it can take a lot to get through the night: last night, at least, neither of us was alone.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

New Housemates for Troubled Times

Can you see Henriette's Egyptian eyes?
This is Gus, warily checking out the dining room

What's better for a peaceful night than a cat asleep at the foot of the bed? Since the unhappy demise of our beautiful Joey two years ago, we haven't had a cat, and I've missed it.

A combination of circumstances has brought two new kitties into my life -- Gus and Henriette, who moved in yesterday, and aren't quite sure they like this new place. They're brother and sister, both shorthairs -- Gus is gold and Henriette, delicate little girl, is gray.

They've both been mostly hiding in the basement since they arrived, though the little dabs of food I've put out for them have disappeared, and Henriette did find me in bed last night at about 2 a.m. and settled down with a few meows for about 10 minutes -- then rushed off again to hide. This morning I caught her -- eyes only-- under the dining room table.

It's nice to have cats in the house again. Their previous mommy, Megan D., has agreed to help me take care of them during my jaunts to L.A. Thanks, Megan!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Peaceful Power Outage: Are We Losing Silence?

For about 75 minutes tonight, the power was out in my neighborhood. I enjoyed it. A brilliant moon rose through the trees, casting a bright shadow on the street and the back yard. I felt my way around to a dozen candles and lit them on the dining room table, the mantle, the kitchen counter, and my bedroom windowsill. The house was so silent: after today's cataclysmically scary stock market gyrations, the abrupt break from CNN, PBS, NPR, Wall Street, email, Facebook, blogging -- it was a relief.

Briefly, in the curious absence of news, I wondered if something apocalyptic might be happening. I filled up a pot with water and inventoried the canned goods and medicines I have on hand. I called Ted on my cell phone, realizing too late that it was down to 10 percent charge. We had enough time for Ted to assure me the world wasn't coming to an end -- at least not that he'd heard.

So I relaxed. Coming down the stairs holding a brass candlestick I've always loved, I talked to myself: though I've been sick lately, though the world is in turmoil, I'm basically doing okay. The silence afforded me that one brief moment: I'm okay.

I'm not sorry the power came back on, but I must admit that I could do without the loud commercial about the Sonic Scrubber and the raucous arguments about Sarah Palin and Barack Obama on Larry King that are hitting my eardrums. How hard it is to just turn off the cacaphony.

As it happened, the comp staff from UMF convened at my house this afternoon for one of our Friday social gatherings, and we'd considered these very issues. Today our catalyst article was a recent piece from The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" We talked about how we've all become multi-taskers and that the experience of simply sitting still, deeply reading, is rarer and rarer. Carr says once he was "a scuba diver on a sea of words," and now he's more like a guy skimming over the surface on a jet ski. He cites a study suggesting "we may well be in the midst of a sea change in the way we read and think." Carr reviews other technological innovations in history -- starting with Plato's suspicions of writing -- and taking a look at what happened to Nietzsche when he started using a typewriter. He notes how the development of clocks in the 14th century changed everything: "In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock."

My colleagues and I, leisurely sipping wine and snacking on little plates of fruit and cheese, declined to agree that "Google is making us stupid." We did agree that the way our students are experiencing the world -- and the way we ourselves, like Carr, are changing how we read -- suggests we need to consider and reconsider how we teach. Prodding our students into critical thinking from whatever texts they encounter remains the challenge -- and we figured teachers have been bemoaning their students' fumbling attempts at critical thinking for decades, if not centuries. Like us, our students have to learn how to sort through the noise.

Still, I do crave the silence; We'll never know the silence of the world as it used to be. I wish I had the chance to know that quiet -- how it might have been, four hundred years ago, say, to walk into the world at night, and to hear the sounds of that world: no motors, no jets, no trains, no sirens.

But I couldn't resist turning on CNN during the meeting to check the 4 p.m stock closing -- my friends tried to stop me! And when the power was out tonight, I could have read by candlelight. But feeling restless and at loose ends, I just stretched out on the couch and took a nap. The sound of the house woke me up first, the frig and furnace cranking rhythmically into action, and then the house lit up, the candlelight dwindling and insignificant in the bright glow of my conscientiously-installed fluorescent coils, and CNN blared back into the room.

We can take it

Reassuring Architecture, with Comfort Food in the Basement: The Flint Masonic Temple, Built in 1911

Here's my solution this morning: listening to the Best of Warren Zevon, RIP ("Ain't that Pretty at All" is especially cathartic) and keeping the TV on mute while the invisible, slippery, wussy world of global finance goes crazy. Now Bush is talking and I'm not bothering to mute's great to listen to Dubya's voice and Zevon's simultaneously. Later maybe I'll go have lunch at the Temple Dining Room in the basement of the Masonic Temple, an eccentric gray hunk of early Twentieth Century architecture in downtown Flint. I like everything about the Temple dining room -- that it's in the basement, that juries eat there, circles of twelve diverse Americans sipping coffee from cups with actual saucers, that old ladies who put on makeup eat there at tables alone, that the menu has comfort food like liver and onions, grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese, that there's always a pile of chocolate chip cookies at the cash register when you pay on the way out.

So maybe it's a day for comfort food in downtown Flint, which has already gotten about as bad as it can get and is already used to Big Busts and is even, contrary to reputation and in defiance of expectations for ourselves about as low as Sarah Palin at the VP debate, showing some signs of transformation.

The sun's out and my morning tea tastes good. We're going to have a new president soon. Hang on, my fellow Americans.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Oops -- found my original version of this post, embarrassingly in another blog -- the one that's supposed to be for my grad students -- and isn't supposed to reveal my cantankerous and highly partisan political views. So, in a lame attempt to compartmentalize my worlds, I grabbed it off of there and quickly slapped it back here where it belongs. Sort of. Ta Dah:

I didn't think there was a clear winner in the debate last night -- except maybe all the rest of us finally released from the suspense, exhausting ourselves wondering what was going to happen.

Well, I mean, I think by far Joe Biden was the smarter and more tolerable of the two. His answers were passionately on point and he managed to respond with the depth that his experience and intelligence afford him. I'm very relieved, despite her "right off the bench," presumptuous, "Hey, can I call you Joe?" that Biden referred to her as "Governor Palin." It was that kind of situation: no false intimacy, please. She was the sexist in the room.

I most admired his spirited "John McCain is no maverick" riff late in the debate. To me that was Biden at his debating best. I also thoroughly enjoyed his follow-up response to Palin's description of how she visualizes her potential role as a VP by admiringly invoking Dick Cheney -- and Biden promptly, bitingly said he thought Cheney was the most dangerous Vice President in U.S. history. Touche, Joe, yeah, say it's so!

I also cheered when he asserted, "Facts matter!" Yes! Yes! Of course, he got a number of his facts wrong. And I know most people really don't care. Still, I wished for something more -- harder questioning, more rigorous tangling, more substance. Dream on, I know.

Palin's smarmy refusal to answer the questions really got on my nerves. When she said she essentially felt no obligation to answer the questions posed, I felt echoes of the attacks on Gwen Ifill's right to moderate and a sleazy cynicism about the whole point of the debate. The Fourth Estate hasn't been stellar in its behavior, but once Palin and her handlers agreed to the debate, they should have shown more respect. Let's see, doesn't the Constitution elevate freedom of the press? Isn't there something in our history that calls for the stringent and enlivening necessity of having vigorous journalism? Oh, reporters...don't you just hate them?

One of the many questions Palin didn't bother to answer, revealingly, was the closing one about her Achilles heel. Not that Biden developed the subject much more lavishly, but he at least acknowledged the question, admitted discipline was indeed one of his bugaboos, and added one more -- what he called his "passion." Revealingly, Palin, who never blinks, except for those cloying, infantilizing winks, blew the whole question off, turning it into an opportunity to congratulate herself.

Finally, Palin's tiresome closing line -- on which I've ranted before in this space -- set me off just as much as it has all the other times: that John McCain is the only one in the race who's fought for the country. That smug faux patriotism is one of the things that I hope will get her and her arrogant side-kick, the candidate supposedly at the top of the ticket, soundly thrashed on Nov. 4.

Trying to coddle my irritations -- and a lingering cough -- with healthful panaceas, I was drinking strong green tea laced with Bushmill's. It didn't help. It took several tablespoons of Nyquil later to get me to sleep. And even then, Ted said I snored loudly and drove him into the guest room. That's marital politics -- the politics of the body, the politics of adaptation, the politics, when the day is done, of forgiveness.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Obama Took It

I think McCain was bound and determined not to look at Obama and was tight and distanced.

But I really want Obama to convince the country that "smart" is good, and I think he might be too smart to be elected.

I wonder what everybody else is thinking.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Shaky Sunday at the Autumn Equinox

When in doubt, thrown in a sunset shot

Oh, lord, am I the only one who noticed Henry Paulson's left hand shaking as he was being fruitlessly grilled by George Stephanopolos? That crooked little finger, the hoarse voice, the slight shake (ominously, on the left side of his body) -- it's foreboding. My Friday giddiness has worn off along with the burnishing pleasures of the Verget du Sud, and today, vestigial remains of my Ohio Protestant childhood sweating out of my pores, I'm, like, PRAYING.

And what, exactly, WILL happen? Nobody -- Paulson, white coiffed Chris Dodd, scarily blue-eyed John Boehner -- nobody seems to know what, exactly, was said in that meeting where "all the oxygen left the room," as Dodd keeps saying. All the oxygen left the room? What does this mean?

Meanwhile, George W. Bush, who has essentially taken Rome down in the worst presidency of my lifetime, looks like a drowned rat, a whipped dog, in his brief pathetic appearances, limply whimpering, "it's gonna work." My interpretation of W's affect is: deeply depressed. Exhausted. Joi de vivre kaput. Hooverish, as others have said. Will he make it to Jan. 21 when he'll get to clear brush once again?

I take a long deep breath. Still oxygen in this room, at least for the time being. What could I live without? Is it time to buy a gun and a generator? What will happen to the birds? Will there still be poetry?

Perhaps elegy, cried out from the fetid ruins of Galveston, from the smoky remains of the Marriott in Islamabad, from the graves of the 62 U.S. military who have committed suicide so far this year.

I breathe again, grateful in the moment for whatever grace this Sunday morning affords: finding an old poem in a dusty folder, sipping a cup of strong English breakfast tea, a hot shower and a clean black teeshirt that says "art" in 40 languages.

Here's the poem I found, at least 15 years old:

In Autumn

This is a difficult season, dense
with hue. Is it true we have just
so many heartbeats? Profligate old
bootmaker, my heart pumps on,
ragged with hope and regret,
while the earth tries to settle,
all that rot a smile toward spring
all that sweet cessation and giving up.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Giddy Friday

I'm giddily happy tonight. My car has been in the garage, untouched, since a week ago, and I've walked to work every day this week -- five days, an hour each day, a half hour each way, in brilliant tangy autumn weather, my beloved black backpack secure against my body.

And it's possible that the country is not quite so mindlessly infatuated with Sarah Palin this week as last, and maybe I feel fizzy because of the huge financial crash we've seen happen this week -- it's like the way you feel after getting high on LSD and thinking you're never going to come down and then you wake up the next morning and everything is ultra-clear and daily life in all its ordinary beauty is a relief.

Here's Barbara Mikulski: " Democrats wear lipstick too, and we need somebody who gets it! We don't need George Bush in lipstick!" That image is making me giggle, but maybe that's because my system is flush with fresh-air endorphins and the two glasses of rose from the bottle I found in the refrigerator door (Verget du Sud, 2006) It's so funny because Barbara Mikulski doesn't really look like she wears lipstick, but God bless her! The Wall Street Journal (yes, the Wall Street Journal!) lambastes John McCain for his hot-headed call to fire Christopher Cox from the SEC. So I relax and play with my tiny zen garden (see photo above...for the record, the bottle is empty now.)

The world's complications are amusing and fascinating tonight. I'm in a much better mood. Even while listening to idiot Bay Buchanan bluster about Palin and McCain on CNN. Tonight she just seems silly and irrelevant.

And by the way, how about Joe Biden saying it's patriotic for people making $250,000 or more to pay more taxes? I say, three cheers. I don't think that was a gaffe. It makes sense that the rich should pay more. This of course means that prosperous Americans would develop some late-in-the-game altruism, which doesn't seem to accompany standard capitalism. We don't know from sacrifice. How 'bout a little dose of sacrifice, damn it? I like what Joe Biden said.

I'm not saying I'm happy about the bailout. Welfare for the bigtime capitalists, at a massive scale, probably means that any hope for universal health care, decent public education and -- yeah, even -- the arts won't be in the picture for the rest of my lifetime. We've just rewarded the slobbering, snarling dog for stealing food from the baby.

Nonetheless, it's a beautiful autumn night and that rose has me mellow and optimistic. I'm going to sign off and enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hey Flint! Save Sept. 29 for Gary Gildner

Flint-bred novelist, memoirist and poet Gary Gildner will return to his hometown Monday, Sept. 29. for two classroom visits and a community reading, at 7 p.m. in the Tuscola Rooms of UMF's White Building. He's the author of 20 books, but the one front and center in these visits is The Warsaw Sparks, his 1990 account of coaching a Polish baseball team when he was in Warsaw on a Fulbright Scholarship. Save the date! It would be great if we had a robust local crowd for the reading.

More info:

Gildner’s works include My Grandfather's Book, Blue Like the Heavens, and The Bunker in the Parsley Fields, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize. In his long career he also has received the National Magazine Award for Fiction, Pushcart Prizes in fiction and nonfiction, the Robert Frost Fellowship, the William Carlos Williams and Theodore Roethke poetry prizes, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Of his latest book of poetry, Cleaning a Rainbow, critic Paul Zimmer wrote,
"Here he comes again with a new book of poems—Gildner, the kid from Flint, the jaunty pitcher/shortstop, the quarterback from Holy Redeemer, a genuine American article, still in love with the 1950s and being young, still showing us the fancy moves and surprising turns that inevitably swerve his poems toward the reader’s affections. He still has the briskness and inventiveness, but these poems are wiser, more practiced, embracing a new kind of resolution.”

Gildner’s mother and a number of other relatives and many friends still live in the area. He said when contemplating his reading tour for the reissued memoir, his stop in Flint is the one he is most eagerly anticipating.

Plus ca Change: Politician in the Buckeye State

I'm enjoying hearing an account of Biden invoking Catholic phrasing ("Bless me father for I have sinned...", McCain having a "political, not a policy, epiphany") in one of my childhood neighborhoods of Wooster, Ohio. The high school band strikes up, there's a parade, there's the drawling political talk -- as the commentator says, it's all rather timeless. One could be cynical, but since as a preacher's kid I respond with amusement and wry recognition to these religious catch phrases, the effect on me is positive -- not that I'm observant, but that I enjoy the rhetorical allusions. And, I must say, it's a bit reassuring. This is more entertaining to me than Palin addressing an Ohio crowd the other day as "guys and gals" and talking to them like they were a roomful of third graders. As one onlooker and fan put it, "He's not a flashy pick but he tells us the way it is, and that's what we need to hear." Well, I'm not sure anybody knows "the way it is" right now, but I'd rather have a sly and soulful rhetorical approach than a dumbed-down bit of condescension. Later Biden's going to Canton, my actual hometown, which is in almost as bad a state as Flint. Ahh...America.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Taking a Break for A Lovely Moon

Like many other people these days, including my esteemed blogging friend Gillian Swart, I've been so obsessed with recent politics that I've had trouble sleeping and as you can see, I've been crabby and complaining. But one needs a break.

This morning I went out walking in the clear, cool air after a weekend of heavy rain. I took my usual route, through Burroughs Park and back along I-69 on Brookside and Sunnyside, around Pierce School and back down Calumet. It takes me a half hour and it felt wonderful. Sometimes when I walk that route I notice everything. Today, though, for some reason, all I did was breathe in the tangy air, daydream and think about my classes. I barely remember anything about the walk, but my body felt vigorous and healthy all day afterwards.

And coming home after my evening grad class, my little old Honda and I drove directly into the glow of a bright 7/8ths full moon, gleaming over Court Street.

It was a rugged day all around the world but I still had that green walk in a neighborhood I adore and an almost full moon to welcome me home. Time to savor the simple pleasures.

I'm a little confused...let's see if I've got this straight:

Many thanks to John Coyne of Peace Corps Writers for forwarding this overview. I'm still trying to find out who actually wrote it. So, let's see here:

* If you grow up in Hawaii, raised by your grandparents, you're "exotic,

* Grow up in Alaska eating moose burgers, a quintessential American story.

* If your name is Barack you're a radical, unpatriotic Muslim.

* Name your kids Willow, Trig and Track, you're a maverick.

* Graduate from Harvard law School and you are unstable.

* Attend 5 different small colleges before graduating, you're well grounded.

* If you spend 3 years as a brilliant community organizer, become the first
black President of the Harvard Law Review, create a voter registration drive
that registers 150,000 new voters, spend 12 years as a Constitutional Law
professor, spend 8 years as a State Senator representing a district with over
750,000 people, become chairman of the state Senate's Health and Human
Services committee, spend 4 years in the United States Senate representing a
state of 13 million people while sponsoring 131 bills and serving on the
Foreign Affairs, Environment and Public Works and Veteran's Affairs
committees, you don't have any real leadership experience.

* If your total resume is: local weather girl, 4 years on the city council
and 6 years as the mayor of a town with less than 7,000 people, 20 months as
the governor of a state with only 650,000 people, then you're qualified to
become the country's second highest ranking executive.

* If you have been married to the same woman for 19 years while raising 2
beautiful daughters, all within Protestant churches, you're not a real

* If you cheated on your first wife with a rich heiress, and left your
disfigured wife and married the heiress the next month, you're a Christian.

* If you teach responsible, age appropriate sex education, including the
proper use of birth control, you are eroding the fiber of society.

* If, while governor, you staunchly advocate abstinence only, with no other
option in sex education in your state's school system while your unwed teen
daughter ends up pregnant , you're very responsible.

* If your wife is a Harvard graduate lawyer who gave up a position in a
prestigious law firm to work for the betterment of her inner city community,
then gave that up to raise a family, your family's values don't represent
America 's.

* If you're husband is nicknamed "First Dude", with at least one DWI
conviction and no college education, who didn't register to vote until age 25
and once was a member of a group that advocated the secession of Alaska from
the USA, your family is extremely admirable.

OK, much clearer now.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Flint Mayor Don Williamson's Latest Idiocy

Kay Kelly Illustration by Patty Warner

In the latest act of ignorant cronyism, Flint Mayor Don Williamson has fired Kay Kelly, project director of the wonderfully successful Kearsley Park Project. I'm so frustrated and outraged about this that I'm ready to go down to City Hall and SIT IN.

Here's a link to my June East Village Magazine column about Kay. Kay Kelly Reclaiming a Public Space. It is infuriating that in a town so often bereft of good news that Kay's remarkable project should have to fight for support, much less be axed. This is not just knucklehead myopia, this is urban sadism.

Added later: Here is what Mike Kelly posted about Kay's firing on Facebook this afternoon. You'll note I'm making no pretense of objectivity about this...I haven't heard any of "the other side" but here in Flint we are used to Williamson's capricious and often irrational actions.

There may be some rumors flying around so I wanted to get the facts on the record.

Don Williamson terminated Kay Kelly as Kearsley Park Project Director via a perfunctory letter on Friday, September 12, 2008.

His decision was made despite the fact that Kay Kelly had turned Kearsley Park from a park people avoided to a vital place used by diverse individuals for exercise and recreation. Kay had raised money to bring playgrounds, ball fields and walking/biking paths to Kearsley Park. In addition, she turned the park into a vital center of community activities from theater and concerts to weddings and family reunions.

All of this was accomplished by fundraising efforts that resulted in no cost to the City or the city taxpayers and often provided free entertainment and enrichment to the community.

Kay had already received confirmation of a grant to continue her position for two more years when it appeared that Williamson wanted to replace Kay with one of his cronies.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

...And Another Thing That Bugs Me

...was when Sarah Palin announced that only one of the candidates had fought for our country, and that was John McCain. I have to say, since when was it true that the only way we "fight for our country" is when we are in the military? Since when is being part of the military the only way to demonstrate one's patriotism? A country demonstrates what it's made of as much when it's "at peace" as when it's "at war." Do its citizens fight for good public education, available to everybody? Do its citizens fight for health care for everybody who needs it? Do its citizens fight for arts opportunities, so that children with talents in singing and playing instruments and writing poems and dancing and painting can thrive and be happy? Do its citizens fight for clean water, clean air and fertile soil?

The narrowness and negativity if this exclusively military interpretation of patriotism really gets my goat. It's a reflection of a darkly rigid world view that I find immensely depressing.

Andrew Sullivan Backs Obama

I've been following the career and often cantankerous opinions of gay Brit Catholic conservative Andrew Sullivan, and while sometimes he drives me crazy, I really admire the way his mind works and how he observes American politics. So I was quite struck by this piece, laying out his extreme disallusionment with John McCain, that appeared in The Atlantic yesterday: The Daily Dish on McCain.

Bought my Obama yard signs today at the headquarters on Fifth/Robert T. Longway that used to be Windmill Place. Interestingly, there was much more activity at the new Family Dollar store, which had its grand opening in the parking lot in front of the Obama storefront. On the nightly news, much was made of this opening -- providing at long last one spot at the entry to "The North End" to buy some everyday items and groceries.

And watched the first excerpt of Sarah Palin being interviewed by Charlie Gibson. Without her teleprompter assistance, she went back to saying "nuke-you-ler." When questioned by Gibson about whether she'd met any heads of state, and she said "No," she quickly flashed a bit of the adolescent hubris she'd demonstrated elsewhere, sneeringly breaking dignity to say that she didn't have a "big fat resume" (like some of those other uppity candidates? The ones who've had the gall to accumulate top-notch educations and international expertise?) as if being well educated and experienced is somehow suspect. Education doesn't matter, though, because apparently, God wants her to be VP. She didn't even blink when McCain asked her, she said. She is ready "for our mission." She had a hard time clarifying anything -- what the "Bush doctrine" is, whether the war in Iraq is "a task from God," as she said at her former church recently, whether she thought the U.S. had the right to attack Pakistan. It was deeply disturbing to watch.

We will be in big trouble with this person as vice president. I vigorously agree with Andrew Sullivan's take on the deterioration of the dignity and credibility of John McCain. I feel like going back to that spartan Obama office almost hidden behind the dollar store and giving more money.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Political Congestion and Ear Flaps

Bad sore throat. Is it because my voice box wants to yell out "enough already"? What a clogfest of cliches and bowdlerized biography and choreographed theater. I'm relieved it's over, but I couldn't stop watching -- the carnivals of both conventions hooked me. Neither one did much for the quality of national rhetoric, but of course, that's not what they were for. Nevermind -- they were irresistible and vintage American entertainment.

Sarah Palin a phenomenon as big as, say, the last King of Tonga, RIP. The extravagant lovefest that met her is completely predictable and IMHO depressing. When somebody in Sterling Heights just said on NPR, "Michigan is gonna love her," I believe him. Last night some GOP woman in St. Paul told the Daily Show's Samantha Bee, "She makes it seem like anybody could be president." Yeah. Great.

Palin's arrival on the scene actually DOES remind me of one night long long ago at the Dateline Hotel in Nuku'alofa. I was there with a bunch of my Tongan family and work colleagues to see some Balinese dancers making a rare swing through the Kingdom on some kind of cultural exchange. I couldn't wait to see them: I wanted something, anything different from my intense immersion in Polynesia's love of the noisy and gargantuan. When the dancers came out, tiny and androgynous, tinkling delicate finger cymbals and flying rainbow costumes, the Tongans got a giggle fit. They thought the dancers were the oddest and weirdest thing they'd ever seen. In the midst of this madness, the King himself, Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, made a dramatic entrance. He weighed close to 400 pounds and marched in wearing a huge Russian fur hat with ear flaps and enormous knee-high black boots, along with his Tongan wrap around skirt and a pandanas mat tied around his girth. The Tongans hardly regarded it as worthy of commentary that his majesty was wearing a fur hat with ear slaps in a humid courtyard overgrown with tropical palms and banana plants.

"He's wearing a Russian hat with earflaps," I incredulously commented to my companions.

But they were too busy ridiculing the beautiful Balinese dancers.

Man, I've got political congestion. Wonder if I have more Alka Selzer. Or is it Lava Soap I need? Wily populist Huckabee said his family was so poor the only soap they could afford was Lava. He said he was in college before he realized "showering didn’t have to hurt."

Of course, as more than one blogger pointed out, Lava costs more than regular bath soap. So, the vigilant researchers speculate, maybe Huckabee's family couldn't afford TWO bars of soap.

Whatever -- at this point I could use some grease-cutting soap for the political season. And it's just beginning.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


Okay, so I haven't been blogging since I got back into Flint, and with good reason, but rest assured I've been formulating my classes, watching the conventions and saying goodbye to T for the time being. And here's what brought me right back to the keyboard:

Hundreds of people at St Paul, almost ALL white, yelling "Drill Baby Drill, Drill Baby Drill!!" during Rudy Giuliani's speech.

My god. This scares the hell out of me. Do these people really want to gouge out the earth and its oceans and its air until nothing is left?

Giuliani also sneered at Obama's job description as "community organizer." The dripping disdain of that moment also made my gall rise up.

I'm having a really hard time watching this cynical orgy of knee-jerk patriotism and treacly "family values."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A life of its own on the Internet

It's been really interesting to follow the online life of my piece in the Christian Science Monitor since its publication on the lucky date of 8/08/08. It's been picked up and is now listed on Google in many other blogs and sites, sometimes with comments. I've seen in it "Newspaper Death Watch," a blog chronicling the decline of newspapers; in "Fading to Black," a blog from "" which describes itself as "A look at the downward spiral of the newspaper industry because no news is bad news."

The article showed up on Sustainable News in Sedona, Arizona, preceded by a video message from somebody aiming to keep community news afloat on the Internet; on Gulf News going to military personnel in the Mideast; on "Everyone is Family" at the real; on the Global Air Referral Service, where the blogger simply picks up and posts articles he enjoys; on former Peace Corps volunteer Charlie Jewett's blog; and in a place that especially pleased me, The Rural Blog, from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

At one blog hit which has since disappeared from Google, my article drew about a dozen comments -- from a bunch of apparent right-wingers who said it wasn't the physicality of newspapers that is dooming the industry, but the content -- the tired old "liberal bias of the media" cliche. I had to smile at one remark by a writer disdaining my thesis and referring to my opening scene who snarked, "and anyway, what kind of people sit around reading out loud to each other?" My wonderful husband and me, that's who, bozo. And thousands of other people, I reckon, for whom reading out loud to each other is part of a deeply pleasurable, companionable daily ritual.

At many of the locales where my piece was reproduced, folks added their own memories and thoughts about the sensory experience of holding an actual newspaper; In The Rural Blog, journalist Al Cross particularly touched me with this reminiscence:

I was a pest to typesetter Phillip Allen, who ran the Linotype at the Clinton County News in Albany, Ky., because I wanted him to do box scores for the all-star games of the local Little League and Babe Ruth League, for which I was official scorer and correspondent. Why he gave in to a 12-year-old, I don't know. The smell and feel I remember most is taking the slug of hot type from Phillip, running an ink roller over it, laying down a strip of paper and using a heavy roller to pull a galley proof. There's nothing like helping produce your own story with ink, metal and paper, and that experience is part of the reason I will buy printed newspapers as long as they're produced – which I expect to be for the rest of my life. I'm 54.

What's ironic about all this, of course, is that all these posts appeared on the Internet, and if we were still relying on hard copies of newspapers I'd never have seen them. In that regard, the proliferation of conversation -- how we can all talk to each other so widely and easily -- is something to celebrate.

After my piece came out, I looked all over San Pedro and environs to find a copy of the Christian Science Monitor to buy, and nobody out here seemed to have it. The famous newstand on Las Palmas Ave. in Hollywood just outside my husband's store, which we used to be able to rely on to pick up almost anything, including some esoteric and wonderful literary magazines, recently pulled down its shutters. Happily I got a hand-addressed packet from CSM with two copies of the tabloid enclosed. I appreciated the gesture, and will of course cherish these vestigial remains of a disappearing era.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Language Tidbits

Bruegels' Tower of Babel

At the admitting desk at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, there is a sign offering interpreting/translation services for patients in ten languages besides English. They are: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. I found this touching and remarkable.

My brother says in the shops of a single two-block area near his condo in downtown Oakland, 42 languages have been documented.

I struggle with how to communicate the significance of this to my students, who sometime resist the idea of learning even a single additional language. I experience it as part of the richness of California, part of the richness of life -- and the way the world is evolving.

It also creates chafing and misunderstandings and keeps people apart, making it easier for us to see each other as "different" instead of one species, all of us in the same mortal boat full of hunger, loneliness, fear, hope and joy.

Yesterday I took an afternoon siesta while the painters chattered in Spanish on the decks just outside the sliding screen door. The brown curtains moved a little bit in the breeze off the harbor, and I went into a trance imagining that I was in a foreign country -- that feeling you get when you're "someplace else" -- not understanding what you hear, just being, knowing that you're an outsider. I imagined I was in a hotel room in Guatemala.

I remember that feeling in Tonga, the quiet loneliness of being out of my element, and the edge to it, even though it also felt very glamorous.

All week it has seemed as if the painters are happy: there was no edge for them, among their buddies, probably pulling in reasonably good pay, and perched on the breezy, sunny hillside where if they paused to look out behind them they could see the Tall Ships coming in one by one. I like hearing the rhythm of every day language when I can't understand it -- or, rather, not much more than a word here or there. It's a relief not to have to worry about what it means.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mariachi Madness

All week a crew of 10 painters have been crawling over our apartment building and decks, starting at 7 a.m. They are a rowdy and happy bunch, singing and joking en espanol, whistling, wisecracking, laughing and shouting directions back and forth. They also have three boomboxes all tuned to the same Spanish station, so mariachi music echoes in stereo from the top, bottom and back of the apartment. They sing along.

Eight hours a day. My prime working time.

They covered all the windows with plastic, which gave me a horrible case of claustrophobia. I've become irrationally, passionately attached to looking out at the sweep of the harbor every day while working. Without it, I cower at my MacBook on the table in the odd milky light, sweating. Without the view, this feels like little more than an overpriced, humid cage. I begin to doubt myself and everything I stand for. I have nothing to say. I'm empty and insignificant.

And then... more mariachi music.

How can anybody be so CHEERFUL?

Isn't this a violation of the Geneva Convention?

I reach my limit at 3 p.m. when there's only an hour to go. The same time of day Hemingway nailed in Death in the Afternoon. Yesterday at that sickly bright hour, I found myself doing upper body dancing on my desk chair to accordion music.

I'm a puppet, trapped in a South of the Border Clockwork Orange (That's La Naranja Mecanica to you, Pancho) doing a mindless tarantela. I think the fumes are kicking in.

By the time they leave, I'm limp and the silence is insidious. I turn on CNN but can't stand anybody's nasal whine, even with Wolf Blitzer off for the day. I'm so shook up I wonder if Fox News would sound better. I scan HBO: finally! a rerun of Curb Your Enthusiasm is the only thing I can stand; Larry David trying to avoid giving Richard Lewis a kidney. Now THAT'S television. Phew...

Later I'll sit in a stupor and watch the tiny gymnasts fall off the barre and a huge Belgian volleyball player get "killed" repeatedly by Kerri and Misty. Will the beach volleyball never end? The swimmers in their laser suits, menacing goggles, thick necks and enormous shoulders look like monsters.

This insanity may possibly find its way into the syllabi I am intensely crafting. Maybe this will be my weirdest set of class preps ever. If I hear that one guy's maniacal laugh one more time, I swear I'll scream.

For the record, the apartment is looking very nice.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Requiem for Soul Man Isaac Hayes

Another classic star of the Sixties is gone. In remembrance, I'm copying my account from last July, when I saw Isaac Hayes perform at the Hollywood Bowl:

Thursday, July 19, 2007

It was a great L.A. night -- clear skies, that breeze with a faint hint of sea water, the "X" of the searchlights overhead, many bottles of wine uncorked -- undoubtedly pricey meritages and spritely chardonnays -- in the box seats. On our bench six rows behind the ritzy section and crammed together with a bunch of other oldies, we were happy, too, with our very drinkable pinot noir in plastic cups, as Eddie Floyd in his classic tuxedo kicked things off with "Knock on Wood." Then followed Lalah Hathaway (Donny's daughter), William Bell ("I forgot to be your lover"), the remarkable Mable John belting"Your Good Thing (is About to End)" Angie Stone, and the guy Ted and I most wanted to see and hear, Booker T. Jones ("Green Onions," of course).

The second half was devoted to Isaac Hayes, whose slow, unsteady gait during the long walk to his keyboard prompted shocked gasps from the crowd. On the big screens, it was painfully apparent that even sitting down, settling down at that keyboard was difficult for the colorfully-robed legend. That entrance built drama -- the blast of his lush, urbane hits with a terrific back-up band was immensely reassuring and a relief. In one pause he sighed, "I'm glad to be here." He announced he's coming out with a new album. From the back, someone shouted, "We'll buy it, Isaac!"

This was part of the Stax Records 50th anniversary tour -- a celebration of the Soul/R&B label hatched by Jim Stewart and his older sister,, Estelle Axton in Memphis in 1957, originally as Satellite Records, probably because Sputnik had just been launched. Estelle, married and with a couple of kids, took out a second mortgage on her house to do it. Eventually, Stewart and Axton combined letters from their last names and made it Stax. Estelle kept her job at a bank until 1961.

And of course, from that old theater in Memphis, they eventually recorded songs and artists that my generation avidly danced to at all our high school proms and made out to in our fathers' cars on summer nights a lot like last night. It's impossible to hear these songs without feeling a bit melancholy. Our youth is gone.

And, well, the artists themselves are so...old. Well, it has been 50 years. But... I found myself worrying that somebody would fall or lose the beat or miss the note. I turned to my friend Dr.Teddy about halfway through and said, "It's like they dug these people out of a museum." The oldest of the lot is Mable John, who's 77. She clearly wobbled in her R&B shoes but momma, she managed to deliver the message. Eddie Floyd, formerly of the Falcons which included Wilson Pickett for a time, moved carefully but stylishly. William Bell is 68 and Booker T, who we thought looked best but didn't have to sing or move around onstage, is 62.

Even the youngsters brought on board for variety, new Stax acquisition Stone and Hathaway, are 46 and 39 respectively.

Isaac Hayes, who's hardly the oldest among them at 64, was hardest to watch. I mean, this guy was the rumble-voiced sex god of my twenties: how can he be walking like an old man? A 2006 stroke may be the reason for his halting movement, though I note on Wikipedia he and his fourth wife just had a baby last year, his 12th child. Okay, something still works. Not that any of us should be making 12 replacements of ourselves, but...forgive me, one craves signs of vigor.

Everybody came back onstage for the final performance, a somewhat pensive rendition of "Dock of the Bay." It was a nostalgic tribute to the era, to Stax Records, and to Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in 1967. I think I'm relieved, though, that he died young. At least we didn't have to see him stagger across the stage. Maybe it's better to listen to the music at home, with all the trappings of denial in place and, especially, no dancing in front of mirrors.