Archive for September, 2010

September 14, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, MASS — I was reminded today of a funny story I heard at a news meeting in Zambia last year, after an embarrassing misspelling in the top front page headline of the competing newspaper caused the managing editor to shake his head and murmur, “The perils of English as a fifth language.”

The deputy news editor, sitting next to me, broke out in a grin, a reliable sign of entertainment to come. He was a serious young man, more dedicated to staying in journalism, and, according to the deputy managing editor, one of the three best writers on staff. For all of that, I could see him listening for irony, for the key that would turn a ludicrous story into a funny one, and I had learned to watch his face.

“I used to work for a man,” he said, “who really had never learned English, and so he often got words wrong. He thought the word “fantastic” was a curse word. So when an employee did something wrong he would tell them off. When he was finished telling them off, he would add “Fantastic!”

Maybe you had to be there, because he did add a lot to a story with his relish for the ridiculous, but it made me laugh all morning.

He was one of the people I have kept in mind when I stick to the notion that things could come together in Zambia at some point soon, when all the strengths of the people of that great country will save it from its perils.

So when I opened my email today to learn that he died “after a short illness,” at the age of 43, leaving two half-orphaned children and a widow, the words seemed to shake on the screen in front of me, as if my mind was sending them back, refusing to take them in.

Sometimes today I have imagined going back to the newspaper where his loss must be felt so terribly and shout at the top of my voice: “What happened?”

And then, when I get no reply, just an inscrutable look that speaks to the stigma we, ourselves, have cast on our own lives, I would like to shout, “FANTASTIC.”


Tolerance for intolerance
September 13, 2010

SALEM, MA — On a holiday weekend, tourists congest the streets of this history-stained waterfront town. A ferry ride or a half hour drive from Boston — or, if you’re old enough —  a tour bus called the “Silver Fox” away, the town offers an easy getaway, the smell of salt air, seafood on the waterfront, brick streets, clapboard houses that stand as monument to our beginnings the way stone cathedrals might in an older nation, and the stray literary tie of the House of the Seven Gables. Salem could likely hold its own as a day trip destination with all that alone, but what happened there in 1692 — a story so  merciless, stupid and sad that it holds the worst of human nature to scrutiny — that’s the identity that sets this town apart from other seafront spots.

It is a story that could make this town a destination like Auschwitz, like ground zero in lower Manhattan, like the Oklahoma City Memorial, where people go to confront what happens when meanness, ignorance and self-interest are ignited by paranoia to spark lethal intolerance, and a place where people speak in quiet voices, and leave feeling at least a little, at least temporarily, changed.

That’s not what it’s like though. Tourists lick ice cream cones as they wander down streets lined with businesses that include psychic readers, “museums” with the words “haunted” or “dungeon” in their names, and souvenir shop windows filled with the town emblem of a black-gowned woman wearing a pointy broad-brimmed hat, riding a broomstick across the moonlight. There is a store called “The Broom Closet.” There is a stuffed doll in a witch costume tied to a lamppost. Halloween is a big deal here. The light-hearted approach to horror is a spectacle in its own right.

Then, if you wander off the path of a town burial ground, you find yourself in a quiet corner where stone benches jutting from rock walls invite you too take a load off. And if you do, you could look down and see this:

The fate of Giles Corey is immortalized in the town’s Witch Trial Memorial, dedicated by Elie Wiesel, inspired by the Vietnam War Memorial — a place you don’t realize you are in until you are surrounded by its harsh truths.

Then it is the powerful, inescapable place it should be; you can’t leave without seeing the last words of the victims of humanity commemorated there:

And yet it invites us all to confess, to everytime we turned our eyes from what we knew was wrong, because it was the safer thing to do.

Come the revolution
September 5, 2010

CAMBRIDGE, MASS —A disorientedly cheerful middleaged man squats on the brick around a tree, holds out a red plastic cup out and says “I don’t drink.” A woman, with multiple facial piercings and cropped dayglo orange hair, sits on a stoop, holds another red plastic cup and calls plaintively, “can you spare a little change?” Another woman, older, heavy, too worn to talk sits on the curb in front of the old burial ground a block from Harvard Square behind a cardboard sign that says “Have some humanity help me.”

Once again a walk on a city street means averting my gaze muttering, “No, sorry.”  I am, once again, saying no to people who need more help than I or most of the individuals who cross their paths can give them. In Lusaka, Zambia I was saying no to children who held out open hands and rubbed their bellies saying they were hungry. Here in Cambridge I am saying no to bleary-eyed adults squatting on steps holding plastic cups. Both cities off the same ratio of about five people asking for money on one crowded intersection.

I learned to say no a long time ago when traveling after I was told giving to people who begged for money was counter-revolutionary. I have been stepping out of the way of insurgency, more often than not, for nearly half a century, but the revolution has yet to come.