A rant

December 19, 2012 - Leave a Response

It starts with an Important Man

In the interests of full disclosure, I should start by saying the one time I met this particular Important Man, he mistook me for another grey-haired woman he had met that same morning, who had nothing in common with me physically otherwise besides being human and living on earth. He was slightly embarrassed when he realized what he had done. He tried to make up for it by saying we were both “hot.” Before that, he had said “umm” more than once, in literally, and I do mean literally , in every sentence in the talk he had given to our group, which had lasted an hour and a half. He also had used the term “wet dream” in the same talk once for a reason that didn’t justify the imagery.

He had been the editor of a very big newspaper, before it was bought by someone who was more into business than journalism (by that, you should know, not the biggest paper, but one that continues to be influential for all its anachronistic leanings). He had then been hired to run another journalistic enterprise that had been bestowed with a generous starting sum by a private entity, who, apparently, expected nothing in return.

I mention all of this because two things happened today that made me think of him. The first was an obvious link — I saw an announcement that the guy has a new title — was either promoted, kicked upstairs, or given a golden parachute with benefits. Any of those is much more than any of the people who worked for him, as that newspaper cut costs, or any other newspaper during that time has gotten for being kicked to the curb.

The second reason I thought of him today is a talk a group of people who had never worked in journalism had over lunch earlier, in which they wondered with genuine curiosity, why newspapers with all they have going against them right now, do such a shitty job. They were talking about stories they had seen that seemed to duplicate other stories, the prize-quest direction of journalism, and finally, humiliatingly, the bizarre number of errors that established publications allowed on their Web sites in the hours after last Friday’s tragedy in Newtown.

One of the reasons newspaper have so much going against them I said, is that they already were doing a shitty job. Sometime before the great newspaper apocalypse of halfway through the first decade of this century, I met a woman who told me apologetically (in that way you know that someone is apologizing for a total diss) that she just didn’t like to read actual newspapers (the kind you pay for, and the kind that paid me, at the time) because the ink made her hands dirty.

What does that tell you? It told me, since we weren’t talking about rooting through the dumpster, or mucking out the pig sty, that we, collectively, were not turning out something that was enough worth reading to get a little ink on your hands.

The reasons? Yes, you can blame it on the Internet. But you can also blame it on Clinton and all the peace and prosperity he brought for eight years. That’s when the economy boomed so, that good help was hard to find. And newspapers, like other institutions — think Wall Street, think Detroit, could not do enough wrong to learn a lesson, and get better. Good enough to risk getting a little ink on your hands.

The important man, who had run one of the biggest newspapers in the country, who couldn’t tell one grey-haired woman from another, and slightly more symptomatically couldn’t talk without a spasmodic interruptions of “ummm”s and a few oddly placed vulgarisms was but one symptom of how prosperity wreaks havoc on itself by promoting mediocrity.

Humanity inches forward after each defeat, and sometimes gains as much as it catches up. And I hope journalism, when it comes fully too life again, learns something from its past selection of important men.

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The moment everything changed

December 17, 2012 - Leave a Response

For several years after May 2000, after the day Nathaniel Brazill killed Barry Grunow, I couldn’t pass the Lake Worth water tower without thinking about one part of that day, one of the parts I didn’t see: a 13-year-old boy, both scared and angry, as I picture it, with being misunderstood, rejected, punished, who had been suspended from school two hours or so before the end of the whole school year anyway, riding his bicycle back to the place he had just been sent home from, with a gun in his pocket.

Only something about how tragedy imprints itself on the mind made the water tower part of this; it had nothing to do at all with what happened that day, but it says Lake Worth on it, in big letters that you can see from far away, I noticed it that day on my way, and  what happened in Lake Worth that day made it one of the saddest days I have lived.

But then, I had only been covering the night cops beat for just short of three months. I had learned about the moment that changes everything — the drug dealer lured from his house to meet some people who shot him dead in front of his house, the five-year-old boy trying out his new skateboard on the street in front of his house when a teenage neighbor trying out his new driver license drove down the street too fast and killed him, the brute speed of I-95 — I had already stopped keeping track of how many signal 5s, signal 7s — murders, dead people — I had gone out to write about by the day Nathaniel Brazill shot Barry Grunow in the face, killing him on the last day of school.

That day had begun festively, the way last days of school do, from what was put together later. Mr. Grunow had come with a movie to show his kids, Nathaniel Brazil had come with balloons for a water-balloon fight in the hallway. By the time the kids got out of the school that day, many of them were sobbing, many of them stumbling into the arms of trembling parents who had surrounded the building screaming for answers, and for their children, for the previous half hour. By then most of them knew that the easy-going English teacher, who made school fun, was dead.

Some kids who were on their own told me what they thought happened. Nathaniel Brazil had gotten into trouble for throwing water balloons, they said, so he had gone home, gotten his gun and come back and shot Mr. Grunow. I phoned that in to the newsroom, a little afraid I would be reprimanded for taking the time to report such a preposterous story. Soon, though, police confirmed that was exactly what had happened. A few blocks from the school Nathaniel Brazill had already flagged down a police car and turned himself in.

I started running into other reporters from my own paper — the whole office, and some from a south bureau, people I didn’t think had ever left the building — so I went to police station where a press conference was scheduled. I saw a lieutenant I knew leading a heavy set woman in, guiding her in a way that seemed like she was afraid the woman would fall over if she didn’t have her arm around her. It was Nathaniel Brazill’s mother.

A school assistant principal had called her a couple of hours earlier, after plucking her son out of the hall where he had been the straggler of a group throwing water balloons at each other who had been ordered back to their classrooms. So he was suspended, the administrator had told Polly Powell, the mother. Did she want to come pick him up, or should they just go ahead and send him on down the road home by himself? Send him home, she said, from her job as a cook at a nursing home. That will teach him a lesson.

It was brutally hot that day. Even in late afternoon, those of us who followed his footsteps by car — from school to his grandmother’s house where he got the key to his house, to his house where he got  his bike and what was now his gun, back to school — were sweating, moving through a fog of heat.

He had already told classmates he was going to be on the news, so how much was fog and how much was determination, he might not know himself.

He had found the gun some weeks earlier, visiting an older relative, a godfather figure in his life, who for some reason kept a handgun in the cookie jar. Nathaniel Brazill, whose birth dad had opted largely out of his life, had been watching his mother recover from breast cancer surgery, her incision bleeding in front of him at least once, his stepfather beating his mother in front of him more that that, apparently. As this story came together in the days that followed, I pictured Nathaniel Brazill in his room, posing with the gun, like Clint Eastwood saying “Make. My. Day,” like Robert Deniro saying “You talkin’ to Me?”

He said later he only wanted to say goodbye to some friends in Mr. Grunow’s classroom, and after Mr. Grunow said no, he pulled out the gun, because he thought that would persuade him to say yes. Then he shot him in the face and killed him. He said later there was something wrong with the gun. I have always assumed that there was something wrong with him, and something very very wrong with him having a loaded gun in his hand.

Mr. Grunow, had he lived, would probably have taught another 12 years of middle-school students by now, leaving all the kids, or those who could be reached, the better for it, in having found the joy and the power in reading and writing that he shared,  in having a teacher who loved what he was doing, and who was kind to them. The loss to all of those students is one of the overwhelming sadnesses  that reverberates still from that day.

Barry Grunow’s death also left a widow and two half-orphaned children, one of whom will never remember her father, the other of whom will never forget his loss. His larger family, including one brother who seemed to serve as a spokesman, remained vocal in their desire that Nathaniel Brazill be punished to the greatest extent possible. In the several succeeding years that the aftermaths played out in the court system — Brazill’s criminal trial, a civil lawsuit against the gunmaker — Barry Grunow’s family remained stolid in their agony.

“There was something about the experience of knowing that man,” my lieutenant friend ventured, several years later, “that seems to have left the people who did frozen in time.”

That was the case for Nathaniel Brazill as well. He has been prison for 11 years now, since his trial ended in 2001. He won’t get out until he is 42 years old, and he will be on parole until he is nearly 50. The boy who wanted to say goodbye to a girl he liked that day has not been alone with a girl since. He  has paralegal training now, and had a deeper voice, a taller frame in the television interview he gave last year, but he still seemed to have the simple righteous logic of a self-centered adolescent. He is sorry, and thinks about it every day, he said in that interview, but he said it in a way that suggested he has continued to view what happened that day as an accident, in which he was only one of the parties involved. Whether prison has made him better or worse than he would have turned out otherwise is impossible to tell. When you think about what happened that day, you can think of yourself at 13 — the stupid, silly, rash things you did. It’s impossible though, when I do it, to picture pointing a gun at someone’s face, let alone with a finger on the trigger, let alone pulling the trigger.

Of course he was only one of the parties involved in what happened that day, though. There was the godfather who bought a handgun, kept it in the cookie jar. There were the school officials who decided to send a 13-year-old child out alone, a couple of hours before the last bell, a policy, they said they later changed. Then there were, and are still, all the people who did nothing, in all the years before, and all the years since, to make it harder for someone who couldn’t think straight to get a gun, and in a moment, change everything.

When I see the water tower that says Lake Worth on it, that I noticed as I drove past it that day, I remember I saw it on my way into work that day, as well as on my way back to what was then a crime scene, and I always wonder what could have happened in the time between to make everything turn out differently — Barry Grunow enjoying summer vacation, and holidays, graduations, life, with his wife and two children, Nathaniel Brazill getting the help he needed, 12 years of seventh-graders learning to love reading and writing.

Good to meet you

December 9, 2012 - Leave a Response

“Good to meet you,” the husband of the doctor said, extending his hand, with an alert and eager smile.

“I’ve met you three times already,” I said, in what may have been a tone of jocular reproof, if that mitigates my rudeness, as well as my inaccuracy, at all. Actually I had met him once, and had ended up talking to him twice for five minute intervals at the same event. Having paid the price of our brief acquaintance with unforgettable boredom, it seemed fair to add on another time. “At the newseum event in July. Your piano had just arrived.”

The doctor’s husband is a person of limited repertoire stocked with cliches, so his jaw dropped.

“Our piano did arrive in July,” he said, and after a moment realized that meant we had met before. “Of course. I remembered your face,” he said,  smiling warmly, and nonsensically for someone who had just evinced never having met me before, “I just couldn’t remember your name.”

I remembered about the piano because it was the last thing he had mentioned before I had started daydreaming, which had happened when I realized I was never going to figure out why he was talking about it at all.

His husband, a stout middle-aged man with an egg-shaped face and what was left of his hair smoothed conservatively back from his forehead had just introduced him, sort of pulling him out from behind him as if they were standing on line, and saying “I’d like you to meet my husband.”

I am pretty  sure I did an obvious doubletake. The kind of people who introduce their mates as my husband, or my wife, instead of saying I’d like you to meet Joe, or Jane, usually are the kind of people who follow other outdated conventions, like only having spouses of opposite genders. I was instantly abashed, and that prompted me to stick out the ensuing conversation even as it immediately became clear it was steered toward no common ground.

It went:

“Have you lived in DC long?”

“No,” I said, “I just moved up last month. From Florida.”

“Oh. We moved here in April. My piano just arrived.”

“Oh how nice. I guess now it really feels like home, then?”

“I don’t play,” he said. “We have a very big house. We had a big house in San Francisco, and this one’s bigger but a different layout . . .”

The waiter passed, a few clusters of people away, with the little cones filled with tuna tartar and caviar. I fought the urge to follow him.

“We entertain a lot. We’re throwing a big party this weekend with about 100 people,” the doctor’s husband went on.

“Good that the piano arrived then?” I guessed.

“Not really. We hired a band,” he said, and I don’t remember anything after that.

Towards the end of the evening I had run into him again, and he had started describing all of the different food they would serve at their party, and that time I did go follow the waiter with the tuna tartar cones.

So now he said, “I can’t believe you remember about the piano. You’re like Rainman.”

Which is true. We all have our odd traits and a randomly focused memory is one of mine, so I decided to give him another chance.

“That was good,” I said.

He smiled happily, and I thought of all the ways the conversation could now go — memories? movies? how he himself is perhaps a bit like Forrest Gump?

“We’ve been so busy,” he said. “We’re having a big party next weekend, and he’s from Tennessee originally and I’m from Arkansas, so it’s going to have a southern theme . . .  drumsticks . . . greenbeans and scallions . . . macaroni and cheese . . . and 72 deviled eggs!”

“My, a lot of work . . .”

“Oh, we’ll get them at Whole Foods . . .”

“72 deviled eggs?” the woman sitting next to me said. She had been chatting brightly with a cluster of people standing before her, but now was cornered and cutoff, the doctor’s husband having squatted on the floor in front of us when he drifted into his reverie.

“Yes!” the doctor’s husband said. “He’s from Tennessee, and I’m from Arkansas, so all the food we’re going to serve will have a Southern theme . . .”

I tapped my empty glass, and sidled away. I turned from the doorway to the kitchen. The woman’s smile had faded, her face slack.

“Say,” he drifted up to me a while later. He lowered his voice confidentially, “What’s the name of the woman I was just talking to?”

Praise God

November 28, 2012 - Leave a Response

PALM BEACH — For more than the first half of my childhood my religious upbringing consisted of two songs. One was my father’s Bar Mitzvah song. It went, phonetically, “Vay ik rah voo es yo may do veed yo moos, Vay, tsah ha. Esh lo mo bey no, ley mo . . . Bey nee . . . DA da da da da da da. Da da da da da da. . . .

It had been written out for him phonetically when he proved he couldn’t learn it any other way, he said. His religious upbringing had ended simultaneously with learning that song, because what he learned convinced him that none of it made any sense and he became an atheist. Apparently the whole song was about one biblical figure holding an inexorable grudge against another, which shouldn’t have been a deal breaker for him, of all people. Apparently he found something petty in it that didn’t justify the amount of time it was expected to take in his life. Still, although he couldn’t carry a tune, it had been dinned into him. He always sang it in the same melody, although I’ll never know if it was the real melody, as he strolled around getting ready in the morning, waxed moustache in set in bobby pins, boxer shorts, calf garters holding his socks up, his derby hat holding his hair down.

The other song also came from my father. It was something he learned from an atheist organization he belonged to briefly, until he realized it was too similar to an organized religion, perhaps particularly because of the song. Sung to the tune of “Praise God from whom all blessing flow . . .” it went: “Praise God from whom all cyclones blow. Praise him when rivers overflow. Praise God who burns down church and steeple. Who sinks the ship and drowns the people.” It runs through my mind frequently, at unexpected moments.

When I was nine my mother chose our summer camp, and because we were exposed to my father’s family’s holidays the year around, she wanted us to know the other side of our background and sent us to a camp where we wore white on Sundays, went to something called Vespers, and learned hymns that included He Leadeth Me, I walk through the Garden Alone, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, all of which I sing in the shower to this day.

So what I look for in religion now is something that I can carry with me, that I share with others, even if I don’t believe in the particulars. Something that carries a spirit of joy, solace and purpose. I look for those things where I can find them, and I look in church sometimes because that’s where the responses to some of the work that has made a difference in my lifetime  — for  social justice, humanitarian efforts started.

In Africa it was hard. Hard benches, crowded pews, and sadly all that to end up listening to hateful intolerant messages preaching homophobia. Back home I go with a friend, who goes to different churches all the time. We went to our mutual friend’s mega church, a Unity Church and we went to the Rich People’s Church By the Sea. Of those, we agreed our favorite was the Rich People’s Church, because of the music, and because it is so beautiful inside. Also when we went, the first time, the pastor gave a sermon that I thought applied to any belief system about how giving things up for Lent wasn’t about sacrifice but about making room for better things.

In some ways, it is a strange place. All the men, who all have white hair, dress exactly alike in blue blazers and khaki pants and all the women, in their stiffly styled hair and skirt suits look like the elevator operators in my elementary school, only they are white, and the whole effect of all that indistinguishability is reminiscent of cold war portrayals of communist countries.

We went the weekend after Thanksgiving this last time for all of those reasons. Also I was curious about how they were taking the results of the election two weeks earlier, which hadn’t necessarily turned out as they might have prayed it would.

The pastor settled that question when he asked the congregation to pray for “Barack” as well as “Rick” — Rick being the Republican Lex Luthor lookalike who is Florida’s governor now. So they seem to have adjusted.

The highlight for me was when they sang “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” which I realized, when I heard it, I had never known the real words to.

Strangers on a plane

November 20, 2012 - Leave a Response

The woman sitting next to me on the flight from Charlotte to West Palm Beach Saturday afternoon had a big rhinestone studded watch, bright red lipstick and a comfortable calm about her as we settled in for the flight. We exchanged looks of dread when a baby somewhere in the back began to shriek before take-off, and settled into our separate diversions when it stopped.

Then as we descended over western Palm Beach, she turned to me smiling and said, “Going home?”

“One of them,” I said. “I live in Washington to work, and come home when I can.”

“You’re lucky,” she said. “That sounds fun.”

“Well it’s a wonderful time to be in Washington,” I said, with a suggestion of the joy I have felt in waves since the early hours of November 7, during what has been called “the Great Obamagasm of 2012.”

She said, “is it?”

Silence fell for a moment and I realized we were close enough to landing to risk repricocity.

“Is this home for you?” I asked.

“No, Philadelphia. I’m here for the holidays. I love coming here,” she said. Her face contracted then, from smile to frown, as if she had heard a voice reminding her what she was supposed to say next. That turned out to be: “But I could move to Canada any time now.”

“Uh-oh,” I thought, but I didn’t say anything at all.

She waited and then, after a while she filled the silence with: “I’m actually first generation here. All my family came from Canada.”

Ah, I thought, she’s probably just another Canadian braggart, once removed. They do that — revel in their ability to live in the top of no-where because they can have healthcare and cross the border to smuggle in cheap cigarettes and alcohol. Which is so much better than what I had thought she was getting at that I gave it to her, and said, graciously, I thought, “Well, they’ve got fantastic healthcare there, I hear.”

Her face closed again, a real constriction of meaness, that saddened me.

The pilot started making an announcement about the weather, the time, what to do with our seats, unwanted items, tray tables, at the same time she started telling me something about how no, the healthcare there was not all that, in fact her aunt’s friend had to wait two weeks for an operation with some consequence that I couldn’t hear because of the pilot, and also because I wasn’t listening.

So I said, how I didn’t know about any of that, it’s just that I used to work with a woman from Canada last year and she was always bragging on their health care . . .

And then with no transition that I heard, the woman next to me was suddenly on a tale of another friend’s relative, or relative’s friend who didn’t like the health care in England either, because you can only do what the government says you can do . . .

You get the idea, as I did, so I stayed quiet and waited for her to finish and the plane to land, and then she brought it home.

“And we don’t know what’s going to happen here,” she said. “I don’t think anyone knows. I mean the Congress had to vote on it, but they don’t know what’s in it — it’s more than 200 pages.”

“Well I hope they read it,” I said, “That is their job.”

So she looked at me, the same way I had looked at her a moment before, with the sadness of realizing that we were on opposite sides of a chasm that probably neither one of us can figure out exactly how it came to be there.

Silence fell, abruptly and pleasantly, and the plane landed and as we plodded off the plane we wished each other a happy Thanksgiving.

Come to the inauguration!

November 10, 2012 - Leave a Response

Words fail. Thank your lucky stars this incompetent isn’t going to be having an inauguration. I would hate to count on the swiftness of his response to any of the problems we might face, since he couldn’t even arrange to prevent this humiliating event from occurring Wednesday November 7.

Since by the grace of benign providence we will be celebrating the triumph of reason over prejudice on January 21, let me know, please, if you need a berth at my place. I will be there.

Coming home, Part !!

November 8, 2012 - Leave a Response

Coming home doesn’t always get you what you came for, but then, of course, sometimes it does.

Twelve years ago I drove home from the newsroom where I had just started working a few months earlier, and where, to my absolute alienation, my young colleagues were in the process of serenly taking in the news that Florida, which had earlier been given to Vice President Gore, was now being given to Texas Governor George W. Bush. With all the implications that carried for a continuation of the peace and prosperity we had enjoyed during the previous 8 years, as opposed to the unknowns associated with the deliberately ignorant and nepotism-enjoying scion of the blight of the ’80s, the news had hit me hard. Don’t ever play poker, a colleague said as he passed me, your face will give you away. So I sought the comfort of home while Florida was still up in the air, and fell into a merciful sleep while the main squeeze continued to watch the returns from the television at the foot of our bed.

It’s not over, he told me the next morning, and then told me a ridiculous story that made me wonder if he had finally turned the corner from tabloid reporter — his true calling — to delusional victim of his own florid imagination.

It was all true, of course. While the recount, which all of us took turns covering, continued, Thanksgiving passed and then Christmas tree stands went up across the street from the Supervisor of Elections Office. The world watched for 37 days while Republican operatives acting as professional handicappers questioned every ballot working to beat the clock until the patriarch-stacked Supreme Court called time.

I mention that now because at around 10 p.m. last night, November 6, 2012, the main squeeze and I agreed that while the numbers were adding up for our President, it might not matter, that there might be Black Friday sales, Christmas tree stands, maybe New Years in Times Square before what we were waiting for happened — or was taken away.

Anyone who suffers from insomnia might do well to imagine such a scenario. I was snoring within moments of our conjuring it. The main squeeze suffers from insomnia as well as a tendency to deliberate; he turned off the television an hour later.

Some time after that I heard the beep my phone makes when someone texts me. I decided, in whatever dream I was having, not to wake up, sure that it was just the Obama people asking me to send them three dollars for a lawyer to contest the appeal against the recount. Even the thought was enough to send me into a state of temporary brain death.

Then, a little while later another beep. Reflexively, my dream master-of-ceremonies dismissed that interruption as well. Then, after a while — perhaps I turned over, perhaps I counted to two, and realized the Obama legal team wouldn’t have texted me twice — I rolled over and picked up the phone.

“Wahoo!” it said, in a text from my employer up in Washington, who, with the determined realism she had displayed since May, had helped bring  me to the state I had been in, and certainly owed me this now. The first, I saw, was from a Sri Lankan friend in DC, who had written “Florida not in yet, but we are going to bed.”

The main squeeze was snoring like a kitten.

I took the phone and went into the living room where I opened my computer and where the first thing I saw was the text above, from a friend in South Africa. Below it was one from an Iranian-born friend:

There was more — from Australia:

From Ecuador:

from Zambia:

Until I was certain I had gotten what I came home for and it was then I went to wake the main squeeze and tell him it was over.

Coming home

November 6, 2012 - Leave a Response

For my first outing since I came home the other day, I wore my Obama chitenge, a waist to ankle wrap of fabric with little American flags surrounding our President’s smiling face and Swahili words saying something to the effect of Congratulations and God Bless You Barack Obama. It is a big hit in Africa, where I got it, and where anything with our President’s face on it is a big hit. It’s a big hit amongst my people anywhere, my people being anyone I am, or could become, friends with.  Being home, where I came to vote and where my vote counts, perhaps I wanted to feel that I had potential friends all around me.

“I like your skirt,” a woman said warmly, on her way into the toilet stall to my left in the ladies room at Mounts Botanical Gardens. “It’s a tablecloth, right?”

“Thank you,” I said, and turned so she could admire the whole thing, my President’s face being mostly on the right, “It’s my President.”

She made a mean face, which wasn’t hard for her, as all her features were gathered in the middle, surrounded by down-pulling lines to begin with.

“Not mine,” she said. We both swept into our stalls.

“Actually he is, if you’re an American,” I said, once the door was safely locked behind me.

“You’re right!” she said, in the nasty way someone concedes a niggling point, when she thinks she’s got a bigger point to make. “For two more days!”

You ignorant shit, I thought, and said, “Actually, it doesn’t work that way. Even if the pathological liar wins, somehow, the next inauguration isn’t until January. But you don’t have to worry about keeping that straight, because it’s not going to happen.”

“Obama’s a pathological liar!” she said.

“And you’re a racist,” I said.

“Me?!” she cried out, in a suddenly squeaky voice that told me without question that she says awful things at home all the time. “That’s ridiculous!”

I flushed the toilet to drown her out.

The next day I went to the Obama office in the next town over, where very young men who looked like they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad gave me a clip board with a script, a map, a list of names and addresses, a stack of door hangers, and a companion, another person of gray hair, to drive out to the wasteland on the edge of the town with, and canvass opposite sides of the street.

“It’s reminding me of Deliverance here,” he said, at a sprawling compound that appeared to be a halfway house, where men stumbled blearily around between one-room cottages. And someone had been there the day before, and the day before that, we learned. We pinned our hopes on the next spot on our map, because it had cul-de-sacs and the inviting name of “Emerald Isles.”

It also had signs all over its entry saying  NO TRESPASSING and NO SOLICITING so we left to go to the next spot, a sparsely populated trailer park that, it turned out, had the same signs. We came back.

“I’m not going out again,” my companion told the Ralph Lauren models upon our return. “I’ll make calls if you want, but I’m done going door to door.”

I went back out with the more promising route of the cottages on the six blocks or so surrounding the office, and had a nice time because no one was home, and I could put notices saying where to vote on all the door knobs, and with the exception of one workman who asked if I was “on food stamps,” and if that was why I was supporting Obama, everyone was nice.

Then this morning my mother roared up the street at about 50 miles per hour in her car, before slamming on the brakes in front of my place and leaning on the horn, for me to take her to vote. She had already told me five or six times over the weekend that she thought it was nice that I was working for Obama, but how was she going to get to the polls and stand in line and vote. And I had already told her five or six times that the two activities weren’t mutually exclusive and that we could actually have our cake and eat it too — with whatever chance that I might ease the way for one possible additional Obama vote only augmenting our own Obama votes. Then of course the strong possibility — heightened by old-lady-level anxiety stirred by 500+ days of a tax-hiding sociopath campaigning against our president — that I would lose control of the car and Never Make it to the Polls helped fill the void of what to talk about as we made our way to the Lantana Recreation Cewnter.

And there we met two neighbors, who we like, but who my mother steered away from with speed unprecedented in at least the last dozen years, as she charged with her walker into the building. I explained she was very nervous to my neighbors, one of whom answered tactfully, “So are we,” but in a slightly off to the side way that indicated she was trying to say, nervous about a completely different thing. So I hurried away too, so I wouldn’t have to hate them for the whole rest of time, and went in and voted.

And now we’re waiting, and I’m wondering if it’s going to be like this, having to worry, and argue and be grateful for tiny little comforts like not arguing, all the time now.

What’s wrong with this picture?

November 2, 2012 - Leave a Response

I am asking the question above to settle a grade school fight. It started when I read this in the New York Times. It says that New York City Public Schools, just now, decided to end the practice of denying deserving kids spots in what they call gifted programs (and what some of us might call “white flight programs”) based on having to give it to some other kid, whose sibling already had staked a claim to the school. The reason that had been considered okay, the article explains, is that if one kid is in the program already (having demonstrated a skill at puzzles, or giving the expected answer, or having a parent who knows someone in the school system), the next sibling has an edge, and will displace another kid, who might have a higher score, but not a parent who would be inconvenienced by having to drop their spawn off, pick them up at separate institutions of learning. Not to mention the potential for labeling that might go with that. Better to give the second kid a lifelong benefit, earned by family connections, that some other kid who could use a break simply doesn’t have. That sounds a little like how George Bush, and probably his father as well, got to go to Yale.

I had never realized, though, until I read that article that sibling preference in elementary school was actually sanctioned on paper. In terms of having anything actually at stake it didn’t make a difference to me. I was not displaced, nor did I benefit from any previous family going to the school I got into at the age of three, for mysterious reasons that I have no memory of, that have not otherwise benefited me. I have no chip on my shoulder, no dog in the fight, nothing to prove. I had noticed that some of my classmates either were, or had, greatly less impressive siblings than ones who had passed before them at our school, and wondered in my dull, innocent way, at the coincidence that, with such an apparent span of skill between them, they had both, or in some cases all, managed to make it into our selective little institution.

Then years later, when I taught at a school for gifted students, seeing the same thing, I wondered again, still in an accepting, stolid way, at the whole families of kids who all got into the same competitive school that, otherwise, only, like, one in every 50 applicants got into.

So, half a century later, I was relieved to finally have it spelled out for me, in the article above, which says the practice is being ended in New York City Public Schools. Good. That should even things out in another century or so. So I shared the good news on the social media page I belong to with my old elementary school alumni.

One of them, who looks both a great deal younger than me — no grey hair, no lines or bags showing in her mug shot — and somewhat older — done, satisfied — who, whatever generation she belongs to, I never knew, responded to explain that our school was not a New York City Public School, and that our school was not mentioned in the article. I am guessing she was a younger sibling beneficiary, as it can’t be possible to have an even average IQ and not have that degree of obnoxiousness knocked out of you by adulthood.

As I’ve said, I got into that school on my own merit, which could open another argument about what merit is being measured, because I found it necessary to reply.

I noticed that, I said, and I am aware of the difference between our school and the ones in the New York Times story. I was going to explain  that I extrapolated — but if you have to say that, it’s already too late. So instead I said that most of us, of my generation, at least, only have to look at our class pictures to be able to see that admission wasn’t gained on a level playing field.

She wrote back to say that she believes that’s all changed now. What great news.

The metro and the magic machine

October 24, 2012 - Leave a Response

Washington, DC — Every rush hour, probably on every train, definitely the Red line and the Blue and Orange, at all of the busy stops — Woodley Park, Dupont Circle, Farrugut North, Metro Center and, on the way back Rosslyn, a combination of chess and musical chairs ensues every time the doors open and seats empty.

Young people, as a rule, show convincing disinterest in the empty seats, older people don’t. But the inevitable exceptions call for manuevering. My low blood pressure, which has made standing an ordeal for me my whole life, and my gray hair, which has made everything easier, grant me, in my view, any seat I can slither in ahead of anyone who is not pregnant or carrying a cane. Some embarrassing day, I suspect, some other gray-haired person is going to end up sidling into my lap.

In the meantime, I do what I can, and had planted myself in time to watch a series of other seatings, and was opening my book when a balding suited young man asked the middle-aged woman in front of him something, which probably had something to do with why she had a wooden box on the  only otherwise empty seat next to her, instead of on her lap.

I assume that because I didn’t hear him, and she did have an arm around a long wooden box that rested on the seat next to her, and she in turn, staring searchingly into his face, asked if he would like to sit down. No, no, he said, as if the thought was ridiculous — who would want to sit at the end of a work day instead of jerking around dangling from one arm, after all.

She took that, apparently to mean he really wanted to know what the box was for, because she turned it over to show it had strings, like a harpischord running from top to bottom, but no keys.

“If you run your hand across the strings,” she told him, “it’s supposed to have the power to _______ your mind.”

The blank sounded like “erase” but I couldn’t believe she said that, so I left it blank.

She strummed her finger over the strings, and continuing to stare directly into his face asked if he could feel it.

I couldn’t hear his reply, but I could feel his predicament. What do you say — no? and then she keeps trying? or yes, and she moves onto the next step, which seemed inevitable. He seemed to be trying to say sure, whatever you say. She continued to look at him, like an extremely bad tv detective, while strumming. The people who were talking to each other stopped talking. The people who were fiddling with their iphones stopped fiddling. I let my book rest in my lap. The train stopped, no seats emptied, but then she turned the box so that its back faced out, and moved it just enough, against the back of the seat so the young man in the suit could perch on the edge of the seat which he did, and rest his suited back against it.

“Do you feel it?” she said, strumming.

“Well yes, of course, I can feel it,” he said.

The next stop, Metro Center, he got up like the seat was on fire. She followed him out, it was her stop too apparently, and it was mine. As we all jostled for places away on the escalator, she stared searchingly around, it seemed, for her next subject.