Sunday, December 27, 2009

About Gratitude, Wealth, and the New Year

2010 sure turned up awful fast. I think my New Year’s Resolution is going to be to eat more chocolate. We seem to have an abundance of really good chocolate in the house right now. Those resolutions about dieting and exercise and healthy lifestyle are lame. I want something real this year. My real New Year’s Resolutions are 1) to be more grateful for what I have and 2) to stop worrying about finances since I don’t make any money doing that.

My children are home and we have no house guests. Just the five of us. Christmas Dinner was terrifically fun and funny. We killed an excellent bottle of merlot together and reminisced about life at the Ranch. We had a lot of fun opening presents, enhanced by Ron’s silliness in signing the tags with the names of celebrities. When Yael discovered a gift from Denzel, I asked her if it came with batteries. My darling husband bought me that pruning ladder I have been coveting (couldn’t fit it in the car but put a picture of it in my stocking—have to get a friend with a truck to pick it up). I received Amaryllis and iris flower bulbs from Yael and handmade ceramics from the boys. A mug with gorgeous glazing from Akili. Sudi quite outdid himself. He made me a sculpture of three brown baby arms/hands reaching up from a flat base and balancing in their palms a ceramic replica of the McNab Ranch House with all the windows and doors exactly right. I know, I should post a photo, but I’m not that tech savvy. It’s the most exquisite rendering of the spirit of the years our family spent with children growing up at the Ranch. I miss my little children, but I look ahead to fat years with my grown-up children, filled with new directions, grandchildren, and more family fun.

I am blessed. I am grateful. I am wealthy. May your new year be bright.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Saying Good-bye to Jarvis

I became friends with the poet Mona Van Duyn and her husband Jarvis Thurston at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 1974. Mona won many awards for her poetry, including a Pulitzer, and she was the first woman poet laureate of the U.S. Mona and Jarvis managed a literary journal called Perspective (founded in 1947). They are credited with first publishing many writers who went on to win major awards and become widely recognized. They taught at Washington University in St. Louis and it was because of them that I went to Wash. U. in 1976 to study for my Ph.D. Although I never completed the degree, I had a terrific two years at Wash. U. and while I was there I went to the home of Mona and Jarvis every Sunday evening for a visit. We would sit in the living room and chat and tell stories. When we became friends, I was in my early 20s and Mona and Jarvis were in their early 60s, so I was destined to outlive them by many years. Fortunately they lived a long time. Mona died of bone cancer in 2004. She used to write the most hilarious and moving holiday letters. In fact, she is the person who originally inspired me to write my epic holiday letter each year.

Last week, I googled Jarvis Thurston to see if he was still living before sending him my holiday letter and I discovered that he died in 2008 at the age of 93. (I’m surprised that my holiday letter to him last year didn’t bounce back to me.) The thing I remember best about Jarvis is his storytelling. He could easily compete with Garrison Keillor. He was raised out in the wilds of Utah back when there were only a half a dozen people living there. His growing-up stories, especially about the animals his family owned, were hilarious. He and Mona could not have children and they were not able to adopt because Mona had had a psychotic episode when young, which prevented her from passing the test by the adoption agencies in those days. Their children were their many students and protégés (like me). Mona was a fragile person and Jarvis dedicated his life to loving and nurturing her. The world owes a debt of gratitude to Jarvis for caring for Mona so well that she was able to write her magnificent poetry. When I googled Jarvis, the first hit I got was an article by Tom Finkel, son of poet Don Finkel, who also taught at Wash. U. (I studied with Don). Tom tells about going to visit Jarvis on the night before Jarvis died. Jarvis was not conscious or responsive. Tom heard a woman’s voice coming from Jarvis’s room as he mounted the stairs and when he entered the room he discovered that Jarvis’s caregiver had placed a CD in the CD-player of Mona reading her poetry aloud. I am comforted to imagine that Jarvis slipped out of the world while listening to the voice of his beloved Mona reading her poetry.

Here is the link to Tom Finkel’s article about Jarvis.:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lessons in Talking to Adult Children

A few weeks after my youngest child moved to his first apartment (on-campus housing), I had an occasion to drive him back to school and drop him off at his new place, which he shares with two other young men. The condition of the apartment was appalling and I spoke with him about what is required to clean and maintain an apartment. He said that they would get to it soon. I thought that perhaps they needed a little bit of a nudge so I decided to call the Residence Advisor (R.A.) Supervisor for their building. She was a perky young lady who spoke with a Valley Girl accent. I asked her if perhaps the R.A. for their floor might do me a favor and poke his head into the apartment and give the guys a word or two about taking out the trash before the rats moved in, cleaning spilled and dropped food off the stovetop before it caught on fire, and giving the bathroom a once-over before the mold needed a shave with a machete.

R.A. Supe Girl informed me that the R.A.s don’t do that kind of thing. I said I was concerned about the health and safety of the guys. I asked if they had a fire extinguisher in their apartment and she assured me they did. I said that made me feel much better, but had they shown the guys how to use it? R.A. Supe Girl informed me that they don’t do training on the use of the fire extinguishers. I suggested that this was perhaps a somewhat unsafe situation and that I would appreciate it if she could send an R.A. to have a talk with the guys about safety, stovetop fires, and how to use their fire extinguisher. R.A. Supe Girl informed me that they don’t do that. She said that different people have different lifestyles and levels of cleanliness and that perhaps my son and his roommates were comfortable living in filth and squalor (she didn’t use those exact words). Then, now here’s the kicker, she suggested that I have a conversation with my son “speaking as an adult to a young adult” about my concerns.

At that moment, I realized she was “handling me” and that a 20-something Valley Girl in a R.A. Supe work-study job was following the instructions in her “How to Talk to Parents” Handbook and giving me advice about how to relate to my adult child. I’m thinking, how many adult children do I have and how many does she have? I’m thinking, how many children have I put through college and has she even graduated yet? I’m thinking give me the phone number of this girl’s mother. I politely extricated myself from the conversation, thanking her for her time, hung up, and immediately called my son and read him the riot act. As an adult speaking to a young adult, I said, “Don’t make me come down there with my yellow rubber gloves, Lysol spray, and toilet brush.” I told him I didn’t care if they drowned in dirty laundry, but they had to clean the food off the stove burners. I wanted them to read the instructions on the fire extinguisher (test would need to be passed before I would make another rent payment). I would not, I repeat, would not pay to have the rug and the stove replaced, the bathroom repainted, and the kitchen fumigated when they moved out. The cleaning deposit was for cleaning, not rebuilding.

The next time I visited the apartment, the kitchen and bathroom passed inspection and the trash was emptied. The stovetop was clean. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a safe and healthy home. So glad I had that little adult to young adult conversation with my son.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wedding on the Ferry

On Tuesday evening I had the honor of witnessing the wedding of my friends Linda and Scott, which took place on the ferry from Oakland to San Francisco. The bride and groom have been together for close to 25 years and recently decided to make it legal. They are both outdoorsy people, and Linda comes from a family of fisherpeople, so getting married on a boat on the Bay was a perfect choice. The wedding party was very small and the ceremony was short. Linda did wear a gown and she looked radiant. Her entry onto the ferry was met with smiles and congratulations from the other ferry passengers. The ferry captain drove slowly so we could hear the ceremony over the racket of the boat and the water; and when the ceremony was completed, he announced his congratulations on the P.A. system and honked the ferry horn. The ride took about a half an hour and the timing was perfect as we had a delicious view of the sunset on a clear evening with the full moon beaming on us. We passed directly under the Bay Bridge while enjoying the panoramic skyline of San Francisco, which was lit up before us. When the ferry docked at the Ferry Building, we walked to a nearby restaurant for fine dining and wining. After dinner we were extremely jolly as we returned on the ferry to Jack London Square in Oakland, again under a full moon and clear sky. It was a romantic and memorable wedding, and exactly right for the bride and groom. Congratulations Linda and Scott.

Remember The Call to Shakabaz

I want to remind my blog readers to think of my book, The Call to Shakabaz, when planning your holiday gift-giving. It's a great family read-aloud. Fun inexpensive entertainment!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Holiday Season

It’s here. I am so grateful to have all my children home for Thanksgiving once again because I know that as they get older they will choose to go somewhere else on more occasions. But in 2009, they were all here. Today they will head back to their grown-up lives. But they will return for Christmas in just a few weeks. In the interim, my sister-in-law and niece will be out for a visit from Chicago. By the time they head home, my children will be trickling back in. (Sudi’s student housing closes only two days after the Chicago relatives depart.) My goals this holiday season? Don’t spend more than I can afford. Don’t gain weight. Well, wish me luck with that. I am truly blessed and I continue to try to appreciate my blessings. Next project up on the agenda? Writing the annual holiday letter. That will take me until Channuka for sure.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Still Learning the Important Lessons from Football

Once again, Football saved my life.

I was having a bad week, a week of doubt. The voice inside my head had gone to the dark side. It kept saying that I have not used my time here to good purpose. It said that I am a failed writer. All I have is imagination and it’s leading me nowhere. “Let’s face it,” the evil voice in my head said, “You are 55 years old and there is a good chance you will go to your grave without connecting with the readers for whom your writing is intended. The novels that you labored over with love for the past 20 years will, at best, reach a close circle of family and friends through some inexpensive self-pubbing avenue. Beyond that, nothing.”

I took my best shot publishing a book, which was modestly successful, won a few awards, gave a couple thousand people a good time, briefly. It didn’t make it financially possible for me to publish any more books. It didn’t even earn back what it cost to produce. It certainly didn’t bring me the opportunity to quit writing grants and dedicate my time to my creative pursuits. I hear inspiring success stories about other writers and artists all the time. This one printed 100 copies of a book for their friends and family and one thing led to another and it became a bestseller. That one mortgaged their home and made an independent film that won the Sundance Festival. But not everyone gets to be a huge success story. I didn’t.

Now for the football. On Sunday night, the Colts beat the Pats in the last few seconds of the game after I had given up and gone to bed. I read about the win with astonishment in the paper the next morning. I am a big Colts fan because, well, I’m from Northern Cali where we barely have a football team. In fact, we barely have two. I think Peyton Manning is brilliant. Not to mention Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, and Austin Collie. The Pats lost me with the fumble that should have gone to Oakland in the snow in the play-offs years ago. I never forgot and I have passionately disliked them, and that sourpuss Belichek, with a vengeance only allowable when it comes to football. With 3 minutes left in the game, and the Colts (21 points) on the verge of losing for the first time in their so-far perfect season, to the Pats (34 points) no less, I couldn’t bear to watch. I turned off the TV and gave up on them. Ah, ye of little faith. After I went to bed, the Colts scored twice and won the game 35-34, keeping their perfect record. Thank you Football, for reminding me that it’s not over until it’s over, and anything can happen, even in the last minute of the game, even a miracle.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Day My Facebook Account Was Hacked

I am not in London. I have not been mugged. But if you want to send money I won’t say no. On Monday morning I innocently checked my email to find a message from my friend B. asking if I was really in London, had I really been mugged, and did I really need her to wire me $4,000 so I could come home. I had heard about this scam, now it had me. It has been many years since I have received bogus emails sent from myself (ostensibly) to me (and others in my address book) asking me to buy Viagra, visit porn sites, or send my firstborn child to a brothel in Cambodia. Our spam filters, firewalls, and virus protection are excellent. But they apparently don’t do any good on Facebook. I contacted Facebook Security and they immediately disabled my account. They took my page down. Then I spent my morning emailing everyone I know and asking them not to send me money. What is wrong with this picture?

At first I thought the hacker had accessed my personal email address book because B. sent a confusing and cryptic email to my personal email account. But that was not the case. The integrity of my computer and email account were never compromised. It was all Facebook. The cybercriminals impersonated me and contacted a handful of my friends who use Facebook chat rooms a lot to extort money from them. I never chat on Facebook (if you get a chat from me then it’s not me). I never join groups or play games on Facebook (beware Mafia Wars and Farmville people, you are particularly vulnerable). I’m one of the least vulnerable people on Facebook and I got played.

The worst part was emailing everyone in my address book to warn them that I had been played. How embarrassing, and, as it turned out, completely unnecessary since my address book was never infiltrated. So now I’m simply stranded in Ukiah with too many children in college, a mortgage, a stack of bills, and my quarterly income tax due in a few weeks. Forget London. Send chocolate.

More of Me

Self-promotion sucks, but I write to be read, so there you have it. Please help me out with my latest venture, and hopefully enjoy some good reading in the process.

I have signed on as the San Francisco Fiftysomething Lifestyle Examiner (writer) for a national online web content outlet called Examiner dot com. I write short articles and I earn money based on the quality of the content, page views, and click-throughs to links posted on my pages. Please help me build my presence at Examiner and earn money with my articles by going to my page and clicking on some of my articles. Here is the link. (Address: http://www.examiner.com/x-28077-San-Francisco-Fiftysomething-Lifestyle-Examiner.)

You can subscribe to the page by clicking the subscribe link to the right of my name. If you subscribe, you will get an email every time I post a new article, which could be too much of me since I post at least once a day. If you choose not to subscribe, please bookmark my page so you remember to pop over there once in awhile to give me some page views. On Tuesdays, I post a short humorous piece about the Raiders and 49ers called Football Tuesday by the Bay (check it out for a chuckle—click my Football topic). On Sundays I post a humorous piece under the topic Lighter Side. Any help you can provide spreading the word about my Examiner page is much appreciated.

For those of you who actually live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I invite you to send me information about your events, activities, political actions, and other happenings. Send links for more information and I’ll post an article to draw attention to your venture. As I build my presence, I look forward to helping you get the word out about your projects. Examiner dot com is nationwide. It is not just a San Francisco thing. If anyone out there reading this is interested in writing for Examiner dot com, call or email me to find out how to apply to be a writer for them. (If they accept you as a writer, and you indicated that I referred you in your application, I will get $50 as a finder’s fee.) Thanks for your support.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

High Tech Halloween

I almost bailed on Halloween this year. It’s my least favorite holiday. I’m not a costume dress-up person. And giving tooth-rot sugary candy to children just goes against my health-food mom character. Even worse is having the candy around and eating it myself. I do like carving pumpkins, but I don’t have any children to do it with me anymore. Sudi says I need to rent some grandchildren. But I didn’t bail. I stuck it out. I bought candy. I carved the pumpkin and roasted the seeds (best part of Halloween is those seeds). With Ron at the radio station doing his spooky Halloween show, I stayed home alone to answer the door.

Since I can’t hear the doorbell or the sound of someone knocking on the door from way back in my study, I put a sign on the door many months ago that says I can’t hear the bell or knock and gives the phone number. “Call and I’ll come to the door,” the sign reads. And the FedEx driver diligently calls every time he drops off a package (and the UPS driver diligently does NOT call—that’s the difference between FedEx and UPS).

I brought my computer out to the kitchen table on Halloween so I could hear the doorbell. But I forgot the sign on the door. So round about 7:30, when the little tots are back at home counting their candy, the older youngsters start coming around. And the phone starts ringing. Instead of ringing the bell or knocking first, they cut to the chase and call me with their cell phones and shout “Trick or Treat! We’re at your door!” High tech Halloween. Cracks me up. When my friend Jim calls from Oakland to say hey, I ask him, “Are you at my door too?”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bad Parenting as Reality TV

What is up with the Heene family and their hot air balloon stunt? I am trying to imagine a man so desperate for attention, so desperate to become famous and make millions, that he would jeopardize his family and the psychological well-being of his own children. Where once musicians, artists, writers, dancers, and actors dreamed of recognition and the opportunity to use their gifts to advance the evolution of humankind; now un-evolved ordinary individuals with no apparent creative ability seek fame and fortune through exposure on reality TV. After seeing so many tabloid headlines about the Gosselins, watching part of an episode of that Nanny Show at a diner one night, hearing about the Wife Swap show, and then reading with horror about the Heenes, I am beginning to wonder if reality TV is pretty much all about bad parenting and child abuse. I think I’m going to start a reality TV show called Worst Parents Get Spanked.

When the media tried to interview Falcon Heene about his day hiding in the attic, he threw up. Twice. It doesn’t take a child psychologist to figure out that having his dad expect him to lie on national TV made Falcon sick to his stomach. Thank goodness for him and his own conscience that he finally said “We did it for the show.” (Anyone remember that 1999 Peter Weir movie with Jim Carrey called “The Truman Show” about the guy who grew up on a reality TV show without realizing it?) While real artists and celebrities who earned their fame with sweat, blood, and guts work hard to protect the privacy of their family life and to give their children a wholesome childhood, reality TV chasers do whatever it takes to exploit their children for profit. The upshot for the Heenes may be that their children are taken from them by Child Protective Services. And I have to ask myself if the Heene boys are better off in the system or with their whacked parents, who believe in aliens and that the world will end in 2012. Usually, I would say with the parents. In this case? Run, Heene boys, run.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Life Without TV

When we moved to the Ranch in 1991, we could get only 3 TV stations and the reception was so bad that usually all we could see was snow. I was, of course, delighted. As a writer, I have always considered the TV my arch enemy. We rented a lot of movies and watched them as a family. There were a heap of favorites that we watched repeatedly. My children played outdoors and engaged in creative pursuits. It is not surprising that they grew up to be writers, musicians, and artists.

We did get satellite service after about 10 years out in the boonies. But we discontinued the TV service every year in April during Turn Off Your TV Week and we didn’t turn it on again until September when the football season started. No laying around on the couch in the summer and watching TV for my children. And when we did have satellite TV service, during the winter, we had rules about how much TV was allowed per day and per week. We still watched a lot of rented movies. That TV is a time suck. I can’t understand how people can leave the TV on all day as background. What a lot of inane racket. I would always tell my children to turn the thing off and read a book, play music, or draw a picture. TV is the antithesis of creativity. To this day, I still think that my children watched too much TV. In reality, we had far less TV in our home than in most.

Last week I emailed Sudi to ask if he had watched a TV show that his sister recommended as being pretty funny. I was astonished when Sudi replied that he doesn’t watch much TV, doesn’t care for it, and is happy that we had little of it when he was growing up. Wow. Sudi is not much of a reader, but he went on to say he was looking forward to reading a book he had selected for his English class at college. He warned me not to get too excited. (“It’s just one book, Mom.”) Nevertheless, I’m still trying to wipe this sappy grin off my face.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

10,000 Hours to Success

What are you an expert at? In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about what factors contribute to the success of wildly successful people, like Bill Gates. One of the crucial elements contributing to success according to Gladwell is 10,000 hours invested in doing. He attempts to prove that this is the threshold of time needed for practice and/or experience that tips the balance. For example, he describes how, in the early 60s, the Beatles played all night every night at a night club in Hamburg, Germany so that by the time they returned to Liverpool, they had played together for over 10,000 hours. They were pros. Gladwell shows where Bill Gates got his 10,000 hours of computer programming experience by the time he was in his early twenties. Doing the math, to get the 10,000 you’d need to do about 20 hours per week for 10 years or 40 hours for 5 years (hope I got that right—I’ve only put in six and a half hours at math).

Gladwell’s 10,000-hour theory is compelling. He cites a study done with musicians. Those who became brilliant professional pianists had put in the 10,000 hours at a fairly young age, while those who were teaching music or playing for pleasure while holding down another job had not met the 10,000-hour threshold.

If we buy Gladwell’s theory that to become an expert in something we need to have 10,000 hours of experience, I find it interesting to consider what that makes me an expert at. There are not many things I have spent 10,000 hours doing. Sleeping. Reading. Doing laundry perhaps. (I may have put in 10,000 hours laundering diapers back in the day.) Seriously, I would say I’ve invested that 10,000 in writing, and also in grant writing as a separate expertise, and definitely in active parenting (I mean real parenting, not just being a parent). Ron has put in the 10,000 studying music, more specifically R&B and Soul. What about you? Where have you invested your 10,000 hours?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How to Write a Comforting Sympathy Card

[I published this article in another venue and it seems to be so helpful to people that I’m reprinting it on my blog so it can be searched by a wider audience. It will also automatically post to my Facebook.]

When someone dies, we naturally want to comfort those left behind, but we often feel helpless to make them feel better. What can we possibly say to relieve the pain of loss they are feeling? Actually, even a few words, carefully chosen, can provide surprisingly strong comfort.

When we lose someone we love, we want to know that they are remembered and we want to believe that their spirit continues on some level. It is important for us to see that the person so dear to us touched the lives of other people. It is also helpful to know that others are thinking of us in our time of grief and that we are not alone.

A well-written sympathy card will contain all the above elements. Start off by saying how sad you were to hear of the death. Let the recipient know that you will always remember the person who died. If you are inclined, you can briefly relate a special memory of the person who died. Hearing new stories about someone who died provides new experiences of that person, which helps us transcend the death. Let the recipient know that the person who died touched you in a personal way and made a difference in your life. If you did not know the person who died, then let the recipient know that s/he is special to you and that was what prompted you to write.

If you believe in the ongoing life of the spirit, make reference to what you imagine the spirit of the deceased is doing or thinking in the “spirit world.” Be sensitive to the religious and spiritual beliefs of the person receiving your card. If you share their religion, then you will be able to say something of a spiritual nature that is in exact harmony with your religious beliefs. If you don’t believe in an ongoing life of the spirit or you are irreligious, make reference to the ongoing impact the deceased will have in the world based on what s/he did in life. Remember that those left behind will be comforted to know that others recognize the difference in the world that was made by the person who has died, that s/he accomplished something worth remembering.

Finish your message by letting the recipient know that you will continue to hold them in your thoughts (and prayers if appropriate) and that they and the one they have lost to death are not forgotten. If you feel certain that you can follow through, then offer to help in any way you can and put your phone number to show that you are serious.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mistaken Identity

For the second time in recent months, my name was slapped on something I didn’t write in our little synagogue newsletter, which is not owned by Hearst, yet it bothers me. The newsletter only goes to about 200 people and I would wager that few of them read it cover to cover. But the ones who do read it are probably puzzled as to why I, of all people, would write a haiku about “the G-word” (quoted from the published haiku), since I am a known atheist, who actually stood up in front of the congregation and read a piece that I DID write about not believing in god (small cap, spelled out) last year, at Yom Kippur services no less.

Only a few months ago my name was attached to a piece in the same newsletter written about a workshop that took place that I not only did not plan but did not even participate in. The woman who did do all the work for it, and did write the article, was not acknowledged at all. So I had people coming up to me and asking about the workshop, which was on a topic that frankly does not interest me.

What really irks me about all this silliness? I am a professional writer. I choose my words, content, and genres with care. For better or worse, I define myself as a writer. Writing is at the core of my identity. It is my gift. It is the work of my hands in this life. So when my name appears on material that I did not write (especially second-rate material), I cringe. Let me explain how it feels. If you saw the movie The Naked Gun then you will recall a hilarious scene in which Leslie Nielsen sneaks his way onto the baseball field by kidnapping the opera singer who was supposed to sing the National Anthem. The opera singer, bound and gagged, is seen watching Nielsen sing, and butcher, the National Anthem in his stead on national TV. While Nielsen is screeching the bombs bursting in air, the opera singer’s name appears at the bottom of the TV screen, identifying him as the singer for all the world. I am that bound and gagged opera singer.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cool Down Needed

I recently realized that Global Warming hit right when I went through menopause. I’m just saying. An Inconvenient Truth came out like on the day my doctor said “Congratulations, you are past menopause.” The perfect gift. Thanks Al. Impeccable timing. I am doomed to be sweaty from now until the ice caps puddle out and the earth burns up in a massive fireball of combustible plastic and oil.

Yesterday it was 107 degrees. What is up with that? It’s almost October. I shouldn’t be raking up oak leaves in blistering heat. Or putting on my swimsuit to garden. Or using my hot tub without heating it up. In October. OK, well, almost October.

I don’t deserve this. I have done my part. I drive an extremely fuel-efficient car. I have been recycling since the McGovern Administration. Oh, wait, never mind, he lost to Nixon, didn’t he? Don’t blame me I voted for McGovern. Me and three other people, two goats, and a barn owl. I consciously reduce use of paper and plastic. I don’t travel much (those fuel-guzzling airplanes). I work at home, no commute. I leave a tiny carbon footprint. Shoe size 3. Yet things heat up right when my body thermometer gets stuck in the Mojave. Life is not fair.

I need a good investigative reporter to write a book about the conspiracy by large polluting, carbon-emitting corporations to make me hot. Pass the popsicles.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Solving the Problem

How often have you had the experience of suddenly discovering a simple solution to a longstanding or significant problem? One of those DUH moments, when you realize that you’ve been living with this difficulty that evaporates in an instant?

For instance, a few years back, I suddenly had something poking me in the bottom of my foot. It felt like a perpetual rock in my shoe. I lived with it for months until it made me crazy. I didn’t know which doctor to go to. Family doc? Foot doc? Skin doc? I finally opted for the foot doc. Wrong. This foot doc (and after this went down, believe me, I never went to that doc again) took X-rays and said I had something growing in my foot and he wasn’t sure what it was. He wanted to remove it surgically, which would require an outpatient hospital procedure, require me to spend a week on bed rest with the foot iced and elevated, and leave me on crutches for a month. I booked the surgery, dreading the ordeal. But I also called my dermatologist and ran in for an emergency visit. He diagnosed it immediately as a planter’s wart and removed it in his office for $35. End of story.

Here’s another example. One of my cats, Golda, is an orange tabby. Even though she’s a shorthair, she sheds like crazy. For four years I have tried to remember to pick her up only when I’m wearing house clothes, covered couches and chairs with easily removable fabrics (which I air fluff in the dryer periodically), often walked around covered in orange cat hair (when I forgot and picked her up in my going-out clothes), and didn’t pet her as much as I pet her non-shedding sister. Poor Golda. A few weeks ago, I bought a metal hoop designed to remove the shedded hair in cats and dogs. Every couple of days or so, I comb Golda with the hoop. Now her coat looks fabulous, she looks healthier (and happier), and she is no longer a shedding problem. I pick her up all the time and pet her. How simple was that?

These things give me pause. How many problems, big and small, would be so easy to resolve if only we could step back and take a new perspective, discover a tool for the job, get the right information, or use a different approach?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I ♥ Football

After I posted on FaceBook that I was sitting on the couch Thursday watching the first game of the season, several people expressed surprise that I am into football. I’m not just into football. I’m rabidly fanatical. Well, almost. I don’t paint myself orange. But I did once sit through a game in the pouring rain. It took me a year to save up for the tickets and I wasn’t about to leave. Now I watch from the comfort (and economic austerity) of my own couch, curled up with my cats. Perhaps I don’t seem like the football type because I’m a woman, pacifist, vegetarian, hopelessly uncoordinated, Jewish mom who forbade her boys from playing football growing up, or all of the above. Whatever the reason, I say to you: get over it. I ♥ FOOTBALL!

Football is not a gladiator sport, as many who don’t care for the sport seem to think. You do have to have some smarts to play, despite what anomalies like Terrell Owens may lead you to assume. I once heard a woman say that football is soap opera for men. There is a lot of truth in that statement, because a big part of football for me is getting to know the players, hearing about their career paths, their background, their accomplishments, and what is going on in their life. Then I watch them on the field and am often deeply inspired to see how they perform. Football is the only game that excites me as much as watching my own children play intramural sports. Football is personal.

Football has infinite life lessons. The game is a phenomenal teacher. John Madden often used to say, “Football is a game of inches.” So is life. One never knows what hair’s breadth forward movement will tip the balance and take you to your goal. Player strategies, coaches’ styles, choices made, efforts rewarded or failed. They can have more depth than just the game. When Tony Dungy became the first black coach to win a Superbowl, it was more than just a game. When Eli Manning broke free from a swarm of Patriots and threw the winning touchdown pass, it was more than just a game. When Donovan McNabb was pulled out by his coach and benched, then returned to play his heart out, it was more than just a game. I love the drama of football, the passion that brought the players to the field, the commitment that keeps them there, the effort that makes them win or lose. I love the life lessons inherent in the game and the analogies that can be drawn from even the simplest football plays. I am forever hooked on football. And this year’s season is just beginning!

Here's today's game schedule.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The President Will Be Televised in the Schools

President Obama (I still love saying that) plans to speak to schoolchildren during school via closed circuit television and the Republicans don’t like it. Many conservative families say they will pull their children out of school rather than have them hear Obama speak because he is recruiting children for the Democratic party, brainwashing children, campaigning under the guise of education, and speaking in complete sentences to very young children.

A friend asked me, “If Bush had decided to do the same thing, would you take your children out of school?” My first response was, “Obviously yes.” But that was a knee-jerk reaction (or straight up reaction to a jerk perhaps). My second response was, “I would let them stay in school to hear him if he was required to speak in grammatical sentences.” My real response is that all three of my children have close to double the IQ of Bush and they are independent thinkers, so there would have been no harm he could do to their tender young minds. He probably would have given them a good laugh. He certainly would have been talking down to them, because every one of them was wiser at ten years old than he will ever be.

So whom could Obama influence to be more receptive to his agenda by speaking to schoolchildren? The only children he would reach and perhaps influence are those who are independent thinkers, because children who do not think for themselves usually cling to their parents’ views (or whomever is the adult of note in their lives). He would not be likely to change their opinions one iota. The people who would pull their children from school are not likely to have independent thinking children. Not all independent thinking children are Democrats of course, not all of them are liberals either. But one thing is for sure: Independent thinkers will make up their own mind and no one will brainwash them. So, yes, I would have let my children listen to Bush. But he didn’t respect their opinions enough to speak to them. Obama shows that he values children, educators, and the public education system by this action. I think it is admirable that he is setting an example of speaking to young children as if they can think for themselves, even though many of them are being raised and taught not to do so.

Afternote: Today the text of Obama's speech to schoolchildren was published.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Prison of the Mind

I have had a morbid fascination this week with the news story from Antioch, CA about the girl kidnapped 18 years ago who was recently liberated from her abductor. Jaycee was snatched off the street between her home and the bus stop as she headed for school in Reno one morning. She was 11 years old. Her stepfather chased after the car and got the license number, but it was never found. Neither was Jaycee. Until last week.

As the story goes, Jaycee was held in a concealed section of yard behind her abductor’s house. She is now 29. She has two daughters, age 15 and 11, fathered by her abductor, who is nearly twice her age, is married, is psychotic, and is a registered sex offender who was visited several times a month by an oblivious parole officer who never looked in the back yard. The abductor’s wife helped him keep Jaycee and her daughters captive. I’m not usually one to pay attention to these sensationalized horrifying stories. So what is it about this horrendous tale that keeps me reading? The key lies in one of the few quotes from Jaycee publicized in the media. The girl said that she feels guilty that she didn’t try harder to escape.

She didn’t try harder to escape. At first. Then she didn’t try at all. Obviously. She and her daughters never left that substandard living situation until very recently. They used a makeshift outhouse. They lived in tents. They had no contact with the outside. Their entire world was that small backyard. No TV. No internet. No conversation with other children. Other people. Only the psychotic abductor, father to the two daughters, and his disturbed wife. Jaycee gave birth to those children out there with no medical attention. They have had no schooling. The thing that fascinates and puzzles me is why they stayed as time went by. Didn’t the children have questions about what lay beyond the fence? Over the course of 18 years, there must have been opportunities to escape that were never taken. A psychologist who is working with Jaycee and her daughters spoke about why Jaycee stayed: “It sounds simplistic, but the real prison was her brain.”

That yard and the constricted life Jaycee and her daughters led can be applied to all of us to some extent, each of us living within our own frame of reference, trapped in our reality, our perspective. It makes me step back and question. What are the walls of my personal prison? What is the fence that I fail to see beyond, the door that I choose not to open? Gives me pause.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Return of Michael Vick

So Michael Vick served his time, learned his lesson, regrets his behavior, and signed with the Eagles; and I, for one, am delighted. He was, and still is, a very young man. As an NFL star, his transgressions were magnified for all the world to see. Imagine if the biggest mistakes you made in your youth were lit up in lights and published on the front page of the newspaper. Pretty awful. I believe his apologies and I believe that he is a changed person. He served his time, in prison, for his crime. He has been punished. He has suffered.

In my opinion, the discussions about him that I have read miss the boat. Vick says the first time he attended a dogfight he was eight years old. He comes from a culture in which dogfighting is a way of life. I am not condoning it. Far from it. I’m an animal-lover, a former dogowner, and a vegetarian. I abhor cruelty in all its forms. But I’m saying that in certain African American Southern cultures, dogfighting is part of everyday life. It took Vick’s “outing” as a dogfighting participant to throw this practice into perspective. Not only for Vick, but for other people who may have thought it was OK, because, well, it has been OK for as long as they can remember. Vick apparently grew up with dogfighting and never had that aha moment when he realized that something about it was terribly wrong until his downfall.

There are many reprehensible cultural institutions that persist far too long because those from inside the culture need a change in perspective to “get it.” Animal sacrifice and human sacrifice were acceptable in ancient times. Slavery was a cultural institution on which this country was founded. And “paddling” (i.e., beating) of schoolchildren is still legal in many states, despite the known harm to children of corporal punishment as well as the statistical evidence that disabled children are universally “paddled” with shamefully more frequency than their peers. We could talk for a long time about cultural institutions that should have been shed miles ago on the path of evolution. Dogfighting is certainly one of them. So let’s get a little perspective on Michael Vick’s plight and give the guy a chance to redeem himself. He has made a commitment to donate money to animal rights causes and he now speaks out publicly against dogfighting. Perhaps his experience will steer a whole generation of young men clear of this dreadful practice because he’s a role model. And he’s a heck of a ballplayer. I look forward to admiring the beauty of his game again.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Life on Earth

Yesterday we spent the day celebrating the life of a friend who was killed in a bizarre biking accident two years ago and then afterward we drove into San Francisco to have dinner with a friend who survived the Tsunami on Phi Phi in 2004. The juxtaposition of these two life experiences certainly makes me think life here on earth is pretty random.

Our dear Elena was biking to work in Oakland two years ago last week. A truck driver, who claims he simply didn’t see her, ran her over with a large truck. She was killed instantly. Yesterday was the second annual picnic of her friends and family to celebrate and remember her life. It felt a bit like going to a party where the guest of honor doesn’t show. But she had so many lovely friends that it was a wondrous day spent with lovely people. I am blessed to know them through Elena.

In the evening we joined a friend of mine visiting from Europe whom I have not seen in many years. He was vacationing on Phi Phi in 2004 with his then-wife when the Tsunami hit. He was swept up into a tree where he survived by hanging onto the limbs. His wife was drowned. He was so badly injured that he had to remain on Phi Phi for several weeks in the hospital and a nurse finally accompanied him on his flight home. His wife’s body was recovered and they waited for him to get out of the hospital to hold a memorial. He is an exceptionally positive, resilient person. He remarried in May and was driving up the Pacific Coast (talk about “getting back on the horse”) with his new wife on their honeymoon. Ron and I had dinner with them at Fisherman’s Wharf. His new wife is lovely, smart and beautiful, accomplished in her field, and so good with him. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to see him happy again in his new marriage. I am blessed to have seen him at all, to have seen him alive.

Before going to sleep last night, I couldn’t help but reflect on how random and chaotic the way of things seems. I would like to think there is a reason for everything, but how can that be when senseless death and miraculous survival occur side-by-side on the planet? I suppose it is arrogant of me to imagine that perhaps I could understand the greater design, and ignorant of me to suggest that there is none. Life on earth is certainly puzzling.

One thing I know to be true is that my husband DJs on the radio most Saturday nights and I want to remind you to listen in to the audiostream on your computer. His show is on KZYX Saturday from 8 to 10 PM PST. On the 22nd he’ll be doing a show of ALL live performance recordings in honor of the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock, which was this weekend. Go to KZYX and click on Listen Live. You can email him during the show at mrdjreed@comcast.net.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Death of the Map

On Thursday my daughter returned to me the lovely AAA Maps of the cities of the Bay Area that I gave to her when she went away to college seven years ago. They were pristine. She had never opened them. “What do I need a map for?” she asked. “I have a GPS.” So I took them home and offered them to my son, who is about to leave for college, and he declined. “What do I need a map for?” he asked. “I have an iPhone.” My daughter confessed that she doesn’t even know how to read a map. It then occurred to me that I can’t remember the last time I used a map.

I am severely directionally impaired. I could get lost in a mop closet. I once spent 20 minutes trying to find the exit in an apartment building. After visiting my friend Jim at the Fantasy Building in Berkeley, I said good-bye and proceeded to get completely lost trying to find my way out (exactly the same as the way in only opposite). After wandering around in a confused funk, I mercifully turned up back in his studio. He had to accompany me to the elevator. My sense of direction is so dreadful that if Ron and I get turned around while driving and I suggest we go left, he will automatically go right since 99% of the time going in the opposite direction from my idea is the correct choice. But since the advent of Mapquest, I rarely get lost (only when I inadvertently stumble off the Mapquest). And now I have Thomasina, my trusty Tom-Tom (that Ron gave me), who speaks to me in a calming English-accented respectful voice (she never derides me for failing to make a turn). Thomasina usually steers me in the right direction, although there was the time we don’t speak of when she had me turn the wrong way down a one-way street (“take the next left then you have reached your destination”). She is usually spot-on. Between the Mapquests and Thomasina, I’m AOK. But I feel badly about the plight of the map.

It is quite astonishing to think that an entire generation no longer uses maps whatsoever; that I myself have stopped using them. Cartography is an art and a window into how humans view the world. Perhaps one day the AAA maps I have used in the past will grace the walls of a giant map museum. Or not; they aren’t anything special. According to our method of finding our way these days, I suppose we view our world as an electronic network that bridges geography, truncating distance, removing visual evidence of relationships between places, and making journey an abstract quantity.

Here is Ptolemy's Map of the World:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Health Care in California Comes to a Grinding Halt

Healthy Families provides health insurance coverage for children in families that make too much money to qualify for MediCal (California’s Medicaid program) and who have no health coverage. If you visit the State of California Healthy Families website, you will learn that because of the budget crisis, the program has been frozen. Suspended indefinitely. According to the website, families filling out new applications for their children can expect to be wait-listed for at least a year (other children will have to drop off the rolls to make room for new children). What does this mean?

It means, among other things, that:
--Parents will not take children for regular check-ups so illness and issues of concern will not be caught early. More children falling severely ill and dying.
--Children will turn up in emergency rooms in record numbers, when untreated health issues blow up. Higher cost to the system. Greater stress and suffering for children and their families.
--Children with tooth decay in families that can’t afford the dentist will be in pain. By the time they enter kindergarten, 50% of California schoolchildren have tooth decay and 28% have untreated tooth decay. On any given day, 4% of California kindergarteners are experiencing tooth pain, often as the result of an abscess. How can they concentrate on school when their teeth hurt?

It means that families who let their Healthy Families coverage lapse at the annual renewal date will lose their spot and be wait-listed. It’s easy to forget to renew. New babies born into families on Healthy Families will not be automatically grandfathered in. Their older siblings may be covered, but the baby will be wait-listed. Parents living just above poverty level with a child who experiences a health crisis will basically have to quit their job and drop into poverty to be covered by MediCal so they can get needed medical services for their child.

There are options to resolve this problem, many have been proposed by Democrats in the state legislature, but the Republicans don’t want to listen. I’m burning out on these supply-siders; wish they would toddle off to the old-age home already so the rest of us can get on with evolution.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Homeless Vets

I read an article in the Sunday Santa Rosa Press-Democrat about Stand Down, an annual three-day event held last weekend in San Diego to provide respite and services to homeless war veterans. The injustice of homeless war veterans infuriates me. Whether you are a pacifist, hawk, Republican, Democrat, or lefty war protestor, doesn’t matter, across the board, I am willing to bet that you feel the same as I do. There should be a fail safe mechanism that ensures that every war veteran at the very least has a home, an income (from a job if they are able to work), food on the table, security. In this land of plenty, even in a recession, you would think there is room for us to provide for our war veterans.

Stand Down events are held annually in many cities throughout the country for, as they refer to them, “former members of the armed forces whose lives have collapsed.” At the one in San Diego last week, a tent city was erected for three days. Nearly 1,000 vets turned up (more than last year’s 830) to take advantage of services, including hot food, haircuts, massages, dental care, legal aid, referrals to substance abuse treatment programs, connection to federal benefits, and a place to sleep. Almost all the vets at the event are suffering from some form of mental illness, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or clinical depression. Many of those suffering from depression are depressed because they can’t get a job and have been chronically unemployed for so long that they have become homeless. One woman interviewed was an electrician’s assistant in the service. She had a job but lost it in the recession. Unable to get work again in the field of electrical work, she applied for anything she could find. She says even McDonald’s turned her down. I know affirmative action is being outlawed nationwide, but it seems to me that a war vet should be able to go to the front of the line.

The V.A. estimates there are over 200,000 homeless war vets in the U.S. right now; but that number will be increasing because vets from Iraq and Afghanistan have not yet landed on the streets since it takes a few years in a downward spiral for a disoriented vet to end up homeless. The number one reason for homelessness among vets has traditionally been psychiatric problems and more than a third of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets who have enrolled in the veterans’ health system since 2001 were diagnosed with PTSD , depression, or other mental health disorders. This means there are vets out there who need attention, recognition, and support to secure a productive, comfortable life. They are owed, don’t you think?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

3 Cups of Tea (Not a Book Review)

I recently joined the Code Pink Book Club, local group, which was begun by a member of Code Pink with whom I am friends. This month, we chose not to read the recommended Code Pink book but instead we read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. If you haven’t read the book, it’s about Greg’s passionate mission to build secular schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. These schools educate both boys and girls and offer an alternative to political Islam’s religious extremist schools that are used as a breeding ground for soldiers. Greg says he’s working for peace one school at a time. He really is. One day he will win the Nobel. And when he does, I have no doubt he will be thoroughly embarrassed by the attention, although excited about the money it will bring in for more schools.

When I finished Greg’s book, I felt inadequate. He has risked his life, endured great personal discomfort, and spent months at a time on the other side of the world from his family to dedicate his life to the important work of making a difference in the lives of others. I, on the other hand, would not place risking my life high on my list of entertainment. And I enjoy my creature comforts. In fact, I usually bring my own pillow with me when I travel. I wouldn’t last one night sleeping on the ground in Afghanistan. I was never apart from my children for more than a few days until they left home for college (with the exception of a couple of weeks of sleep-away camp during a few summers). I don’t measure up to Greg on the personal sacrifice yardstick. But what about the making a difference? Because that’s what matters to me.

Then it came to me that I have made a difference in perhaps as many lives as he has, but I have done so with far less bravery, effort, and drama. I have secured the funding necessary to launch and maintain programs that have changed the lives of thousands, many of whom are impoverished children. In doing so, I have had the privilege to work with dedicated people nationwide who regularly put in more than 40 hours a week and use all their ingenuity to make a difference in the lives of others. We have not trekked over miles of rock or dodged bullets. We sleep in a comfortable bed. And we do our best each in our own way. Miracles come in many shapes and sizes. I am proud to be among the ranks of the behind-the-scenes, undramatic, everyday miracle-makers.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who Needs a Computer?

Apparently not my 85-year-old cousin, whom we visited over the weekend. This cousin is not a boring old lady, either. She’s a spitfire. More fun than a crate of Looneytoon characters (without the speech impediments). She said she understands that if she was in the workforce these days, she’d have to use a computer. But retired 20 years, and busy with an active social life and many interests, she doesn’t have time to sit around browsing the internet. She has no interest in email, which she views skeptically as little more than people sending dull jokes around to each other, hacking into one another’s private files, and attempting to steal someone else’s identity. “The only thing I might use a computer for,” she says, “is research. And for that I just call my son.”

So I turn to her son and I ask him how he provides her with the research. “Well,” he smiles indulgently, with a smile that reveals just how much he loves his mother, “once I get the information, I read it to her over the phone, mail it to her, or bring it with me when I come to visit.” She doesn’t have a fax machine, which does not concern her one iota. “What would I use that for?” she asks, and then launches into a rant about Facebook and “twattering” (we think she means Twitter). My cousin asks me if I use Facebook. I explain that I check out Facebook a couple of times a day, that this is new in my life, and I like it because there are people I connect with regularly on Facebook who live far away and would normally not be part of my daily life. Facebook makes it possible for me to have an ordinary day-to-day connection with quite a few people whom I like and would not otherwise have had any contact with for many years at a time. Facebook gives me that global village on a personal level. Although I am careful not to let it suck up too much of my time and I skip most entries by the people who post too much.

I have to say that I remember vividly the exact moment in 1986 when I realized that I needed a computer. Prior to that moment, I could not fathom what a regular person would do with such a thing. Maybe if I was a mathematician, I thought. Or maybe if I had to do a lot of accounting. Then I got a job writing a book for an educational publishing company. My friend Jim gave me the key to his front door and permission to use his computer during the day while he was at work. He gave me a one-hour lesson in the use of WordPerfect on his Kaypro. DOS operating system. No mouse. I was struck by lightning. My life changed forever. Today, my ability to work from home and have the independence and freedom that I have had for the past 10 years is a direct result of the capacity of a home computer and the internet. I am truly grateful for the technology that makes my lifestyle possible.

Yesterday, when I looked at my 85-year-old cousin, I tried to imagine a life in which a computer is useless, a life rich with in-person experiences in the local village. It reminded me to step out of my own cultural context more often for a different perspective.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Putting a Foot in It

Last week, when I was swamped with work, my lovely husband Ron made me dinner. A delicious mushroom stroganoff. “That is sensational,” I said. “Yeah, I really put my foot in it,” he replied, which is apparently a common Black expression meaning he did a great job cooking something really tasty. After 31 years in a relationship with a brother, I thought I knew a thing or two about Black culture, but I had no clue what he was talking about. He could not believe that I had never heard that expression. Well, if I heard it, I forgot it, and I don’t think I ever knew what it meant. Fast forward to yesterday. We have a new tradition, begun last year, of cooking Soul Food instead of BBQ for the 4th of July. A small group of close friends shared the Soul Food meal with us last year. Too much fun. Same group got together again this year. We had cornbread, black-eyed peas, mac & cheese, green beans, coleslaw, sweet potato pie, strawberry rhubarb pie, and, the centerpiece of the meal, was fried tilapia according to Ron’s special recipe. (I hear it’s to die for, but I wouldn’t know since I don’t eat fish.) Our trusty Soul Food crew turned up. Friend Jessica’s mom Helene, who’s 83, made the black-eyed peas and Calvin (master of the perfect crust) made the strawberry rhubarb pie. After the meal, when we lay draped across the furniture moaning, Helene turned to Ron and said, “You really put your foot in it.”

He put his foot in it again in the morning when he made biscuits, grits, eggs, and turkey bacon for breakfast. You gotta love this Soul Food.

I could stop with the food, but I want to share another highlight of our 4th of July. I forced our visitors to listen as I read aloud Time magazine columnist Joel Stein’s account of his wife wanting to eat the placenta after the birth of their son. Here is where you can find the article. I read Joel Stein every week, and this has got to be the funniest column he has ever written. If you need a good laugh, check it out. It had us in stitches yesterday.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Taking to the Streets

As I follow the progress of the election aftermath in Iran in the news, I am moved by the courage of ordinary people who are risking their lives to let the world know that the extremist political Islam taking place in their country is not their choice. As an American, I am put to shame by their protest. They were robbed of their electoral process. They have been disenfranchised. We Americans should have taken to the streets for Al Gore in 2000 when we were robbed of our electoral process. We should have let the world know that the conservative policies taking place in our name were not our choice. We should have taken to the streets in 2004 to show that we did not approve of the Bush Administration’s lies, murder, torture, and bullying. When I read about the young musician who died in the street and whose death immediately swept the world on YouTube, I recalled the students who died at Kent State so many years ago. There was a time when Americans risked their lives to say “This is not our government of choice. This is not our policy of choice.” I, like so many others, have become complacent and do not wish to experience the discomfort, fear, and anger of prison. I do not have the courage to risk my life. I wonder where the threshold lies. The level of injustice, of unhappiness and fury, that finally brings people to the moment of saying, “Enough.” I applaud the people taking to the streets in Iran. Your actions may not make a difference today, or tomorrow, but they will make a difference one day in the future. My heart goes out to you.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Poem for the Day

From Praise by Robert Haas

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

That Bittersweet Moment

My two older children plus my stepson (a bonus!) came home for the high school graduation of my youngest yesterday. It was one of those prefect moments in life, gathering the family, to celebrate the last child becoming an adult. I have often wished that I had known the last time I laundered a diaper or tied a shoe for a child, just so that I could mark the passing. Yesterday, I knew it was the last time any of my children would be on the high school campus as a student. I have been raising children for over 25 years. Sometimes, when I expressed my frustration at not having time to write to an older and wiser writing mother, the other mother would point out that they do grow up eventually and the time comes back. Now I have my time to myself again. In August, the youngest will move away from home. So I wistfully savor the last moments of hearing his footfall in the hallway while at the same time exulting in the impending freedom awaiting me on the other side of August. As I write these words, the washer and dryer hum away laundering the sheets and towels. My stepson, my daughter, and my son and his girlfriend are on the road, returning to their grown-up lives. I so enjoyed spending the last few days with them, cooking more food than we could eat, taking the crew out to the movies, sitting down to dinner together, and watching the siblings joke and tease. Now I am equally enjoying the peaceful moment here with my thoughts, piecing together another byte from life to share. In this bittersweet moment I don’t know whether to laugh in glory to have my own life back or to weep at the loss of my young children as they scatter to their adult lives.

Picture of my three children on graduation day --

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chocolate

When I was young, I honestly could care less about chocolate. I never understood the attraction. I preferred fruit pies or vanilla ice cream for dessert. A decadent dessert in my book was something RICH, like cheesecake or pound cake (put in a whole pound of butter, yum). Sticky cinnamon rolls. A cheese blintz with blueberries. Lemon cookies. But chocolate? Didn’t do it for me. Then I went through menopause and everything changed. I used to think that what people said about the connection between chocolate cravings and female hormones was a load of you-know-what. News flash: it’s true. With my middle-aged lady hormones, I can’t get enough chocolate. Especially that really dark stuff with the caffeine kick. I have my stash in the pantry and I eat that heavenly 72% cacao every day after lunch to get me through the afternoon. I have to be careful not to eat it after about 1 PM or it keeps me up at night. And I have to be careful not to eat too much of it or I get anxious about my financial situation. No way I can eat it for dinner dessert. But I can eat the more benign stuff whenever. Chocolate chip cookies. Brownies. Cake. I could eat chocolate chip pancakes or muffins for breakfast. Chocolate chip scrambled eggs. For lunch chocolate potato salad. Chocolate macaroons. Chocolate carrot soup. Bring it on. Chocolate lasagna? Why not. I’ve got it bad. All those years of pitying other women who had those chocolate cravings, not quite understanding what it was about. I get it now. If I could sit on the couch all afternoon and watch football and eat trays of dark chocolate brownies without gaining a pound or having a panic attack then I would be in heaven.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Continuing the Work of the Dead

It is a Jewish teaching that we assist the dead in a peaceful transition into Spirit by continuing their work on Earth. We extend their footsteps on their path here through our own good deeds in the directions they were headed and this allows them to rest easy because their work will continue. After my friend Elena was tragically killed in a biking accident, I wanted to do something to remember her and the good work she did with young people. She was an ESL teacher and she worked with disadvantaged youth who spoke English as their second language. She helped these young people imagine a future, figure out what they wanted to do with their lives, and pursue their goals. She worked with many young people who had huge barriers to overcome to be successful in life. I thought of collecting money from people who knew Elena and then donating it somewhere in her name. And then it hit me. A memorial scholarship for a student to attend college. The Elena Castaneda Memorial Scholarship Fund was born.

Because Elena lived all her adult life in Berkeley and loved that community, I thought it was fitting to give the scholarship to a student from Berkeley High School. And because Elena was a Chicana, Spanish-speaking, who helped so many Spanish-speaking young people, I thought it was fitting to give the scholarship to a student who speaks Spanish as his/her first language and who has worked hard to become proficient in English. I asked a group of Elena’s closest friends to serve as a board and selection committee for the scholarship. I wrote out the criteria, which included that the applicant had to be accepted to a four-year college or university. I developed a simple application form. My selection committee wanted to give the scholarship to someone who had done community service, since this was important to Elena. And we also wanted to give it to someone who would promote the Latino values and culture from which he or she came.

The first annual Elena Castaneda Memorial Scholarship Award was made on May 27, 2009. We raised $3,000, which was presented to Joaquin Garcia. Joaquin will attend San Francisco State University in the fall to study engineering and economics. His family is originally from Michoacan. He has done community service through BOCA and through his church, Saint Joseph the Worker. He made the varsity soccer team at Berkeley High when he was still only a freshman and was honored as the team’s most outstanding player for three years in a row. He is both an athlete and a scholar, maintaining a good academic record. Joaquin coincidentally grew up on Elena’s street, so perhaps at one time he spoke to her as she often conversed with the neighborhood children.

Elena’s parents and a group of her close friends met Joaquin, his mother, and his sister (who attends Claremont College) at the Senior Awards Night Ceremony last week. When Elena’s mother told Joaquin’s mother that she can’t understand why she lost her beautiful daughter, Joaquin’s mother replied, “Well, maybe it was so you could help someone like me.” Gracias, Elena, for helping Joaquin go to college. If you are inclined to donate to the Elena Fund for next year’s scholarship, please contact me to find out how. The tuition at a state school is now about $4,000 per year. We would love to give full tuition to next year’s recipient, and possibly give another small scholarship to Joaquin to help him in his sophomore year.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sudi's Movie

It’s late Saturday night and I just cut the last thread on the graduation quilt I have been making since January for my son Sudi. I made a quilt for each of my children when they completed high school. I discovered the Native American graduation quilt tradition at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii where I watched a brief film in which Navajo families gave quilts to their children when they graduated. I loved the idea and adopted it. Sudi is the baby so when he goes we’ll have that proverbial empty nest.

For Sudi’s senior project he chose to make a short film. Not a surprise, since Ron has his degree in film and Sudi plans to study filmmaking in college. He will be attending California College of the Arts in Oakland, where he has been offered a fine creative achievement scholarship, to study media arts. Like his father before him, he can’t make up his mind if he wants to go into visual art, video, film, audio, music, animation, etc. So he figures that the best way to combine all his interests is to study film. He said he chose to make a film for his senior project because he has never made one and he wanted to see if he could do it. He wrote a plot, storyboarded, asked a friend to be his production assistant, got permission to film in a local bookstore, cast his actors, borrowed a camera, dug Ron’s Universal Studios scene-identifying clacker out of a box in the basement, and became a director. When he returned home from his first day of filming, I asked how it went. “It was OK,” he said, “but not what I expected.” I asked him if he had run into any problems. “Well, yeah,” he replied, “the biggest problem is that I have no idea how to make a film.”

Have a look at the film, which he posted on YouTube, and see if you think he had no idea. I confess, I cried when I saw it because it’s pretty damn good for a first go from a seventeen-year-old, and because I’m a Jewish mother. My son is so talented. The most impressive part, to me, is that he composed and performed ALL the music in the film, staying up late at night in his bedroom, playing all the instruments (plus voice) into a microphone, and mixing them with the computer program Audacity (a very basic, simple sound program). He played back what he had done with one instrument, listened on the headphones, and played the next instrument, laying one track over another. He had practically every instrument in the house back there. Ron and I would be trying to go to sleep and he’d be at it on the drums or a ukulele he borrowed from a friend.

I’m a proud mom and I don’t care who knows it. Here’s the film, entitled Backpack. Remember to click HQ for the high definition version (or else it will be blurry).

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Booker T

Last Sunday evening, Ron and I drove to the Pacific Coast to hear Booker T perform at the Caspar Inn. Best remembered historically as the house band for Stax-Volt Records during the 60s, Booker T and the MGs created the "Memphis Sound" that backed up hit recording artists such as Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave. They were one of the first racially integrated bands (that was not a vocal group) of the rock music era and are probably best known for their 1962 instrumental hit Green Onions. Booker T didn’t perform on Sunday with the MGs, of course, but he had an excellent band with him and he was phenomenal. On the drive over, Ron filled me in on some of the remarkable aspects of the Booker T story. One day during a recording session at Stax, the musicians decided they needed a baritone sax in the piece and they didn’t have anyone in the studio who could play the baritone sax. One of the musicians said, "I know this kid over at the high school who could do it." So they went and took Booker T out of school to sit in on the session. He blew them away, so to speak, and the rest is history. When he was still only 16, he wrote Born Under a Bad Sign for blues great Albert King. On Sunday, after the concert, Ron had the opportunity to meet Booker T, since it was such an intimate small venue. Ron told him, "When I discovered that you were only 16 when you wrote Born Under a Bad Sign, I said to myself, ‘ok, this cat is bad’." Where bad means exceptionally good, Booker T is it. He put on an exceptional show. I loved his modesty and graciousness. He wrote, played, produced for (and with) some of the greatest musicians ever. Rita Coolidge’s sister Priscilla (also a singer) is his wife. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Yet he is humble, approachable, and warm. He allowed half a dozen rather tipsy ladies to have their pictures taken with him. He talked to Ron and other folks who came up to him after the show. Well, for goodness sake, he played the itty bitty Caspar Inn! In his early 60s these days, he looks fit and healthy with clear skin and a winning smile, unlike many of the dissipated stars who allowed sex, drugs, travel, and wealth to ruin their lives. It was refreshing to experience a genuine person like Booker T as he simply shared his gift of musical ability with an appreciative little audience. Lovely.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Remembering Moms

Today my dear husband made me breakfast for Mother’s Day. Fried eggs and grits, strawberries and melon. A strong cup of coffee. He made turkey bacon for himself (I don’t eat meat). The kitchen smelled like bacon and coffee, which brought it all back to me. When I was a little girl, my mother kept a kosher kitchen. But Grandma (mom’s mom), didn’t keep kosher and when we grandchildren visited, she made us bacon. The real stuff. Also, Mom and Dad didn’t drink coffee. But Grandma percolated coffee each morning for Grandpa, who appreciated a cuppa. The smell of bacon and coffee in the morning takes me back to Grandma’s kitchen in Perth Amboy, NJ. I went there this morning. Heavenly.

Here’s a Mother’s Day tale about my mom, Natalie, and Ron’s mom, Evelyn. They got along well and came to visit to us once together so they could see one another at the same time. We took them on a field trip to Point Reyes, which is the most westerly point of Cali on the Pacific Coast. Splendid bird watching out there (and whales when they migrate in February and March). Glorious coastal scenery; a splendid beach. Ron and I wanted to walk on the beach while our moms were not so inclined. They remained together on higher ground while we went for a sunset meander. As the story goes, the moms noticed an informational guide plaque and proceeded to read it as Ron and I strolled on the distant beach. The plaque talked about the ocean, tides, and waves. It warned that unexpectedly large waves often washed in and pulled unsuspecting visitors out with the strong undertow. For this reason, it strongly cautioned against walking at the water’s edge.

Upon reading the above information on the plaque, at the exact same moment, the moms looked out across the picturesque view to see us, their children, walking peacefully at the edge of the water. They let out a simultaneous gasp, then turned to each other in alarm. Upon realizing that they shared the identical thought of concern for our safety, they laughed and laughed. Needless to say, we were not washed out to sea. Natalie and Evelyn have washed away from us in the tide of time, but their loving care continues to surround us and our children. Happy Mother’s Day you two.

Point Reyes Beach, circa 1983.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Unwanted Visitor

Yesterday my husband Ron discovered how easily an unsuspecting person could be robbed, murdered, or raped in their own home. He and I went to a Bat-Mitzvah in Willits and took separate cars because I gave a workshop in self-publishing at the college in the morning and went to synagogue late. Ron arrived home before I did. He came in the front door of the house, plopped his things down in the hallway, and went to the computer to check email. Before he could so much as click the mouse, he discovered that a strange man had followed him into the house! Creepy. He had not been aware that anyone was close enough to follow him in. He had closed the door behind him but left it unlocked, as usual.

A robber? Drug addict? Pathological murderer? None of the above. Fortunately, it was a pathological door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Ron told the guy to get out. But this guy was persistent. He asked Ron what kind of vacuum cleaner we have. Ron replied “a green one.” Ron was twice as big as the vacuum cleaner salesman, and Ron was mad. He told him again to get out. The vacuum cleaner salesman asked Ron if he would like to see a demonstration of the Kirby. Ron said he would like to see a demonstration of how quickly the guy could make an exit. The salesman gave up and left.

After recounting this bizarre tale, Ron told me he’d like to keep the front door locked from now on. I had only been locking it at night. I resist succumbing to the American bogeyman of fear. But I must admit that if the same thing had happened to me, a strange man following me into my house, I would have been screaming and throwing vases. In retrospect, Ron feels a little bad being so hard on the guy. “He’s probably just a laid off office worker trying to make ends meet by selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door,” Ron speculated. Tough times.

To completely change the subject…. I want to wish the mighty Pete Seeger a terrific 90th birthday today. Lovers of folk music, social justice, and humor from around the world are lucky that Pete has lived a long and productive life! To read more about his birthday celebration concert today and/or to leave him a birthday greeting you can go to this web page.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Negotiating A Better Price Or The Art of Haggling to Make Ends Meet

In these tough financial times, it is helpful to remember that prices are not necessarily fixed. You can often bargain a better price if you have the nerve to try. I’ve been doing it for years. In fact, it’s one of the ways that I managed to provide for my family over the course of many years of low-income living. For instance? Back in 1993 or thereabouts there was a metal watering can at the grocery store that I coveted. It cost $25 and I couldn’t justify buying it at that price when I was trying to keep my grocery bill to $100 a week. I looked every week and waited until there was only one left on the shelf. Then I took it to the cashier and told her it was the last one and asked if I could have it at half price. “Look,” I pointed out, “it’s a little dented.” She called the manager for permission. I wound up buying it for $10. As the bagger helped me out to the car with my cart, he exclaimed, “I’ve never seen anyone bargain for something in the grocery store. I didn’t know you could do that.” I still have that watering can.

Recently, I called our natural gas provider and said, “We are paying too much for our propane. I called other propane providers to ask their price per gallon and it’s much lower than yours. We have been your customer for 17 years. What price can you offer me to keep me as a customer?” The manager looked at our account and explained that gas providers offer a low rate to hook customers. After the first fill, they jack up the rate. “That’s not fair. I’ve been a loyal customer for 17 years and you’re charging me more than you do a new customer.” He agreed. He knocked our rate down, and did it retroactively. Saved us over $300 on our last fill and will save us more in the future.

A few years ago I called all our credit card companies and pointed out that we have an excellent credit rating score. Then I asked them to lower our percentage rates. Almost all of them did. I cancelled the one that wouldn’t. One of them lowered our rate from 24% to 11%. Another from 19% to 8%. I keep a sharp eye on the rates on the statements and if they ever try to raise them, I call and complain. They usually put them back down.

A couple of years ago Ron went to the Sleep Center to be assessed for sleep apnea, which he has. When we got the bill for the assessment I nearly had a heart attack. It was $1,300 and the insurance wouldn’t pay any of it. I called the Sleep Center accounting department and said we couldn’t pay this bill. I asked if we could set up payments for the next two years. (By-the-way, I will not go to a doctor that refuses to allow us to make monthly payments to pay off our bills.) The lady in accounting asked incredulously, “Your insurance won’t cover this?” I answered, “No, go figure. What could be better preventative medicine than addressing sleep apnea.” She then informed me that if we were “private pay” (out of our own pockets) then she could lower our bill to $280!!! Since Ron had already paid $200 up front when he went to the clinic, we only owed another $80. What if I hadn’t called and asked? We would have coughed up over $1,000. I’ve bargained medical bills down at the hospital, the surgery center, doctor’s offices, radiology, etc., for years. Sometimes I have to write a formal letter or statement, but that’s fine with me if it will save me money. If I can’t bargain them down low enough, I set up payments over time (they are almost always interest-free).

Most recently, Sudi was offered a substantial tuition scholarship to California College of the Arts, a private college. The scholarship was not a full tuition scholarship and the cost is going to be a stretch for us. I called the financial aid department and asked if we could request more aid. She said we could petition for more assistance if we sent a copy of our taxes for 2008. Not a problem. I sent the taxes and petitioned. They gave us more money. (Still not a full scholarship, but every little bit helps, right?) How many families with children attending private schools realize that they can ask for more aid after they receive their award? Pass the word.

I’m not too proud to beg. I’m not too meek to bargain. One of my best buys was my wooden kitchen chairs, which I’ve had for 20 years. I bought them for a quarter each in a yard sale and Ron refinished them for me. The point of this discussion is to remind you that you might be able to save yourself some money if you ask. Don’t accept costs, prices, and bills at face value. Ask, ask, ask! The dollar you save may be your own.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Jewels Among Us—Susan Boyle Sings

If you have not yet heard Susan Boyle sing “I Dreamed a Dream” (from “Les Miserables”) for the show “Britain’s Got Talent” then you must go have a listen. Right now. Run don’t walk. Here is the link. This unemployed 47-year-old volunteer church-worker from Scotland captivated the world instantly with her extraordinary singing voice. A regular plain Jane, who perhaps was not even wearing make-up as she appeared on TV in front of millions, Ms. Boyle did not look glamorous or even gifted. The judges were just shy of making fun of her before she sang. A frumpy lady with a dream of singing on the big stage. But she was not fazed by any of it. She had a presence. She knew in her heart that she had a gift. She was simply there to share it with whomever cared to listen. And share it she did. Even more moving than her singing were the expressions on the faces of the judges and those in the audience as it dawned on them that they were being given a supreme gift from this unassuming woman.

Why does her triumph move us so? Because she is everyone. We are all gifted. Most of us do not get a chance to stand up on a stage in front of the world and receive recognition for our special talents, but we continue to use these talents every day. Cooking, fixing cars, providing child care for children, dancing, writing, drumming, making people laugh, healing, repairing, building, caring for others, teaching, whatever it is we do. Unnoticed. Unglamorous. I sometimes think about my friend Glenn Star, who had lupus and died at 40. He should have won an academy award for teaching special education, which he did with stunning grace, humor, and, yes, beauty, just as he did everything in his short life. Susan Boyle was just a person, doing what she does, using her talent. And for once, just once, the world stood up and noticed a little person’s dazzling spirit and appreciated. Those witnessing this event (live and vicariously on YouTube) cheer because it touches us to see this ordinary woman with an extraordinary voice as she humbly reminds us that we must never judge a person’s capacity for brilliance by their appearance. There are countless jewels among us like this woman. Now, really, go have a listen. Thank you Susan Boyle for singing for us.

(To read more about Ms. Boyle’s rise and who she is go to this article in the NY Times.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

When Did He Outgrow Easter Eggs?

During the meal at this year’s Passover Seder, I turned to Sudi (17 years old) and asked, “Do you want to dye Easter eggs this year?” He rolled his eyes. “Mom. You ask me that every year. No. I’m not a little kid anymore.”

Which year was it, last year, the year before, that he stopped dyeing and hiding Easter eggs? He makes it sound like we haven’t done eggs for centuries. But one year, in recent memory, we dyed dozens and I hid them for him and he looked and then he hid them for me and I looked and then Ron hid them for both of us and we looked and then I hid them for him again and he looked and then his friends Michael and Freddy came over and they hid them for each other, several times, and all looked, and somehow one of the eggs was misplaced and turned up months later in Ron’s CD rack. (I’m surprised it didn’t start to smell bad, but actually it didn’t—we threw it out without cracking the skin open.)

One year Sudi quivered and shivered with excitement, bounding through the house like a Labrador retriever puppy, tongue hanging out, eyes sparkling in anticipation, hunting eggs. Demanding “Again, hide them again.” And the next year: “Mom. No. I don’t want to do Easter eggs.” Shaking his head in disbelief that I would even bother to ask. Especially when I knew full well that he had refused to carve pumpkins the previous fall.

When does the magic go? Carving Jack-o’-lanterns. Putting cookies and milk out for Santa (and a little lettuce for the reindeer). Peering into Elijah’s cup to see if he drank any of the wine. Playing dreydel for walnuts and pennies. Ah well, the magic is not gone for long. It will be back soon, not just with grandchildren one day, but when my adult children get nostalgic. “Remember when we….? Could we put paper turkeys up for Thanksgiving again? Make Hannukah cookies? Watch Groundhog’s Day – it’s February 2?” The silly little customs, the details of celebrations, holidays, events. The family stuff. It comes back. And our multicultural family sure has twice the fun, with more celebrations than most. Good Passover and Happy Easter to you and your family, and to all a good night.

I can’t resist sharing with you this Zits cartoon that appeared today. As the mother of an avid skateboarding teen, I laughed all the way through breakfast with this one. Enjoy.



[Please note that I will be returning from Dad’s 80th birthday party in NJ next Sunday, which may delay my blog column a day. If no column posts on Sunday, then stop by on Monday to read my latest.]

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why I Hate My Lawn

I have recently come to the liberating realization that I don’t care if my lawn lives or dies. I admit I was nervous about having a lawn when we moved to the suburbs. We have two sections of lawn in the front of the house, on either side of the front walk. We have a larger lawn in the back. Way too much lawn for me. After the move, I bought a spreader to fertilize the lawn and fertilizer to go in the spreader. At first I fertilized, mowed, watered, and weeded. That lasted about three months. Before long, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to weed out and what I wanted to let be. Like clover. I kind of like clover. Then I started to kill off parts of the lawn by spreading wood chip and oak leaves here and there. I planted trees and flowers in those places. Pretty soon, I stopped raking the oak leaves that fell from the trees. I just let them eliminate the lawn where they came down. Then I stopped watering the front lawns altogether. We are entering the third year of drought here in Cali and I can’t justify keeping that lawn watered. I am cultivating a wilder look for my yard. The manicured look annoys me. Am I ruined after spending 17 years at the wild untamed ranch?

I recently saw a picture of Michele Obama digging up the South Lawn of the White House to make a veggie garden and I suddenly realized why I hate my lawn. A lawn is decadent. What purpose is there for a lawn? To play croquet? Have a tea party? Gaze at? Lawn belongs at Versailles. Lawn smacks of yearning for the aristocratic. A lawn requires gardeners. I’m with Michele (and Eleanor, who was the last First Lady to plant a veggie garden at the White House), let’s plant food. Fruit trees. Berries. Vegetables.

I don’t have the income to support a lawn. My money needs to go to my children’s college education. I can’t afford to pay for the water for this lawn in the summer. And even if I could afford to water it, I live in a drought zone where every drop of water is needed to quench the thirst of humans and animals and to water the things we can eat. We can’t eat the lawn. So I’m plotting to murder my lawn. Slowly but surely, most of it will be going back to the wild. Does anyone need a bag of lawn fertilizer?

*****************
I want to share the fun news that I took second place in the Abbey Hill Literary Challenge for the first quarter of 2009. Click here to check out Abbey Hill and click here to read my silly little story that won $200. Each quarter the folks at Abbey Hill post a writing “challenge.” The first quarter challenge provided the first sentence of a story and a theme for the story. Take a peek at the second quarter challenge and see if you have any ideas about a story – maybe you will win the next challenge.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Should Huck Finn Be Taught to High School Students?

Yesterday I presented at the annual Reading the World Conference on multicultural children’s literature at USF in San Francisco. My Co-Presenters were Craig and Derrick from Reach and Teach, a progressive education company that sells my book, The Call to Shakabaz, and provides teachers with materials to inspire young people to take action for peace, justice, and social change. After our presentation, we were free to do as we pleased and I attended a workshop entitled “Courageous Conversations: Does Huck Finn Belong in Your Classroom?” presented by Willie Adams of the Head Royce School in Oakland. Mr. Adams is a Black educator, a dean at Head Royce, and a filmmaker.

The title of this workshop grabbed me not just because of the provocative question it asks, but because my own daughter Yael hated Huck Finn with such a passion that she began skipping English class to avoid discussing the book when in high school, and finally sparked a significant change in her own classroom in the way the teacher and class approached the book after she came clean with the teacher about her issues with Huck Finn. Huck is a problem.

In 2004, a Black English teacher at Head Royce told Mr. Adams that he was planning to get a group of Black students together to talk about their experience studying this book at a predominantly Anglo/Euro upscale private school and he invited Mr. Adams to film this discussion. They filmed the students, then the teachers, then others, all talking about the dilemma of teaching Huck Finn, which is a required text in the California Framework, is considered a great American novel, appears on the AP English Exam, and is fixed in the cannon of great literature. The value of Huck Finn as a literary work was not the question. The question was really, “Are high school students, sophomores or juniors (usually it is taught junior year with American Literature), really prepared to handle this book?” And also, “Are teachers prepared to teach this book to young people of all races?”

After we viewed a segment of the film, the participants at yesterday’s workshop jumped into a heated discussion. Some of the things that were said follow:
Students need to feel safe in a classroom to have a real discussion about Huck Finn and the students at Head Royce in the film clearly did not feel safe in their classrooms.
High school students are definitely not mature enough to handle this difficult book.
But will they be at a disadvantage in college because they haven’t read it? It’s part of the cannon, it’s referred to by many other authors and is the basis for so many other significant pieces of writing. They will have to confront these issues about slavery, racism, and our country’s history eventually, why delay?
It’s hard enough teaching Twain’s use of satire, without dealing with the strong emotions that surface around the portrayal of Jim in this book and the constant use of the N-word (like on every page). A contemporary adolescent will not get that this book was a condemnation of the institution of slavery. It doesn’t read that way in 2009. It reads as the opposite.
Is it fair to put Black students or students of color on the spot like this with a text like this? It’s 400 pages long, for goodness sake. That’s a lot of book about slavery and racism for teenagers to stomach.
An Anglo/Euro teacher from Tennessee said, “If you think this is hard in California, imagine teaching this book to a class of Black and white students in Tennessee?”
A Black librarian from Baltimore said, “We underestimate our students. I think they can and should be able to read this book, but teachers must create a safe place for real discussion about the issues it raises. If this is done, then this book can have a strong transformative power to help heal race relations.”

How much should we protect our children from the truth? When are they old enough to begin conversations of substance about race? As a parent of half-Black children (and half-Black boys), I remember the day I talked to my boys about the fact that the friendly neighborhood police officer, like the one they saw on Sesame Street, was not necessarily their friend too. It broke my heart. But I fear for their safety.

If you have an interest in following some of the discussion in the wide world about Huck Finn, just google the words “should huck finn be taught.” Click here to read a recent article about it in the L.A. Times.

Mr. Adams ended the workshop by telling us that Huck Finn is no longer taught in the Oakland Schools, despite the fact that it is in the California Framework of required reading; and since 2004 (when he made his film), it is no longer taught at Head Royce. What did they substitute in it’s stead at Head Royce? Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” – also a very difficult book to read. The debate rages on.