Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Rosh Hashanah 2008

Today is the Jewish New Year, when Jews reflect on the past year and think about the year ahead. The deepest work of Rosh Hashanah is teshuvah, or, literally “turning.” Teshuvah is also translated as “repentance.” But it is more than that. It has to do with transformation. At the new year we focus on changing ourselves for the better, changing the world for the better. I think of those bumper stickers I’ve seen that say “Be the change.” Or, in the words of Hopi Chief Dan Evehema, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” So today I will go for my early morning walk, do a little meditative writing, attend synagogue, and think about what I need to change about myself. For instance, I think I need to address my disappointment in my neighbors for being Republicans and figure out how to get past it. The election will come and go. But we will live across the street from one another for a long time. Oy. Life is too complex for my feeble brain.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Sign of the Times

My neighbors put a McCain/Palin sign on their front lawn across the street from our Obama ‘08 sign. Why did this make me so upset? They are entitled to their opinion as much as I’m entitled to mine. This is America, right? So why did I have trouble moving past this sign? My husband finally burned out listening to me obsess and told me to just get over it. I had insomnia for two nights thinking about that stupid sign. I really like those neighbors.

This week’s issue of Time includes an article written by a journalist who got in his car and drove around Missouri talking to “ordinary” people who vote. He stood in someone’s driveway and gabbed with a half a dozen couples about why they are voting for whom. He should have come to my neighborhood. A lot of neighborhoods are torn by this election. A lot of neighborhoods, families, circles of friends. I think I’m so right on issues, candidates, and moral imperatives. How can so many other people be so wrong?

And why am I having so much trouble with the neighbors’ sign? When we moved into our house in June, Mike and Judy welcomed us with warmth and generosity. Every time they saw us, they stopped to talk. They came to our housewarming party. They offered to help us set up for it and offered to bring chairs over from their house. They offered to loan us tools for home projects. They offered to help us work on our deck. They are good-hearted folks. Not much older than us, they are both retired and in their retirement they have a home business managing the “home base” for firefighting teams throughout the state. They cook for firefighters all summer long, often driving all night when a fire breaks out to set up the base in time to have hot coffee and breakfast ready for weary firefighters.

A few days ago, I took the plunge and asked Judy, “So, I see your sign, and I’m wondering what you think McCain will do for you?” A benign question. Trying not to be too confrontational. Judy replied (apologetically, mind you) that her family is Republican and has been for generations, is against gay marriage and abortion, that she’s a conservative, always has been, that’s just the way she is. She says security comes first and therefore she will vote for McCain. “What do we really know about Obama? What do you know about him?” she demanded. I didn’t want to touch that one. So I asked, “What do you think about Sarah Palin?” Again, a benign question. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. I felt incredulous more than anything and wanted to understand. I wondered how this intelligent woman could completely miss the boat like this. Judy replied, “I think she’s a real bombshell. We have friends in Alaska and they love her.”

I didn’t argue any of these points with Judy. I didn’t explain to her why McCain would make us less secure in the same way that Bush did by alienating most of our allies around the world, killing thousands of innocent people thus enraging their families and countrymen, and stomping around in places we didn’t belong in big boots while talking embarrassingly loud. We are the ugly American. We are the target. Security comes with building relationships, not shooting people. I didn’t mention that the supply-side economics of Reagan, Bush times two, and McCain, that says that if you keep giving money to the wealthy it will trickle down to the middle class and the poor, doesn’t work. It did not trickle down. It trashed the economy. I still don’t get how giving money to rich people equals giving money to poor people. I didn’t point out that the largest political demonstration in the history of the State of Alaska just took place in Anchorage and it was an anti-Palin rally. I did wonder how someone who thinks Obama lacks experience could feel comfortable placing Palin a heartbeat away from the presidency. She has barely been out of provincial Alaska and confesses that she is a Washington outsider. As for my knowledge of Obama, I’ve read both his books so I think I know a little about him. Sigh.

I did not say any of these things to Judy; instead I asked about her mother’s health and what her grandchildren are up to lately. As we parted and walked to our separate houses, separate signs, I realized why that sign upsets me so much. It upsets me because I like Judy and Mike. And I want for us to be good neighbors and I want for us to be friends and I want to enjoy their company. Now I will have to work twice as hard at it because we are very different sorts of folks. Just thinking about that work makes me tired. But I am committed to doing it because political candidates will come and go while Mike and Judy will be my neighbors for at least another 20 years or more if we live long enough. Here, on the ground, outside Washington, I live across the street from good folks and I will do the necessary work to appreciate them, enjoy them, and remain grateful.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Anniversary of Harry

Do you know what today is? It’s the tenth anniversary of the U.S. release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the very first Harry Potter book. I know that many of you out there in blog-land have no interest in Harry, but for a children’s fantasy adventure junkie like myself, Harry is the top of the line. J.K. is the master-ess. I can hardly believe that the Potter phenomenon started only ten years ago. My boys and I have read them all. Some more than once. All out loud to Sudi except the final book, which he read to himself. I remember one Labor Day Weekend party when friends Janice and Mark and their girls camped out at the Ranch and they were at the very end of The Goblet of Fire. On Sunday afternoon, Janice sat in our living room and read the last chapter aloud to her girls. I had already read the book, so didn’t mind hearing the ending. Same for many other guests. We gathered around Janice and listened. Magic moments. I can still hear her voice in my head, reading Harry’s words to the twins when he gives them his tournament winnings to start the joke shop. With Voldemort on the loose, he tells them, “I could do with a few laughs. We could all do with a few laughs. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need them more than usual before long.” You said it, Harry.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bail Out

Help. I need someone to bail me out. I live in middle class America. Our medical bills exceed our mortgage. We have two sons to get through college. We are over-budget on the necessary repairs to our new home. The price of gas and food has demolished our budget. In the midst of all this, our brainless president wants me to bail out his wealthy cronies on Wall Street. What is wrong with this picture? I need a bail out a lot more than the wealthy financiers. Trickle down does not appear to be trickling down. Below is an abridged version of an email message I received asking me to complain about footing the bill for this bail out.

If Wall Street firms can't meet a few basic conditions, they can get their money somewhere else.

Congress is on the brink of making a one-sided deal to give George W. Bush a blank check - offering a trillion taxpayer dollars to Wall Street to cover its bad debts. That works out to somewhere between $2000 and $5000 from every American family. So what do the taxpayers get in return?
Nothing. No new regulation or oversight to help avoid this kind of crisis in the future. No public interest givebacks to help people whose homes are in the hands of the banks. Perhaps most shockingly of all, the taxpayers get absolutely no share in the profits if and when these finance giants bounce back, even though we are now assuming a great deal of the risk.
This is a blank check to some of the richest companies in the world.
Congress doesn't have to agree to a blank check. Instead, it can choose to impose a few sensible conditions on the bailout to ensure that it will be used responsibly. Here are a few suggestions courtesy of Robert Reich:

1. If the taxpayers are shouldering the risk, the taxpayers should reap any eventual benefits.
2. If we're paying (more than) our fair share, the CEOs and executives should have to, too.
3. No more campaign contributions from Wall Street executives and PACs.
4. Better regulations start right now.
5. Bankruptcy judges get broader leeway to help homeowners.
Congress must take swift and prudent action to avoid making a burgeoning crisis that much worse. You can help by making your voice heard to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Finance Chair Barney Frank, Senate Banking Chair Chris Dodd, and the de facto leaders of the two parties: Senators Barack Obama and John McCain.

Go here to find out more and sign a petition:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Bruce Is On the Roof

Bruce-the-Roofer inspected our roof before we bought our house in May. He explained in great detail, with glossy pictures as proof, that the front slope (large section) was shot and was leaking into the attic. It was in dangerous need of repair. This was not a simple matter since we have a cap and pan tile roof vintage 1978. It’s old and it’s a complex project. We negotiated the price of our house based on Bruce’s estimate of $10,000 to fix the roof. The sellers agreed to split the cost with us.

After we bought the house, I called Bruce and asked him to do the work. He mailed me a contract that listed the cost of repair at $16,000! Wait a minute, how did the price inflate like that? I got two more estimates from other roofers. Both were at least twice as much as Bruce’s quote. I resigned myself to going over budget on the roof. Then I spent over two months attempting to get Bruce to answer his phone. Office phone. Cell phone. Could NOT get this man to respond. I left a message every day. I left notes in the mailbox at his office. One day I saw him standing by the side of the road talking to someone in a truck. Eeeee, wheels screeched, I pulled over, jumped out of my car, and grabbed him. Bruce! Bruce!

It turns out that Bruce lost his crew. One guy left town. One guy decided he never wanted to work as a roofer again as long as he lived. One guy got arrested and sent to prison. One guy was hiding at home with a bad tattoo. The dog ate Bruce’s contracts. He got a flat tire. His cell phone fell in the lake and stopped working. But, the good news for me was that Bruce had cancelled all his big summer jobs so he had time for me. He promised he’d be at my house Monday and he’d just plug away and do my roof himself. He promised to have it done in two weeks, well before the rainy season. On August 9, Bruce started working on my roof. He is still up there. Rain is in the forecast for this weekend. Yesterday he rolled out plastic.

Over the past six weeks he has frequently disappeared for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. I can’t get him on his phone when I call so I gave up, even though I hear him on my roof talking on his cell phone all day long. He never tells me when he’ll be up there and when he won’t. Sometimes he wakes us up at seven in the morning on a Sunday hammering and pounding. Sometimes he turns up at three in the afternoon, works for two hours, and leaves. Six or seven different Spanish-speaking helpers have traipsed through and lasted a day or two with him. Yesterday some guy turned up with his teenager to see if Bruce would hire the kid to work on our roof. Two weeks ago Bruce took our skylight out and put it in the front yard. He covered the hole with a board and informed me I needed a new skylight, which I ordered, but it takes two weeks to get one. It would have been good to have had a heads up on that a few weeks ago. Once, when Bruce had disappeared for a week, I realized he had left water leaking from a hose on the roof. It took me several days to notice it. I dread the water bill. On Monday his wife called me to tell me Bruce had just dropped a nail through my skylight and he wanted to warn me not to step on it. “Robin,” I said, “why are you calling? Why didn’t Bruce call? Or ring my doorbell? Or just come inside and retrieve the nail?” Robin had no idea. If she has no idea then I haven’t a chance because she’s been married to Bruce for thirty years.

A few days after I put my Obama sign out on the front lawn, Bruce called down to me, “What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?” I thought he was about to tell a roofing joke. He was serious. His sister-in-law watches Fox News all day long and is a rabid Sarah Palin fan. Bruce wanted my advice on how to convince her to vote for Obama. I suggested a strong shot of Scotch and anti-psychotic medication. Apparently Bruce is an outcast in his very Republican family because he plans to vote for Obama. While I brainstormed with Bruce about how to convert his family in time for the election, I couldn’t help but notice that my roof was not even remotely close to being completed.

As of today the skylight has still not arrived. Half the roof looks completed. The other half does not. Rain is in the forecast.

Bruce is on the roof. Thanks for listening. I feel much better.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Peaches on 9/11

Today we commemorate the anniversary of 9/11, an event that has shaped the worldview of my children’s generation in the same way that the Kennedy and King assassinations shaped the worldview of mine. I am gratified to see that Obama and McCain have set aside their differences for a day to stand together to honor the dead and comfort those who continue to grieve for their loss. I believe that this action by these two presidential candidates illustrates our only hope for the future: we must acknowledge and move past our differences.

As a lifelong pacifist, I believe that retaliation is never the answer. Retaliation is the problem and justice is the answer. We of the U.S. must face up to the consequences of our actions in the world and understand that we are not immune to large-scale tragedy. If nothing else, this was the mighty lesson of 9/11. We must understand that the family members of those we have murdered in other lands, for whatever reason, lofty or not, might hold a valid grudge. We must accept that we are vulnerable to their rage. Will Americans ever understand that our safety and security at home depends on the safety and security of the rest of the world? ALL the rest of the world? We are in this together.

On the evening of September 11, 2001, I received an email from my friend Sue. She wanted to connect with her friends around the country. She told us that in the wake of the terrorist attacks within our borders, she was at a loss for what to do. She took some peaches from her peach tree to a neighbor. While walking to the neighbor’s house with the peaches, she resolved to engage in acts of kindness with a new dedication. She decided this would be her way of responding to the inhumanity that threatens to engulf us. The significance of Sue’s choice of action is not lost on me, a Jew, whose family would not be alive today if not for the simple acts of kindness committed by ordinary people struggling to remain human and caring in extraordinarily inhuman and brutal circumstances. In the broader vision of history, many of these simple acts of kindness are recognized as heroism. Thus, in the post-9/11 world, we must act bravely by holding fast to the moral value of caring for others. We must hold fast to the value of love.

It is not so difficult to love our families, our own children (well, OK, sometimes the children get grisly and don’t exactly bring out the love in us, but usually they are extremely lovable). It is far more difficult to love the stranger, the other, those not like us whose values and perceptions differ from ours. I do not believe that people are fundamentally the same. As long as we think that people are fundamentally the same, then racism, injustice, war, and terrorist acts will continue. People are different and that difference is the essence of the richness, the wonder of humankind. That difference is our greatest resource, our greatest challenge, and the gem that we must chisel from our rough perception. Rather than forcing similarity where it doesn’t exist, we must take that terrifying step of trying to walk in someone else’s shoes, of making the effort to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Terrifying because we risk transformation. We risk being deeply and irrevocably changed by what we learn from this experience.

Unlearning racism is not the same as tolerance. Tolerance is putting up with the mystifying actions of someone different from oneself. Tolerance is a fragile veneer. Unlearning racism is about opening our hearts to the possibility that there are beliefs not our own that have value and that our personal view of the world and our view of life is not the one and only right one, the only truth. There are many truths. A Buddhist monk once told me that being a good Jew was being a good Buddhist in his worldview. Unfortunately for us struggling humans, oftentimes different truths are in conflict with each other. If we truly wish to see justice and peace prevail in the world, then we must accept that our personal truths constitute only one perception out of a multitude of perceptions, and that right and wrong may not be as straightforward as we would wish. My fundamental truths and values may differ considerably from those of someone else, in fact, they may contradict each other. Who has the vision or the right to determine which of our truths or values is better or more accurate or correct? We have to live with that and find a way to avoid fighting about it. We have to be big enough, wise enough, brave enough, compassionate enough, and caring enough to learn from each other and to permanently change each other.

In short, we must all show the bravery of heroes. We must take each other peaches from our trees. We must listen, question, strive to understand, listen to the words of the voice and the words of the heart. Listen without fear of transformation, confusion, and doubt. Listen to hear more than one truth. Listen as if our lives depended on it.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Pancakes or Octopus

I have been having fun lately writing short memoir essays for a website that hosts writing contests. Today I wrote an essay about raising picky eaters. Here is an excerpt from that essay for your reading pleasure.
I remember one time returning from a family outing to the beach when I promised the children we could stop at the IHOP (International House of Pancakes) on the way home. As we drove from the Pacific Coast inland, we passed one roadside fish joint after another. Sudi, who loves fish, started pointing out the signs and reading them aloud. “Look, fresh crabs at that place. Look, fresh fish, caught today. Look Mom. Can we stop here and eat?” I turned to Ron, “What do you think? Should we stop here instead of the IHOP?” Just then we passed a sign that read “fresh octopus.” Akili pointed out to his younger brother, “Are you nuts? We go to the IHOP, we get pancakes for dinner, we stop here and it’s octopus. Which do you prefer? Pancakes or octopus? That’s the choice. Pancakes. Octopus. Pancakes. Octopus.” Sudi piped up immediately, “I can wait for the IHOP. Never mind.”

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sarah Palin vs. Books

From the folks at Shelf-Awareness E-zine comes the following satirical look at Sarah Palin’s relationship to books. (She recently attempted to have a long list of books with “objectionable words” in them removed from libraries in Alaska.)

Flash forward to January 21, 2009 . . .

In her first official act, Vice President Sarah Palin has asked for the resignation of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

After a little distraction as Dick Cheney's staff received new business cards and stationery reflecting their transition to Palin's staff, the Vice President's Office issued the following statement this morning over Palin's signature:

"President McCain and I came to the nation's capital with a mandate for change, and I am pleased to begin that process right in the heart of Washington. When I took that oath or whatever yesterday, I looked over at the Library of Congress building and immediately had several questions.

"First, what is it with all the books? Isn't it enough to have our Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives? Luckily the Archives have room for the upcoming Alaskan Declaration of Independence.
"Second, aren't books basically elitist? Most real Americans are too busy to read. So let's clear the books out and make use of this prime bit of real estate.

"We can begin with test bores that will quickly show whether there are natural resources beneath the Library that could be extracted for the benefit of all Americans. If that doesn't pan out, I believe that with some outside-the-Washington-box thinking we can come up with some cool adaptations for what's left of the building.

"That big room with the dome would make an ideal ice rink, and there's plenty of space elsewhere for a shooting range. Part of the building ought to be converted to a hotel, which would be a much more convenient place for my successors as mayor and governor to stay when they come to Washington to seek even more federal earmarks for Alaska. I know from experience that it can be like an Ironman race going from the hotel to K Street to the Capitol to fancy restaurants and back--and not a mooseburger in sight!

"On the way to the Inauguration Ball, I called Mr. Billington to ask that he implement these ideas. He did not agree to them. This led me to do a Google search on him. That thorough vetting process has resulted in shocking revelations about the Librarian. Among the issues:

"A year ago, he appointed Jon Scieszka the first national reading ambassador. Why not Jack London? Or Ernest Hemingway?

"Why did the Librarian write so many books about Russia? I know Russia: I've seen it from across the Bering Strait and believe me there's not much going on.

"Why has he helped bring so many 'scholars' from Russia to study here?

"What's with all these awards from foreign countries, especially the honorary doctorate from Moscow State University? What's the matter with American awards?

"He has held this job 21 years. In my book, 21 months in one position is more than enough.

"What and why is the National Book Festival? Sure it was supported by the last First Lady, but she represented an administration we Republicans are happy to have sent packing yesterday. Why not a National Snowmobile Festival?"

Thursday, September 4, 2008

First Anniversary of Passing of Madeleine L'Engle

It has been one year since the death of the writer Madeleine L'Engle. She was my favorite writer when I was growing up. Last year I posted the following on my now defunct Shakabaz Blog and I want to post it here today to remember this magnificent spirit. Here's what I wrote when I first heard the news:

Yesterday I heard the news of Madeleine L'Engle's passing. I still remember the first time I read A Wrinkle In Time when I was a little girl. I finished the book and then opened it up to the first page and simply read it all again. I was transported. I had finally found a heroine, a real heroine, who was not just a prop to a boy hero, and I identified with her. Geeky, glasses, smart, shy, making it all up as she went. I think a million or more little girls read this book with a tremendous sigh of relief -- finally, we said to ourselves.
I fell in love with the Murrays. And the Austins. I traveled The Moon By Night, I swam with the dolphins in Ring of Endless Light. As an adult, I read Two-Part Invention. I read A Wrinkle In Time aloud to my stepsons, then my daughter, then each of my sons in turn. My youngest made me read it to him a second time. I have never read any book aloud to children as many times as that. And I could do it again in a heartbeat.
Madeleine L'Engle's positive vision of love and compassion, of the collective power of the good in all of us to make the world right, stays with me. I cannot think of another writer who has done anymore than Madeleine L'Engle to make the world a better place. It is with great sadness that I mark her passing and force myself to accept the fact that she will not pen another word. Continue on your journey ML, we will miss you here on earth.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Shakabaz Out in Audio

This week my children’s fantasy book The Call to Shakabaz is coming out in audio. The book is read aloud by Andrew L. Barnes, an opera singer and voice over artist who also owns Legacy Audio Books, which produced the book in collaboration with Woza Books (our publishing company). Andrew L. Barnes reads the narration and the male characters while actress Adilah Barnes (no relation) reads most of the female characters. The audio book includes original music composed specifically for the project. Even if you have already read the book, you may want to treat yourself to the audio version. To find out more or to order a copy go to the website for Legacy Audio Books at www.legacyaudiobooks.com and look for info on the home page. Now I have to get busy getting the word out about this brand new delight!