The personal/the political

There’s so much in Heidi Schreck’s wise, witty, profound play, What the Constitution Means to Me that resonates but an anecdote touching on an encounter with a young man during her college days struck a particular chord. They were saying good-night and the question of sex entered the picture. More accurately, it was a question of presumption. As I understood it, she didn’t especially want to have sex with this man and he was not using force but somehow acquiescence played its part.

I challenge any woman to say this hasn’t happened to her. For reasons that still surprise me when I recall it, I once experienced a similar encounter with a different end result. I was in southern France, on a date with a curly-haired Frenchman, a bartender. He picked me up at the hotel where I was staying, took me for a drive. We ended up at his apartment, at which point he wanted what I wasn’t having. What made it worse was his unwillingness to drive me back to my hotel. He said he was too stoned. Maybe. Maybe not.  I left the apartment in a huff, no idea of where I was, pre-cell phone days. The streets were dark, quiet. And for all the corners we turned as we drove around, somehow I found myself on an easy path back to the center of town.  Maybe that sense of direction my husband thinks I lack came to my rescue like a shot of adrenaline.

In the years since Heidi Schreck so proudly won the American Legion contests that paid for her college education and ultimately gave rise to her current Broadway hit, life experiences have played their part to shape the woman and the writer she is. As a writer myself, possibly what moved me most is the realization that profound moments in our lives—the disturbing as well as the joyful—morph into newfound means of expression. Insights evolve.   

Ultimately, the political is personal, and the brilliance of Heidi Schreck’s play is the way she intersperses recollections of her life with a deep love, knowledge, and appreciation for the document that is the bedrock of our nation.

She captures so perfectly a 15-year-old self, intent on winning, who did not yet have the wherewithal to process what she would later come to understand as the abuse her great-grandmother and grandmother tolerated.  With no didactic diatribes, she infuses what’s right and what’s wrong with what the Founding Fathers gave us into the times in which we live. She never has to say the words #MeToo and #GunControlNow even as she gives the shocking statistics re: the number of women killed by domestic partners. 

She reminds us, too, that the Constitution was mostly aimed at protecting the rights of the men who wrote it. The ten amendments that comprise the Bill of Rights would come within three years of the Constitution’s ratification. Privacy became an important issue, as did the right to bear arms.

Who could have imagined that we’d now find ourselves at a time in our history when fierce battles would ensue over the very meaning of the amendments that gave rise to those rights?

I love language in all its nuance. In the years I worked as an editor of employment law journals, I would marvel at how comma placement could change the meaning of a statute. So now, enthused and inspired by Heidi Schreck, I take a peek at that ‘we the people’ document that became the foundation of our system of governance. Amendment 2 jumps out at me:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

That first phrase is no linguistic flourish. It’s central to the premise of why the Founding Fathers saw a need for the amendment.  I can’t help thinking they would weep at the distortion of a right on which their survival may have hinged. Abraham Lincoln had a thing or two to say about rights as well, and this winning entry in the 2019 Texas Sandfest Competition might make anyone weep.

Saturday night found me watching The Pelican Brief, the 1993 John Grisham novel-turned-movie starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. I’ve seen it more than once, but this time had me focused on Alan Pakula’s use of Hitchcock-like camera angles that heightened the suspense.  And how could I help but be riveted by a film in which the assassination of two Supreme Court justices signals a conspiracy driven by politics and greed and an idiot in the Oval Office whose main focus (other than making sure he’s not implicated) is training his dog. At least, when everything unfolded, the fictional FBI director owned up to the president’s obstruction justice.

These are very distressing times. Doublespeak and stonewalling from the Oval Office. Family feuds across dinner tables, not to mention Facebook. I avoid engaging with family members who think the president is doing a terrific job but the other day I had to put in my two cents’ (make that a dollar’s) worth of thoughts, mostly to clear up the misjudgment and misinformation.  I’m not likely to change this family member’s mind but I had to say it: 

Read the Constitution. Find out what it should mean to all of us at a time when the very fabric of our nation is threatened.

I want to scream. I fear this presidency is shattering my nerves.  Men coopt what belongs to women and turn it on them. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times gave some perspective on the likability factor in politics (the comments are worth reading, too).  Eisenhower may have used it well in his ‘I like Ike’ campaign. But only a woman, instilled in the ways of being a good girl from the get-go, knows the power she relinquished for the sake of being liked. 

For all the recent setbacks, there are signs of progress. Women are raising up their voices, shaping art that speaks to the cultural and political climate. 

 We’re taking power in record numbers.  And all this has little if nothing to do with likability.

The writing on the wall

My mother’s birthday was a few days ago. She would have turned 92.

Birthdays, holidays, sentimental moments make us think of beloved people gone from our lives.  But today she’s on my mind mostly because of something she said more than once. On almost any night of the week our tiny Brooklyn apartment would be filled with family sitting around the kitchen table, smoking, drinking, laughing, fighting.  An uncle would storm out.  He’d be back the following night.

That’s the way it was with family.

That’s not the way it is anymore.

What my mother said, more than once—her eyes watery, her heart softened by a drink—was they don’t listen to me.  More often than not, trying to convince a grown sibling that he was (possibly) being too reactive to a situation got her nowhere. She had advice to offer. She wanted to be heard.

We called them ‘lively discussions,’ not arguments, and family dramas, not politics, were at the heart of them. Today we can’t even sit around the table anymore, and I don’t necessarily want to, which saddens me.  I could argue that politics has made it more urgent that we sit across from each other and air our thoughts.  But what, in truth, is more important than the personal dynamics that hold families together?

We use our Facebook walls to spout words that are not even necessarily our own—neatly constructed platitude-filled appeals that feed personal indignation in their longing for a time when the order of things seemed ruled by an unquestioned morality. Just to be clear, I have no issue with what we think of as moral questions that give rise to healthy discourse. It’s the simplistic picking and choosing—e.g., share this post if you agree that we used to cite the Pledge of Allegiance without worrying about offending anyone—that makes me bristle.

Everyone wants to be heard.

We all want to know that people are paying attention.

Last week brought a double whammy of despair to our country, with the most non-presidential of presidents at the helm. Thoughts and prayers, a given in the face of tragedies, gave way to editorials sounding the wake-up call to anyone still unwilling to connect the dots between the hate-mongering and lies of the man in the Oval Office and the violence his words and actions have given license to. What Has Trump Done to Us, America?, appearing in The Forward, got straight to the heart of things. I shared it on my Facebook wall yesterday, along with the hope that it might jolt anyone who does not see the writing on the wall into coming to their senses when it comes time to vote.

Transparent as my words are, they contain a not-so-veiled plea to cousins of mine who tend to vote Republican. Facebook, alas, may have replaced that crowded kitchen table as a place to air our viewpoints. Problem is, when you’re not looking someone in the eye it gets too easy to blow them off. Ignore the Facebook post. Delete the text. Voilà—the conversation never takes place.

They don’t listen to me, and I wish to high heaven they would.

And, yet, maybe there really is hope. How else to explain that in the middle of last week’s horrifying events 2,000 people attended a service at the National Cathedral in Washington to memorialize Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally murdered 20 years ago? His ashes would finally be interred. His life would be celebrated. And presiding over the service would be Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopalian Church.

Why I love my daughter

I count it among one of life’s gifts to have a daughter who enjoys doing things with me. Rock concerts. Hiking when we’re on vacation (even if she leaves me in the dust). Shopping.  Enjoying the sights and streets of NYC when she comes back East. But it’s something else, as deep in what it says about character and resilience as it is funny that has me moved to write about her.

Because she lives on the West Coast and I’m in New York, it’s not uncommon for me wake to texts written by her late at night.We’d had more than one conversation about the distressing direction of health care and insurance last week. Hard to offer reassurance when things are so tenuous politically and socially, conservative right-wing Republicans have more power than they deserve, and there’s a psychopath in the White House.  And, yet, when we talk a switch in my brain automatically turns me from worried mode to mama mode, in which I remind her that things are bad, yes, but we have to consider that resistance counts for a lot. After we talk, I send a text.

So when I turned on my phone Friday morning and saw there was text from her, I was so sure it was going to be about John McCain, a villain earlier in the week. Then came Thursday night, the tension, the mystery, the anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep, I dreaded what Friday would bring in the wake of the Senate debate on the last of the three options to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s the text I woke up to.

I laughed.   Already in a better mood than I thought I’d be because of two persistent women who would not cave to party pressure augmented by a tweeting psychopath, and a man I’ve had mixed feelings about over the years, I reminded myself a small win is still a win.

I reminded myself, too, that my daughter has always been this way.  She unloads, tells me all the troubling things on her mind. Then her own neurological switch kicks in.

Survival strategies take many forms, and humor is one of the best.  Timothy Ferris makes a good case for laughter as a response to stress in an essay in his book, The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context. We all need some comic relief.

I thought a little about John McCain, too.  His dramatic return in the throes of a terrible prognosis had so many seeing him as a hero. Humility in the face of death would not be a stretch when trying to understand his thumbs-down moment.  In truth, we all know the vote could have gone either way,

And I thought of two strong, remarkable women, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who I’m thankful are not getting (too) overshadowed by the vote heard around the world.

Then there’s my daughter. The greed that fuels the climate change deniers, the heartlessness at the heart of attempts to eviscerate Obamacare get her absolutely worked up. Factor in random personal frustrations and you could have a pretty miserable individual.  But a capacity for getting on with things, coupled with a sense of humor and an admirable resilience, always ends up winning the day.

And sometimes all it takes is a puppy or two to make her smile.

Patiently waiting for a Shake Shack poochini 😉










Nemo and Bambi and all the rest of us

If there’s a thread to my latest blog posts, I have nothing but that mysterious thing we call the unconscious to blame (maybe ‘credit’ is a better word than blame).

The other night I watched Finding Nemo, a refresher of sorts to get me ready for Finding Dory. Like all movies I’ve seen before, it’s the details I forgot, lines striking a fresh note, that ring out:

Fish are friends, not food.

When life gets you down, just keep swimming.

Ironic, indeed, since I recently decided to learn how to swim without feeling dead in the water. You would think that a woman with a longtime exercise regimen that has gone from running (including a marathon) to bicycling/walking/yoga (and now encompasses a combination of it all) would find herself a natural at this thing called swimming.

Doesn’t quite work that way. Sure, I have the endurance, but the coordination required to make staying afloat as pleasurable and seamless as it should be escapes me. Don’t even get me started on my fear of being in deep water. In my world (almost) everything is metaphor, and water has it all. Think about what it means to be in over your head. Buoyancy is never to be taken for granted. Fluidity? That’s just a start.

But thoughts take second place to the act here. I am, in astrological terms, a fire sign (Sagittarius) and even if I count on my other-worldly brother to keep me updated on how the stars are aligning for (or against) me in any given month, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to sense the power of water over fire. So it is with a mix of trepidation and pride that I take this plunge. There’s so much to be learned about myself, how can I help but keep a diary of my weekly lessons? In time, I’ll pull it together into a finely honed piece that has a ring to it: Learning to swim at 66. God is in the details, but I would hate to bore anyone with too many of them.

bambiToday on my morning walk, Bambi looked as if she wanted to run right up to me, but some uncertainty, not to mention the way she sensed Mama cautiously staring my way, stopped her in her tracks. They were both pretty close, and oh-so-trusting.   I would guess that the most threatening thing about me is the baseball cap I wear, a present from my daughter: Women who behave rarely make history.

If I feel a little like Nemo, lost in the ocean with his mismatched fins, I can forgive myself the facile analogy. His trial by water, coupled with Bambi’s trial by fire, has me viewing the darkness in Disney/Pixar in a new light.

How do we regain any sense of innocence lost when tragedy continues to bombard us? Nemo’s father does not even want to let him go to school in a movie that predates Sandy Hook by nine years.

Built into the classic hero’s journey are obstacles—how else does she/he learn and grow? But these days have me feeling we’re in a collective trial by fire, on the national and international front. I find myself thinking, a lot, about the brilliance and wit and pathos Frank Capra brought to movies with an undercurrent of troubled times. Meet John Doe is especially on my mind, what with a hero who runs from the media machinations and political connivance that created him, only to find he can’t run from the authentic, galvanizing movement he created.

If movies ostensibly for children strike a chord reminding me (us) that we have to find our own way in the world, could Meet John Doe, with its message of transcending despair, go a long way toward reminding us that we’re really not in this alone?

Everyone has an opinion/we all want to be heard.

A recent piece on Vox by Ezra Klein re: Hillary Clinton made it so clear that one of her strengths is LISTENING to people, and not, like her presumptive opponent, spouting and shooting from the hip. So here’s what I’m thinking: maybe we can shift the political conversation from the demoralizing, nauseating negativity dominating it by sharing talking points that speak to our favorite candidate’s strengths, not the other one’s weaknesses. I’ll begin right here/right now.

Speaking of women making history . . .Baseball cap


Fiction Facebook Friendship

Tap your heels together three times, Dorothy.

You always had the power.

To go home.

These days find me longing for some kind of yesterday. Can’t say I loved high school (who really does?) but I can say I remember being enthralled by a book I was supposed to hate if for no other reason than it wasn’t cool to like.

Boring? Maybe to some (most?) of my friends, engrossing to me:

Silas Marner.

Who, as a young teen, could even contemplate a condition known as catalepsy?george eiiot

Then there was Eppie. Innocent if not truly orphaned, when she finds her way to the doorstep of the gentle recluse himself. The bonds of love sometimes have a way of surprising us, even if, in our hearts, we know it couldn’t be any other way.

And the author, a woman with a man’s name.

Middlemarch (not to be confused with Middlesex or Middle Earth) has me in its grip now. The pull of the narrative is immediate, sinewy sentences that require the kind of deep attention that always rewards. No small irony in this time traveling from a world in hyperdrive, more and more on edge by the day, to one that doesn’t seem as old hat as it should in its exploration of marriage, and social mores, and politics in 19th century England. Times change, narrative syntax evolves; but there’s a reason great works of literature, with their timeless perspective on the big themes of life, beg to be read again, and again.

These are horrible, troubling, anxiety-ridden times. Paris . . .Brussels . . . no sane person sees any good there. Cuba? How you feel about it is intrinsically linked to whom you’re rooting for in the Reality TV show known as a presidential election. A wise friend on Facebook puts out a call to hide posts re: the Republication frontrunner (I can’t even say his name without becoming nauseous). A cousin spouts his negative thoughts re: our current president (one of the best ever, to my thinking).

I look for quotes by Rumi to share. Art, poetry, good books that move me. Links to music videos that do what only music can do to the spirit.

Along comes Marlene, a high school friend who connects with me on Facebook. Whatever divergent paths our lives since 1966 have taken us on, we’re here now, real friends in a virtual world. Synchronicity reveals its pretty head: like me, she’s a long-time fan of Leonard Cohen. Bruce Springsteen? Don’t even get us started. Turns out she lives in southern California, and when I tell her that my daughter has an extra pair of tickets to a Springsteen show (that will turn out to be historic as the four-hour finale at the L.A. Sports Arena), it’s a done deal.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d hop on a plane, take a ticket for myself. It wouldn’t be the first time I flew out to go to a concert with my daughter.

In the real world, I smile at the photo an old high school friend has shared with my daughter, who has shared it with me. I may look back with mixed feelings at my high school self, but there’s only delight at the serendipity that has played its hand in reconnecting us, a connection magnified by the power of music. My physical body was (alas) not at that stupendous show, but trust me, I was there.


Talk less, say more

I have a dream . . . in which I’m sitting at a kitchen table with my cousins—very close cousins, whom I love dearly—and we’re reminiscing, schmoozing, laughing about old times at another kitchen table, in a small Brooklyn apartment, as mythical as it was real. We tease each other about the kids we once were. We keep nibbling at whatever food and snacks are within reach.

What makes this a dream is one simple wish: when politics rears its ugly head, and we find ourselves across that nasty divide, we listen—really listen—to each other. All one cousin, staunch Republican that he is, has to say is one word to make me cringe: Yes, Benghazi.

I try, really I do, to put things into perspective. I ask him to look at past administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, to see if we might reach some common ground re: fallibility and accountability on both sides. There’s nothing pretty about politics. At its purest, it’s a rather benign word encompassing the ‘science of government’ or ‘affairs of state,’ rooted in the Greek politikos, meaning ‘of, for, or relating to citizens.’ But even way way back, the ideal vs. the pragmatic and/or power-driven state of governance was teased apart by philosophers. All of which doesn’t do much to mitigate today’s connotation of politics and with it, the encroaching reality that the truth of any situation is hard to come by. We all have mindsets, predispositions, call it what you will. We live in world governed by all the news that’s fit to summarize and spit out to suit a spin mentality that supports those predispositions.

It’s the reason that presidential debates put is into a tailspin or make us fall sleep, and, alas, rarely change our minds.

It’s the reason elections, presidential or otherwise – make everyone I know complain about those hideous placards marring the landscape for weeks and the bombardment of 30-second spots messing with any pleasure I get from watching TV. (Even with DVR capability, allowing me to fast-forward through commercials, I can’t help but feel the offense of it all during the height of election season.) Don’t even get me started on the obscene amount of money that goes into campaigning. All that complaining seems to get us nowhere.

Go ahead, remind me I’m preaching to the choir.

Yes, I take it all too personally. I worry about climate change, terrorism, a woman’s right to choose, the future of the Supreme Court. I worry about people who spout about the right to bear arms without really understanding the nuanced language of the Second Amendment. With cousins living in Ohio, I sometimes imagine myself on the campaign trail, a volunteer. Think of the sense of accomplishment if I could change the mind of just one person, cousin or otherwise, leaning red!   Almost as gratifying would be getting someone to listen—really listen—to the information I’m trying to share. This person, like my cousin, would probably say he’s listening, and, to some degree he is.   But what he’s hearing is something else completely.

He would probably say the same about me.

My brother may be a better (or better yet, more determined) person than I am in his efforts to get my cousin to see the light, to whatever degree possible. I stay away from family dramas on Facebook, but I do read the interactions and sometimes, when I just can’t help myself, I put in my two cents. A few days after the horrendous shooting at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College Campus, my Facebook feed showed me that my cousin had shared a Wired Outdoors link with this message: Making Good People Helpless Won’t Make Bad People Harmless. On their own, the words are hard to argue with. Except that the telling graphic—a rifle underscoring the words—gives a not-so-subliminal spin to it. Wired Outdoors is apparently a hunting TV show, and reducing the complex issue of gun control to a simplistic phrase brought me to a place between rage and tears.

You know the saying: You can choose your friends . . . but family you’re stuck with. Stuck or not, I periodically find myself with a nostalgic longing to be with family, no longer around the proverbial corner. With distance more the norm than the exception these days, family get-togethers take a bit of planning and effort. The alternative—disappearing from each other’s lives completely—is not an option.

There’s nothing original about my scenario, and I know it. Case in point: a good friend tells me about family group emails in which one of her brothers insists on sharing what is now generally understood to be egregiously manipulated Planned Parenthood videos. All efforts at trying to make him see the ruse for what it is are clearly a waste of her time.

But we try . . . and we try . . . and we try. And once in a while, I like to think, we can step outside of ourselves, take the time to listen and read with an open mind.

Like I said, this is a dream.

modern familyAnd even if we can’t cross that political divide, we still manage to sit around a table. And eat.