Getting closer to things that really matter

Since moving to Vermont last summer I have seen stars I hadn’t seen in many year just walking out of my front door.  I have watched summer change to fall and now to winter in a way not possible in Boston.  With the leaves mostly gone, I could see the Connecticut River as I walked into town this morning.  And it is not that I didn’t notice stuff when I lived in the city.  I was a regular walker around Jamaica Pond, the Fenway, Boston Common and the Public Garden.  I lived across from a 2 acre city park.   And I did notice things.  There was a spot on Jamaica Pond where there were almost always turtles and in the spring you could see the young ones.  There were always birds to identify, plants to watch as they changed season. I could track planets in the Western sky from my bedroom window. But somehow it was different.  Perhaps it was the fact that one could rarely get away from road noise.  Or maybe it was just the feel, the pace of life clearly said “city”.  But I was still seeing nature first hand.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Review section had a wonderful article by the nature writer and essayist, Edward Hoagland.  I first came to know Mr Hoagland’s writing reading his collection of essays, “The Courage of Turtles”.  His New York Times piece begins

“LIFE is an ecstasy,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called “The Method of Nature,” a founding document of American transcendentalism. Life is also electricity, as our minds’ synapses and heart muscles would testify if they could.

Living molecules bear a charge and thus can intersect with others of their kind, as molecules of rock do not. We marveled at electrical displays plunging from watery clouds in the sky as perhaps divine until we finally learned to manufacture and wire electricity ourselves, lighting the dark, then muzzling it for mundane use, to the point of blotting out the sky.

To forgo seeing the firmament, as many of us do, for Netflix and the blogosphere, is momentous — nature “unfriended,” enjoyment less impromptu than scripted.

He asks

Does life become secondhand when filtered through a tailored screen? Text unenriched by body language or voice box timbre, film omnivorously edited. Is our bent straightened or warped more deeply? That’s our choice in what we Google, but in the meantime, will we notice the birdsong diminishing?

I think life can become secondhand but that doesn’t stop any of us from watching the news or movies or internet streaming of important events.  I am addicted to NASA videos of events in space that I know I will never experience first hand.  But Hoagland fears that we are becoming more and more estranged from live experiences.

I live on a mountain without utilities for a third of every year, so for nearly half a century I’ve swung back and forth to and from electrification. In the summer, living by the sun couldn’t be simpler. There’s more daylight than I can use, and I revel in the phases of the moon, the conversation of ravens, owls, yellowthroats and loons. The TV and phone calls resume before winter, though life itself does not seem richer than when I listened to the toads’ spring song or watched a great blue heron fish, amid the leaves’ ten-thousand-fold vibrancy.

The difference of course is that leaves, heron, loon and toad would not remain as glories when I returned to electricity. They are “electrifying” only when Vermont is temperate. I appreciate the utility of power in the winter, but many people seldom see a sunrise or sunset nowadays; they’re looking at a screen. What will this do? The Northern Lights, the Big Dipper — are they eclipsed like the multiplication tables? There was a magnetism to aurora borealis or a cradle moon, to spring peepers’ sleigh-bell sound or spindrift surfing toward shore under cumulus clouds, that galvanized delights in us almost Paleolithic.

Are we stunted if we lose it, a deflation associated with migrating indoors to cyberspace, Facebook instead of faces? It’s lots of fun, but will ecstasy remain in play in front of a computer screen? With microscopes and telescopes we are able to observe unscripted reality, or (if you prefer) Creation.

Dried Queen Anne's Lace seen on a recent walk.

Dried Queen Anne’s Lace seen on a recent walk.

 

Something is lost when everything is experienced secondhand. Unfortunately most of us do not have the kind of double life experience Hoagland has had.  Most of us live in urban or suburban areas.  But we can be more mindful of the small things,  get off our phones and our computers,  turn off the television and experience things first hand for some part of everyday.  You can do this no matter where you live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph by FortRight.

Some cartoonists view the 2014 mid-term election

There are some great cartoons this Sunday on the President and the mid-terms.  Here are a few.

First from Signe Wilkinson

cg545c4e0541bf4

 

Another view of the President and Congress from Nick Anderson.

cg545af80d262ee

 

And my favorite from Stuart Carlson.

 

sc141107

 

I have to think that President Obama is expecting the Republican Congress to erect roadblocks and force him to veto some of their legislation (like repealing the Affordable Care Act), but I’m not sure there are many Republicans left who understand that their job is to actually govern.  We shall see.

Remembering Anne Frank

For anyone expecting a rant about Tuesday’s election, this is not it.  I think I may still be in a state of denial but I can’t write about it yet.  My secret hope is that the Republicans will be so busy squabbling amongst themselves that they won’t be able to pass anything major – just talk about it.  And they will be caught up in nominating a Presidential candidate, too.  Whatever.  For right now, i choose to think about Anne Frank.

I was 11 or 12 when I first read her diary, and like millions of girls around the world was inspired to start my own.  I went on to read the play, see the movie and to purchase a large annotated edition which restored parts that her father had edited out.  I don’t know if young girls still read her, but if they don’t they should.  It was through Anne that I began to learn about the Holocaust.

Sunday, November 9 marks another anniversary of Kristallnacht, the progrom of 1938 that many believe marks the beginning of open prosecution of German Jews.  The New York Times had a recent story about the anniversary and Anne Frank.

…People are fascinated or moved by the slimmest morsel of information about her. When watershed Holocaust dates come up on the calendar, like the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938, Anne’s surviving relatives and friends are invited to share tidbits as well as tell their own often harrowing stories.

Survivors who knew Anne retain the sacred mystique of ancient scrolls — touchstones to someone whose story helped cheat Hitler of his delusion of erasing Jews from the world’s collective conscience. And organizations appreciate these relatives not just because they give life to statistics like the six million Jews killed but because the stories underscore their missions and serve as a draw for raising funds.

Anne Frank, in 1941. Her diary has sold over 35 million copies.

Anne Frank, in 1941. Her diary has sold over 35 million copies.

One of her playmates remember her.

Eva Schloss, a playmate of Anne Frank’s in Amsterdam whose mother later married Anne’s father, recalls an 11-year-old who hopscotched, shot marbles, gossiped and talked so much her friends nicknamed her “Miss Quack Quack.”

Anne also had an intense interest in clothing, boys and Hollywood stars like Deanna Durbin.

A cousin who now lives in New York recalled

Anne was a lively girl who could be something of “a busybody,” Monica Smith said about her young second cousin — and she often had ink stains on her slender fingers.

“She was a writer,” said Mrs. Smith, who also remembered that Anne had a generous streak: “She would bring me peanuts. We were not choosy in those days.”

As with anything, there is controversy.  Who deserves to be considered a relative is a matter of much debate but

The personal stories relatives and friends tell are compelling, and not just when they intersect with Anne’s.

Monica Smith was born Dorothee Wurzburger in Stuttgart on May 10, 1923, six years before Anne, who was raised in Frankfurt. Her father was a manufacturer of steel used in Mercedes-Benz cars and was so important that the Nazis let him out of Dachau so he could continue conducting business. Mrs. Smith first saw Anne as a child of 3 when both went to visit grandparents in Aachen. Mrs. Smith’s grandmother and Anne’s grandfather were siblings, and their mothers were first cousins.

The memories grow clearer after Kristallnacht. Mrs. Smith’s parents put her on the Kindertransport to Holland that rescued 2,000 German-Jewish children, though one-third did not survive the Nazi occupation. Mrs. Smith, who was about 15, spent weeks quarantined in a barracks sleeping on a mattress on the floor, was taken to a more rural camp, and then to the Burgerweeshuis, an orphanage housing 75 refugee children.

Anne and her father, by then living in Amsterdam, visited the orphanage a dozen times, sometimes bringing treats. Mrs. Smith also saw Anne’s older sister, Margot, who was “totally different” — quiet and demure. Mrs. Smith remembers staying in the Franks’ modern apartment block on the Merwedeplein square and visiting Otto Frank’s spice-company offices on Prinsengracht — where he was to arrange for “the secret annex” that his family hid in for two years. And she remembers how engaged Anne and her father were with each other.

“The two of them were very close,” she said.

Mrs. Smith, a tall slender woman with a trace of a German accent, left Amsterdam a few days before the Germans marched in, reuniting with her parents in London, and immigrating with them to the United States. Adopting the nickname Monica, she scrubbed floors in the Bronx and worked as a saleswoman and clothing model at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. She married a Czech refugee, Francis Smith, and they had a son, Tony, who died at 4, and a daughter, Nicole Smith-Brody. Legally blind and hard of hearing, Mrs. Smith is filled with sadness when she thinks back to those days.

“What can be done to human beings!” she said.

What indeed?

No matter how you feel about using Anne Frank as a symbol for fundraising.  No matter the arguments as who might be a “true” relative,  the young girl who kept a diary and died just before she could have been liberated remains a touchstone at least for women of my generation.  She is the one who taught us about man’s inhumanity to man.  She was a girl who could have been one of us.

Photograph:  Anne Frank Fonds, via European Pressphoto Agency

A personal remembrance of Mayor Thomas M. Menino

Tom Menino died yesterday at the young age of 71.  After having declined to run for a 6th term, he officially retired from office in January this year and was soon after diagnosed with advanced cancer.  He was my boss for some 13 years – I think everyone who worked for the City of Boston considered him that – but I was far enough up the food chain to have only a couple of layers between us.  Plus I was on committees and volunteered  in ways that put me in touch with him.

I believed it was when he was running for term number 5 that a poll showed that 57% of Boston residents had met him personally.  I assume that those polled were adults and not children as I have to believe an even higher percentage of kids had met him as he made the rounds of community centers, schools and other events.

Menino spoke with Edrei Olivero, 7, of Mattapan, before a neighborhood walk in 2010. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)

Menino spoke with Edrei Olivero, 7, of Mattapan, before a neighborhood walk in 2010. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)

In fact, my favorite memory of the Mayor was with a little girl.  I know I’ve told this story before but I’m telling it again.

I was at a Boston Housing Authority community day.  Early summer, late afternoon.  Some people were grilling and there were chips and stuff, but the big attraction for the kids was the ice cream.  If I remember correctly, Ben and Jerry’s had donated, or one of their stores or distributors had, ice cream and cones.  Some volunteers were scooping it out.  A little girl had attached herself to me and wanted some.  I got her a cone and we were walking away with it when the ice cream fell out of the cone and onto the ground – right at the feet of the Mayor.  She started to cry.  He picked her up and took her over the ice cream table and got her another cone.  Of course he cut into the front of the line.  One boy started to object and another whispered loudly, “That’s the Mayor.” She was happy.  The Mayor was happy.

And that is how I will remember him most.  He loved all the children of Boston and I think they loved him back.

 

Menino spent his last Halloween (2013)as mayor of Boston as he always did -- on his Hyde Park front porch giving out candy to neighborhood children. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Menino spent his last Halloween (2013)as mayor of Boston as he always did — on his Hyde Park front porch giving out candy to neighborhood children. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

 

Anger, fear, and violence

People made fun of President Carter when he spoke of a national malaise.  I’m not sure we were in one back then, but I’d say we are sure in one today.  Everyone seems tired.  The upcoming election is very important, but many can’t get up enough energy to decide to vote.  But added to the tiredness is anger.   You can see it in what is said about the President, in the disrespect shown him and the office.  You can see it in the fear about Ebola.  You can see it in the increased racial tension in Missouri and elsewhere.  You can see it the attempts to restrict voting.  I see the fear of “the other” manifesting as anger.  But you can also see it in the anger against women.

Jessica Valenti had a piece in the Guardian the other day, “Why are Men so Angry?”.  I’ve been thinking about it since I first came across it.  She begins

There’s a Margaret Atwood quote that I can’t get out of my head these days: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Last Friday, a young man from Washington state walked into his high school cafeteria and shot five people, killing one young woman. Early reports from other students indicate that the shooter, who reportedly shot himself, was upset over a girl. In early October, Mary Spears was shot to death in Detroit, allegedly by a man whose advances she rejected at a social club. In April, a Connecticut teen stabbed his classmate to death when she rejected his prom invitation. Turning men down is a risky business.

But the madness doesn’t stop there. From Gamergate to mass shootings todomestic violence and the NFL – the common denominator is male rage. Women are not committing most acts of mass and individual violence, nor are women lobbing out most death threats online or raping most college students. Violence – and the threat of it – remains a decidedly male domain.

But why are men so violently angry?

I believe that it is the same kind of fear that drives the fear of the racially other.  When it comes to women, it is fear of losing some perceived superiority.  Valenti puts it this way

Is it the fear that women’s progress means a loss of all that shiny male privilege? That our society is a zero sum game and power can’t be shared? Maybe some men’s anger stems from good old-fashioned misogyny, which is then stoked by political, social and cultural forces that say there’s nothing lower in this world than a woman so how dare she … well, anything. Or perhaps that anger at women comes from straight-up entitlement: the men who believe that women are meant to be there for them, whether it’s to wash their toilets or warm their beds, and that denying them access to us is an unthinkable affront.

But it’s no coincidence that anti-feminist backlash happens most often when women’s rights are on an upswing. And male anger towards women isn’t going anywhere – if anything, it’s gaining steam. Online forums that provide anonymity are creating spaces for men to say the things they no longer can in “real life”, police and courts that disbelieve and blame women for the violence done to them give men the impression their bad behavior is acceptable and a conservative movement that refuses to let go of traditional gender roles teaches our children that being a man is synonymous with being “tough”, having guns and, yes, being violent.

domestic_violence_awareness_ribbon

I’m old enough to remember when no one talked about violence against women.  We were just beginning to recognize domestic violence and create shelters.  The concepts of sexual harassment and date rape were just being named.  Rape was beginning to be taken seriously.  Now we have special months, ribbons, and rape is generally depicted as a crime of violence.  So it makes me tired to think that after all these decades that we are still trying to figure out how to deal with male violence.  (And before someone complains that women can be violent also, yes they can be.  But the vast majority of violent incidents are perpetrated by men.)

Valenti concludes

If we want to put a dent in male anger and the chaos it creates, we need to stop looking at problems like sexual assault, harassment, domestic violence and even violent threats online and assigning their solutions to feminists. We need to stop calling them “just women’s issues”. We have to address men and men’s behavior together – not just their direct violence against women, but their propensity to protect their own. Not the outcomes of their rage, but the causes. Because, until we do, we’ll continue to be afraid. All of us.

I think she is right, but I worry that the conversation about male violence will be like the national dialog on race which everyone talks about but no one knows how to begin.  I’m not sure I know how to talk to the person who still believes that President Obama is really Kenyan, much less talk to someone to wants to commit violence against me to keep me in my place.

 

 

 

Writer’s block

I’ve been quiet for a few days.  Have lots of things I’m thinking about and have started some posts, but not finished any of them.  Is it because I am depressed and anxious about the upcoming election?  (I keep reading about the evils of a Republican takeover of the Senate and fear that voter turnout will be low.)  Or is it because there is no fall excitement with the Red Sox in the World Series?  (Although I have to say the games have been exciting with the Royals and Giants.)  Maybe I’m suffering from sleep deprivation since I have a cat who has decided she needs attention at 10:30, 11:30 and between 12 and 1 am.  I think she may be having delayed moving anxiety.  Whatever.  I still don’t sleep.

Then I came upon this humor piece from the New Yorker by James Thomas  

Well, here you are, looking at this, trying, hoping, floundering, scrabbling, wishing, dying to find out the mystery of “how to” write a sentence. Or possibly you have tried write sentence and failed utterly.

Ideally, you’ll aim to begin on the left (in this case, with the word “ideally”), head right (through the middle of the sentence), and stop at the far end of the sentence (in this case, right here).

Sentences have been around since the dawn of paragraphs, and indeed since before that, for sentences are essentially the building blobs of a paragraph. Right here, if you’re looking closely enough, you may notice that what you are now reading in fact is a sentence. But also—some will have noticed even more well—what you are reading is a paragraph. And I could go further than that, even, to declare that you are also reading words, letters, and indeed this entire page. Nobody thought you could do it, but here we are now and aren’t you having a good time?

All I need to do according to Mr. Thomas is write a bunch of sentences and blob them into paragraphs and before you know it I will have a post!

Even furthermore, you’re reading everything that has ever been wrote, but you’re starting with just this bit, because reading everything at once would be too much for anyone to attempt. Too much words in one go is unacceptable, and your writing should reflect that. Keep it concise and don’t stuff your sentence with unnecessary, superfluous, gratuitous content that smothers your prose, muddies your intentions, confuses the reader, clogs up the page with excess text, pads out the work with inelegant drivels, irritates the eye, examines giraffes, and renders your point unclear.

Also, keep your paragraphs short.

How importan is spelling? Well, very important. I don’t know why anyone would even ask that. If you have any sef-respect, you ought to be diligent about and with regard to spelling. If words are the bulding blocks of a sentence—and I would argue that yes, they are—then spelling is the stuff that holds them togteher.

Maybe tomorrow, after absorbing all this advice, I will finish one of my draft posts.  After I finish planting my bulbs for the spring.

Lady writer

Illustration from Mindy’s Muses @ mindysmuses.blogspot.com

 

Ebola, the flu and other health risks

I just got my flu shot.  I get one every year.  While it might not keep me from getting sick this winter, in all likelihood it will keep me from getting really sick.  I just hope that everyone else I interact with has also gotten a flu shot.

Frank Bruni wrote about this in this morning’s New York Times.

During the 2013-2014 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 46 percent of Americans received vaccinations against influenza, even though it kills about 3,000 people in this country in a good year, nearly 50,000 in a bad one.

These are deaths by a familiar assassin. Many of them could have been prevented. So why aren’t we in a lather over that? Why fixate on remote threats that we feel we can’t control when there are immediate ones that we simply don’t bother to?

On matters exotic, we’re rapt. On matters quotidian, which are nonetheless matters of life and death, we’re cavalier. Tens of thousands of Americans die in car crashes annually, and according to a federal analysis from 2012, more than half of them weren’t wearing seatbelts.

I think part of the reason people are so panicked about Ebola is because so far the medical community in the United States seems very inept at treating it and, particularly, in preventing its spread.  Amy Davidson’s piece “Amber Vinson’s Airplane Ride” in the New Yorker is particularly instructive.

Amber Vinson called the Centers for Disease Control, on Monday, to say that she had a temperature of 99.5 degrees and planned to get on a commercial flight from Cleveland to Dallas; should she? Vinson, a nurse, had cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, a patient with Ebola, in Dallas—she had put a catheter in him and been in close contact when he was vomiting and in the throes of diarrhea. The day before Vinson made her call, one of her colleagues, Nina Pham, had tested positive for Ebola. There was, supposedly, a system in place for monitoring Duncan’s contacts. And yet, as the C.D.C. confirmed late on Wednesday, the official Vinson spoke to cleared her to fly. Vinson got on Frontier Airlines Flight 1143, with a hundred a thirty-two other passengers. She landed in Dallas at 8:16 P.M.. The next morning, her fever was worse; around midnight, she tested positive for Ebola.

There is much that is seriously wrong here. The first is that Pham and Vinson, who are both in their twenties, were so exposed. Their hospital, Texas Health Presbyterian, sent Duncan home the first time he showed up in the emergency room, with a fever and pain and the information that he’d just been in Liberia. But it’s also emerging that, in the first days after he was admitted for the second time, on September 28th—with his family saying that they thought he had Ebola, and all the full-blown symptoms on display, but as yet no laboratory test confirming it—he was not properly isolated, according to records obtained by the Associated Press. The nurses caring for him had to improvise their own protection.

Tom Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., addresses the media on the Ebola case, on October 5th.

Tom Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., addresses the media on the Ebola case, on October 5th.

Thomas Frieden, the head of the CDC, has said they should have had people there to help them “do it right”, but then someone from his own agency told Amber Vinson it was OK for her to fly.  And we are left to wonder who is in charge and if anyone knows what they are doing.  If President Obama wants to do something to help regain public confidence that the health care system here can deal effectively with Ebola, maybe Mr. Frieden’s departure would be a good start.

Amy Davidson writes

Frieden himself represents an even bigger problem. His account of how Vinson got on the plane, related in the conference call on Wednesday, was at least evasive and, depending on what he knew and what exactly Vinson was told, may have been worse. He was asked three different ways if Vinson had been told not to fly, and each time dodged the question in a way that left the impression that Vinson was some sort of rogue nurse who just got it into her head that she could fly wherever she wanted. He talked about her “self-monitoring,” and that she “should not have travelled, should not have been allowed to travel by plane or any public transport”—without mentioning that his agency was who allowed it.

It is things like this, and the lack of protocols at Texas Health Presbyterian, that create fear, probably unwarranted, among the American public that there will be a major outbreak of Ebola here.

As Bruni says

I’m not dismissing the horror of Ebola, a full-blown crisis in Africa that should command the whole world’s assistance. And Ebola in the United States certainly warrants concern. We’re still searching for definitive answers about transmission and prevention.

But Americans already have such answers about a host of other, greater perils to our health, and we’d be wiser to reacquaint ourselves with those, and recommit to heeding them, than to worry about our imminent exposure to Ebola.

So, use seat belts, get a flu shot, get your kids vaccinated, don’t use your cell phone while driving and use sunscreen.  And try not to worry about getting Ebola.

 Photograph by  KEVIN C. COX/GETTY