Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Husband

 There are people who like ice skating, not because of the points a skater may earn, but because of the aesthetic quality of the skating.  I feel similarly about gymnastics. When I watch gymnasts, I do not care a whole lot whether a subjective reviewer gives them a 8.9 or 9.1, I am just wowed by what these athletes can do.

I just completed a collection of short stories called, To Be a Man, by Nicole Krauss.  I'd read a positive review of the book somewhere and looked up the author.  Then I requested both the new collection and a novel she had written previously.  I did not think the novel--which came first--was, as my grandfather would say, so extra.  It was called Man Walks Into a Room.  I believe the current word used to describe my reaction to that book is, Meh.  About a week ago the anthology came through and I went to pick it up.

There are ten stories in the collection.  For the most part I do not think the stories are that profound, but the experience of reading the stories was akin to the experience I describe above when I marvel watching gymnasts. The author writes so well that I found myself stopping every so often to wonder how in the world she could have strung the sentences together in the way that she did.  

One of the stories is called "To Be a Man" and the book is named the same, though that story is not representative of the others nor is it in my opinion the best either because of the story or the writing.

The one that has stuck with me both because of how well it is written and the story itself is called, "The Husband."  I don't think my summary below gives much away as the story is not a suspense.  

A woman who is a psychologist lives in New York City with her two children.  She is divorced and grew up in Israel. Her mother still lives in Tel Aviv and her brother about twenty minutes away in Jaffa.  Her father died of a heart attack about five years earlier.  Regularly the mother and daughter speak on the phone, and on Fridays typically face time.  One day her mother calls at an unusual time to tell the daughter that she won't believe what has happened.  The daughter is not especially interested except the mother is eager to relay what has occurred. Someone from Social Services rang her apartment bell and asked to come up.  The mother, uncomfortable with a stranger coming up, asked for the business to be stated ahead of time. No, it was private, said the representative.

Eventually the mother says, okay.  And up comes the man from social services with a small elderly man who has a little brown cap.  The social services man is beaming, and says, well I bet you can tell now why I insisted on coming up. The mother said she is clueless, Well, look, he says, we found your husband.

This of course was ridiculous to both the mother and the daughter.  They keep referring to the little guy with the brown hat as The Husband even though the idea that the husband has been found is preposterous since the real husband/father is dead and buried.

The problem for the daughter is that the next time she calls the mother and asks facetiously how is the little husband (I may be blurring some incidents but this is the gist) the mother happily says, he's still around--and whispers conspiratorially--he's not so little.

Well, the daughter is flabbergasted and upset. She calls her brother who says he knows about it, but what is the big deal.  Mom kind of likes "the husband." But he's not the husband sputters the daughter.  The daughter can sense over the phone her brother shrugging "so, big deal."  After facetiming with her mother one Friday and sensing that the husband is in the apartment, she gives the phone as is customary to her 10 year old son and walks out of the room, only to come back in and hear that the husband is showing the kid card tricks.

It goes on from there and I'll stop the narrative, but the point seems to be that we become attached to people for reasons not so far removed from how the mother became attached to the husband. (You don't learn his name until near the end).  The daughter who is content, sort of, to be unattached from her children's father, finds the mother's quick connection with the husband worse than disconcerting.

The Husband is the longest short story in the collection--about forty pages  I may be doing justice to the events, but not how Krauss has presented them.  The writing is very far beyond meh. Really remarkable.  So, if you feel like being wowed with how someone writes I might suggest reading the stories. Not much novel in there, but even the Russian judges would rate the work close to a ten.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

Shmutz Off

 A woman I know wanted to reverse a mistake she'd made decades before. So with the aid of her husband she set off to reverse it.  Together, they did.  I received a note a few hours later.

"Shmutz off."

Shmutz is the yiddish word for dirt.  To be shmutzik is to be soiled. 

On Wednesday afternoon as I saw Joe Biden take the oath of office, the two words that my woman friend and her husband sent me rocketed to my consciousness.  "Shmutz off."

I am not great at making political predictions.  This year, though, I was not too bad.  I could not imagine that any state other than the states that Trump had won in '16 would flip to Trump.  And I knew-as well as one can know--that the atypical factors that cost Clinton, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin would not be factors in 2020.  I also predicted that the two Democrats in Georgia would prevail in the runoff.  Trump lost Georgia by 12000 votes. The Georgia runoff was not about the candidates running. It was a referendum on Trump. Because of his undemocratic behavior after the election, I knew that while the Republican candidates might get all the voters who voted for Trump in November, they would not get many others. And I thought that other voters would come out to vote against Trump. 

I'll make some other predictions now, though I don't think you need to be a soothsayer to have such foresight.  The perceived magnitude of Trump's offenses while president and especially in the two months after he lost the election will not dissipate. The perceived magnitude and outrage will grow exponentially.  The extent of his complicity and the perceptions of his culpability regarding the 400,000 American COVID deaths will only increase.

Politicians who foolishly sucked up to Trump because they thought allegiance to him would be a ticket to reelection will distance themselves from the narcissist like someone racing away when they've seen a bear.  Spin doctors will be hauled in to try and reconstruct the erstwhile supporters' stained images.  Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are very very lucky that they do not come up for reelection for four years.  Hawley has as much chance of winning the 2024 presidential election as my father's aunt Tzivia.  Aunt Tzivia died during the Kennedy administration. The Republican congresspeople who signed on to the Supreme Court challenge, are already twisting themselves into pretzels muttering variations of Ralph Kramden's, Hometa Hometa Hometa.

We were stained for four years. Each monstrosity which we thought was the last straw, was topped by another last straw. The claiming that he could grab women by the pussy with impunity which we all thought was horrible--and it was--was rendered benign by the reference to countries as shit countries, snuggling up with a Russian tyrant, pissing on our allies, calling the free press "an enemy of the people", regularly ridiculing women journalists, disparaging the handicapped, attempting to blackmail Ukrainian officials, telling the American public that the COVID was a hoax--when he knew it was deadly, suggesting that knocking back some Chlorox might be a good way to deal with the virus; claiming that he won an election which he knew he had lost; calling up Georgia's attorney general and asking him to find 12,000 votes, and then inciting a riot to undermine our democratic process while gloating when the riot took place.

When I saw his plane leave, I was relieved. When lady Gaga sang the star spangled banner, I started to tear.  When Harris and then Biden took the oaths I felt a weight being lifted. I felt like I had taken a long hot shower after having spent time in the mud.

We've reversed an error that threatened to end this democracy.  He is gone. His followers will become smaller and smaller. We have rid ourselves of a foul stain.

Shmutz off.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

We Are the Sentinels

 Every once in a while I will listen to some music that opens me up.  It is wonderful and, in a way, frightening.  Wonderful because it feels good to feel opened up. Frightening because it reveals what I may be suppressing.

I was thinking today about songs that are apt for the inauguration and the end of a national nightmare. Earlier, I thought of a song we used to sing when I was at summer camp.  It was called The Last Train to San Fernando.  I looked up the lyrics when I thought of the song, and apparently the song we would sing around the campfire had different lyrics than the original. 

The way we sang it, the refrain went:  "This is the last one. There'll never be another one. This is the last Train to San Fernando." At the end of the summer when many us were feeling sad because the camp was ending, we changed the lyrics.  On a Monday, we would sing, "This is the last one. There'll never be another one. This is the last Monday at Camp Chicopee." Then on Tuesday it would be same, until the final meal when we would croon, "this is the last breakfast at Camp Chicopee."

Well, we were sad then because of an end of an era. Now we are sad because we endured four years of an outrageous negligent era that has had, as a side effect, the needless death of 400,000 Americans. This is the last day of the nightmare.

Then I thought of the song from Les Mis: One Day More.  When I went on facebook I saw that a number of people had posted Youtube shots of that song's performance. "One more day. One day more."

Les Mis is so powerful; the story can open up the heart of anyone who has not cemented it shut.  One of my favorite songs is one that is actually sung by the bad guy.  Nevertheless, out of context at least, it is so powerful.  It often reminds me of my father, and then when my chest opens up, of opportunities missed.  

The song is sung by Jalvert, the bad guy, who is chasing Valjean, the good guy.  Jalvert, a cop of some sort, is chasing Valjean because Valjean once stole a loaf of bread and no minor offense is trivial for Jalvert.  So, the cop sings that he is going to do whatever it takes to bring Valjean to justice.  But if you can forget the plot for a moment, just think of some of the lyrics:  

Stars, in your multitudes, scarce to be counted. Filling the darkness with order and light. 

Stars, you are the sentinels; Silent and Sure. Keeping watch in the night. Keeping watch in the night.  

You know your place in the sky. 

You hold your course and your aim. 

And each in your season. Return and return, and are always the same.

The song reminds me of my dad because he did, when I was a kid and even when I was an adult, fill the darkness with order and light. He was a sentinel for his sons;  knew his place in the sky, held his course and his aim, and kept watch in the night.

The song is apt for today, though, because we all--in a democracy and for all humankind--are the sentinels. It is we-ordinary folks--it is our job whether we like it or not, to fill the darkness with order and light.  It is we--ordinary folks--it is our job to find and know our place in the sky, to hold our course and our aim, and keep watch in the night.

The soon to be ex president was elected on a fluke. People did not think he would win so they stayed home; he lost the popular vote by millions, and despite the electoral tally just eked through because he won three states by tiny margins.   This time, when we, the sentinels, acted the soon to be ex president--a narcissistic solipsistic, dissembler--lost all three of these states, and also lost two other states that had not voted for a Democrat in nearly two generations. And lost by 8 million popular votes.

The good news is that it is soon over.  The good news is that for a spell at least, my heart opened up this afternoon listening to music.  The bad news is that we are, indeed, the sentinels and we need to stay active,  and hold our course and our aim. Maybe that is good news too. Maybe that is what keeps our hearts open.

This is the last one. There'll never be another one. This is the last train ride with a national nightmare. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

COYOTE

It may seem otherwise (if you've been reading my blogs of late), but I don't only read the obituaries when I pick up the newspaper.

Since the election my first stop in the newspaper is to read the political stories.  In the last few days, these have amounted to obituaries, it is true, for the current president.  My sense is that Trump's stock will plummet like a boulder in a bathtub after Wednesday, and it is already near the bottom of the tub.   

After I read the political news, I tend to go to the sports pages.  Only then do I turn my attention to the obituaries. Today that was an easy thing to do since the obits in today's Globe followed the sports pages, an appropriate juxtaposition for those who were cheering yesterday for the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints.

The obit that caught my attention was for a woman named Margo St. James.  She, a former prostitute, had been the founder of COYOTE (Call OFF Your Old Tired Ethics).  The organization was a union for sex workers--what St. James called a loose union of women when she was serious, or a union of loose women when she was kidding around.  

St. James was born in 1937 so a decade at least before the sexual revolution got a foothold.  Her career as a prostitute began in a curious way.  She had been arrested for prostitution when she insisted she was not engaged.  According to the obit, she told the judge that she never had turned a trick in her life. The judge opined that since she knew the language, she must have been a professional.  Well, St. James showed that judge.  She went to law school, got the conviction overturned, and then became a professional in order to pay for tuition.  She never finished law school, but became active on behalf of sex workers. She even ran for public office. During the campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she claimed to "have the support of the bohemians, the old hippies, the gays.....and the longshoremen, the veterans, and the politicians."  Not sure how many of the longshoremen, veterans, and politicians were eager to support her claim.

I found this story of St. James very interesting. To buck the status quo in this regard, particularly when she did, was to display more courage than to fight against her.  She wanted better health benefits, legal rights, and financial security for sex workers.  She argued that sex workers provided a service demanded by society--like someone doing your nails or your hair.

When I came home for holiday breaks in college, my aunt would ask me at family gatherings if I was a hippie.  "You're not a hippie, are you?" She would say.  My standard response was, "What's a hippie?"  I'm not an iconoclast for sport, but I do admire people who poke holes in conventions. Why should a sex worker become a pariah, while a professional liar can be lauded for business acumen.  I am reminded of a ribald limerick.  "There was a young lady from Reno//Who lost all of her dough playing Keeno//But she developed a knack//while she lay on her back//And now the lass owns the casino."  From what I read in the obituary for Margo St. James, the founder of COYOTE would have approved the rhyme. Perhaps she wrote it.  Prostitution is an entrepreneurial endeavor.  Like selling liquor, cheesecake, Victoria's Secret underwear, hats, stationery, smart phones, laundry detergent, or viagra.

We have a president now who has lied to the American public for four years, tried to overturn an election, has supported white supremacist organizations, and incited crazies to storm the capital.  Seventy four million people voted for him.  A little love for St. James is in order.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

the people across the street

 Before I bought this house, I rented the house next door.  I became friends with the couple who lived in this house.  When they moved I bought their house. 

Across the street from the original house I rented, lived a mother and her daughter. They were remarkably reclusive and predictable.  Every Sunday the daughter would walk the 3/4th of a mile to get the Sunday Globe. Every Saturday they would go shopping.  They would always, always back their car into the driveway.  If you lost your calendar you would know what day it was when the groceries came out of the car.

Our first encounter was not pleasant. I'd noticed that their mail had not been deposited thoroughly into their mail box. I went across the street to pick up some letters and put them in.  A few hours later there was a knock on my door. I was told by the daughter that she did not appreciate my handling their mail.

But that was just the first meeting. Since then, in the thirty years since I've lived on the block we were on friendly terms on the rare occasions when we saw each other.  At first, the mother and daughter were meticulous with the bushes that were in front of their home and the leaves in the fall. They were out there cleaning the driveway in the snow. Then over the years, they stopped being so careful. 

Maybe twenty years ago we exchanged holiday cards.  I am not sure who started it, but I think it was they.  And they even asked about Pumpkin, our now late cat, in the greetings.  

I had gotten to know their next door neighbor better. And once when the neighbor was in the hospital I went to visit, and learned that the mother of the two people across the street was also in the hospital. So, I went to visit her as well.  There, in a half hour visit, she spoke more words to me than she had in a decade. The number of ailments she had endured startled me. And the detail with which she described the various procedures was similarly stunning.  

I learned that the daughter was actually about my age though she looked years older.  I did not know the details but there had been some difficult times--not sure of the source.   

 Donna told me that she had spoken with the daughter, Janice, one day this past year and learned that her mother had recently died.  I probably had not seen the mother outside her home in five years.

Whenever Janice was outside she would wave hello to me when we were taking out or bringing in the garbage.  I saw her a few weeks back shoveling snow and I could not get her attention.  We did bump into each other in March or April shortly after COVID awareness became what it became.  It must have been early on because I don't think either of us had on a mask and Janice told me something about the origins of the virus that became common knowledge by May at least.  She made a joke about us staying six feet apart. We both were in the park. I was taking my constitutional walk and she was returning from what seemed to me to be atypical exercise.  Did see her again once just a week or so ago doing a walk, but I did not approach her--and regret it now.

A firetruck and ambulance were outside her home a week ago.  We heard she had taken ill and gone to the hospital.  I noticed that there was, for her, a great many garbage cans out in front of her house this past Friday.  I did not think that was good. 

Around noon today we saw a car in front of the house. Later Donna went out and spoke with a couple coming out of the house.  Janice had died the day she was taken to the hospital.

My first reaction to the news was something like--"But I just saw her shoveling snow. She was out in the park around New Years"

  It makes me sad to think about her.  Always sad when someone dies, but she had not had--it seemed to me--much of a life.  I wonder if after her mother died, whatever nourishment she got from the living arrangement was gone.  

Hey Janice, I wish I had flagged you down in the park a few weeks back, and come over when you were shoveling in December. I wish I had banged on your door to see how you were doing now and again. 



Friday, January 15, 2021

Meredith Anding

 I read the Globe yesterday and found myself--as is not atypical--looking through the obituaries.  I scanned the small entries and then went to the page where national figures of some note are eulogized.  I was taken aback when I saw a headline for a person named Meredith Anding.

In the mid 70s I worked with a fellow named Meredith Anding.  How many Meredith Andings could there be?  I started reading the obituary and thought that this is not the Meredith I knew.  First of all, the Meredith I knew was the head of the Math unit in the Learning Center at the University of Buffalo. I worked in the Communication unit and, since the Center was small enough, knew Meredith well enough.  

The person in the obituary was a Mississippi civil rights activist and leader. He was a member of a group called the Tougaloo Nine.  I'd never--I'm a bit embarrassed to write--heard of the Tougaloo Nine.  In 1961 a group of nine students at Tougaloo College were upset because the library that blacks were allowed to visit in Jackson Mississippi did not have the kind of selection that the whites only library in Jackson had. The nine students went to the blacks only library and asked for books they knew were not there.  Then they went to the whites only library and staged what was called a "read-in".  They sat in the library and despite being asked to leave, remained seated until they were arrested.  The 'read-in" was described in the obituary as the "first student protest of segregation at a public institution in Mississippi."   The students were arrested.   

This couldn't be the same guy.  The man I knew was a soft spoken fellow who always showed up to work with an old fashioned briefcase, the kind I was saddled with as a third grader that was bigger than me.  He was hardly a boastful fellow though he had, from accounts from my colleagues, a good deal to boast about. The Math unit was one of the stronger ones in the Learning Center. He not only coordinated the program, but supervised the instructors who taught Math for the Center.  

There was a photo of the civil rights leader that accompanied the obituary and that Meredith Anding looked leaner than the man I knew. Plus the man in the photo had white hair which, for those of us who are fortunate to have hair at all, is what happens to hair when you are eligible for full social security benefits.  

I continued reading the obituary and nearly jolted from the chair when I read that civil rights activist Meredith Anding had in the late 60s or early 70s moved from Mississippi to Buffalo, New York where he completed graduate studies in Math and subsequently taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Ye gods.  It was the same Meredith Anding!  I started looking him up on Google and there were mug shots of him after he had been arrested for reading in a library.

The Wikipedia entry includes the following:  

"Unlike the Freedom RidersFriendship Nine, and Little Rock Nine, the Tougaloo Nine are not as well known historically. Sammy Bradford, one of the Tougaloo Nine, said on the occasion of the read-in anniversary: "It seems that everybody is being celebrated and praised for their fine work except the very people who launched the civil rights movement against some of the greatest odds ever faced by man or beast. I'm not saying that the Tougaloo Nine should be rolled out like world-conquering heroes in a ticker-tape parade every year, but they should at least be acknowledged, along with many others, whenever a purported celebration of civil rights activities in Mississippi takes place."  

Yes, they should.  I do not remember anyone at the Learning Center ever mentioning Meredith's past.  There were several occasions when the unit leaders would be introduced and I have to think I would have recalled a reference to his activism, if it had been mentioned.

Meredith Anding was only 79 when he died of leukemia on the 8th of January. I don't want anyone to ever write my obituary because that would mean that I would be dead--an event I do not look forward to.  However, it would be good if after I am gone I will have made a dent in the world as this quiet courageous man did in Mississippi and then again as a Math Instructor at the University of Buffalo.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Random thoughts

 My dad used to write down thoughts and mail them daily to my brother, nephew and myself.  It was a treat to wake up and read the wisdom.  Sometimes there was one thought, but often there would be multiple, distinct, messages. Now I have a thick looseleaf that he modestly called, Thoughts of an Ordinary Man.  Dad was anything but ordinary.

With no assumption that my notions are akin to Dad's in terms of wisdom-and without any suggestion that these will be ongoing.  Here are my thoughts for this first fortnight of 2021.


What a bizarre two weeks, even by Trump era standards.  You had the Georgia election with a Jew and an African-American emerging as the senators from Georgia.  I don't think this reflects a new egalitarian orientation of a majority of Georgians.  My assessment is that the Democrats owe their victory to disgust with the shenanigans of Donald Trump. If I am correct, then the loyalty of Republican congresspeople, makes no sense since I am sure that the loyalty is based on the assumption that disloyalty will result in subsequent election losses.  The opposite seems to be true.  Sleeping with Trump will yield an infection that no amount of penicillin can eliminate.

Similarly, the speeches I heard today from Republicans rejecting impeachment despite the insurrection last week, seem to be foolish. Not primarily because the logic is flawed--as it is--but because supporting Trump now will result in having to polish up your resume.

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I don't like the fact that in this COVID era any mild physical distress makes me think I might have the virus.  Most of the time I feel great.  I walk five miles a day, break a sweat, and come back feeling terrific. Today I feel alternately hot and cold. No doubt that is because I keep raising and lowering the thermostat, and my computer is in the coldest room in the house.  Still the reality of COVID is such that any malaise makes me--typically averse to worrying about such things--consider revising the document on my desktop I have titled "Where are Things if I Croak."

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I guarantee that Trevor Lawrence will be a bust in the NFL.  For those interested, check out what I wrote in this blog about Jameis Winston--also predicting limited success.  Lawrence is an example of how whiteness benefits athletes.  I believe that if Lawrence was African-American he would not be considered so hoo hah. I know Winston is African-American. But Winston I believe had more talent. Still he is a bust, and Lawrence will be a bust squared.

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Sirius radio is a racket.  And I am a victim.  I got it as a trial, and now don't want to consider jettisoning the subscription. The Broadway station reminds me of my Dad who had dozens of broadway musical albums in the house. And I would play them over and over.  Right now, a tune from A Chorus Line, is aired.  The sixties station is a gas.  Should make me feel old, that I recognize almost every song that is played.  Today I heard "I Got You Babe" in the car and used the repeat feature to listen to it multiple times and was transported to another era when I was twenty something. Bad news is that I was not twenty when I exited from the car and was still walking with a limp.

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Watching films of Southern racists from the 50s and 60s often makes me wonder how the children and grandchildren of these people feel when they see their parents and grandparents spewing hate.  And I think the children and grandchildren of the Congressmen who remained silent when Trump contested the election without any evidence whatsoever, will shake their heads similarly.  A great speech today by Hoyer of Maryland.  I was getting a bit of headache listening to the thirty second talks that preceded the final lengthier one.

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Zoom has had a positive effect on some of my relationships.  Each week college buds who previously got together once or twice a year, now meet up to chat.  On Friday at noon I have another meet up each week.  Every other Monday I converse with two cronies from my time at SUNY Binghamton.    

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My eleventh book will be out in a few weeks. I think more people have read my facebook entries than those who have read all eleven of these books. Social media has revolutionized our world.  I am still a library guy, but I have lived without being able to park myself in a library for close to a year. And social media or just electronic access to information has had an effect. 

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Kyrie Irving will not help the Nets nearly as much as the Nets anticipated.

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The Philadelphia Eagles behavior in their last game against the Washington Football Team is beyond reprehensible.  I thought the coach acted on the direction of ownership, but since he was fired a few days ago--perhaps the decision to tank--in a game that affected who would make the playoffs, was a coach's decision. If Tom Brady got a four game suspension for allegedly deflating footballs, the Eagles should have to forfeit several draft picks.

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The Republican Party will not recover anytime soon.  If Ted Cruz ran tomorrow against a mannequin he would lose. Forget the pisher from Missouri. He is history.  Unless Republicans in the Senate vote for impeachment, you can say Kaddish for the Republican party for a generation.



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