Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Essay #7: Another Movie Commentary

Last week I saw the Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts, five films ranging from 15 to 30 minutes long, from Hungary, Denmark, Spain, France, and Switzerland. They were all very good, and here is the one I thought was the best.

WARNING: I hope I don't reveal any SPOILERS, but if you're concerned about that, read no further.

       What I think is the best film is not likely to win, because it isn't a safe choice. The French film, "Internal Enemies," consists almost entirely of two characters: a 56-year-old man seeking citizenship, and a French official interrogating him over his application. Everything the applicant says is heard by the official as suspicious, and you, as the viewer, can see how even the most innocent answer can sound suspicious to someone whose job is to distrust everyone he questions.
The applicant was brought from Algeria in 1959, when he was 5, by his father. The official says, "You were born in Algeria?" The applicant says, "No." The official looks surprised; this is clearly the wrong answer. The applicant explains: "It was France when I was born. It did not become Algeria until after I left." The official is not satisfied. "Why did your father choose Algerian citizenship?" The applicant shrugs and tries to establish commonality with the official. "I never asked him. Did you ask your father why he did anything?" The official refuses to acknowledge any connection between himself and the applicant, and moves on to the next question.
Eventually, the official zeroes in on what really concerns him: the names of anyone the applicant met at "meetings" he attended. The official calls "meetings" any gathering that the applicant was part of. The applicant thinks a meeting is something formal, called for a purpose, and he was just sitting down with a group of men from the mosque to talk, be sociable, eat pastries and drink tea. Why shouldn't he say the names of these men? Because years ago, someone giving the police some names caused the applicant a huge amount of trouble, and he doesn't want to cause anyone else such trouble.
      Watching the interrogation is excruciating. I felt most empathy for the applicant and had to force myself to get inside the official, whose facial expression and questions display so much arrogance and certainty that he is right, and by extension that the applicant is wrong. It's possible that the official's attitude is simply part of a technique, put on for his job and not representing his true person. The official's job is to protect France and the French people. The applicant believes himself part of "the French people" already, and wants to make that official, for his own safety. But the official's job is to force the applicant to prove that he has a right to become part of "the French people," and how is that to be done? I also felt that if the applicant was not already hostile to France, the official's treatment could well make him hostile. Does the official ever think of that, and does he care?
       And what if someone at those gatherings the applicant went to was a recruiter for violent jihad? Could that be why he stopped going? Or was it something more subtle that made the applicant uneasy after a period of time, but nothing so clear-cut that he feels he can safely tell the official, "yes, this man could be dangerous"?
       Throughout the film I kept thinking of Trump's executive order on immigration and how U.S. customs officials treat immigrants and refugees seeking visas or arriving in the United States. Visa applicants to the U.S. already go through a lengthy vetting process. Does Trump's "extreme vetting" envision something like the interrogation in this film? Of course, we want to be safe; we don't want men like those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center coming here. But do we gain safety by assuming that every Muslim -- men, women, children -- is a violent jihadi unless they can prove they aren't? Is this a test anyone can ever pass?
#52essays2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017

SOL Tuesday (2 days late): A Short Film from France


(I was getting ready to write a Slice Tuesday night, but my laptop wouldn't let me, freezing and repeatedly giving me the Whirling Beachball of Death. Yesterday I was lulled into a false sense of security when it worked fine for about 20 minutes. But in the afternoon, it no longer showed me what percentage of power I had left, the battery icon showing an X, even though the charger lit up green as though the laptop was fully charged. I didn't believe it. So I rented a car and found a computer repair shop and left it the hopefully competent hands of Cinematic Computers. I have it back now, sort of. We'll see how it behaves when it has a new battery next week.)

                 What I wanted to write about was seeing the Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts at the Doris Duke Theater at the Honolulu Academy of Art. Five films, each 15 to 30 minutes in length, from Hungary, Denmark, Spain, France, and Switzerland, ranged from fable to intensely political. WARNING: I hope I don't reveal any SPOILERS, but if you're concerned about that, read no further.
                 The best film, in my opinion, is not likely to win because it isn't a safe choice. The French film, "Internal Enemies," consists almost entirely of two characters: a 56-year-old man seeking citizenship, and a French official interrogating him over his application. Everything the applicant says is heard by the official as suspicious, and you, as the viewer, can see how even the most innocent answer can sound suspicious to someone whose job is to distrust everyone he questions.
                 The applicant was brought from Algeria in 1959, when he was 5, by his father. The official says, "You were born in Algeria?" The applicant says, "No." The official looks surprised; this is clearly the wrong answer. The applicant explains: "It was France when I was born. It did not become Algeria until after I left." The official is not satisfied. "Why did your father choose Algerian citizenship?" The applicant shrugs and tries to establish commonality with the official. "I never asked him. Did you ask your father why he did anything?" The official refuses to acknowledge any connection between himself and the applicant, and moves on to the next question.
                 Eventually, the official zeroes in on what really concerns him: the names of anyone the applicant met at "meetings" he attended. The official calls "meetings" any gathering that the applicant was part of. The applicant thinks a meeting is something formal, called for a purpose, and he was just sitting down with a group of men from the mosque to talk, be sociable, eat pastries and drink tea. Why shouldn't he say the names of these men? Because years ago, someone giving the police some names caused the applicant a huge amount of trouble, and he doesn't want to cause anyone else such trouble.
                 Watching the interrogation is excruciating. I felt most empathy for the applicant and had to force myself to get inside the official, whose facial expression and questions display so much arrogance and certainty that he is right, and by extension that the applicant is wrong. It's possible that the official's attitude is simply part of a technique, put on for his job and not representing his true person. The official's job is to protect France and the French people. The applicant believes himself part of "the French people" already, and wants to make that official, for his own safety. But the official's job is to force the applicant to prove that he has a right to become part of "the French people," and how is that to be done? I also felt that if the applicant was not already hostile to France, the official's treatment could well make him hostile. Does the official ever think of that, and does he care?
                 And what if someone at those gatherings the applicant went to was a recruiter for violent jihad? Could that be why he stopped going? Or was it something more subtle that made the applicant uneasy after a period of time, but nothing so clear-cut that he feels he can safely tell the official, "yes, this man could be dangerous"?
                 Throughout the film I kept thinking of Trump's executive order on immigration and how U.S. customs officials treat immigrants and refugees seeking visas or arriving in the United States. Visa applicants to the U.S. already go through a lengthy vetting process. Does Trump's "extreme vetting" envision something like the interrogation in this film? Of course, we want to be safe; we don't want men like those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center coming here. But do we gain safety by assuming that every Muslim -- men, women, children -- is a violent jihadi unless they can prove they aren't? Is this a test anyone can ever pass?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Essay #6: Marches, part 3

Fall Mobilization, 1965; me on left, and Jack behind.
Of course, we are smoking. Everyone did.
            Political marches and demonstrations are exhilarating. Being among a group of people who agree on an issue, even if you don’t know all or any of them, is exciting. I suppose those who disagree with us might think we are like a mob – but we are not dangerous. We are not threatening to harm anyone. I personally don’t like the current group of young men (I think they are all men) who call themselves the Black Bloc, wear masks to cover their faces, and throw rocks at stores and offices. They’re not changing anyone’s mind, they’re not making an argument. Perhaps they think they’re being revolutionary. They’re not.
            My first big protest, even before I joined that picket line in October 1963, was the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August that year. You know the one, where Martin Luther King made his “I Have a Dream” speech. There were lots more speeches that day. People were mostly worried about how radical John Lewis, representing SNCC, was going to be. A recent history of the March on Washington and the movement that preceded it (The March on Washington, by William P. Jones. 2013) says few knew about the intense debate over what Lewis would say, but I was aware of it, and I was hardly close to any of the march’s organizers.
            One of my co-workers and I met and mingled with the crowds streaming along Independence Avenue toward the Lincoln Memorial. (My roommate did not come along; she’d heard rumors of rampant burglaries while residents were out being goody-goody. I thought that was ridiculous, and that was no uptick in crime that day.)
            Walking along, we met a teenage African-American girl (white liberals still said Negro in those days) from North Carolina who’d come up on a bus. I felt so tolerant, proving, I thought, I wasn’t one of those hateful, bigoted white people in the South. It was exciting being among so many peaceful people for such a pure cause. It was hot, and toward the end of the afternoon, I decided it was time to go. The speeches were too speechifying. My co-worker had left, the teenager had found the rest of her bus mates. I was nearing the trees on the north side of the Mall when Martin Luther King’s voice  stopped me. It was more the cadence than the words that stopped me at first, but then I focused on his words: 
“... one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood....” 
I stopped under the trees and stayed to the very end of his speech, 
“We will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.'”
That speech has been replayed so often that it’s hard to disentangle memory from its reinforcement, but I know the thrill I feel now is what I felt then. What he wanted was what I wanted. Harmony, friendship, unity. What I feel I’ve been searching for all my life.
            Antiwar marches were something else altogether. I had been reading about Vietnam in the papers since 1962. What did I know about Vietnam? Well, my seventh-grade got a weekly newsmagazine for schoolchildren, and in the fall of 1954 the two lead stories were Brown v. Board of Education, and the division of Vietnam into two countries after the end of French occupation. I remember reading about Catholics fleeing the Communists in North Vietnam, and as a red-diaper baby, I wondered why people would be fleeing Communists. “Vietnam” must have stuck in my head, because when I dropped out of college in Washington, D.C., in 1962 and was reading the Washington Post, I noticed news stories about Vietnam and its neighbor Laos, and kept on reading. 
            1965 saw the first big demonstrations against the Vietnam War. There was the Spring Mobilization in Washington, the Fall Mobilization in New York. In the spring we rode down to Washington with friends and stayed at an apartment my college roommate found for us. On a sunny day, we gathered in front of the White House and walked back and forth. As more and more people joined in, were there police guiding us further along Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Old Executive Office Building? I don’t think so. What I do remember was our starting to move down 17th Street and then turning east.
            Our goal was to encircle the White House. The only official presence was Park Rangers, who patrolled the environs of the White House. The heavy security now just didn’t exist. Only two or three Park Rangers tried to halt us and point us further south, but there were so many of us. (25,000 was one later estimate.) We formed a long horizontal line, and as the Park Rangers moved to one end to block us, we surged forward at the other end. And as they rushed toward our end of the line, the other end surged forward. In this flanking maneuver, we managed to get almost all the way across the South Lawn. I loved the feeling of outsmarting the authorities. It felt revolutionary – and without guns.
            In the fall, there was a big march down Fifth Avenue. Jack was a copy boy at the (Dorothy Schiff/pre-Murdoch) New York Post. One of his fellow copy boys belonged to some Trotskyist sect (I think it was Youth Against War and Fascism), which was one of the organizers of the fall march. He prevailed upon Jack to be a marshal, too. Marshals were supposed to keep marchers in line, tell them when to stop, when to go.  Although we both instinctively resisted being in a position of telling other people what to do, being a marshal meant we got to wear armbands; we’d walk along the outside of the march; we wouldn’t be hemmed in the middle of the crowd or behind or in front of a sign we might not agree with. We didn’t yet have a coterie of compatriots to march with, though we probably met friends at a bar afterwards. We were always ending up at bar in those days.
Marching, to be continued.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

SOL Tuesday: Eyes


            My annual visit to the ophthalmologist was today, three months after his colleague had done cataract surgery on my right eye.
            The surgery has had its upside (I’m not wearing glasses most of the time) and its downside (the glasses I wear for computer use don’t focus very well). I wanted to ask Dr. O., why? Were the glasses fitted improperly? Was there a problem with the surgery?
            Dr. O. checked my glasses, then checked my vision reading the eye chart. After the surgery, my right eye is close to 20/20 for distance, while my left eye is still myopic, but I can read with it at about an eight-inch distance. Wearing the glasses got me to 20/20 with each eye, but, I explained to Dr. O., when I looked at the chart with both eyes, I saw two images and had to move my head around to just one spot to focus properly.
            He gave me an explanation about diopters, which made no sense to me, and when I asked him to explain, at first he said, you don’t need to know that. What I needed to know, he said, was the before the surgery, each of my eyes had a different diopter, and the difference was quite great. Now the difference was less, so it was supposed to be better.
            But it wasn’t.
            I pressed Dr. O. to explain more thoroughly, and he came up with an explanation that I now understood. The diopter measurement refers to where each eye focuses, and in theory it determines what your correction should be to focus properly. When I wore contact lenses (for 40 years), the contact lenses fixed the focus problem, I think because the lens fits right onto the lens of my eye. When I could no longer wear the contacts because my eyes were too dry, I didn’t notice the focus problem because, apparently, my brain was accommodating by relying only on my left eye because of the cataract in the right. Now that the cataract was gone, what hadn’t been perceived by my brain as a problem had become apparent as a problem.
            So a problem I hadn’t been aware of – the cataract – became a problem I was aware of after fixing the problem I wasn’t aware of. At least I don’t have to wear glasses all the time, a net gain, as far as I’m concerned. Ain’t science grand?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Essay #5: Marching, part 2


Marching in the streets. I’ve been going to protests for more than 53 years. A sign I saw at the women’s march on January 21 said something like “Why am I still having to fight for this shit?” I feel that way myself, but I can’t sit home and pretend the current events don’t affect me, even if they don’t all specifically address me. Here’s how I got this way.
            In the fall of 1963, while Kennedy was still president, Madame Nhu, sister-in-law to South Vietnam’s president, came to Washington, D.C., where she gave a talk to the National Press Club, attempting to shore up support for her brother-in-law. I was living in a commune of like-minded lefty students and other young people. Some of them organized a protest in front of the National Press Club at noon on a Friday afternoon in October.
            The organization where I worked, United World Federalists, was just a few blocks away, so I thought I would walk down on my lunch hour and join them. When I arrived, the “picket” was across the street from the Press Club, not where I’d expected it. And among the dozen or so people walking around in a circle with signs (“Madame Nhu must go”) were none of the people I knew. What to do?
            I had never joined a picket line. Even though I had lefty parents, they had never involved me or my younger siblings in any political activity. In fact, their political activity largely consisted of working for Democratic candidates.
            When I was 16, I’d heard about a march against nuclear bombs from New York to Washington, D.C., in August, to culminate on Hiroshima Day, August 8. The march was scheduled to pass near our home in Levittown, Pa., and I wanted to join in. My mother said, “no.” My father had recently started a new job, and if anything happened to me, if I got into the newspapers, it might damage him. But this is something we believe in, I argued. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t stand up for my beliefs. But it was 1958. I knew about McCarthy, but he’d been out of the Senate for a few years. Because my parents didn’t connect their politics and their personal lives, I didn’t understand until many years later how fearful they were.
            A year or so later, there were pickets of the local Woolworth’s in sympathy with civil rights sit-ins in the South. I wanted to join those too. But no one I knew in my new high school were part of those protests, and I didn’t know how to become part of a group where I knew no one. I never even asked my parents.
            Now, watching a group of people I didn’t know walking around with signs expressing thoughts I agreed with, I didn’t know what to do. People going by looked at the picketers or ignored them. No one joined them. I wanted to, but didn’t know how to take that first step.
            Then I noticed, down the street, another group of protesters. They were wearing brown uniforms and carrying signs the proclaimed them as the American Nazi Party. I knew such a thing existed and its headquarters were not far away, in Arlington, Va.
            I watched the Nazis in support of Madame Nhu, then the picketers in front of me, then the people walking by, oblivious to both groups. Thoughts and feelings began to clarify. If I continued to stand by, I was basically saying, there’s no difference between these two groups of people expressing their political thoughts. Maybe this is what happened in Germany in the 1930s, ordinary people not able to see a difference between Nazis, Communists, Socialists, and other political parties. Here were two opposing views right in front of me, and I knew who I thought was right, and that I had to make that clear with my body.
            Still feeling nervous, I stepped into the walking line where a space appeared. A woman smiled at me. I smiled back. We walked and walked, until it was time for me to go back to work. I had gotten my political feet wet and didn’t drown. 
#52essays2017

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Essay #4: Women's March, January 21

A day is usually 24 hours. But last Saturday, January 21, for me lasted from around 7 p.m. Friday night, when my niece Rachael picked me up to drive down to Washington, to about 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning, when we arrived back at my apartment. Here’s what it was like.
            We weren’t awake the whole time; there was some sleeping in the Comfort Inn in Gaithersburg, Md. But I felt our march started at a rest area somewhere in New Jersey where we smiled eagerly at all the women in pink pussy hats and wondered how many others there were also on their way to march.
            We finally made it to our hotel around 1:30 a.m. after detouring into D.C. to drop off Rachael’s friend J. Did more march-goers account for the tour buses there? The desk clerk didn't know, but he’d seen teenagers with Trump caps, and he looked dismayed when he said it.
            Saturday morning we met up with cousin Raechel (yes, the cousins’ names are pronounced the same, but spelled differently) and went to the Shady Grove Metro station, where a line stretched maybe 20 yards. I heard some people waited in line at that station for three hours! But we’d gotten our Metro cards in advance and breezed right in. And got seats because Shady Grove was the end of the line.
            Early on the train filled up with mostly marchers. A couple of women in pussy hats handed out Planned Parenthood stickers to whoever wanted one. One was a librarian, and she and my librarian daughter, Christie, bonded over that. I was holding my sign [[insert pic]] so it was visible, and one man took photos.
            It took an hour to get to Judiciary Square, where I texted another cousin and five other people I knew were there, but we never connected with any of them – too many people! Two were on the other side of the Mall. Niece Rachael wanted to follow her phone’s directions, which I knew, from my years of experience at protests in D.C., would have led us into the thickest mass of the crowd, while I wanted to circle around the crowd, if that was possible. We started off on the “circle around” strategy and passed a sign reading
“You’re so orange, I’ll bet you think this sign is about you.” 
(Some signs I couldn’t get photos of because we were walking and I was terrified of losing my small group.) After a while we made a Port-o-potty stop, where I saw these great shields (literally shields, with straps on the reverse for your arms).
By now it was 2 o’clock, and on my portable radio rally speakers were still on the stage. Marches never start on time.
            Back on Independence Avenue, people were moving in the direction of the White House, and we joined the mass. There were great signs, but now, frustration. Whenever I got out my phone to take a picture, someone walked in front of the sign, or the sign-holder twisted it out of view, or I’d accidentally press the button that turned the phone off. I missed so many great pictures. But here are some I caught. 













           
We made it to the Ellipse between the White House and the Washington Monument, where I saw one of the best signs I didn’t get a picture of:
“I’m allergic to misogyny. It makes me break out in feminist rants.” 
And then we dispersed. It was around 3:30. We eventually met up with my nephew Geoff, who’d flown in from California for the march; hung out in the Martin Luther King branch of the D.C. Public Library until it closed; and went in search of dinner. Along with hundreds of thousands of marchers.
            After giving up on one place that had an hour and a half wait – we were seven people by now – and waiting an hour at another place, eating in D.C. was impossible. And we needed to drive back to New York that night. So we went back to Shady Grove to pick up Rachael’s car, and ate a late dinner (9 p.m.) at Paladar, which I recommend if you happen to be in Gaithersburg, Md., and want killer short ribs.
            On the road back to New York at 10:30, we drove through moderate fog most of the way -- was this an omen of days to come? We dropped off Christie in Brooklyn and made our way to upper Manhattan. The fog faded on the West Side Highway around 34th Street, but emerged again at 79th Street.
#52essays2017

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Essay #3: Fear of fear of fear...

            I got lunch at the Great Northern Food Hall at Grand Central today. After buying a curried herring on rye smorebrod, I wandered around looking for a place to sit. A whole section of tables had been cut off “for a charity event” and all the seats on the north side of the food area were taken. On the opposite side, I saw a l ong banquette that was empty, so I sat down, took off hat and scarf, put backpack and purse on the floor, and took a bite from my sandwich (which was delicious, BTW).
            A young woman in uniform came over to inform me that this seatting was only for full-service customers, and I would have to move. Well, where was I supposed to move to? There were no free seats. She was polite but insistent that I had to move. I refused. If you find me a seat, I’ll move, I said. She stared at me, clearly angry, and repeated that I had to move. I said, I can’t move if there’s no place to move to. She strode away, and I wondered if she was going to call security.
            I felt like a cranky old lady. I wondered if there would be a scene. I wondered if I would be arrested. I was a bit frightened, but also a tiny bit exhilarated.
            The young woman returned to say she’d found me a seat. Fine. I picked up all my stuff and followed her to a row of high stools at a bar, which I had thought was only for people ordering at that food station. I thanked the young woman and finished the excellent smorebrod.
            Was I so daring today because of what I started writing for this essay yesterday? By  writing about fear, Girl Griot had sparked the following.
            Fear is one of the topics on my essay list. I too suffer from fear and probably have most of my life. I was going to start with the poem "A Chant Against Fear" by Jamaican poet Tanya Shirley. “A Chant Against Fear” lists 32 of Shirley’s fears. Here is a small list of mine.
Fear of new schools.
Fear of calling someone in school by the wrong name.
Fear of pronouncing words wrong (my mother's sister is my ant in Brooklyn, my aunt in Connecticut, my ant in Pennsylvania).
Fear of being stupid, and fear of being too smart.
Fear of riding a bike.
Fear of the horses I love in the fields across the road.
Fear of never having a boyfriend.
Fear of what would happen if I had a boyfriend.
Fear that no one would ever ask me to marry him.
Fear that I would marry the wrong person.
Fear of becoming a mother.
Fear of never having a child.
Fear of making the wrong decisions.
Fear of speaking up in public.
Fear of swimming.
Fear of being a woman alone.
            Just as Girl Griot relates, I too have been called “brave” for writing about my personal life and feelings, and reading that writing aloud to strangers. I didn’t feel brave. Yes, I was nervous about reading aloud. Would my stories connect to anyone else? Was I the only one who felt this way?
            In elementary school I’d be afraid to raise my hand when the teacher asked a question because I’d have to speak aloud, even from my seat. But I was more afraid of the teacher thinking I didn’t know the answer, so I’d  sometimes dare to raise my hand. In high school I was afraid of going to the Friday night dance party at school, but I went anyway. Maybe this time someone would ask me to dance, but that rarely happened, and no one asked me twice. I was overcoming one fear and encountering another.
            In college speech was a required class. I was afraid to stand in front of a class of 10 and give a talk on a subject of my choosing. If I looked at my notes and didn’t look at the faces staring up at me, I could manage it. Almost twenty years later I was standing in front of a class of 18 undergraduates as a professor, terrified of whether I could teach, but by now confident that I knew what I was talking about.
            When I hit 50, it felt like several layers of fear were sloughed off. For a while, at least, I ceased worrying about what other people thought of me. How did this happen? I don’t really know. Perhaps I’d learned that those people whose opinions I worried about were just as worried themselves. Were we all in a feedback loop of fear?
            As I’ve gotten older yet, fears of aging have crept in. Fear of losing my memory. Fear of dementia (which neither of my parents had, and they lived into their 90s). Fear of infirmity. Fear of losing friends to death, as I’ve already lost Jack, my husband. Fear of illness as I live alone. Fear of dying. All quite normal fears, I suppose.
            I think I’ve lost my fear of speaking personally in public because I now feel I have to speak up. How else can I connect to others if not by raising my voice. And listening to others as well. And reading their words, as I hope they will read mine.
             And did I lose my fear of confrontation because my leg hurts when I stand for more than a couple of minutes? I had to sit down, no matter what. And I didn't have to justify to Jack whatever bad consequences occurred. I was on my own. I am on my own. For a few minutes at least, I was not afraid to be a woman alone.
 #52essays2017
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In 2017, I'm trying to write an essay a week. You can join in. 
Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

SOL Tuesday: Planning


Last night and this morning, I promised myself I would make a plan and stick to it, not fritter the time away reading the newspaper and Facebook. The plan: get up, do the laundry, go to the gym, and see the movie “Neruda,” the subject for my next movie discussion group. But of course, it wasn’t that easy.
            I did get up and took the laundry to the laundromat in the basement of my apartment building before eating breakfast. While everything was in the washers, I went back to my apartment and had breakfast, reading the paper until the clothes had to go into the dryer.
            After bringing the dry laundry back home, I remembered that I also needed to make a phone call, to the management company for the co-op I live in, to get more details about removing my dead husband’s name from our shares in the co-op and adding my daughter’s name. (I’d meant to do that while the clothes were in the dryer, but forgetting that was the first false step.)
            I dialed the number on my cellphone, and waited for the phone to begin to ring. And waited, and waited, and waited. Nothing. That’s strange, I thought. I dialed again – still nothing. I dialed my own number – still nothing. Panic.
            My first thought was, here I’ve got my day planned out, and now my phone doesn’t work, and I’ve got to spend time I don’t have trying to find out what’s wrong. I almost fell apart. I tried texting to see if that worked, and it did. Tried the phone again, and still no success. More panic.
            Then I remembered the time-honored tech fix, known in our house as “plug and unplug.” Actually, it’s turn the power off, let it rest a few minutes, turn the power back on. So I powered off the phone, folded up and put away all the clean laundry, and came back to the phone. Power on. Dial. Success.
            By the time the call was completed, it was time for lunch. After lunch, there was time for the gym or the movie, but not both. Having missed the gym for a couple of weeks, I did the virtuous thing, and went to the gym.
            The real lesson to remember: power off—rest—power on.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Week 2 Essay: Masculinity in "Manchester by the Sea" and "Moonlight"


Last week I saw Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight back to back, and I was struck by the similarities. While the protagonists could hardly be more different -- white working-class Lee in Massachusetts; poor African-American Chiron growing up in Miami -- to me they both seemed afflicted by masculinity.
            Lee is certainly haunted by his own truly careless action that led to the death of his three children and loss of his marriage. But even six or so years later he's unable to forgive himself and cannot allow anyone else to forgive him. Men take responsibility, and if taking responsibility means cutting himself off from all social contact, that's what Lee will do to remain a man. The only social contact he allows himself is to get into meaningless fights after getting drunk in bars. When his brother dies and leaves him the guardian for the brother's 16-year-old son, Lee finds this unthinkable; he's already proven himself incapable of caring for a child, and a man never makes the same mistake twice. Lee barely talks, perhaps taking “the strong silent type” as model and punishment.

            Chiron is silenced almost from the start with no model of masculinity. His father is nowhere in sight, and he’s different enough that even as a child other boys know he can be bullied and chased at will. In his childhood, one man helps him, a drug kingpin; once he’s befriended Chiron he refuses to sell drugs to his single, drug-addicted mother, but Chiron feels the contradiction almost viscerally. The only way he can have a friend is to engage in fake fights, with their homoerotic overtone. As a teenager, he’s taunted for his gayness, for not being a man like the other boys. In the most tender yet tense scene Kevin, his childhood friend, and he make love on the beach. But for Kevin to continue to enact straight manliness, he’s forced by the school bully into taunting Chiron into a fight. After being beaten savagely by classmates, Chiron’s revenge is an assault against the bully that lands him in prison. As a grownup 10 years later, Chiron has learned to survive by becoming a drug dealer, just as his mother has finally gotten straight (has she also been in prison?). His masculinity is less brutal, and he controls his drug sellers through mind games. But he is still suppressing his sexuality and thus any close emotional relationship, as being openly homosexual can only hurt him in his survival mode of drug dealer.
            Of course there are many ways the two men are different. As a gay black child and man, Chiron’s entire life is circumscribed by race, sexuality, and class. A.O. Scott’s review of Manchester by the Sea has a very interesting take on the movie’s racial subtext. But both address the question of what it takes to be a man, whether straight or gay. Lee and Chiron appear to me to be struggling with what they’ve learned masculinity means.            
            EDITED: This is just one small angle on these two movies, which have many nuances, especially Moonlight, that I’m not addressing. So please take it for what it is, and not what it isn’t.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

SOL Tuesday: Cosmic Coincidences


This is a day late, but I don’t want to wait until next Tuesday for this story.
            I usually do the crossword puzzle in the New York Times on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Thursday it gets harder, also on Friday, and Saturday you have to think like Will Shortz, puzzle editor, to have even a chance.
            So last Thursday, January 5, I was doing unusually well, I thought, even figuring out some answers by the letters that appeared in crossing words without having the foggiest idea how “?they related to the clues. “Versatile worker” was “of all trades”? “Putdown of an ignorant person” was “you don’t know”? I had the answers, but I didn’t know why.
            A few days later a friend called to say she wondered if whoever made the puzzle had known Jack or that January 5 was the first anniversary of his death – obviously, those puzzle answers made sense because they were “missing Jack.”
            Indeed. The puzzle creator’s name was unknown to me, but I didn’t know everyone Jack had known. So Monday I wrote a letter to the Times, laying out the facts, and asking whether the creator knew Jack or was this a cosmic coincidence?
            On Tuesday I had an e-mail from the puzzle maker. No, he did not know Jack, and the puzzles are created months in advance. But he had his own “cosmic coincidence” to relate. His father had died just about a year ago, at home, and the puzzle maker found a bird’s feather on the floor by his father’s bed, with no idea how it got there. He picked it up and put it on his father’s coffin at the cemetery. About a week later, he found a nearly identical feather at his own home.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Video of Jack's Memorial

Jack Robbins's memorial is finally up on YouTube, a year to the day after he died. It's in seven sections, so you don't have to watch it all in one sitting -- one hour total. Here are the links, and who's speaking in each part.

Scheduled speakers
Part 1: Me and Christie.

Part 2: Both Jack's brother Jim, and his oldest friend, Martin Limbird, were unable to be in New York for the memorial, but they sent remarks read by Mark Jaffe (my brother) and Richard Haas (Christie's partner), respectively.

Speakers from among Jack's friends
Part 3: Mark Jaffe, Richard Haas, and Anne Newman. Anne is married to a college friend of Richard's and happened to work at Business Week with Jack before Jack met Richard.

Part 4: Cheryl Morrison and Clyde Haberman.

Part 5: Ciro Scotti, Prudence Crowther, Debbie Stead, and Hardy Green, Jack's Business Week colleagues.

Part 6: Erla Hutchinson Alexander and Sylvia Law. Erla was a friend from his college days at Wichita State University, and Sylvia was among our oldest friends, a classmate of mine from Antioch College.

Part 7: Cary Lacheen and Michael Coffey. Cary was one of Sylvia's students at NYU Law School and a movie fan to match Jack's passion. And Michael, my former boss at Publishers Weekly, had the most appropriate last word.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016 Deaths

I thought I posted this last week, but just found it in the Drafts folder.
    Jack died early this year, along with Muhammed Ali, Natalie Cole, Leonard Cohen (one of Jack's favorite singers), David Bowie, Prince, Janet Reno, Antonin Scalia, Abbas Kiarostami (whose movies Jack found enigmatic but worth watching), Gwen Ifill, Carrie Fisher (Jack loved her "Postcards from the Edge"), Debbie Reynolds, Tom Hayden, and Monte Irvin.
   Also Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey of the Eagles (one of Jack's favorite bands), Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, Harper Lee (another drinker), country singer Sonny James (Jack really liked country music), Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Frank Sinatra Jr., Phife Dawg aka Malik Taylor, Patty Duke (yet another drinker), Merle Haggard, Afeni Shakur (I think Jack covered the Panther 21 trial), Michael Cimino (Jack thought he was among the handful of people who actually saw "Heaven's Gate" in a theater), Gene Wilder, Edward Albee, Jose Fernandez, Arnold Palmer (but Jack hated golf), Fidel. Only Ali was Jack's age.
   The scythe has swept through heavily.

SOLTuesday: Bureaucracy

I should have all my dealings with bureaucracy on Tuesdays. It will always give me a Slice of Life story to tell.
            One of my husband’s retirement benefits was a flexible spending account that reimbursed him for his Medicare Part D premium. He had never made a claim because he hated filling out forms, but in 2015, he decided, with my help, to find out the procedure. Then he went into the hospital. Then he died. A couple of months after that, he got a letter reminding him that he had until the end of May to make a claim for 2015. Okay, I thought, I’ll do it.
            I called the phone number on the letter, got sent a claim form, called to make sure I was filling it out correctly and also to make clear to the woman I was speaking to that this claim was for my dead husband, so please don’t make out the check to him.
            Of course, a few weeks later comes a check made out to Jack Robbins.
            Again, I called, and at this point I learned that Jack’s flexible spending account was administered by “a third party,” not the benefits office of the company where he had actually worked. And while I had notified that company (let’s call it Company A) that he had died, that information had never been sent on to the “third party” (let’s call it Company B). I was then put on hold while a benefits person at Company A got in touch with a benefits person at Company B, and, I thought, conveyed the proper  information to Company B.
            I then went back to Company B, where I was told that not only would they send me a check for that premium reimbursement as soon as the computers had all the right information, but that I was also entitled to that same survivor’s benefit. How would I get that, I asked? We’ll send you the information to set that up, I was told.
            This was all six months ago. I waited for the information to come; it never did. Life intervened, and this all went to the back of my mind. But the new year reminded me that this was a very loose string. So I called Company B today.
            The woman I spoke with was very helpful, and even offered to direct deposit the reimbursement so I wouldn’t have to wait for a check. But in looking up how to set up an account for me, she saw that the computer still showed an active account for Jack. Could it be that Company A’s computer had never properly sent the information that Jack is dead to Company B’s computer? Jenna, Company B’s representative, said she would look into it and call me back within two days. Maybe I will have a Slice of Life Thursday. 
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It’s Slice of Life Tuesday over at Two Writing Teachers. Check out this encouraging and enthusiastic writing community and their slices of life every Tuesday. And add one of your own. 

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Yet another writing challenge. There are no rules for this one about what constitutes an essay, so in case I don't get another more traditional-looking essay written this week, this will do.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

SOLS Tuesday: Stupidity, and Lessons Learned, in Cuba

Here is a slice from a week ago that I couldn’t post because Cuba’s access to the Internet is so unreliable.
            My daughter and I were on the second day of our people-to-people tour in Cuba. “People-to-people” means the tour group is out from 9 to at least 5 every day, with guides, walking tours, educational talks, and generally a surfeit of information.
            Tuesday morning an architect met our group of 26 in the Plaza de Armas, in Havana, where in 1519 monks celebrated the first mass on the island under a huge tree. A church was built there some years later. We then walked through a little park and past a statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who declared independence from Spain in 1868, which didn’t finally come until 1898. As we then approached an imposing building, which the architect explained had originally been a governor’s palace and now city offices, I saw a man selling maps. A map enthusiast, I hadn’t been able to get one before.
           I stopped and asked how much. Three CUCs (the Cuban convertible peso used by tourists), he said. I’d been carrying my smartphone, for taking photos, a notebook and pen, for taking notes, and our group’s itinerary, and put all of these down on a nearby empty table. Took out my wallet, paid for the map, and picked up all my stuff to join the group.
            You’ve already guessed what happened. A few minutes later I reached for my phone to take a photo of the decorative columns on the front of the governor’s palace – and it wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t with my notebook. It was gone.
            I went back to the table where I’d put everything down, and it was now covered with tourist magazines and brochures. No phone in sight. “I’ve lost my phone,” I said loudly, now searching through my pockets again, and in my purse. No luck. Our tour director had me empty everything out of my purse and my backpack. No phone. The local tour guide asked the woman if she had a seen a phone, but of course she hadn’t.
            In my panic, I couldn’t even remember what the map seller looked like, and felt doubly embarrassed, first for being so careless, second for being such a “typical American tourist” and not even noticing the local vender I was buying from.
            For the next 20 minutes, I beat myself up: how could I be so stupid? how could I be so careless? how could I not notice what I was doing, or who I was buying the map from? But basic optimism came to my rescue. I’d traded my phone for a city and country map that I really wanted. The phone was replaceable. Fortunately, it was only a few months old, so there wasn’t much on it, and I can afford the replacement. The pictures of Havana’s famous classic cars were lost, but I was able to get more shots of those in our remaining time in Havana.
            As for Cuba, it is well worth the trip. If you can manage to go, I strongly recommend you do it. Go Ahead Tours would be an excellent way to start.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

SOLTuesday: Forty-six Years Ago Today

Forty-six years ago today, Jack and I moved into our current apartment. It was our third move in New York, and our first where we hired professional movers -- after all, we were 28, time to start acting like grownups. Of course, that was the day the city decided to do some repairs on the pavement of our block; I think the movers were able to park in front of our corner building on 85th Street and Columbus, but then had to back out.
   We were nervous about entrusting our sacred stereo system to unknown movers, so we took the turntable to the new apartment ourselves a couple of days earlier -- and were shocked to find it missing when we arrived on moving day. Complaints to the super were fruitless. Clearly, someone in the building had stolen it. He was also supposed to give us our copy of the lease, which he never did. (Which turned out to be moot when the building went co-op 12 years later, but I was nervous about it for years before the co-op process.) I learned only recently that super was hated by everyone in the building as incompetent, and he was gone a few years after we moved in.
   Our new apartment felt so spacious compared to the one we were leaving. There were two, 2(!) bedrooms, each one big enough for a bed and more than one bureau. There was a long, long hallway, perfect for lining with the bookcases I hadn't bought yet. The kitchen had full-size appliances and was big enough for a real table -- our previous apartment's kitchen was as wide as the narrow stove at one end, the sink's drainboard was a piece of wood nailed to the wall, and there was no, zero, zilch counter space. Wheee!
   Now that we have been here for quite a while, and redone the kitchen, I can see more places for improvement, like a second bathroom, which was more necessary when there were two of us here, and getting elderly. But I love the view out of the front door of the building: Riverside Park to the left, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine two blocks away to the right. Moving is such an ordeal, and I don't intend to do it ever again.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

SOLTuesday: One Year Ago Today


Just about a year ago began what we did not yet know was the beginning of the end for my husband. A year ago probably yesterday, Jack noticed a blister on that leg that he thought was more swollen than it had been. A year ago today the blister was larger and had an odd red line at its base. We thought perhaps some particle had gotten inside his compression stockings and scratched him.
            A year ago today, more blisters appeared and began to ooze clear liquid. A year ago tomorrow, we went to a City MD office, since his doctor was on vacation, and Jack didn’t like the backup doctor. The City MD doctor thought these oozing blisters might be a bullus impetigo and suggested a dermatologist. She also covered the blisters with gauze and wrapped the leg with an Ace bandage; I had improvised with gauze pads we happened to have and tape.
            A year ago the next day we were at Roosevelt Hospital’s medical offices; first a long wait in the waiting room, then one after the other a nurse, resident, and finally the dermatologist, all asking the same questions. No bullus impetigo, the dermatologist assured, but he wanted Jack to see his primary doctor. He advised an antibiotic to prevent possible infection and that Jack keep his legs elevated, even putting a pillow under the mattress to keep them up at night.
            We took a taxi home. Our driver was both a Mets fan (remember, the Mets were in the playoffs a year ago) and a reader of the Drudge Report, which somehow seemed a strange combination to me. He was very talkative, first telling us about a farm on the rooftop of the original Ansonia, a Beaux-Arts apartment building (see pictures), soon closed down by the City Health Department. He also wanted us know about a Russian scientist’s article on the Drudge Report reporting how the U.S. would implode at the next crisis because (1) supermarkets had only about a week’s worth of food in stock and (2) drug addicts would become like zombies when they couldn’t get their doses.
            We were taking a lot of taxis in those days, and New York taxi drivers can still be as entertaining as their stereotypes.