Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Job #7: Law firm, fall 1962

            This law firm’s office was on K Street, N.W. I don’t know whether “K Street” already had the reputation it does now, of being the location for all the lobbyists. The office was in a townhouse, up several steps to the front door. The front room, what might have been the parlor, was the lawyers’ main office, while the secretary and typists were in a small room in the back.

            The secretary, who also headed the office, was a tall, middle-aged Black woman who wore her hair in a 1940s style. She was stern and correct. There was no kidding or casual banter. I don’t remember her name, so let’s call her Mrs. C.

            I came in, sat at my desk, and did the work assigned to me. And while it’s easy to describe, it was not so easy to perform.

            The firm represented clients to the FCC, so clients were radio and TV stations, and most of the work the firm did was to help the stations renew their licenses to broadcast, which was required then every three years. These stations were all over the country, so communication between the lawyers and their clients was primarily by letter. The lawyers thus wanted these letters to be or at least look perfect. No mistakes, or anything that looked like a mistake.

            This was still the days of white paper and carbon paper; carbon sets may not yet have existed, and copying machines were certainly not common in small offices. One carbon copy was the minimum (original letter to the client, one copy for the file), but if a letter was being written to the FCC, that meant one copy for the client, one for the file. Sometimes we might need to make four copies.

            Nobody is a perfect typist. What happened if one made a mistake? Liquid paper, a precursor to Wite-Out, existed, but Mrs. C would have none of it. It revealed that there had been a mistake. And we did not yet have electronic typewriters that let you backspace and retype a wrong letter on the same line. Mrs. C was a genius at erasing a mistake so that it looked like it had never happened, and not only on the bond paper original, but also the carbon copies.

            In those days there was a hard rubber eraser shaped like a flat wheel with a metal circle in the center and a brush attached. The trick was first, roll the paper and copies up a few lines so you could reach the copies, then erase the mistake on the carbon copies, brushing off any debris, next erase the mistake on the bond paper, then carefully roll the paper back to original position, and type the correct letter. Erasing was tricky, not so hard that you abraded the surface of the paper, but hard enough to remove all visible ink. This was hard.

            Mostly I remember trying to master this erasure trick, because I could not type perfectly, no matter how slowly and carefully I went. Often I had to toss what I’d typed and start over. Documents were the hardest, because they were many pages, and if I made a mistake near the bottom of a page, it was impossible to do the roll up/erase/roll down/retype; I’d have to retype the entire page. There was little chitchat in the office, either, because Mrs. C believed in coming in, doing the work, and going home.

            The only client I remember this firm representing was Pacifica, the listener-supported station in California, but why do I remember that? Pacifica did not have a station in Washington, D.C., but perhaps the fact that Pacifica’s license was being held up by the FCC that year, which was investigating the Pacifica Foundation for “communist affiliations,” made it stick in my mind.

            Outside of work, I had finally moved in with Susan, the young woman I’d met at NIH. We lived a block above Dupont Circle, a neighborhood of small row houses, many turned into apartments. Our apartment was the literal ground floor, four steps down, in front, and it also had a back door that led to an alley down the middle of the block, which opened onto Q Street. (Washington has lots of alleys. This alley will play a role in a later decision concerning job #9.) The office was a straight line down New Hampshire Avenue from Dupont Circle, and often I walked there and back instead of taking a bus.

            I was dating a boy named Aldace Newton Howard III (he liked to recite that sometimes), called Aldie, who’d been a transfer student to Antioch, then dropped out and enlisted in the Navy. Columbus Day (not yet a federal holiday) weekend he had leave and came up to Washington so we could spend the weekend together. Since he arrived in Friday, I called in sick that day — I know, calling in sick when you haven’t even been working somewhere for a month is probably not a good idea, but I was still a kid, barely 20.

            I came to work on Monday, the actual Columbus Day, and was surprised to find the office mostly dark and only one lawyer on the premises. Let’s call him Mr. M, since I don’t remember any of their names. Mr. M called me into his office and very gently told me that he was sorry, but this job did not seem like the right one for me. He said I was a smart girl and he was sure I would find the best place elsewhere — and I could have two more weeks.

            I was being fired. Was it because I’d called in sick on Friday? Was my typing really that awful? But secretly I was glad. I didn’t like this job at all.

            World affairs very soon made my renewed job hunt feel incidental. By the end of that week, rumors were all over Washington about something happening regarding Cuba. At the end of the weekend we learned that President Kennedy was going to address the nation on Monday night, and since we didn’t have a TV, my roommate called her father, who picked us up after work and took us home with him for dinner and the speech. We were terrified, though her father tried to talk us down. Back home, we discussed what we would do when (not if) we heard the air-raid sirens. Dupont Circle was known to have a fallout shelter. Would we rush the block and a half to the shelter? Or would we start drinking all the wine we had? (Ten years later, I wrote in my journal: "I don't think then I really believed in my own death. I think I was as much excited as I was terrified.")

            Susan worked at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, and her boss, S.L.A. Marshall, had just written an article on Cuba for the New Republic, and all that week, he was getting phone calls from reporters wanting to pick his brain about Cuba. At the end of each day, the director would say, “See you all tomorrow (pause), God willing.” The weather in Washington was warm for October, and on Wednesday I ate my lunch in the little park between K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. To the south, dark clouds piled up. A storm approaching? a harbinger of the nuclear war that might happen any minute?

            By the end of that week, the Soviet ships on their way to Cuba had stopped and turned around. There was no nuclear confrontation. Life could go back to normal. And I had to find another job.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Job #6: Public Health Service, statistical clerk, summer 1962

             At the end of June, I moved out of the Clinical Center in Bethesda and into an apartment in Washington, D.C., where I was to room with another Antioch student, Susie S., who had already been there through the spring quarter. The apartment was on Irving Place, a block away from Rock Creek Park and the city’s zoo. On quiet nights, I could sometimes hear the lions or tigers roar, and one night, writing in my journal, a cigarette in one hand, a drink on the lamp table, I could sense a giant cat padding up the stairs and just on the other side of the doorway; it was a scary yet thrilling feeling.

            The Public Health Service was in one of those huge, blocky government buildings in S.E. Washington, south of the Mall and east of all the tourist sites. There was no Metro yet, wouldn’t be one for another 14 years, so I rode maybe two buses, one downtown, another to the government buildings.

            I spent my time in a large room without windows, some cubicles along one wall, a long table against another wall, and three offices, for the supervisors, on a third. Perhaps three or four other people my age worked in our office during that summer. I was shown how to use a Friden calculator—a noisy machine much larger than a typewriter, but small enough to sit on a desk, it had a keyboard of nine rows up and 10 across. One of the young men spent most of his time figuring out how to make the calculator beat out a rhythm, by entering a 10-digit number, then multiplying, or dividing, by one number. I think one combination was 7755777557 divided by 7, and the mechanical sound of the calculator figuring out the answer sounded like bada, bum, bada, bum, bada,bum, bum, bum—but I have no calculator to test this.

            The Public Health Service at that time was just concluding a series of trials to determine whether giving women a regular test called a Pap smear would catch cervical cancer early enough to save lives. The data from the trials would eventually be fed into a massive computers somewhere. But first that data had to be gathered into a usable format—and that format was numbers on sheets of paper, one for each state. Each sheet had a form, down the left side a row for age groups in five year increments (0-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc.), and across the top headings for two columns, “white” and “Negro.”

            My job was to take the voluminous 1960 census reports and fill in the correct numbers for each column and row. It may sound tedious, but I still remember marveling that in Vermont, say, there were only 5 Negro women ages 85-90. I tried to imagine who those five women were, where did they live, what were their lives like. (Many years later, on one of my husband and my visits to my aunt and uncle who lived in Vermont, we ate lunch at a restaurant in Montpelier and noticed a Black woman walking down the street. An unusual enough event that we mentioned it to my aunt, who immediately said, “Oh, that must have been Maria Johnson. She teaches at the college.” Imagine there being so few Black women in a town that my aunt would know them by name.)

            Did it take me more than a week to fill out those forms? Maybe. There were always those Friden calculator games to play. And because so many college students worked in government agencies or for congressmen (and the vast majority were men; women made up only 3% of the House of Representatives), there were occasional lectures for us. One featured then senator Hubert Humphrey talking about the proposal for health insurance for the elderly. That bill was being widely attacked as socialism, so I was surprised, and pleased, to hear Humphrey say, “Well, if this bill is socialism, I’m all for it.” An American senator saying he was all for socialism? We must really be out of the age of McCarthyism.

            The building where my office was had a cafeteria on a high floor, a very good idea since there was no other place to eat in easily walkable distance. The food wasn’t bad and not too expensive. One of my favorite dishes was sauteed chopped zucchini and onions, something I don’t think I’d ever eaten, but which I have made many times over the years. The cafeteria had two walls of big windows, and the sunshine always lifted my mood.

            Sometime in July, my parents came to Washington for the bar mitzvah of the son of one of their friends, and I went with them. Later, we drove around Rock Creek Park (my father loved to drive) and I told them I wanted to drop out of college. They were aghast.

            “What will you do?” my father asked. “I’ll get a job,” I said. “But what kind of job can you get without a college degree?” His voice dripped condescension. His sister, he pointed out, didn’t have a college degree, and the only jobs she’d had were as a secretary. Clearly, he thought being a secretary was beneath me.

            My mother took a different tack: “College is where you’ll meet the man you’re going to marry.” This surprised me. It was something no one had ever mentioned, that I was in college to find a man to marry. And I recoiled from the idea. Of course I would get married, that was taken for granted. But I’d been in college for two years and still hadn’t had a boyfriend, though I was no longer a virgin.

            I had already written my letter of withdrawal from Antioch, so all their protestations were beside the point. I was dropping out, and I would manage.

            In September, I told my boss at the Public Health Service that I wasn’t going back to Antioch and was looking for a job. He said it was okay if I took time off to go to job interviews. One interview, at some large corporation (maybe AT&T?), led to lunch with the person interviewing me; she brought along a colleague, and they talked about how great it was to work for this company and how much opportunity for advancement there was. But I really wasn’t interested in a corporate job. Another interview was at a nonprofit representing Arab American rights; I was very interested in this job, but the people interviewing me thought I might not be “comfortable” working for them, since they criticized Israel. (How did they know I was Jewish?) I tried to make it clear I had not particular interest in Israel, but they really weren’t interested in me. At the time, I didn’t think of this as antisemitism, which I then thought of as hatred of Jews; rather, I thought they were captive of assumptions they applied to me. I guess that is the source of discrimination, but it never occurred to me to protest against this.

            Eventually, I was offered a job as typist, working for a small law firm that represented clients at the FCC. My boss at the PHS said it was okay if I left before the co-op job was up at the end of September. So on to job #7.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

SOL Tuesday: How Not to Wake Up in the Morning

            I have a sleep-monitoring app on my phone—because I think a device will tell me what time I’ve gone to sleep and how long I’ve been awake in the middle of the night better than my memory will. I know, that’s probably a wrong assumption, but there it is.

            Anyway, the sleep-monitoring app wants my phone to be near the head of my bed, and since I don’t have a night table, I place the phone on the shelf of my headboard. The app also has an alarm, unlike any alarm I’ve ever had—it plays a succession of musical notes in a rising sequence, starting from lower or higher notes, and starting quietly, then gradually getting louder. It runs through this pattern for perhaps three minutes, stops, and a few minutes more it starts again. To my surprise, it actually does wake me up, but always in the best way.

            Yesterday morning, the app woke me, but not fully. Then my real alarm, the beeping of my clock radio, woke me harder, and I wanted to turn off the humming of the phone app. I fumbled for the phone in a still half-awake state, and knocked the phone out of the headboard—and somehow into the narrow space between the headboard and my bed.

        Let me explain this setup. I have a captain’s bed with three drawers on each side. There is no “under the bed” space. When I bought this bed a few years ago, to replace the previous captain’s bed whose drawers were falling apart, I also bought a new headboard. The previous headboard was also old, given to my husband by a former employer decades ago. It was also separate from the bed, so if something fell under the headboard, we could move the bed to reach it. 

            When the new bed was delivered, the deliverymen installed the headboard, then started bolting the bed to the headboard. I was surprised. I thought of asking them not to do that, because I imagined that I might drop something under the headboard, and then I wouldn’t be able to move the bed to get to it. But I didn’t. I let them bolt the two structures together, and for seven years I was careful to push the mattress as close to the headboard as it would go, to not leave any space for something to fall through.

            Until yesterday morning. There was the phone, lying on the floor under the headboard, out of reach. As if injected with adrenaline, I fairly leaped out of bed, grabbed the headboard, and yanked. Somehow I managed to move the whole structure maybe five inches away from the wall (I’m almost 80 and have been to the gym only sporadically because of Covid the past couple of years, but that adrenaline really works).

            Next I marched to the kitchen to get the arm extender that had been my mother’s, a foldable tool with a handle at one end, a grabber at the other. I managed to use that tool to reach the phone and edge it close to where I could reach in and retrieve it. Whew!

            Then I had to move the whole contraption back against the wall. I could pull with my arms, but I couldn’t push. Instead, I sat on the floor, back to the bed, feet against a dresser in a convenient place. It was hard, but I did manage to push the bed/headboard back against the wall.

            Success! Yet exhaustion. I really hadn’t wanted to wake up that way. It was several minutes before I got out of bed for the day.

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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. Add one of your own.

 


Sunday, April 10, 2022

Job #5: NIH Normal Control, Spring 1962

            What, you may ask, is a “normal control”? She (or he) is the person in a scientific study who represents those not the subjects of the study, those who those sujects are measured against or compared to, to try to determine what in the subject is causing the problem the scientists are studying.

            Why did I want to be a normal control? As I’ve mentioned before, I felt through my teen years, and I was still 19, that I was deeply neurotic, and I had some vague sense that if I volunteered to be a normal control, the experts—the doctors and scientists at the National Institutes of Health—would either reject me, confirming my sense that I was not normal, or accept me, thus certifying that I was, really, NORMAL, after all.

            I don’t remember if there was any kind of test for the job, but in the beginning of April I was on my way to Bethesda, Maryland, where for three months I would live in the Clinical Center, essentially a large hospital with many doctors’ offices. So room and board were provided, and I had some sort of small stipend. This turned out to be one of those life turning points, which I didn’t recognize at the time.

            This being a hospital, each floor was divided into two wards, with 10 rooms per ward, and in the middle a large common area where we had our meals. My ward was 7West, and as the only “girl” I had a room to myself, but the men shared, two to a room. There was one other Antioch co-op, Gary, who aspired to be a doctor (which is what he ultimately became, according to the alumni directory), three or four men who were conscientious objectors and serving as normal control for their alternative service, and there were perhaps another four men who were prisoners. (These men were serving time for relatively mild offenses, and had volunteered to be normal controls so as to not be in actual prison. They all stayed at one end of the hall, along with the two guards who followed them Everywhere. One day we played a kind of pickup softball game on the NIH grounds, and the two guards stood way out in the outfield, shouldering rifles, in case any of the prisoners took it into their heads to try to escape.)

            I was the only girl, but the way I made myself feel comfortable was to think of myself as “one of the boys.” I was almost 20, but I still had never had a boyfriend, though I wasn’t a virgin either. So while I had a crush on one of the conscientious objectors, I didn’t know how to flirt or otherwise show my interest. My crush was Skip, who was older, close to 30, and a CO for political reasons. He was handsome and sexy, dark hair, not much taller than me, a little burly, but he showed no romantic interest, instead he may have tried proselytizing, but seemed too intense in his theory. Virgil was a CO for religious reasons, a member of the Church of the Brethren, and from Ohio. Had he heard of Antioch College, also in Ohio, or was he from some other part of the state? We had a date, but later, after I’d left NIH and moved into D.C. for my next co-op job, but more about that later. Mostly, the group of us, along with some of the young people also living at the Clinical Center (more about them later), hung out as a group, not much pairing off.

            NIH grounds. This was a fairly large complex, north of Washington, D.C., with numerous buildings for administration, laboratories, and I think animals. The laboratories were surrounded by rose bushes, which in June put out intoxicating scent. The big lawn in front of the Clinical Center was bordered by large firs, with their own competing aroma. One warm night in early June I was out for a walk and lay down on the thick lawn grass, staring up at the star-filled sky. I knew each of those tiny sparkles was a star, possibly like our Sun, and here I was on a planet looking out at eternity, feeling as much a part of the universe as each of those stars. An enormous exaltation filled me, a connection to those stars billions of miles away, just as much a part of nature as they were. Perhaps this was a spiritual experience, but coming from an atheist family, I didn’t have that language. I just knew it was a wonderful feeling.

            So what did I do at the Clinical Center? I think I took part in only a couple of studies, and I remember only one of them. A dentist wondered how human saliva differed when it was provoked by different tastes—salty, sour, sweet, maybe another—and whether the saliva from the different glands was the same or also different. I spent a couple of hours on a couple of days sitting in a dental chair with tubes in my mouth to collect saliva while different substances were applied to my mouth. Not very comfortable, and I never learned what if anything was learned from what dripped out of my mouth. At least I was never told there was anything abnormal.

            What did I do with the rest of my time? I was essentially free labor for any doctors who needed it, and I was assigned to a psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Friedman, who was studying how people reacted to chronic stress. His subjects? The parents of children with acute leukemia, which in the early 1960s was still incurable. Doctors at NIH were studying possible treatments, and as the largest hospital in the South working on possible treatments, most of the parents who brought their sons or daughters for treatment came from the South. Dr. Friedman or people on his team interviewed these parents at length—and my job was to transcribe those audiotaped interviews.

            The job was both tedious and fascinating. Tedious because I sat at a desk all day long, headphones on, learning how to operate the recorder for playback. Fascinating because each set of parents was different, unique, unlike anyone I knew. I learned to decipher different regional accents. In some couples, the husband did most of the talking, in others it was more equal. They often talked about their child’s illness in great detail, how it started, what they first noticed, how they’d come to NIH expecting, hoping for a miracle. It was most painful to listen to those parents whose child was dying; some seemed able to accept that it could happen, but most kept hoping that yet another remission would occur. I had no regular hours, just coming to Dr. Friedman’s office a few hours a day, transcribing as much as I could. Sometimes I would finish all the tapes there were and would wait until he’d let me know there were more.

            At NIH, I began reading the newspaper more regularly. The Washington Post was delivered to our ward, and I’d read over breakfast. I noticed stories about a country called Laos near Vietnam. Vietnam stuck in my memory from 1954, when the division of the country into North and South had been on the front page of “My Weekly Reader,” a student newspaper from Scholastic, along with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education. Those 1962 news stories kept me attached to the Vietnam situation as it developed over the following years.

            What else was there to do? There was that softball game. One June night there was an excursion to some local venue for music, and we hung out the porch waiting for the music and watching huge June bugs fling themselves against the ceiling light and fall, burned, to the floor.

            There were quite a few young people living at the Clinical Center for various studies of mental illness. Some were part of a study of families of schizophrenics, and I learned an important lesson from one of them. Norma was about my age, Normal Norma we called her—but not to her face. When she was okay, I noticed, she was just like all the normal people I knew, not focused on herself, not anxious, not worrying what other people thought of her. But one evening I went down to her ward to see if she wanted to hang out—and the ward was locked. “Can I see Norma?” I asked a nurse through the door. “Norma is having a break,” the nurse replied. Another day, I was in Dr. Friedman’s office transcribing. The office doors had large glass windows, and when I looked up, there was Norma, on the other side of the glass, her hands up as though trying to claw through the window. She could easily have just opened the door, but that was beyond her at that moment. A nurse came along and walked her away from the door. The lesson: perhaps neurotics didn’t have psychotic breaks like Norma’s, on the other hand, being “normal” didn’t assure you would always be so.

            There was another girl, Susan, a year younger than me, working at NIH. She had started dating Gary, but we also became friendly. She had been kicked out of the University of Illinois the previous year for violating what were then called “parietal rules”; for example, girls had to be in their dorms no later than 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends, and boys could not be in a girl’s dorm room, or if it was, he had to keep both feet on the floor. Antioch College had no such rules, we could be out as long as we wanted and have boys in our room so long as it didn’t inconvenience our roommate. This state of affairs was so well known that boys from nearby colleges often came to Antioch and roamed the girls’ dorm halls on Friday and Saturday nights looking for what they assumed must be wild parties. We girls found them just boring.

            Susan was living at home and wanted to get her own place, but needed a roommate. And here came the turning point. I had been wondering whether I should return to college. The previous quarter I had gotten nothing but C’s, which as far as I was concerned might as well have been F’s. What was I doing in college anyway? I knew that when I returned to Antioch in the fall, I would have to create a Five-Year Plan, declaring a major and figuring out whether the required courses would be available on the quarters I would be on campus over the next three years. I was no nearer to figuring out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, let alone what my major might be. I’d never set foot in the theater, the only English class I’d had was boring, philosophy was “sentences about sentences,” and the history professor everyone adored I hated. Maybe I should take some time off and, now that I had some experience, get a job and stay put in one place for a while.

            And here was Susan, looking for a roommate. We talked, we agreed. I had another Antioch co-op job to go to in Washington for the summer, and a roommate already lined up for that, but sometime in the summer, I’d officially withdraw and move in with Susan wherever she found an apartment.


Tuesday, April 5, 2022

SOL Tuesday: My Day

I may have mentioned that the trade magazine I freelance for is having its 150th anniversary this year, and it is putting together a special issue, for which I am doing all the copyediting, as well as trafficking every story through the production process in a timely fashion.

            We’re in the closing section this week, as have the 272 pages have to go to the printer next Monday and the rest next Tuesday. So I spent all of today in the office, reading captions and pull quotes, cleaning up text files, notifying the art department what was ready for them. Noticing little details, like a cross-reference in one article to another article that may actually not be relevant, or questioning whether three sets of ellipses in a pull quote are really necessary.

            I am grateful when an editor or author says, “fine with me,” when I make a suggestion.

            Now I have to go to bed. More to do tomorrow.

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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.

 

Monday, April 4, 2022

Poem-a-Day 3: Haiku Golden Shovels

A three-line headline calls for a haiku golden shovel. Here are two.


What is history
But loss and beauty hammered
Into a burnt home.

Here's your history
Bound by tinsel and hammered
By tears into home.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Poem-a-Day 2: War?

The bombs fall in the predawn for

Maximum fear. If they are real. A meta

War sends bombs upward toward workers

Pulling strings on paper planes. The rules

Require no casualties in a beta test of

Fantasy dreams death cleansing war

Of fear and blood, while the bombs keep

Falling down and up, down and up, shifting.

 

A golden shovel based on a New York Times headline.


Saturday, April 2, 2022

Poem-a-Day 1: Who Is Free in a Free Market

For National Poetry Month, I’m trying the golden shovel format with New York Times headlines again. Too busy yesterday to start on day 1, so will try to get another poem before today ends.

 

Workers at Amazon on Staten Island, not all

But a majority, all that were needed to hail

A new union, one of their own creation. The

Organizing, phone calls, crowdfunding send a scorching

Message to owners: we are not robots, our labor

Comes in human bodies. We are not free in a free market.

 


Thursday, March 31, 2022

SOLSC 31: Last Slice of the Month

This month of slices has felt harder than usual. I’ve missed a couple of days without eve realizing it. That’s partly because I’ve been working on a big freelance project that’s taken up a lot of time, but has included a lot of fascinating reading about changes in book publishing over the past 25 years. Partly because of that, I haven’t been as diligent in reading and commenting on others’ posts.

            April brings the poem-a-day challenge, which I participated in for the first time last year. That time I used a poem format new to me: the golden shovel. This format I learned about from the New York Times, which, during the pandemic, published the “At Home” section every Sunday offering a variety of activities, recipes, streaming or TV, and puzzles. In early April it suggested writing poetry using the golden shovel format, but instead of being based on a line of poetry, it proposed using New York Times headlines.

            I’ve never thought of myself as a poet, but the golden shovel format using newspaper headlines was energizing and fun. I think I will try it again this year. Should I focus on war in Ukraine headlines, or avoid them? We’ll see how things work out.

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I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 31 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!

 

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

SOLSC 30: A Plethora of And at Beginnings of Sentences

Many of you are teaching students to write. You should know that many professional writers are still learning to write, and some of them don’t know how to learn.

            I’m not in the camp that thinks you can’t start a sentence with “And.” Whenever I write, I start many sentences with “And.” But when I revise, those “And”s are often cut. Too many of them make reading feel choppy, bouncy. “And” at the beginning of sentences are what I think of as “first draft writing.” “And” is only necessary when there’s some ambiguity about how the sentence is connected to the previous sentence.

            Why am I going on about this? (When I first wrote that previous sentence, it started with “And” and I just deleted it.)

            I free-lance as a copyeditor for the magazine I retired from full-time work from. This morning I copyedited a very long story, and the writer liked to start many sentences with “And” and occasionally “But.” I took most of them out. But I had some questions for the writer, so asked him to look the piece over to answer my questions.

            I almost wish I hadn’t. He did answer most of my questions, but he also restored many of my deleted “And”s. I started to restore some of them. I sent him e-mail explaining why I had cut them. I even sent him a couple of sentences in his piece, one an example where “And” should be cut, the other an example where the “And” was needed. Then I asked the staff copyeditors whether they had this problem with him, and they said “yes” and “yes” and “yes.”

            I do wish I hadn’t been doing this work remotely. If we’d been able to talk F2F, perhaps I could have persuaded him to let those “And”s evaporate after he’d written them.

            And good luck to all your writing teachers.

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I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 30 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!

 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

SOLSC 29: Me and White Supremacy

I need to apologize.

            A year ago, a subgroup of one of my book groups read, a few chapters a month, Layla Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy,” a “workbook/journal” for white people to, as the subtitle says, “combat racism, change the world, and become a good ancestor.” The chapters address such topics as white privilege, white silence, color blindness, racist stereotypes, much more. We discussed the questions at the end of each chapter intended to get us to think deeply, tried to understand. But I have to admit that partway through the book, I began to feel annoyed: The chapter on “Me and White Superiority” ended with one question: “In what ways have you consciously or subconsciously believed that you are better than BIPOC? Don’t hide from this. This is the crux of white supremacy. Own it.” I did not feel that I could “own” this. My parents raised us to not think we were better than anyone else. Just because I was smart didn’t mean I was better than people who weren’t as smart. We had books telling us that people of all colors are all human. Saad’s examples of white superiority did not, I felt, match my experience.

            Okay. I need to apologize. Words I have written in the past week reveal, not so much white superiority, but a white-centered consciousness, insufficiently aware that certain words slide into stereotype even when that stereotype is not one that I hold.

            Case one: Last week, I had watched a bit of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee as a nominee to the Supreme Court. Marsha Blackburn’s grandstanding was enraging to watch. When the camera showed Jackson standing as the hearing ended and walking out of the room, I felt the anger I imagined she felt in her bearing. So I posted to Facebook: “...I think I could feel her anger at how her own record was being distorted...” Not until the next morning, after hearing on news reports commentary on how Black women’s anger is viewed as threatening (while white men, cf. Brett Kavanaugh’s temper tantrum at his Supreme Court nomination hearing, get angry with no consequence), did I realize I’d left out two important words: “totally justified.” If indeed Jackson was angry, she had every right to be. So I went back to Facebook and added those words. But they should have been there in the first place. While I don’t think I see Black women’s anger as threatening, I need to be more aware that other white people do, and be as careful as I can when using that word.

            Case two: My slice yesterday was about two surveys I took that day. The second one was one of those opinion things where the company may have had multiple clients, since the question about “topics in the news” had nothing to do with the earlier survey questions about music and the devices I listen to. The news topic was about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, after Rock make a “joke” about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hairstyle, and whether I thought it was acceptable or not acceptable. I wrote in my slice about seeing the camera on Pinkett Smith’s face and that she looked angry—even as I wrote it, I wondered if that was the right word. But at the moment, I couldn’t think of any other word, so that’s what I went with. And in my slice, I also wondered whether this was the most important topic in the news, given the continuing war in Ukraine.

            This morning, after listening to all the Black voices on the radio talking about this issue, and reading the slice of a friend, I realize I had once again fallen into white-centered consciousness, and used “anger,” which might have been appropriate, or maybe not. The word that had eluded me last night was “upset”; Pinkett Smith looked upset. I’ve edited my slice to change “angry” to “upset.” But thinking more deeply about my response to what happened, was I trivializing the incident? Did one Black man becoming so angry at an insult to his wife that he lost control and behaved badly on nationwide TV, did that seem like “spectacle” to my white eyes? Did it seem like part of “celebrity culture,” something I don’t pay much attention to?

            I loved Will Smith in the Men in Black movies. I’ve liked Chris Rock when he was on SNL. I had no idea he had made a whole film about Black women’s hair, so he should have known not to make jokes about a Black woman’s hair. I had no idea Pinkett Smith had alopecia. But my ignorance should not have led me to dismiss what happened in front of millions of viewers as “no big deal.” It’s certainly a big deal for Black people, on many different levels. Pay attention to what those are.

            But what to do, as a white person? I do need to be more aware of my words. I need to think more deeply about my responses. I need to not unconsciously assume whiteness is the center and Black people are on the periphery, are accessories to the culture. It’s constant work, but work that must be done. I need to talk about this. I need to be more antiracism, not simply not racist. And I apologize for my slippage.

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I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 29 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!

Monday, March 28, 2022

SOLSC 28: Opinions

             I like to take surveys. It’s probably a weakness, since it can take time that would be better spent reading or writing. Somehow, I have in the back of my mind that answering survey questions will tell *me* something about myself I didn't know. 

             Some surveys are useful, however. The National Institutes of Environmental Health have been conducting a long-term study of the sisters of women who’ve died from breast cancer, and since my younger sister died 10 years ago from her third bout with breast cancer, I’ve been filling out regular surveys for the Sister Study. They send me a link, I do it online, and it’s easily done.

            There’s also an organization called YouGov, which often does surveys of political opinion, and I always want to be included in those.

            So today, I finished the Sister Study survey, and there in my e-mail was a YouGov survey waiting for my input. Ok, I’ll bite. This one was mostly about technology (what are the numerous ways to listen to music do I use? how many technology devices do I have? If I have a television, how many in the household?—only one, thank you.)

            Then there were a few questions on topics in the news. And here’s what they were really after:

“On stage at the Academy Awards, comedian Chris Rock made a joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith. Her husband Will Smith responded by walking on stage and hitting Chris Rock. Do you think Smith’s actions were or were not acceptable?”

            Did you watch the Oscars? I did. I saw that confrontation. I saw the camera on Pinkett Smith’s face, and she was upset. I saw the couple of minutes when the producers turned off the sound, but if you could read lips it was pretty obvious what curse words Will Smith was hurling at Chris Rock. (What we only learned in the news later is that Pinkett Smith has alopecia, which causes one to lose all bodily hair. Did Chris Rock even know that?)

            Of course, I said Smith’s actions were not acceptable. And of course, he did apologize after winning Best Actor. And for topics in the news, is this the most important one to be asking our opinions about?

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I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 28 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!

 

Saturday, March 26, 2022

SOLSC 26: Another Small World Story

            I love small world stories, you know, when you discover someone you know also knows someone else you know, and you had no idea. One of my favorites: An American I’d met in my world with women in Eastern Europe in the 1990s gave me her book about her Fulbright time teaching in China in 1980. I sent the book to my mother, who had made several trips to China in the 1970s and 1980s. Surprise! my mother already had a copy of the book, having met the author when she was on her book tour 10 years earlier.

            Today’s small world story was slightly different. I was having coffee with Robin, a woman from my neighborhood. We’d met over a year ago at our neighborhood weekly Black Lives Vigil and often chatted, but hadn’t got beyond that until today. Over coffee we exchanged life stories and learned that we both had known, years ago, a man named Cedric Belfrage. Belfrage was a British writer and a leftist (he’d briefly joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, and co-founded the National Guardian, a radical weekly in the U.S.). He lived in the U.S. for several years until deported in the 1950s, when he moved to Mexico. When I worked as a book editor in the early 1970s, I signed Belfrage to write “The American Inquisition,” a history of McCarthyism. Robin, it turned out, was married to a Mexican whose parents knew many leftists in that country; Belfrage and his wife ran a guesthouse in Cuernavaca, and Robin and her husband visited there many times.

            Six degrees of separation? Sometimes it feels like there are only 5,000 people in the entire world, and we each know every one of them.

            Do you have a favorite small world story?

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I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 26 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!

 

Friday, March 25, 2022

SOLSC 25: March Madness

            I am not a basketball fan. The game goes too fast and you have to pay attention all the time. (That’s one reason I love baseball—and others hate it. It’s slow, and I can multitask while watching on TV.)

            But I love an underdog. And Saint Peter’s is the underdog of underdogs, a relatively small school in Jersey City, N.J. It made it to the NCAA tournament, seeded 15 in the East, after beating number 2 seed Kentucky in the first round (only the 10th time that’s happened since 1985), then beating 7 seed Murray State in the second round. That’s only the third time for 15 seed to reach the “Sweet Sixteen”  (That’s a trademarked term, as is the Elite Eight, which is the next round in the tournament.)

            So tonight I am watching Saint Peter’s playing Purdue, and there’s 6 minutes left in the game, and the lead has traded numerous times, and the score is just 53-52 (Purdue).  54-52. 56-52. I’m really into this game. Saint Peter’s just missed a basket. Another foul on Saint Peter’s, 56-55. Now a foul on Purdue, 57-55. Another tie, 57-57.

            There are rules I don’t understand, like the shot clock and something called a “controlled tap” or a “tip.” The refs decide the call goes to Saint Peter’s, and I can see the Purdue coach saying, “What?!

            59-57, Saint Peter’s, under 2 minutes. Another foul on Purdue.  61-57, Saint Peter’s. A foul on Saint Peter’s, 61-59. Now a foul on Purdue, 63-59, under a minute. 63-61, 28 seconds to play. And the second timeouts in 10 seconds. Is this another rule I don’t understand? And there’s something about fouls that players commit as some sort of strategy I don’t get.

            65-64, Saint Peter’s. 66-64, 67-64. Purdue misses the 3-pointer for tie. Saint Peter’s win! The first time a 15 seed is going to the Elite Eight.

            The Purdue players are despondent. One looks like he might be crying. But the Saint Peter’s team is acting like little boys in their excitement. Their mascot is the peacock. 

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I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 25 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!



Thursday, March 24, 2022

SOLSC 24: A Slice from Fall 1961

I was still attending Antioch College, but had to find my own jobs for part of my sophomore fall quarter. One short-lived one was as a market surveyer, the old-fashioned version of a telephone survey today.

            For a couple of days, I sat in a motel conference room with maybe a dozen others, mostly women, some my age, but mostly older. The trainers didn’t tell us exactly who the client was, but it was clear from the survey form that it was advertisers. We were told to follow the script, don’t ask leading questions, don’t suggest possible answers. On the third day, we were given a list of streets, taken into the nearby town of Ardmore (Pa.), and dropped on various street corners. Then I was on my own.

            It was a working-class neighborhood. My street was lined with duplex shingled houses with a driveway on either side. It was quiet, since children were all in school. I was nervous. My stint as a salesgirl the previous spring had not cured my shyness; the idea of knocking on strangers’ doors and “barging in” terrified me. But other people could do this, so why couldn’t I — and maybe I’d be lucky and no one would be home.

            At first my luck held. There was no answer at the first few doors where I knocked or buzzed. At the next door, a short, rotund woman came to the door, but did not speak English. At another door, a Black woman in a white uniform answered and said the man she cared for was napping; since I was only supposed to talk to the primary resident, I was free to go on. A few more “no answers,” and I realized everyone must be at work. Then, luck failed.

            The woman who came to the door was a bit older than my mother, but not as old as my grandmother, white, about my height, gray hair, wearing a thin sweater and jersey skirt, socks in slippers. I gave my introductory spiel about gathering information about what people watched on television.

            “Come in, come in,” she said, waving me in. “I’ve got a friend here, but we’d be happy to answer your questions.”

            She led me down a narrow hall to the kitchen, which looked out on a concrete yard, with a couple of lawn chairs piled together. There was a faint odor of dishwater and maybe something cooking. The woman, let’s call her Alice, introduced me to her friend, let’s call her Marie, sitting at the formica-topped table, and we sat with her. I took out my folder of questionnaires.

            “Did you watch television last night?” Of course, they had, and Alice and Marie started arguing over which program they had watched last night, or was it the night before, or was it what they expected to watch tonight. Wait, wait, I said. I wasn’t supposed to direct them or make suggestions, but I could focus them by listing the possibilities, since there were only three channels in Philadephia in 1961: ABC, NBC, and CBS. “I need to know only what Alice watched,” I said, then gave her the three shows that aired at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night.

            Once Alice settled on the show she’d watched, I then asked, “Do you remember any advertisements on that show?” Here, again, she consulted with Marie, and I decided to let them talk and record whatever Alice seemed most confident of.

            “What was it that was most memorable about this advertisement?”

            More discussion between Alice and Marie, down to the detail of where the model must have gotten that dress. Now that I was “in the field,” I was beginning to understand the rationale for the survey: what commercials did people remember and why? Was I scrupulously going to stick to the script or get enough information to fill in the bubbles on the survey and write in the details that seemed most relevant? At 19, I was no friend of big corporations, although my lefty parents did work at a large pharmaceutical company.

            We went through the survey, hour by prime-time hour, advertisement by advertisement. After more than an hour, I figured we were finished and got up to leave. Alice offered me coffee, a snack, and I politely refused, thanking them for their help with the survey, but I did have other places to go to. As I left, I felt their desire for me to stay as almost entertainment; I was like the TV shows they watched day and night, living lives they didn’t have but wished they did. It was profoundly depressing.

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I’m participating in the 15th annual Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers. This is day 24 of the 31-day challenge.  It’s not too late to make space for daily writing in a community that is encouraging, enthusiastic, and eager to read what you have to slice about.  Join in!