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.

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.
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. 
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. 

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.