n. Pedantry is an excessive attention to the rules or paying strong attention to the minor points of learning.
You all know Jane Austen, right? Sparkling, witty conversation about the most mundane of social situations. And you know literary fiction. Maybe you don’t know Ann McMan, yet.
First, may I say what a pleasure it was to hold and read a real print book, with a wonderful cover, a blurb on the back cover, and did I mention the real paper? I try to be both egalitarian and open-minded, to embrace the best of twenty-first century technology, so yes, I have a Kindle. It has advantages. One can carry an entire library in a pocket, read in the dark, have books instantly installed. The downside for me is that there is no battery life that can live through a beginning-to-end reading of an entire novel. The love I developed as a child for books, libraries, the heft and feel and smell of it all has not yet downgraded to nostalgia. I’m just saying.
Next, a small word about the basic plot, which does not do the book justice, but here goes. Beowulf for Cretins, A Love Story, is set in a small New England liberal arts college, and focuses on Professor Grace Warner, who plows through a heavy load of Freshman lit 101. After seven years of this drudgery, she is set for tenure, breaks up grading theme papers by working sporadically on her first novel, which accomplishment is also many years in the making. Enter Dr Abbie Williams, newly appointed college president, and to Grace’s embarrassment and dismay, her partner in a one-night fling some time before. Now Grace believes she will never make tenure, never finish her constantly rewritten novel, never find true love and a lasting relationship. Populated by quirky characters, like a student stalker, an academic rivalry for the one open tenure position, her life philosophy of nothing-ever-works-out seems certain to be reaffirmed.
Next a word about college English classes, wherein I languished, having my writerly soul crushed by a freshman lit 101 instructor who simply bled red ink over my every profer, and who called me her “little enigma” because my first drafts were so very bad, and my rewrites so much better. (But really, where did I have to go but up?) Did I ever have a stalker crush on my nemesis? Hardly. Her name was Atlanta Ashby and she was very old, always dressed in glaring black and white, reminding one of a railroad crossing. Still I could sympathize.
As I could and did sympathize with poor, hapless Grace, whose Catholic upbringing left her with that same, vague fear of the nuns who taught her life lessons in platitudes, with the same inbred Catholic guilt that only affirmed her lifelong habit of underestimating herself, and her ability to affect outcomes more satisfactory than had been manifested thus far in her life.
One of the benefits of forced early retirement means I no longer have to lie and take a sick day when I stay up all night reading. Some books are just too good to be read in stops and starts. Beowulf for Cretins is so well-written, so funny, and so smart that I felt no shame at all when I simply kept reading. Also, the book proceeds at a brisk pace, with rhythm and timing.
So, a love story, wherein the humor is embedded in discussions of things like “Cartesian dualism, eucatastrophe, (that’s a real thing, look it up) and the quantum mechanics of free will– these are the supreme triumvirate of love and longing.” So states author Ann McMan. There is also the comparison of the constructs in Beowulf to The Lord of the Rings, (I could write that paper, I really could) and the jokes are organic to the characters, so believable with their weighty philosophical pondering about self determination, the existence or not of God, the concept of deaus ex machina, and the situations that Grace succumbs to, including rescuing and neglected and emotionally needy dog, her endless ability to keep running into the woman of her dreams, her inability to believe that things could work out well.
At its heart, Beowulf for Cretins poses questions, and responds to those queries with the possibility of joy. Like a catechism, like a call and response, the push toward love, the pull of fear, McMan, with dead-on writing, convinces us that the possibility of happy endings can become probability, nd she does it with such a deft hand that we want to meet CK and Grace and Dean, Grady and Lorrie and Abbie for drinks in one of those ubiquitous coffee bars that simply must exist next to those ivy colleges.
I’m sad. I watched his shows for years, and his irascibility, his lack of patience, and his joy, his love of food and ideas and people, all mixed together into a stew I could chew. It took me a long time to understand that he wasn’t a snob, though he was a jerk.
Bourdain was a writer, the real thing. He was a connoisseur not just of food, but of the people and cultures that produced the food. I watched “No Reservations” and thought, what a talented jerk. I watched Parts Unknown, and thought, wow. Just watch the episode about the Congo. Or Saudi Arabia. Some of the things I saw and heard through him were startling.
an expert judge in matters of taste.
“a connoisseur of music”
synonyms: expert, authority, specialist, pundit, savant;
Even when he smiled, his eyes looked sad. He also looked tough, rough, like he’d had enough of the bad stuff. His pure delight in the good things shone through every episode he produced, his real interest in the people and places he explored.
I was a free lunch kid. Although I never knew there was a free lunch program. My mother sent a note to my teacher, asking if there were chores I could do to earn my free lunch. I dusted erasers, swept, washed black boards. I don’t know how my lunch was paid for before, but by the time I was in fifth grade, the shame set in. I remember my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. McKee. She seemed as uncomfortable as me.
My way of saying thank you has been to never complain about paying taxes. I remember once, a random guy on work break saying he hated paying social security, that he personally would never get to claim that retirement, because the government took the money and used it for other things. I said to him, “You know, I don’t mind paying my share, even if I don’t get the benefits. Maybe the portion I pay in goes to help my grandparents, who live on their Social Security retirement. They have nothing else. If that is the only way I can contribute to my parents and grandparents, or to future recipients, I’m okay with that.”
High school was better. After my father died, my mother got a social security check from his benefits. I may not have had lunch money every single day, but we had enough. I was the first in my family to go to college. I had a scholarship, a student loan, and a Pell Grant. I worked. It took several years to pay back the loans. I simply don’t know how to pay back all the support and sacrifice my family gave to me. When I published my first book, I inscribed a copy to my mother, trying to thank her for all she had done, the example she set. I remember writing that she was my hero. I remember my older brother, a long distance trucker, stopping in my college town, meeting him at a truck stop, and he gave me fifty dollars. I remember my sister Jean, who worked at the local newspaper, helping me type a research paper during a break in the summer session. We edited and wrote, while shelling peas all day for our mother. It was typed on a manual typewriter. I will always remember.
I am grateful for a nation that makes a way for people, kids like I was, poor, not quite in the welfare system, not quite out of it. I will always remember that this is a great country, that we have always looked out for the least among us. Having been one of the least, I am proud to now give back in the only way I can, through taxes, through voting. I consider it the least I can do for a country that always remembers the least among us. Out of many, one. In a larger sense, this nation that I love was built from the least from other countries, the tired, poor, hungry, wretched refuse from other shores. We took those tired, hungry poor, and here they became railroad workers, teachers, firemen, policemen, settlers, farmers, explorers, engineers, scientists, entrepeneurs, and they built this country for us.
This country is not perfect. We allowed slavery. We decimated entire native populations, we once fought a civil war. No, this country is far from perfect. But from its roots, from its birth, it has always stood for the individual freedoms. “To form a more perfect union” is the foundational statement of this nation. To strive for perfection, to see what a person can make of themselves with their own two hands.
Yes, I was born here, white, poor, female. I don’t think that makes me any more worthy of what this country offers than immigrants from other countries, nor does it make me less worthy than white, privileged males. It makes me equal, and being here, a part of this country, should make us all equal. I get so tired of fighting against those who try to make this country less than it is. Smaller, meaner, enclosed. That is not how this country came into being, it is not how it grew, and it is not what we are. Register to vote. Educate yourself. And vote. It should be a requirement. It’s one of the greatest things you can do to repay the country. Participate in its democracy. Be its democracy.
So, I’m doing something that is so stereotypical, so much a part of the lesbian brand that I am ashamed. I am reduced, is you will, to writing about my pets. Still, writing is writing.
We have a cat, Boo Boo, ten years old, smarter than we are, a Norwegian Forest tuxedo cat with Ninja skills of such magnitude that she appears and disappears at will, much like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Boo is superior in every way, and frequently saves our lives, simply by alerting us when anyone comes near. Her personality is silent, stand-offish, reclusive. She would prefer not to need us to tend to her most basic needs, (food, water, clean litter) and begrudgingly allows some petting, some brushing, and insists on bedtime treats.
We also have a rabbit, named Buddy Rabbit, who is about two years old, soft, brown, long ears, very polite, very quiet, very appreciative of all we do for him. He is extremely solicitous of our happiness and well-being, and wants to love us as much as we love him. He feels the same way about Boo Boo.
Boo is not interested in expanding our family. She officially ignores Buddy’s existence, but she does play with him, when she thinks we are not paying attention. Any little sign of acknowledgment sends Buddy into joy and delight.
Sandy and I had this exact conversation this morning, remarking on how different Boo and Buddy are, yet how well they get along. I went even further, stating that Boo Boo has my personality, stand-offish, introverted, in her own mind quite ahead of everyone else, and preferring to be left alone. Buddy, on the other hand, is happy. All the time, he’s happy. He’s happy to see you, happy to meet new friends. Buddy is more like Sandy, in that he simply exudes love. He loves you even before you know him. He loves you into loving him. He’s a lover. Everything is good in Buddy’s world view.
Things could be better, is Boo’s somewhat jaded outlook. (And really after this year in U.S. politics, who can disagree?)
Why can’t we all just get along? That is all I have.
I am an old woman now, retired from work and life, resting, looking back. I learned many things living in Alabama, and the most important thing I guess is that the only way to help change things really is to live honestly, something I have not always achieved. What I like to remember most is how much fun it all was, the dark times and the good times. As I write this story of my life, I can pick and choose what I recount. That doesn’t mean glossing over the bad parts, but I hope that I lean toward the happiness I found rather than dwelling on the sad and bitter. That sounds too serious. What I really mean is that I hope to focus on the ridiculous, the farcical, and the inevitable.
The camelias go first, in February. Next, the azaleas and dogwoods pop out. The magnolias bloom in May. The garden should be planted by Good Friday. A few hills of watermelons would be nice. Start picking peas in late June. Put up beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, onions, squash, okra, corn, eggplant. When the peas and beans stop making, plant mustard greens, collards and cabbage. The camelias go first, in February. Next, the azaleas and dogwoods pop out. The magnolias bloom in May. The garden should be planted by Good Friday. A few hills of watermelons would be nice. Start picking peas in late June. Put up beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, turnips, onions, squash, okra, corn, eggplant. When the peas and beans stop making, plant mustard greens, collards and cabbage. This is the rhythm I grew up with. I remember waiting, searching for the first dogwood blooms, eating the first green peas off the vine, having tomato fights when we pulled the ones that were no good. Heck, when I was very little, I can remember lying in between the rows looking up at the sky, cooling off like the dogs. Lord knows I still remember the planting hoeing, weeding, fertilizing, harvesting, shelling peas and butter beans till my fingers were sore and stained purple. Picking peas and okra and tomatoes in the early morning to avoid the heat, wearing long sleeves to avoid the stickies on the okra, carrying baskets full of corn, tomatoes, peas, everything, to the end of the rows, and then onto the porch. Shelling and shucking until there was a mess to put on the stove for dinner, Mama stopping to go do that, and making cornbread. While the dinner peas simmered, we kept on shelling, using empty hulls to swat at flies and mosquitoes. At noon, Mama would go make tea and fried okra, slice some tomatoes, cucumbers, and onion, and we all sat down to eat. To this day, nothing satisfies my thirst like a glass of ice tea. I came home from college between summer sessions to sit and shell all day, waiting for the call to sit down and eat. One year I came home even when I had a paper due. I sat at one end of the table, and my sister who worked at the newspaper sat at the other end, typing and retyping my paper while I rewrote, edited, and kept on shelling. I got an A. One year, when Mama was pregnant and she couldn’t hoe or pick, I did almost everything. I prayed she wouldn’t plant running butter beans, but she did. We had storms, and I had to re-stick each plant more that once. I picked and picked that summer. My youngest sister was born in early July, so Mama was confined to the house with the baby. That was a very long summer. My mother and even my Grandma could leave me far behind when it came, to hoeing a row, or picking, or shelling. Not my granddaddy though. I would catch him sitting on his bucket half way down a row.
This book has several drivers, or themes. First, I don’t feel that I said everything I wanted to say about women as the impetus and sustaining force of the civil rights movement. Second, I don’t think I said all I want to say about family, how we live within the ones we are born into and how we construct one perhaps more suited to us.
Next, given my unremarkable life, of course I want to tell some of my particular story. A sort of thinly disguised memoir, set during a time not of my own generation.
My research centered around several women, so I will just list them here:
Juliette Hampton Morgan, southern aristocracy, a single white lady who never married, got herself involved in the bus boycott, committed suicide over the stress, now has a library named after her in Montgomery. The same library that fired her over her outspoken support of the boycott, dedicated to her in a wonderful ceremony with surviving family present.
Virginia Durr, white southern aristocracy, married to New Deal attorney Clifford Durr, purged from their Washington job as part of the Communist witch hunts, blackballed when they returned home to Montgomery, got involved in the civil rights movement.
Lillian Smith, Georgia white aristocrat, firebrand writer, lesbian, house was burned.
Barbara Johns, teenager who led a strike at her school protesting separate but equal, filed a lawsuit that was rolled into the Brown v Board of Education suit.
Joann Robinson, English professor at black Alabama State, actually started the Montgomery bus boycott. Never married.
Rosa Parks, not meek and mild.
What you don’t see listed here are any white women of the same economic class as poor blacks. No white trash redneck. That’s where my personal history comes into play.
We were tenant farmers for Fortner Agee. Daddy built us a house from scavenged lumber on Mr. Agee’s land. We did not have glass windows, only wooden shutters. We did not have running water or electricity. We dug a well for water. I helped. The house is gone, but the corn crib, made from logs, is still there, deep in woods now, where once was cleared pasture. I found the depression where the well was, at the end of the porch.
Daddy worked in saw mills, when he had a paying job, in Sweetwater and Myrtlewood and Linden and Jackson. In Linden, we lived in the projects. In Jackson, we lived in a company house, bought groceries at the company store by signing a ticket, which was taken from Daddy’s pay each Friday.
There were eight of us children. Daddy liked to drink, and when he drank, he got mean. He was often out of work, so Mama worked as a nurse’s aide and then as an LPN. We didn’t have a car, and Mama couldn’t drive in any case, so she walked to work when she couldn’t get a ride, up the hill, through the black quarters, to the hospital, and then home again. She walked through the race disturbances, admittedly not on the scale of Watts or Newark, but just as dangerous to a white woman on foot and alone. She worked side by side with black women who she came to respect, because they faced the same struggles, that of feeding and raising their children while their men were often absent. Mama never understood or agreed with the economic desperation and need that fueled the civil rights movement. She completely disagreed with any political justifications for it. But she understood very well and respected the women she worked with.
Eight children. Eight pairs of shoes, eight hungry mouths. All eight children wanting something from her that she couldn’t give. The youngest four don’t remember much about the poverty and the struggling, the baskets of food and clothes from the church ladies, the things Mama sometimes had to do to feed us. The oldest four should never forget it, but some of them have, or pretend they have forgotten.
We had so much fun growing up. It was fun, and sometimes funny.
My own family history will make a great story. Disguising characters should be fairly easy, because no one ever sees herself as others do. What I see as outrageous and self righteous, a sister will see as pious and sincerely Christian and just. I have no fear of any repercussions at all, since most of them aren’t speaking to me anyway. And they do not read my books. They do like to tell people that their sister writes books, but none of them, the pious ones that is, would keep one of my books in their homes. The others, the ones who do read them, are as proud of me as Mama was, and will of course see what they want to see in this story.
So this will be a story of a poor white family, and the main character one particular daughter, who grows up very different from her siblings, is a lesbian, gets involved in the fringes of the movement when she moves to Montgomery, but can never escape her roots, her ties to that family.
The father dies, a tragic hero to some of them, a deluded old man to others, and there ensues a heated argument over what to do with the will and their meager inheritance. The mother becomes dependent on the children for support, and no one wants that responsibility, except those who remember the struggle and sacrifices this now mean old woman made for them.
There is this country music program, syndicated to country FM stations every Sunday morning, called Rise Up. The host plays the song list, and in between takes calls from viewers who tell their stories of how they were changed by the Love of the Lord. Traveling long distances, stuck between FM stations, you hit this show, and it will make you cry like a children’s hospital telethon. (No I don’t have Sirius, are you serious?)
MSNBC used that phrase, rise up, for their ads. Rise up is the cry of the revolution, the call of the oppressed. There hasn’t been much rise in me since the campaign and the election. I’ve been going through the five stages of grief. I have been mentally and spiritually ill. I have been angry and heartbroken. I have been defiant, and I have been tired in my soul. Trump fatigue.
It’s been six months now, and we passed the Fourth of July, celebrating our independence. As a country, we are two hundred and forty one years old. And on Independence Day, many people took their oaths as newly minted American citizens. People like the doctor and the pharmacist who emigrated from Afghanistan thirteen years ago, and proudly claimed their citizenship, even as they remarked that now, they wouldn’t have been able to get visas, under this administration. Even so, despite the oppression, they are still happy to be here. I want to thank them.
Rise up, America. That’s the word we passed, from one to another, in 1775, in 1776, rise up and throw out the tyrant. Let us all hang together, or we shall certainly hang separately. Put your John Hancock on the line, and pledge your lives and your sacred honor. Give me liberty, or give me death.
Still. Even so. Despite everything. This country has always been one of contrasts, of vast differences, but bound indivisible by blood. What about the “liberty and justice for all”? That hasn’t always been the case, and yet it is right there, in our pledge of allegiance: “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence: “. . .that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Rise up, Americans. That’s something we take for granted, that when rising up is needed, someone will answer the call. Contrasts, differences, bound by blood. Yes, we have an ugly history, but also a quite beautiful one. There were indeed the Salem with trials, but we also produced Nathaniel Hawthorne. His great-great grandfather was one of the judges in those Salem witch trials.
Yes, we engaged in the systematic genocide of Native Americans. In WWII, some of those Native Americans became code talkers, calling in artillery and air strikes in their native languages so the Japanese couldn’t intercept and decode.
There was Stonewall, and the Pulse nightclub tragedy. Matthew Shepard and Micheal Sam.
There were Jim Crow laws to keep black Americans from voting, and the opposition to the Civil Rights movement exposed Bull Connor, and Jim Clark, and George Wallace, but that movement also gave us Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, one of the most moving speakers in all our history, and a great writer as well. The movement gave us Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks, and John Lewis.
In WWI, when black men were not allowed to vote, they served with distinction in the 369th Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” who served six months on the front lines under French command. One hundred and seventy one members earned Legions of Merit from the French government.
Women were oppressed, of course. They were thrown in jail, beaten, held without bond, for demanding the right to vote. They persisted, and they won.
Then there was Joe McCarthy, an alcoholic, a mean man with a tiny soul, that led the witch hunt of the 1950’s. But that era also produced Lillian Hellman “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashion.” That era produced Joseph Welch “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
We get all embarrassed by passion. But really, what is love of country? Did the Navajo code-talkers serve the country that slaughtered and suppressed their elders? No, they served the country they loved, were born to, and what they wanted to believe it stood for, freedom, simple human decency, and a stubborn grasp on the promise of what it could and should be.
When NPR tweeted the full text of the Declaration of Independence, some Trump supporters did not recognize it, and took it as an attack on Trump. “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Trump supporters disavow Declaration of Independence
Why did the Harlem Hellfighters sign up to fight for a country that lynched their fathers and refused them the dignity of full citizenship? Why did the Red Tails do what they did? The same country that produced the massacre at Wounded Knee also gave us also produced Freddie Stowers, the only black soldier awarded the Medal of Honor for his service in action in WWI. The country that beat down Emmitt Till, a fourteen-year-old boy, also gave us Abraham Lincoln and Juneteenth. The country that almost destroyed itself in the Civil War came together to defeat Japan and Germany in WWII. The country that created the nuclear bomb also instigated every treaty to limit the spread of nuclear arms, to reduce our stockpiles.
We blew up a church in Birmingham and killed four little girls, and we landed on the moon. With the help of black, female mathematicians. The country that refused a ship of Jewish refugees liberated Nazi death camps. The country that destroyed much of Europe also, through the Marshall Plan, fed and rebuilt Germany after its defeat.
The men that stormed the Normandy beaches went home and took jobs that women had worked admirably during the war.
This country, our country, gave women the right to vote, and decimated the first woman candidate for president. The country that passed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, and on July 30, 1965, passed into law Medicare and Medicaid, steps to insure old, disabled and poor Americans, also tries now to repeal the first attempt since 1965 to insure more Americans, and to deny 32 million people who now have health insurance.
To quote a Joni Mitchell song, “Every pictures has its shadows, and it has some source of light.” That source of light that throughout our history has served as a homing device, a beacon toward doing the right thing, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” That source, that light, bends toward justice, for all.
Take this not as a call to arms, but a call to our better selves. We have done it before, many times. Roosevelt interred Japanese in camps, and he appointed the first female Cabinet member. Time after time, we have risen up and met the challenges that faced this country. We in America know that our vote is sacred, that it is every citizens right and duty. That right has been attacked by an outside force. We can rise up, and join our local town councils, become poll workers, march door to door toplead with people to vote. That is our weapon. Over seventy million registered voters did not participate in the election of 2016. If everyone, every single registered voter, pledged to go to the polls in 2018, do you think Russia, or and other group colluding with Russia’s goals, could stop us? Hell to the no. Stop insulting voters who voted for Trump. They showed up, didn’t they? Grab anyone you know who didn’t vote and look them in the eye like a wild-eyed revolutionary, and demand that they participate in the process before voting becomes an historical artifact, instead of an organic element that keeps democracy alive.
We observed the inauguration, and the next day, watched the Women’s March.
What kind of country do you want to live in? Do you want one where political party affiliation is not so important any more, where serving the country in Washington for a limited time is seen as service, not entitlement. Do you want a country where getting re-elected in not so important as getting something done? Do you want a country that treat refugees with compassion? How about a country that once raced to the moon once again leading the world with renewable, safe energy advancement? How about a country that agrees to do its part in cleaning up the mess we make, like our mothers taught us? Would like to see a country that limits campaign donations, limits the length of time elections take, gives people a paid holiday to vote, retrains its local police forces often, sends elected officials to Congress to get something accomplished, and sends them home when they don’t? Do you wish to spend less money on a faster, meaner, more powerful military, and more on State Department initiatives that save lives and make allies instead of enemies? Do you believe that it is time women step to front to lead? Men have held the majority in power since the beginning of time. Do you really think women would do worse?
What do you really want, America? If you want your vote to mean something, first you have to cast it out there. If you want our elections to be free of outside interference, then vote. They can’t stop us all. Not we, the people. We hold the power. Let’s start using it. You want to clean up Washington? You really think that we can’t do it? Go look at those cliffs on Omaha Beach.
Okay, since the inauguration, I have tried to keep my ranting to myself. Every once in a while, a serious danger-to-himself wingnut says again, “stop being sore losers.” Posted after an article about Rachel Maddow’s news about the 2005 tax return. I totally understand if you are not up for another takedown of the misinformed malingerers who support Trump. If so stop reading now, take some deep breaths. Maybe that will help.
What she did was not illegal. Do some First amendment 101, some freedom of the press study. Publishing documents that were unsolicited is not criminal. Possibly whoever stole them originally should be prosecuted, and as the docs are stamped “client’s copy” I’d start looking close to home, like his tax people, close family, etc. The facts from the return make him look pretty good, so I believe he may have leaked it himself. He has accepted his first 2 paychecks. Says he will donate at the end of the year. Want to bet me that he donates it to the Family “charitable” foundation, from which account he wrote checks to fund campaigns of several state attorneys general, bought expensive sports memorabilia, paid for a life size portrait of himself (who else?) He uses it as his personal slush fund, and hasn’t donated any of his own money to it since 2008, so essentially, he is stealing from honest donors. So you keep thinking he will donate his salary. We are not sore losers. I’ll concede graciously as soon as we find out who won this election, Trump or the Russian government. Trump, or all the Wall Street hacks he appointed to ruin the Cabinet? Who really won, Trump or those among his staff that pull his strings like Steve Bannon, who believes in taking down that entire structure of the government? Who won so far, Trump or the millions who will no longer have health care? Where’s his “massive” infrastructure bill? Rex Tillerson, who negotiated millions of acres in oil leases with Putin, and now has simply gutted the State Department, Betsey at the Department of education, who doesn’t believe in public education, but who donated millions to that “self-funded campaign? Steve Miller, who is little more than a lap dog neo Nazi? Who really won the election? That man who said he likes to grab women by the pussy, because he can get away with it since he’s a celebrity? You mean that guy who cried so hard about Clinton’s private email server (which was never hacked) whose White House staff all use private servers? The man who publicly encouraged Russian interference in our democratic process? You tell me. To whom should I concede, a bunch white Nationalist, money grubbing Wall Street rollovers, a man named Attorney General who does not believe in enforcing voting rights, a wealthy socialite who knows nothing, a former Congressman who made illegal stock trades on inside information? To all the White House staff who are terrified that we elected a mad man, and who have been leaking like a sieve? You seriously want to call me, a gay woman, a sore loser? You want me to accept him as President? Tell you what. I’ll accept him as president just as graciously as everyone accepted President Obama. You go whine about sore losers some more. Maybe you will soon discover that he is out to defraud you too.
On This Day
On November 22, 1963, the president of the United States was assassinated. It was three days after my eighth birthday. The day before, my mother gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The boy only lived a few minutes. I think there was a drizzly rain as we stood by the tiny grave and watched the burial.
The story of The Liberators of Willow Run begins twenty years earlier, during a time of war and societal upheaval and uncertainty. Able-bodied men were away, women filled factory jobs to support the war effort, and some used the commotion of the times to hide and to begin lives that could never be lived fully, honestly, in settled times. Nona, a black girl from Kentucky, determined to earn and save as much as she can from the high-paying job at the Willow Run bomber plant, has stepped outside the expected life to forge one of her own making. She plans to save every dime and go to college. Audrey has left her home and family wishing only to be free of their expectations and condemnation, to lose herself in the war effort. To forget the tragedy she feels responsible for. And Ruth, who winds up in Ypsilanti almost by accident, after giving a baby up for adoption, determined that she will not go back to a life of marriage and children.
Each of these women, and others, try to figure out how to live more honestly, more freely, than prewar norms. From the moment Audrey and Nona meet, while Ruth serves her time at the Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers, this is a story of courage and self examination, of second chances and self taught skills used to navigate what seems to be a new world. Or it is the old world, turned upside down, where women go off to the factory jobs with lunch pails, and the absence of men makes friendships between these working women something special, more valued than friendships in peacetime, when of course husbands and boyfriends came first?
Reading this book, at this particular time in this country’s history, brought emotions to the surface that I didn’t realize I felt. Two weeks ago, we elected as president a man whose every policy and pronouncement seems aimed at turning back the clock on hard won achievements for women, for LGBT, for people of color, for immigrants, even for veterans. Many of us have been stunned by this transition to come in January. Many justifiably fear what may come in this new administration. Many are wondering whether we may have to fight the same battles again that we assumed were won and done, the Voting Rights Act, Roe v Wade, marriage equality, don’t ask don’t tell, health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions. Weariness and disillusion sets in, and we begin to feel hopeless.
Just as those thousands of women must have felt when they were forced from their manufacturing jobs to make way for returning servicemen, as Nona and Audrey surely felt. How can they just shove these confident women back into kitchens and parlors? It seems like a terrible waste. Was it all wasted effort? What do Nona and Audrey and the other women like them do with newly acquired skills and confidence in their own capabilities? What a bitter pill that must have been for thousands of women, to be told they are no longer needed, to go back home and raise a family, to make way for the young men returning from war who deserve those jobs.
Forgive me for drawing this parallel, but reading this book is the first time I have felt hopeful since the election. Those thousands of women did go home. The next decade was one of silent, benign conformity for women. The fifties and sixties were the time of the peaceful protests and angry confrontations that achieved the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The sixties was also marked by breaking bonds of convention, of questioning society’s roles, of defying the government. And the next decade? The women’s movement.
Like Audrey and Ruth, like Amelia and Lillian and Mrs. Bailey, we must find the fortitude to tackle questions we believed were settled, to fight again the battles those before us also fought> What does it feel like to be made lesser than we are? A lot like Ruth felt when she left that unwed mothers’ home and struck out on her own. It feels an awful lot like all those women who helped win the war with manufacturing production unseen till then in the world. Stephen Ambrose states that the man who invented the Higgins boats won the war for the Allies. That man may have designed the Higgins boats that delivered six divisions to the beaches of Normandy, but it was women workers who built them, in the quantity and in the time needed. They delivered.
Ruth and Audrey and Nona struggled to be honest with themselves about who they were and about what they wanted. They decided to keep fighting even after the war for things they believed in. This wonderful book, so beautifully written, gives me hope that we too who are disappointed at the end of this election campaign can begin again, fight the fight, reject being thought of as lesser than. If you are as old as I am, and you remember all those marches, boycotts and peaceful protests that changed this country, then you know we can do it all again if we have to. Those of you in a younger generation may not yet realize that some things you take for granted can be, might be, taken from you. But I do believe in your enthusiasm for change. That makes an unbeatable alliance.
Flawed: Or, My Inside Feelings Are Hurt
“The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
Dear friends, (and I know you’re out there) be disappointed but do not despair. Be heartsick but not heartbroken. Fifty nine million Americans voted for us, for each one of us. Okay, that’s as comforting as I can be. You don’t have to read this, but if you continue, just imagine what the Republicans would sound like this morning if they had lost. Try, for a moment, to think of people like Giuliani and Gowdy and Chaffetz and Cruz and Christie and Gingrich glowering, promising endless, pointless investigations, eternal gridlock, you get the picture. Just recall the last eight years of the current administration, and you will agree that however hyperbolic or enraged I may sound, it’s baby squeaks compared.
Imagine the Trumps redecorating the White House. That’s funny, right? Have you seen pictures of their apartment in Trump Towers? More gilt, anyone?
Imagine a State dinner hosting the prime minister of Japan, and Trump explaining he has to cut costs somewhere, so maybe they should just build some nuclear weapons of their own.
Imagine the next NATO meeting, where we explain that while we want to remain in charge of the whole thing, we should start paring away members who don’t pay enough to make this a printable venture for the US.
Imagine how the fight against ISIS will work so much better after Turkey kicks us off their air bases. From that platform, we now intend to launch strikes to deliberately kill women and children. Because that strategy always makes the other side more willing to negotiate and surrender. Imagine our renewed commitment to use torture, just because.
Imagine the US pulling out of the United Nations, because they are weak. While you’re in the world of the next administration, imagine thousands of military service men and women resigning. Imagine top generals and admirals retiring.
Think about how Muslim Americans will feel. How women will feel. Think how Latinos and immigrants of every origin will feel. Think of little kids crying because they are afraid their parents will be deported. Think of a deportation force that roams the country, seizing people and holding thousands in detainment camps. Think of the financial cost to the country.
While you are working on the economic future, do you want a raise? The minimum wage raise is off the table, and increases in Social Security, forget it. Hey, if Daryl on The Walking Dead can eat dog food, so can we.
Speaking of The Walking Dead how does that feel? Not so much a fantasy show based on a comic book, and more like foreshadowing a new reality? Me too. Just like everybody else, we can come to accept that Negan is The Benevolent Leader we so desperately need. And, does that pork taste funny to you?
Worried about your safety? You should be, if you are a black man, a Latino, or anyone who just looks “foreign.” Indians, Basques, Sikhs, Jewish, Catholic, gays, lesbians, trans, queer? Do you feel safe and loved and included? Women out there, do you feel like standing each time Trump enters a room, sitting only after he allows you to? Me neither.
Worried about your job? Yeah.
How about that whole climate change, global warming, ice caps melting, sea levels rising, oxygen disappearing, drought, floods, super storms, Florida underwater, most of Hawaii gone. That land bridge to Asia? Not a good escape route. Moving up to a soggy Alaska won’t save us. Sarah Palin lives up there, and she won’t help at all.
Here’s another trip. Think of Newt Gingrich as Secretary of State. Rudy as Attorney General, that’s if Chris Christie doesn’t get that job. Pray that Ruth Ginsberg can hold out for four more years.
Don’t think about how Hillary Clinton must feel right now. She’s tough, and she’s got other things to do. Think about President Obama this morning. And forgive yourself for ever doubting him, tiring of his endless soaring rhetoric, and his constant chant of hope. Forgive yourself for feeling guilty when he said, in his last pitch for Hillary, that he believed in us, he trusted us, he bet on us, one more time. Think instead of the dignity, strength, and grace with which he handled the constant opposition of the last eight years, all the insults, threats, and obstruction. Think of all that he accomplished despite all that. And think of it all being dismantled gleefully by those who refused to admit his legitimacy, refused to respect him, refused to allow him the stature of his office. That “you salute the rank, not the man” thing. Think not of your own loss, but of his. “He saved General Motors and killed bin Laden.” That’s what Joe Biden said.
Oh, that’s right, Joe. The man who served in the Senate for three decades, on the Foreign Relations committee, the man who spoke bluntly, who laughed, who would have run for the presidency if not for, well, you know the story.
Think of Bill Weld, who did a courageous thing, and on TV said that his ticket had no chance to win, and therefore he wanted to vouch for Hillary Clinton, for her honesty and integrity, for her work ethic and her experience. He said he wanted to stand up for her.
More advice: don’t think of the Khans, or of John McCain, or of all those vets with PTSD. Don’t think about it. Or about how Meghan Kelly and Katie Tur and lots of other reporters had to endure taunts and threats and insults. Don’t think about all the videos and recordings of Trump insulting, demeaning, and assaulting women. Do not consider that this man once gave permission for his own daughter to be called “a piece of ass,” that he said she had nice breasts, and if she wasn’t his daughter he’d like to date her. Don’t waste time thinking about all the women who came forward and called him a liar, because he had assaulted them. Don’t think about the civil suit accusing him of raping a thirteen-year-old girl, due for court on December 16th, because that suit was dropped.
While you’re at it, don’t think about the hundreds of time this man has been sued for breach of contract, or for divorce, or subjected to penalties and fine by the IRS. Because his so-called charitable foundation to which he has given no money since 2008, wrote checks for campaign contributions to several state attorneys general who were planning to investigate him. Or how about the checks written on the foundation’s account that paid for a life size portrait of himself and for signed sports memorabilia.
In fact, it’s better not to think at all about that ugly stuff. It worked for us during the campaign, right? So much easier for us to worry about emails. So much more important and distracting, and it worked. It kept us from thinking. And we made it through the election, and now it’s over. What a relief, right?
We’ll see each other again in four years, and until then, let’s not think, or talk, about “politics” because that has nothing to do with our real lives. And the mess is not our fault anyway. It’s those damn people in Washington. You know, the do-nothing, gridlock, vote-no-on-everything, bastards who keep getting re-elected? We are so mad at them. Who on earth voted for those clowns, anyway? Let’s just hope and pray, shall we, that Trump charges in there and gets rid of all of them, like he said he would fire all the generals and get rid of the lobbyists, and make America great again.
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me
In William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan despairs of ever reaching the blind and deaf little girl, Helen Keller. Annie makes a speech in Act Three about the importance of words and language. made all the more poignant because Helen is sitting there, playing, unaware of the anguish Annie reveals. “. . .words, why, you can see five thousand years in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know– and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”
Harper Lee died Feb 19, 2016. She was eighty nine years old. My mother was also born in 1926, just about forty miles down the road from Monroeville, Alabama, where Nelle Harper Lee grew up. I always liked that synchronicity. Of course, I was also born just down the road from Harper Lee’s home town. I can’t remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that my first, oldest copy is a 1962 paperback that is falling apart. As an adult, I bought a hardback copy, the fortieth anniversary edition. I also have a first edition, twentieth printing.
I can quote lines and even paragraphs from this book, as many who count this among their favorite books can. “The Truth is not in the Delafields.” “Don’t you say ‘hey’ to me, you ugly girl. You say ‘good afternoon, Miss Dubose’.” “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
And there is this paragraph, the one that makes us see and smell the setting of the story. “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
And the introduction to one of the most unique and beloved characters in literature, Dill.
“Sitting down, he wasn’t much taller than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke.
‘Hey yourself,’ said Jem pleasantly.
‘I’m Charles Baker Harris,’ he said. ‘I can read.'”
And the voice, the point of view, one that came from an adult distance but sounded pitch perfect true to every note of childhood, that voice shaped the entire novel, telescoping from a little girl named Scout back to the grown up who retells with great fondness a story we all relate to, because there is so much in the telling that is similar, even universal, about the play and the ideas and the outlooks of small children.
Well, that voice, that telescope, is gone now. Nelle was buried quickly on February 20, quietly, privately, surrounded by only a few relatives and friends, just as she lived.
To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic, on the bestseller list for eighty eight weeks, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and became a classic movie as well, with a luminous screenplay written by Horton Foote, who managed to get the tone exactly right. The book has sold well over thirty million copies worldwide, is the novel that is taught in school more than any other, and served as inspiration for a generation of lawyers who wanted to be like Atticus, and a generation of feminists who emulated the spunk feistiness of Scout. The American Library Association lists it as one of the one hundred best books of the twentieth century. I find those parameters to be narrow.
Surely, this novel has influenced and shaped me as much as any religion. In a way, To Kill a Mockingbird served as a Bible for me. I can quote passages from the Bible, of course. But Scout and Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, Uncle Jack and Aunt Alexandra, Miss Maudie and Miss Rachel Haverford. And of course, the Radley family. The spooky, sinister stories told by the children of the town turned Boo Radley into a ghost, a legend, and a source of endless speculation and entertainment.
Miss Lee has herself become a legend, a literary icon, one with a spooky history of reclusiveness, friend and help mate of Truman Capote, her childhood friend, the writer who wrote one book and never another.
As I framed similarities between my mother’s childhood and Harper Lee’s, I also shaped parallels between their later lives. My mother gradually lost her sight to macular degeneration. So did Miss Lee, who lost her hearing as well. I became a writer as much to please my mother, to make her proud of me, as I did to emulate Harper Lee, who was my literary hero. When my first novel was published, I sent a copy to Miss Lee, through her agent. I received a handwritten note in reply, encouraging me to continue with my writing endeavors, and informing me that sadly, she could no longer read books with normal font, because of her worsening eyesight. I treasure that letter.
I once snuck into the famous courthouse, long before it became a museum. I climbed to the top of the clock tower and looked out over Miss Lee’s town. It looked pretty much like my own hometown, and besides paved streets, not so different from that time when Nelle ran and played, read, and made up stories.
I don’t know why I feel as sad and lost today as I did when my mother died. I never met Harper Lee, never even saw her despite many trips to Monroeville. Her book, the one that I reread and memorized, the one I count as a better friend to me than most people, the book that compelled so many children to become lawyers and encouraged little girls to retain their spunkiness, the one that remarkably, said everything there was to say about small towns, race, courage, and being kind, just on the cusp of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties, that book, those words, still light my way, as from the first time I read them, lying on my bed beside an open window. Words can enlighten us. sure. They can live with us, in us, and they can shape and inspire and entertain. Miss Lee’s words did all of that for me.
Addendum: Here is the eulogy read at Miss Lee’s funeral service on Saturday, Feb 20, 2016, delivered by Dr. Wayne Flynt, historian, Alabama native, and lifelong friend of Miss Lee.