Words I Love

Our leadership now is egregious. The xenophobic spirit that infiltrates our society is like a noxious gas. Where are the beloved philanthropists with their altruism? Gone, shouted down, locked away. Instead we are left with this atavistic mindset that ravages our society with specious arguments and irrational fears.

I prefer the luscious influx of new cultures, new languages, new ideas. I’d like to see global transformation — like the mariposa that emerges from a cocoon and flutters by the dandelion and the juniper. This is one I feel most passionate about life — when I know we are in the hands of a maestro.

A Taste of Normal

We’re in our sixth month of the pandemic and I’ve gotten really used to my own company. I’m in my house most of the time, packing and sorting through stuff because I’m moving — since my job is now fully remote. I’m throwing away old tax returns and trying to figure out what to do with a set of china that I’ll never use. It’s not exactly a fun-filled life right now. But I’m not complaining. At least I still have a job and a place to live. 

Last night I got a taste of my old life. For the past three years, I’ve danced with a group of gals who have come to be my friend group. For me, a friend group is something to cherish. They don’t come along that often but when they do, life just seems fuller and richer. So last night we danced outside on the lawn of the church where we used to hold our inside classes. It was hot and muggy but we were dancing under the enormous boughs of old trees and that makes me feel like a Druid. Afterwards four of us went to one of the women’s house, sat on her patio in a big eight foot square, drank wine and talked about our grown children, the men who were or weren’t in our lives, growing up in alcoholic families, home improvements, and Korean flower shops — utterly mundane stuff. And it was wonderful. 

On the way home, I had a craving for something delicious. I wondered if the French bakery Amelie’s was still open. So I detoured off my route. And there it was — lights on, people on the patio. There used to be a twenty-minute line inside, but now there were only two sets of customers ahead of me. We waited in six-foot increments. I got the last blueberry tart. Driving home, devouring the tasty tart, I realized how much I will miss this city and the people in it. But at least for a while, I savored a little bit of normality. 

Woodrow Wilson Unmasked

Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, took office in 1913, which is the same year that my historical novel THE BLUE HOUR takes place. He doesn’t figure at all in my book, but I may have to put him in a future one because…what a scoundrel.

Woodrow Wilson

All I remember about him from history classes was that he was instrumental in establishing the League of Nations, but Congress wouldn’t let the U.S. join. I got the sense from these classes that he was a decent president who helped save the world from German domination and also proposed some fairly progressive policies.

It wasn’t until watching the film Iron-Jawed Angels that I learned how he obstructed suffrage for women. He pretended to listen to the suffragists, but kept patronizing them, telling them it wasn’t the right time. It was never the right time for women to get the vote in his view.

Publicity photo from Iron Jawed Angels

I also learned as a film teacher that Wilson actually showed Birth of a Friggin’ Nation — a film which sanctioned and popularized the KKK — in the White House. As a true southerner, he must have approved of the film’s depiction of Black men as unruly savages, lusting after defenseless white women!

Now an opinion piece in the New York Times damns him further as a segregationist and white supremacist who ensured that the names of Confederate traitors sit atop many of our military installations. A lot of people already knew this, but many of us did not realize he was the man responsible for that travesty.

Truly, it matters not how progressive some of his policies were. Nothing has been more damaging to this country or its people than the continuation of slavery in the form of Jim Crow oppression, institutional racism, mass incarceration, and police brutalism. What a different country we’d have today if he’d been a champion for ALL Americans.

Why I haven’t cut my hair since November, 2016*

A few days after the election of a smarmy conman to the presidency of the United States of America, I looked in the mirror and realized my hair was in need of a cut. No, I thought, resolutely. I will not cut my hair. Not until he’s gone. I wasn’t sure why I made this decision. Had my inner hippy emerged? Was I letting my freak flag fly? What possible difference would it make to anyone that I wasn’t cutting my hair?

Shoulder-length hair Jan. 2017

Then I thought of a poet named Sparrow who fasted on Fridays to protest the CIA. When I learned of his private protest, I was pretty sure that the CIA could not care less whether or not he ever ate, and yet this need to remind oneself and those close to us that there are people and institutions up to no good made perfect sense. That, I realized, was the point of letting my hair grow. I wanted a constant reminder that there was someone rotten in Washington, a reminder for me and anyone who knew me.

*Excerpted from a longer forthcoming essay.

Indoctrinating students on the power of the vote

Last week the president tweeted that college professors (all members of the radical left apparently) were indoctrinating students, not educating them. Well, if teaching students about the importance of voting is indoctrination, then count me in.

Donald Trump’s War on Higher Education (The Atlantic)

I teach writing classes, and I get to assign the topics that students research and write about. I often show my students the films “Selma” by Ava Duvernay and “Iron-Jawed Angels” and then we discuss what happens when a group of people aren’t allowed to vote.

We also discuss the dangers of not voting. For example, if you aren’t registered to vote you can’t serve on a jury of your peers, and if none of your peers are on a jury, you could very well be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit. I have them research local campaigns in their districts, voting rules and regulations, and also voter suppression techniques. One year I actually took them to an early voting site because they’d never been to one before. Some of them voted that day for the first time. I did not tell them whom they should vote for — only that voting is not just a right, it’s a responsibility.

In the past, many of my students had no intention of voting. In between teaching about comma splices and improper adverb use, I was able to change some minds. But that’s changed now. Today’s students are hungry for information about how to get involved. They are seeing the dire consequences of not paying attention to who gets to make policy. They don’t need “indoctrination.” This administration is successfully activating them without anyone’s help.

Ava Duvernay’s Selma shows people willing to die for this basic right.

Toppling the Past

A couple of days ago, someone said to me, “Isn’t it awful? Those people tearing down statues?” I responded, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the statues. I’m more concerned about the man who died with a cop’s knee on his neck.” 

You’d think as someone who loves history and bemoans the loss of so many elegant Manhattan homes and hotels of the early 20th Century, I would be more sympathetic to the cause of the monuments. Bret Stephens of the New York Times makes the case that while some statues, specifically Confederate generals, should be removed, others that deserve to stand are also being toppled. He points out that “there’s a vast difference between thinking critically about the past, for the sake of learning from it, and behaving destructively toward the past, with the aim of erasing it.”

While there’s obvious logic to his argument, it doesn’t take into account that we are in the midst of a powerful and important moment. A time of reckoning, so to speak.

If the dominant white society had been more respectful and mindful of Black culture, not to mention Black lives, perhaps these precious monuments wouldn’t be endangered. If we had not neglected, segregated, and distorted Black history, perhaps our own collective history would be more valued. But we’re the ones who divided history into “their” history and “our” history. We segregated Black history to one month a year. We appropriated what we wanted from Black culture without valuing the people who created it. And we turned a blind eye over and over to the injustices that have raged in this country since its inception. What is the loss of these statues next to those egregious failures?

Is it any surprise that the monuments, which the guardians of white culture deem valuable (whether or not they represent racists), are the targets of centuries of ire? What else could we possibly expect? We’ve been forgiven for so much for so long, this destruction may come as a shock to many white people. But the world changes.

Just as so many architectural treasures in lower Manhattan were destroyed to make way for the uninspired, Trumpesque monuments to mammon we have today, so will we lose some statues that represent values we still hold dear along with the misguided monuments to oppressors like Christopher Columbus, whose statue recently wound up in the drink — but for a much more worthwhile cause.

I, for one, will not weep for the statues. May their loss herald a new era when all voices are heard, all history is our history, and when all lives actually do matter.

If you hate abortions, don’t get rid of contraception!

If you hate abortion, don’t get rid of contraception!

The impetus for my historical novel, The Blue Hour, was the disappearance of a beautiful and popular heiress named Dorothy Arnold in 1910. There were several theories as to why she disappeared; one of them was that she may have been pregnant, undergone an illegal abortion, and died during the procedure. This is one of the theories outlined in an article by writer Heather Monroe in Medium. While not the only theory, its plausibility stems from the fact that there was little to no access to birth control at that time, and abortion became the preferred method of birth control for the wealthy. Poor women were often left to their own devices, and they died in horrific ways, i.e. falling down stairs, wombs punctured by crochet hooks, drinking henna. 

And here we are, 110 years later, and the Supreme Court under Justice Roberts is actually making it harder for women to access birth control. As difficult as it is to get a legal pregnancy termination these days, the result once again will be illegal abortions. And needless deaths. It’s called pregnancy prevention for a reason.

A Memoir in Essays

Stealing: Life in America (Review)
by Michelle Cacho-Negrete
Adelaide Books. 203 pages.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s personal narratives of a life sprung from a Brooklyn Ghetto explore how she has been challenged, changed, and honed by poverty and discrimination. These oftentimes bleak, but meaningful, experiences shaped Cacho-Negrete into an elegant writer and a magnanimous human being. While the experiences may have been stark, the writing is luminous.

Each essay is an excursion into a different landscape and a different social milieu, and together they add up to a moving and powerful memoir. The first essay, “Stealing,” shows Cacho-Negrete as a child staving off hunger and cold for herself and her brother by shoplifting food and clothing. Later, that skill enables her to feed her own children while she’s between jobs. One comes away with a sense of the resilience her childhood foisted upon her.

The most heartbreaking essay “Heat” shows Cacho-Negrete getting an early understanding of the horrors of sexual abuse when, as a 14-year-old girl, she discovers a disabled woman is being regularly raped by the boss of the factory where she gets her first job. Although she insists that her supervisor protect the disabled woman, Cacho-Negrete is ultimately unable to stop the abuse, and this experience helps form the grown woman who dedicates her life to helping victims reclaim their lives.

There’s not a clunker in the whole collection. The stories are crisply told with just the right attention to the telling detail. While each essay is a gem, the one I loved the most told the story of a dying friend. Cacho-Negrete describes her friend as a woman whose hair grows back after chemo “in the short silver curls of Roman boys in old frescoes.” The tribute overflows with love and introspection, reflecting on how we change over time and what remains the same.

Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s generosity of spirit, her keen eye, and her trenchant observations give us insight into what it means to be a witness to your own life. Some of the essays read like extended poems. When she writes about time passing in a second-person essay about her first husband, she tells us that “the years were a revolving door, the kids one year older, and stronger, and smarter, and more independent each time they came around and the two of you only visitors in each other’s lives…your last act to save all of you from being drowned in fury.”

I met Michelle at a Sun Magazine Writers Conference many years ago when we were both leading workshops. I was struck by her warmth, her intelligence, and her overwhelming generosity. But even knowing her, I was stunned by the quiet beauty in these essays and elated to get to know her on a deeper level through this tour of a life well-lived.

A good character description is worth a thousand pictures!

I’m always on the lookout for a great character description. Usually, it’s a fictional description, but, while reading a profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner of Val Kilmer in the New York Times Magazine, I came across this: “He’s 61 now. He’s still so handsome. His hair is still blond. His eyes are still the unimaginable green of Oregon grass right after the rain. His jaw is still the main event — the nasolabial area of his cheek bookending the inferior jowl so that his superior jowl appears sunken and his face takes on romantic geological proportions.” Um, what? I mean, wow! Just wow!

Another Time in Between

The English translation of The Time in Between by Maria Duenas came out in 2011. But I only came across it recently when I had the chance to quickly browse the local bookstore (by appointment), looking for some pandemic reading. The Spanish Civil War isn’t a pandemic but it certainly left the citizens of Spain feeling just as disoriented and confused by their new world as anything we’re feeling. 

The bulk of the book doesn’t take place in Spain. Early on, our heroine, Sira Quiroga, runs way to Morocco with a charming narcissist who takes all her money, destroys her trust, and leaves her in enormous debt. With the help of a few interesting friends, she’s able to rebuild her life as a high fashion designer and seamstress. Through the connections she makes, she eventually becomes involved in a spy ring, whose goal is to keep Spain out of World War II. 

Duenas does a marvelous job of making the reader care about her protagonist and the protagonist’s friends — a colorful, conniving but kindly woman who runs a boarding house; an Arabic housemaid; and a beleagured young man suffering under his abusive, alcoholic mother. 

It takes a good long while to get to the intrigue but when we do, the story lifts off the ground and soars. It’s a thrilling tale and also informative. This is an aspect of history about which most Americans know little. I didn’t know about the close ties between Hitler and Franco, or about the English woman who had a hand in stopping the alliance from becoming fatal to her country. I also didn’t know about that Spain had such a powerful presence in Morocco. 

My only quibble with the book is a few chapters that provide lengthy digressions into the political troubles of one of the characters. This divergence is entirely unnecessary for the integrity of the story, and it’s unclear whose point of view is providing the information. 

Otherwise, this is a fine and absorbing historical novel. Perfect reading for beach or pandemic.