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. 

Ghosts in the Music

A few weeks after my mother died in 2011, I went to my massage therapist for a much needed massage. While she would work, instrumental music would always play softly in the background. That day the music made me unutterably sad. I’m not sure if it was because my mother was a pianist or if it was some quality in the music itself. It was at least a year before I would let her play any music during my massage.

After Hank, my ex-husband, died, I didn’t think much about how music might affect me. I did know that Beethoven’s Fifth might be impossible to listen to. That was the music I played for him on my phone in the hospital right after he died. It was his favorite piece, and I thought it would be a fitting way for him to step through the curtain to the other side. But even on my classical radio station they rarely play the Fifth, so I haven’t  encountered it yet. 

What I have encountered is a song that is part of my yoga teacher’s line up. She always plays the same set of yoga music during our practice. Mostly it’s just in the background, and I don’t even pay attention to it, but at the very end while we do our final stretches and prepare for shivasana, a plaintive instrumental piece comes on, starting off with a simple piano melody accompanied by strings that then switches to a guitarist plucking the melody. 

Before Hank’s death, I must have heard that particular song a hundred times without giving it a single thought. But the first time I heard it after his death, I couldn’t even stay in the studio. I lay there for a few minutes and then got up and went outside, struggling for breath. Once I was away from the music, I was able to gather myself together and recover. I was shocked that the grief could be triggered so suddenly. 

After that I would try to withstand the music at the end of class, but I never could. I would always wind up getting up and leaving after a few minutes of torturing myself while my spirit dangled over the abyss of pain. My yoga teacher noticed and asked if I’d like her to take the song from the line up, and I said, no. I would eventually get used to it. 

I was so angry at Hank when he was alive, so stressed out by the chore of taking care of him after his stroke, so exhausted by the sheer drudgery of the work involved that I never dreamed how his death would waylay me. Sometimes I would find myself utterly baffled by his absence. How can that be, I wondered. Even now I have to remind myself, he’s dead, he’s not coming back

What I rarely talk about is the fact that I was not always alone through the ordeal of taking care of him. Soon after our divorce, I reconnected with an old friend from college, and we started a long distance relationship. Even after I moved back into Hank’s house after his stroke, my friend helped keep me sane through regular phone calls and the occasional visit to Charlotte. 

Since Hank’s death, we’ve resumed our relationship and can see each other more frequently. For Thanksgiving I went to his house in Florida. One night as I sat holding his hand, I noticed a tune in my head. It was the sad song! But this time it didn’t make me sad. It was just there, the way music sometimes is. 

The next day I got a text from Karen, my yoga teacher, telling me that she looked up the song. It’s by an artist named Prem Parijat and is called “Forgiving.” I like the present-tenseness of the word. Not “forgiven” but “forgiving” — a process that really never ends. 

Then it happened again, more than three months after his death. I was in fine spirits throughout the whole class. As the familiar melody began, I lay on my mat. This time I didn’t get up and leave. Instead I sat up, silently heaving, and let the tears roll off my cheeks. Karen came over and rubbed my back. When the music stopped, I wiped my tears, rolled up my mat, and went on with my day.

I was always surprised by the suddenness of the emotion. I’d be completely immersed in the asanas, in the lovely feel of stretched muscles and deep breathing, and then those notes would slip inside me and shatter something, something I didn’t even know was there. When it happened, I was reminded that my shell was more fragile than I realized and that deep wells of sadness lurked just below my surface. 

Finally, four months after Hank’s death, I made it through an entire yoga class without crying.

Yoga served me well through those months of caregiving hell, giving me time to de-stress and take care of myself. Afterwards, yoga music gave me the opportunity to grieve and to remember that mixed in with all the pain and frustration, there was also a deep and abiding love.

*Note: I have changed my ex’s name in the interest of privacy.

Me: A Horrible Person

“The more you know of any aspect, the better you can handle it. This goes for yourself too. When you know everything that is to know, it is called Realization.” — Sadhguru

What I know about myself is that I am a horrible person. I discover this on November 19, 2018, the day I go to the nursing home to take my ex-husband back to his house. In fact, I will get to experience this aspect of myself over and over throughout this whole caretaking adventure.

This day I walk down the hallway through the stink of shit and institution food, through the gauntlet of nurses and CNA’s calling out to each other and very old people crying out for attention, past the large man in the wheelchair with no leg, past the tiny hook-nosed old woman who called me “deah” when I picked up a pencil for her, past the portable stations with monitors and trays of pills and the metal racks each bearing a tray on which sits a black, plastic covered dish and a small glass bowl of applesauce. I’m thinking the whole time, thank God, this is the last time, the last time in this place — though I don’t know that for sure. What if he has to come back here? This might be a good time to get that DNR signed.

At the end of the hallway, I turn into his dark narrow room and find him in his bed, holding his phone, looking at me accusingly. “Where were you? You said you’d be here at eleven.” His speech is thick and garbled, but his outrage is crystal clear.

“I said I’d be here at eleven-thirty, and that’s precisely what time it is.” I drop my bag onto the chair in the corner.

“I need to know how they’re taking me home! No one will tell me anything. These people are idiots. Call the medic and find out how they’re taking me home. I need to get dressed. Get me in the wheelchair. I need some water.”

“God damn it, give me a second. They aren’t even coming until two o’clock.”

“How are they going to transport me? In a gurney? In the chair?”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure they know what they’re doing.”

“No, I need to know. Call them!”

I turn and stare at him. He looks like Mad-eye Moody, glaring at me from his cocoon of gray comforter.

“I don’t have the number,” I say, flatly. “And you have to give me a few minutes. My grades are due at noon and there’s a problem with one of them.” I get him some water, then sit down, open my laptop and go to the school website. I’ve got two students harrassing me over grades. One of them missed five classes and is furious she is getting a B instead of an A. She says she wants to get me fired.

Another one plagiarized 75 percent of her final exam and has sent me a screaming email demanding to know where her assignments are. This is the most recent unintelligible email I got from her: “Did the assignments I definitely sent them to you and you said okay to my e-mail.” Truthfully, I have no idea what she’s talking about. There are no missing “assignments” — just a couple of online tests that she didn’t take. I warn the chair of my department that he might be getting an email from a disgruntled B student (who, I promise you, did not even deserve this, especially after this email from her: “Good afternoon proffesor. Why did I only get 14 points for my discussions? I feel I didn’t deserve that grade.”) This is the young woman who had no idea where to put a paragraph break, but because I’m teaching creative writing and it’s an elective for people with no intention of every becoming writers, I let it slide — for the passion she put into her little poems when she was there. Creative writing, creative spelling, whatever. Then I send an email to the other student, whose garbled writing suddenly became so clear-headed and erudite in her final exam, explaining the perils of plagiarism and why she will be failing the course. I also suggest that in the future, should she have a problem in one of her courses that she address her professor in a respectful and professional manner. That done, I close my laptop. It’s a few minutes before noon.

I dress him in a pair of sweat pants since it may be chilly when he leaves, and get a couple of CNAs in there to help him into a wheelchair. His face is so gaunt now, his scraggly gray goatee, his cheeks covered with gray stubble, but those eyes — those deep brown eyes contain a will as powerful as a train engine barreling down the tracks at a hundred miles an hour. Two months ago he was round-faced and could pass for Santa. He even had a mischievous twinkle in his eye. There’s no longer any trace of humor in him.

I begin loading up my car with the things that have accumulated in the room over the past twenty days — the total length of time that Medicare Part A would cover a hundred percent. If we stay any longer, it’s $167 a day. But I don’t think I could keep him here another day even if we didn’t have to pay for it. And I can’t say I blame him. This place is a preview of hell. They all are. It’s the nature of the institution.

“They don’t care whether I live or die,” he says. Why should they, really? Old, broken people cycle in and out of this place every day. And he’s been grumpy, borderline abusive, and spectacularly uncooperative. They do their jobs and most of them do their jobs fairly well even if they don’t respond quite as promptly as one might wish.

He starts wheeling himself to the door of the facility. He doesn’t care if he has to wait two hours. Then I lose my keys and spend the next half hour scouring the room, the parking lot and the hallway for them.

Jon, my daughter’s boyfriend, is in town for Thanksgiving. He’s heading over to bring a few things I’ve requested and to help with the transfer back home. I try to figure out who among my friends has an extra key to my house. If I could get in my house, Jon could take me home to get my extra car key. But that would mean coming back here — something I never, ever want to do again. Then the medic transport calls me on my cell phone and asks to speak to the nurse about Herb’s discharge.

“Why didn’t they just call the facility?” Kendra asks.

I shrug. When she gives me the phone back, I ask how they are going to transport him. By gurney, they tell me. There’s no other way, really, since the ramp won’t be installed until later in the week. So he needs to be back in his bed.

I find him in the hallway and tell him he needs to get back in the bed so they can transfer him into the gurney. He rolls his eyes and says with disgust, “See! I told you!”

“What are you talking about? I told you I didn’t know,” I respond angrily.

“Push me,” he barks.

“You can do it yourself.”

“No, it’s too slow.”

Bitterly I push him to his room and the CNAs move him back to the bed while I sit in the front section of the room behind a curtain where he can’t see me.

“I’m being shunned for being right!” he yells out.

I don’t say a word.

When Jon arrives, it’s like Sir Galahad has arrived on a white steed. I meet him outside and hug him hard. He’s tall and handsome and brainy. My girl’s good boy. As we’re going inside, the transport medics pull up. Jon hands me the gift card I had requested from Target and I give it to Kendra, my favorite nurse (though Herb hates her), while she’s sitting in the nurse’s room with a mouthful of what looks like a sloppy joe.

“Thanks for helping me keep my sanity,” I tell her and dash off. As the medics move Herb, I notice something that was hidden under his foot. My keys.