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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

How "Merrily We Roll Along"

Yesterday I went to a 1:00 matinee of Merrily We Roll Along. It was wonderful as only Stephen Sondheim played by actors at the top of their game can be wonderful. The first scene shows a man whose life is a career success and a personal debacle, and then the music asks, "How did I/we get here as we seemed to be just merrily rolling along?" The answer plays out in reverse chronological order.

 

Everything about this production, from the Playbill cover to the music to the mess that ensued in the last row of the balcony behind me was perfect. But it took till this morning's contemplation to see that.

 

The successful mess of a character, Frank, was at a crossroads after producing a Hollywood hit: would he completely fuck up his life and his family by giving in to addictions for sex and money, or would he stop himself? It was during the church silence of the moment of this decision that the usher decided to seat an entire row of high school students behind my row. They tried to be quiet, but they were kids, so they disrupted the mood and tension that the entire play had built to.

 

Shortly after this, at intermission, one audience member took it upon himself to scold the students, whereupon their teacher refused to allow that they'd made the mistake which had disrupted the dramatic tension, and he reprimanded the man for his anger, deflecting with an impenetrable smile and finally accusing the angry man of intolerance, thereby enraging him more. In the teacher's mind—he later explained to me—the entire problem was upper-class theatergoers disparaging inner-city students who they believed didn't belong there. When the "Fuck yous" erupted, the usher took the two men outside.

 

During their exeunt, I tried to explain to the girl behind me, who'd asked a question right in the middle of the silence, that the problem was that they had interrupted a tense emotional moment; that it's necessary to understand the environment they'd entered.

 

"It's not my fault," she protested.

 

The teacher, still with his impenetrable smile, returned and explained to me about mass intolerance of his students. I pointed out that the entire balcony had been jarred out of the play, and finally, he mentioned almost as an aside that the whole thing was his fault because he had thought the show began at 2:00, not 1. (Meaning he had ignored three emails from the theater verifying the time.*)

 

I asked the girl who'd been trying to understand the plot if she'd like to know the plot. "Yes," she replied with gratitude and relief. So I gave her and the students around her an emotional recap. They seemed to appreciate it.

 

What dawned on me this morning was that we "principals" all took on mirror roles to the principal actors. I became Lindsay Mendez's peacemaker/explainer, Mary; the attacking audience member became Daniel Radcliffe's irate jilted writing partner, Charley; and the smiling teacher became Jonathan Groff's irresponsible writer, Frank.

 

All the world's a stage . . . It is mind-blowing how we be. But if we principals in our own plays can see this device as a principle of life, if we can admit what we're really doing, maybe we'll stop being so angry.

 

____________

*And my need to point this out in this blog is me, once again, taking on the Lindsay Mendez role of being the smart one who's seeing the whole thing, cannot affect it, so she gets sarcastic. Oy vey, it never ends.

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The Story of an Anonymous Saint

The dictaphone I used to transcribe one of the most amazing stories I've ever witnessed

Little did I know almost 30 years ago that my "money job" would render one of the most important experiences of love and altruism in my life. Little did I know that it would birth not only a one-act play that got published but was never read in performance until this year, and that that experience would birth journalism in the form of this essay: "To the Hero on the J Train that Crashed on the Williamsburg Bridge 28 Years Ago.

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Antisemitism Is in the Fabric of World Culture

In an editorial meeting at a spiritual magazine I used to work for, owned by a church, a senior editor proposed we do a feature on all the special knowledge about money known by Jews—have a Jewish writer do it. I gasped. So did another female Jewish editor. She was kinder than I was in her explanation of why this was not a good idea. I wanted to kill the guy. He was dumbfounded by "our" problem with his idea, but finally he gave it up.

 

Antisemitism is in the fabric of world history. It lurks in places you'd never expect it. The stereotypes, the belief that all of "one people" are one way—although the people who think this would laugh if you put them in such a category: all white people, all Christians, all women/men/children, etc.

 

People's stereotypes and extreme ignorance of this history of antisemitism, and therefore the experiences of Jews—religious Jews and people like me with no religious or cultural upbringing, but whose faces tell their heritage—remains astounding to me. When you assume that people are monsters for wanting to defend themselves, when you blame people whose children were butchered in front of them, whose families were abducted, you are being unknowingly directed by antisemitism.

 

I keep thinking about my first novel, Plan Z by Leslie Kove. When I wrote it in the 1980s, I had no idea it would age and therefore morph as I have. First, it was a novel about war, then trauma, then seeing all the beautiful colors in the world, and in this particular moment, about the experience of being a person bombarded by other people's misconceptions of them.

 

My mother would be 102 today. I just read a letter she wrote to her brother in 1942 where she waxes poetic about a man she wanted to marry (not my father). "Don't let his last name fool you—" she writes, "he's one of us." Code that Jews know well, whether you grew up in the religion or not.

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The Legacy of Trauma—and Positive Change

 

[This article first appeared in www.Rewireme.com in 2016.]

 

It's a scientific fact: experiences change markers on the DNA of traumatized people, and these markers can be passed to future generations—making them more likely to deal badly with stress. However, the good news is that since we know that this adaptive evolutionary process happens, we can consciously choose to use it in the opposite direction—creating a legacy of positive conscious change.

 

I am sitting in the cluttered office of Rachel Yehuda, Ph.D., the very vibrant and very busy Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and Director of Mental Health at the James J. Peters Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the Bronx, NY. I am here because of the results of two of her studies on the transgenerational effects of trauma on the DNA of the offspring of Holocaust survivors and mothers who were pregnant and traumatized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But I quickly learn that these studies are but stepping stones in a research journey that has been going on for decades. And it is the accumulation of stepping stones that has led Yehuda and her team to know how to interpret the epigenetics ("the study of the molecular mechanisms by which environment controls gene activity") of the Holocaust and 9/11 trauma legacy studies.

 

"We've been saying versions of [the study results] for a really long time," Yehuda says. But the irrefutable finding of a chemical mark on a gene that is passed from parent to child has given validation to something many people sense.

 

"There's no particular reason to believe that the findings would be limited to the populations that we've studied," explains Yehuda. "It's hard to imagine that if there were such a thing as transmitted effects of trauma or reactions of the offspring to parental trauma that this would only occur for some traumas and not others. So we've got to imagine that this is going to somehow be a universal phenomenon." However she emphasizes the need for more scientific studies in different groups of people.

 

"I think that people are resonating with [the findings]," she continues, "because they see it for what it probably is which is something more universal that explains a lot of things that have really not had the proper words by way of explanation. People do feel that somehow the experiences from their parents and generations past are meaningful in some way. Epigenetics gives us a language, a vocabulary to begin to talk about these kinds of phenomena.

 

"I think that people who feel traumatized know that something isn't what it should be, but sometimes they have difficulty connecting how they're feeling to an event. Or perhaps they feel that they're exaggerating or have an exaggerated response to an event. And what concepts like this—concepts of sensitization or things like that—have going for them is that they help us understand why our response to the environment isn't just a response to what's happening to us but may be more of a collective response to how we're looking at things based on events that might have occurred in prior generations. So maybe it's like an overwriting on the genes in some way."

 

So how can we use this information? Read More 

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Sun House by David James Duncan

Sublime. That's the fastest way to describe this writing, this story, this world birthed by David James Duncan.

 

For almost 800 pages I've been swimming in the Ocean of Sublime—an ocean you can just as easily drown in as float. I'll get to that in a moment.

 

Second and third thoughts: How the f**k did he write this (let alone get it published) and how on earth can I convey what this is to people who may consider it a foreign language as well as the few humans who live for this stuff?

 

I don't know the answers to either of those questions. In addition, I don't know who besides me would be so drawn into this book.

 

I can tell you that there is a mythically romantic tone throughout and there are two main characters who start the book in separate stories in Portland, OR, and Seattle, WA (location is as much a character as any person): a boy-man, Jamey, and a girl-woman, Risa. I can tell you that they are idiosyncratic, independent thinkers who feel even more deeply than they think. I can tell you that Jamey is a people-loving, irrepressible clown with a father and a dog you fall in love with. I can tell you that Risa falls in love with Sanskrit sounds and language and Vedic sages and the whole world they birth and then lives with Grady, the funniest horniest philosophy student ever written, and then with Julian, a good-looking prick who is threatened by her love of "Skrit" and the inner journey. And I can tell you that the first-person narrator feels like a person-god, who I don't believe in, but he has such a great sense of humor that I more-than-willingly suspended my disbelief.

 

There are plenty of other characters who appear first in their own chapters. For instance: a mountain climber and a singer who love, have a kid, then don't love; an ex-Jesuit priest and his twin brother, a street nonpriest-sadhu who gathers a flock anyway, whose epistolary history of the Catholic Church's persecution of the Beguines mesmerized me (if Herman Melville had been this joyfully light-hearted and in love with his history of whales, he could have gotten away with it).

 

And in a symmetry that makes subliminal sense, these people finally begin to converge in the mountains of Montana exactly halfway through this epic in an "Eastern Western"—meaning "When East [spiritual traditions] touches West [the region of the USA], the central struggle is against cosmic illusion . . . (p. # NA)" And this is when the storytelling starts to crank up, so if you get bogged down in the first 400 pages, but are liking it, stay with it . . . particularly because, very soon after the convergence begins, the god-person narrator actually explains the unorthodox structure of this massive book, and hearing it can make you sparkle, as well as spiritually roar in the backtracked scene when Risa and Jamey finally start their journey together.

 

I found out the hard way that I needed to take breaks. Everybody speaks within a style of cascading thoughts, although it's slightly different for each character. (Think of Shakespeare's iambic pentameter or Aaron Sorkin's smart-smart-smart speed-demon, fact-laden intellectual torrents.) When I tried to read too many chapters without a rest, the spiritual stream-of-consciousness became tedious. So subsequently I took many breaks, and when I returned, I was open to the Voice behind the voice and ate it up; I realized taking breaks also evoked contemplation about what I'd read, and it was in contemplation that the heavy text got light and worked on me. Also, there are enough heavenly narrative actions and descriptions (see sample below) to break up the thought tirades.

 

If your life is completely focused on the surface of here and now—plot-plot-plot—and you are uninterested in awareness, enlightenment, or any kind of transcendent journey, let alone the power of the sounds of language beyond its literal meaning, you will not be interested in this book. In fact, you may feel like the distracted bar crowd who "don't get" what makes Risa, Jamey, and readers like me spiritually roar during their ecstatic convergence over a story of Gandhi's death.

 

But if you are a person who longs for Oneness, who is compelled by the debate between the counter-evolutionary force of ego vs. the evolutionary force of enlightenment (to embody "free nothingness at Ocean's [consciousness, All That Is] service" (p. # N/A)," if you're convinced that enlightening yourself is the only real work to be done in this life, if you pace yourself, eagerly surrendering, even to a language that sometimes strikes your poor undereducated head as chicken-scrawled squawks and the poetry of a holy fool (think Paul Beatty's screamingly hilarious The Sellout, only substitute the literary classics, mountain climbing, and Eastern philosophies for research psychology and The Little Rascals), you may end up in a blindingly brilliant roofless Sun House of indefinable dimensions—happier and more heartbroken than you imagined possible. Read More 

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Take Off Your Shoes and Be Quiet--a new essay on Salvation South

I love editor Chuck Reece's title and dek (line that follows a title) for my essay on Salvation South. I hope you enjoy it.

 

Take Off Your Shoes and Be Quiet

 

A meditation retreat shouldn't make you angry, right? But if it does, maybe you should simply wait, just a little longer.

 

Read it here: Salvation South

 

And check out some of the other articles on the site. In my opinion, at the hands of editor Chuck Reece, Salvation South is a New Yorker-calibre publication.

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Loners Are Happy People Too

If it weren't an oxymoron, I might quip, "Loners of the world unite." And then I'd laugh, because I'm a happy loner with a sense of humor.

 

I like people. It's just that I don't need them around me most of the time. I have fun at gatherings. But one a week . . . or month . . . is sufficient. Conversations are inspiring, but silence feels like home.

 

Years ago I took the Myers-Briggs personality test and learned that my diagnosis is INFJ, which stands for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging—a rare type (estimated to be 1 to 3 percent of U.S. population) because our characteristics are apparently incompatible with each other. I find no incompatibility between my enjoyment of people and my preference to be alone; my ability to read just about anything emotionally and intuitively and my inimitable practicality, skepticism, and love of evidence-based conclusions.

 

In her wonderful memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama says that if you don't see your personal story in the cultural narrative, tell it.

 

As I said, I love practicality and that was a practical suggestion. So I did it.

 

I'm thrilled that my new essay "Walking Alone—Dangerous or Heroic?" is in the spring issue of Prairie Fire magazine, distributed only in Canada, but you can buy the issue online:

Prairie Fire

 

And here's a little video preview:

 

 

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The Truth about Edna Robinson and The Trouble with the Truth—on the 33rd Anniversary of Her Leaving Her Body

See more at Edna Robinson page

It was February 2013. I'd been freelance book editing since losing my magazine job—on a day christened "Bloody Wednesday" in NY publishing—just before Christmas in 2008. Freelancing is a feast or famine deal, and I'd had close to a month of famine when a voice in my head whispered, "It's time. Pull Mom's manuscript out of the closet."

 

In 1957, when I was six, my mother, Edna Robinson, had written a short story called "The Trouble with the Truth." After it was published in the 1959 edition of the New World Writing book series, selected as one of the "most exciting and original" stories of its time by editors who had previously introduced the work of Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac, Edna's intensity became impenetrable. I remember watching her burrowed in her study typing. Why was she so mad, I wondered.

 

She wasn't mad. As a writer, I now understand the intensity. She was working her story into a novel of the same title. And when that novel was optioned by Harper & Row . . . and then dropped simply because it was about a single father with two peculiar children in the 1920s and '30s and To Kill a Mockingbird had occupied that territory, I believe something in my mother died.

 

When I first read The Trouble with the Truth in the 1970s, I loved it. The writing was gorgeous but I thought it needed some work. I wanted to talk about it, but Edna wouldn't discuss it. However, now it was 2013, Edna was dead, she'd left her manuscripts to me, and I was an unemployed book editor.

 

I pulled the crushed brown box out of the bowels of my closet and I'd barely begun to read the still-gorgeous prose on the old typewritten pages, when I realized this was a complete waste of energy. I was going to work on it, so why not read as I typed? And as soon as I began to do that, I realized there was a more efficient way: read as I edited and typed. And as soon as I began to see the timeline and fact glitches and all the undeveloped emotional underpinnings of the story, I decided to read as I doctored, typed, and yelled at Edna.

 

And I swear I heard her laughing. This was our dynamic when we were screenwriting partners: I'd yell, she'd laugh, I'd fix the mess, she'd write gorgeous lyrical circles around my straight-forward prose stage directions, and I'd say, "Thank you." Read More 

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The Flip Side of Hierarchies—Spare by Prince Harry

I have never believed in the validity of hierarchies of importance and entitlement. I could not have explained this to you as a very young child, but that is when I clearly saw the fallacy—in my young mind, "craziness"—of the whole notion that grownups were superior because their greater size and strength enabled them to brutalize me, or that boys were more important than girls, as my mother tried to tell me in the 1950s. As far back as I can remember I knew that people were no more important than each other or animals or plants. We all "were" and therefore we deserved to be. And later when I learned about religions, that too made no sense. Deities? Beings or powers so great that they deserved worship? If something is truly great, worship by others is irrelevant, as is fearing or fawning. Great beings see with equal eyes and want everybody to know their own greatness. Perhaps they are lonely and want eye-to-eye company.

 

When I grew up and made my living in offices, my habit of addressing male bosses as equals drove several of them crazy. I believe hierarchies are a good method for achieving certain goals in an orderly way, but that has nothing to do with superior worth or entitlement of individuals, and respect has nothing to do with servile subordination.

 

When I got my first dog, I was curious about who she was, what she liked and wanted. I went to a training school called "People Training for Dogs" which appealed to me; it helped us learn one another's language and therefore become a better team. None of my subsequent dogs were "pets." They were my family, my partners, and we merely had different responsibilities: mine were to take care of them, protect them, love them; theirs were to be in the moment with me, loving and clear.

 

The more I've learned true history and the historical roots of slavery in various monarchies—a hierarchy founded in the belief that monarchists are superior beings directly descended from God and therefore others must obey them for their own good—the more I've been baffled by the insanity that this was accepted by enough people to have it exist and grow into doctrine of Manifest Destiny that made genocide, slavery, torture, and all manner of cruelty rational.

 

I watched Harry and Meghan's interview with Oprah and found myself alone in my interest: to hear from an outlier the true psychology and cost of the distorted values of a monarchy. I was on the edge of my couch as Harry described a family in shackles, constricted, dependent on the press for its existence, on constant edge and undermining one another in a desperate performance to survive. Again, I found myself exclaiming: This is nuts! And yet most people I heard from only wanted gossip on royalty or were judgmental that somebody so privileged was whining.

 

What?! I wanted to scream. Don't you see he is telling us our history—how we came to be and the insanity that birthed it?

 

It was only because I wanted to know more from an apparently sane person who just wants to be free that I read this memoir. When I took it out of the library, the check-out woman smiled and said, "Oh, some royal intrigue!" I thought about just nodding, but instead answered, "No. I really want to understand about the monarchy." She looked puzzled, then responded, "I hope you get whatever you want out of it."

 

Spare starts off as you might expect. You get a heavy dose of the current discomfort between Harry and his brother and father, then jumpcut to the past and dealing with his mother's death with complete submersion into the day-to-day life of a royal family member, boarding school, etc. It's interesting and I thought how much I wouldn't like having to live that way, always in the public eye, but since I don't really care about royals, I got a little bored . . . until in the aftermath of his mother's death, Harry accompanies his father to South Africa where he attends a lecture about a legendary battle between Britain and the Zulus in 1879, and Harry suddenly injects the sanity I was reading for: he says the war was "a source of pride for many Britons, . .  [it] was the outgrowth of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism—in short, theft. Great Britain was trespassing, invading a sovereign nation and trying to steal it, meaning the precious blood of Britain's finest lads had been wasted that day . . . . But I was too young: I heard him and also didn't hear. Maybe I'd seen the movie Zulu too many times, maybe I'd waged too many pretend battles with my toy Redcoats. I had a view of battle, of Britain, which didn't permit new facts. So I zoomed in on the bits about manly courage, and British power, and when I should've been horrified, I was inspired." (33–34)

 

This, to me, tells the whole story of the whole mess: truth vs. our love of the stories we're accustomed to. Our love of drama that turns some people into "other"—be it into superior beings who will protect us or whose lives we can consume like a bowl of sweets because we fancy it is so romantic or exotic, or beings who are treated as property. Harry was twelve when he had his response to this story of theft, but his qualification as an adult gave me hope that I would learn something of value in his memoir—because he has obviously learned something different from what he was conditioned to believe. And in the next few pages, when he displayed his capacity to see the bird's-eye-view absurdity of a grown man frantically dinging a little bell in his boarding school's cafeteria to quiet a roomful of chatting boys who couldn't hear him, I settled down for a good read. Read More 

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Be the One!

The Escape Artist : The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (Harper Collins, October 2022) by Jonathan Freeland

From out of nowhere" a sound happens. "Someone sings a pitch" and "once someone starts, everyone wants to be a part of it." The sound of the national anthem resonates and "It's completely organic."

 

"We are not a nation of soloists, but a chorus of shared values that when joined together resonate like nothing the world has ever heard," says Steve Hartman in his conclusion to this feel-good story about students who "spontaneously" erupt in an elegiac rendition of the national anthem . . . and become part of a tradition of young people who do this every year in this Kentucky hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

I would agree, with a caveat: somebody starts the hum. One person decides to be first, and then others join.

 

I just finished reading an astounding, devastating, inspiring story of the first Jew to escape Auschwitz—a teenager who was driven to action in order to spread the truth of the industrial murder of babies, old people, men, women and children who had the misfortune by their ethnic heritage to be deemed less than human and a scourge to Aryan society.

 

The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World (Harper Collins, October 2022) by Jonathan Freeland reads like a page-turning novel, at times so brutal that you feel it viscerally. Its subject, Walter Rosenberg, was sixteen years old when he was captured and deported, and his unlikely survival in Auschwitz was due to two qualities: his conviction that if people knew that the Nazis' lies about this being a mere resettlement of people were a public relations act to conceal mass murder, torture, and cruelty as a sport, they would do something; and his paranoid personality that kept him skeptical and therefore safe from rookie mistakes.

 

Rosenberg and another inmate, Fred Wetzler, do the impossible by careful observation and calculation: where others see only that the Nazis are an efficient machine guarding the prison on two concentric fronts, Rosenberg and Wetzler, students of observation, realize that it is the Nazis' predictable actions that produce a loophole for escape. (Read the book to learn what this is.) Rosenberg learns from others in the camp the basics of what not to do. (Again, read the book.) He is meticulous and patient, but also desperate because he is privy to the Nazi plan to shortly deport hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Rosenberg and Wetzler want to get the news to them so they will rise up en masse and refuse to board the deportation trains. Read More 

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10 Books to Help You Cope with Cultural Agony—The Healing Power of Fiction

Maybe the right stories can help heal us in a void.

Yesterday my book club discussed Jason Mott's National Book Award-winning hilarious, heart-breaking novel Hell of a Book, a story of an unnamed Black man's life in a world where he is never seen as who he knows himself to be. What was most meaningful for me was that by the end of our discussion, this white not-particularly-contemplative group of older women settled into a profoundly personal conversation about self-acceptance.

 

All fiction, when done well, forces you to walk in another person's shoes … or into deeper levels of the shoes you are already wearing. And because of this, fiction can take the reader on an emotional journey to healing or coping with pain that may seem intractable.

 

 

What the following ten stories have in common is accepting realities that are personal as well as historical. Racism, genocide, spousal abuse, and more. How do you accept these things? These books leave little alternative. And by dealing with what's true, there is a form of healing, or at least a path to coping. The human journey is just that—no matter what your race, gender, or status—accepting truth on all levels.

 

But what is truth in these days of divided definitions?

 

When I say "truth," I am referring to what Ernest Hemingway meant when he advised writers to ". . . write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know." To me this means truth that comes from one's core. One's Essence—however you define that. It isn't about politics or disinformation vs. fact.

 

When a writer's Essence births a true story, it is told through true characters, and no matter how fantastical or removed from your life they may be, almost everybody can identify in some way and have a personal experience. That personal experience can sometimes be love or a refusal to love, which can manifest as an emotional aversion. If we hate, rather than blame the story, we can follow the aversion down to its root and perhaps learn something about ourselves—learn what we are refusing to accept. And if we can love the truth about ourselves, loving all the other stuff gets easier. Read More 

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Compassionate Death

It's 8:12 a.m. As I type, my body clock is confused but slowly readjusting to not lurching out of bed at 5:30 a.m. with my almost-16-year-old dog who would need to pee because she was getting daily IV saline drips for old-age kidney disease, to not timing everything from 5:30 a.m. on to her meds and pee and sun-downing blind frenzy that began each day around 5:00 p.m., to not really sleeping for the 15 months of her hospice care.

 

I do not regret one second of this exhausting schedule. It was an honor and what I wanted to do. The pandemic actually made my life easier—more acceptable. It was just Maya and me for the last year+ and I cherished every minute of it.

 

But Monday night, she let it be known she was done, and Tuesday morning Wendy McCulloch, DVM (Pet Requiem, LLC) came to the apartment, listened to my explanation about Maya's condition, and was an invisible angel, barely rousing Maya, who had uncharacteristically chosen to go back to bed after our early-morning ablutions, and sent my girl on her way. It was as peaceful and smooth a transition as I could imagine.

 

I'm being similarly gentle with my own transition to a solo life but I found myself twice yesterday declaring to people that I want the same treatment that I and Dr. McCulloch gave to Maya. And suddenly it seems very necessary to declare it in a public forum.

 

I am about to turn 71 years old and am in great shape due to daily exercise, a vegan diet, and my four flights of stairs; I can carry 30 pounds of groceries up them without panting. I am vaccinated and boosted because to me that seems like a no brainer, but since a debacle in 2012 that I will explain in a minute, I stopped going to doctors and have opted out of the regular preventive checkups relentlessly pushed by my ever-phoning health carrier, and since I think my medical care is my own business, I have refused to get into a conversation to explain myself to them.

 

I will now explain myself: Read More 

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The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters and How He Helped me Re-meet My Father

WHAT I READ MATTERS

 

I mean this title sentence every which way you can read it.

 

I'm guessing most people will receive it with a glib, "Of course, what you read matters; it influences what you believe."

 

But I mean this sentence much more expansively: What I read, the physical form of it, really matters. As does reading it (as opposed to listening to somebody else read a text). I care who may have owned or touched the book before me, and any history I may know attached to the book affects my reading experience.

 

I spent this week reading a 75-cent, paperback of The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Robert Lewis Taylor's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1959 novel about a 14-year-old relentlessly smart-alecky (and sometimes very funny) boy's picaresque adventures during 1849, following his pipe-dreaming gambling doctor father across the country to find gold in California.

 

If I were reading Jaimie McPheeters as an ebook, I might have abandoned it at the first mention of "darkies" because I just don't have the stomach for this in 2021. If I were reading a shiny new edition paperback, same thing. Yes, the writing is good, I might have reasoned, but why subject myself to casual racism and so many words? The book is of a bygone era and style.

 

But I'm reading the cracked brown pages turned and read by my father on his suburban commute to and from his job in New York City in 1960. I know this because I found his train ticket stub, used as a book mark, on the last page, and I know he loved this book because he once told me he did. Probably that's why I grabbed it from my mother's last house several years after my father's own pipe dreams and addictions imploded and he stuck a gun in his mouth. And it's why the book has stayed on the top shelf in my apartment since 1973.

 

I'd been eying it for months while I did my aerobic workouts. The spine drew me. I even got up on a ladder a few months ago to see what it was and when I saw, I remembered Dad's smile and joy when he said it was a really good book. I'll read that, I thought.

 

And it took until this week, months after the first beckoning, for me to pull it down and wipe off the dust bunnies.

 

When I lie on my couch and read this book, I know I'm touching something my father thought was good. I know that when he read this he was the sane, loving man who loved to read and loved the fact that I loved reading too, even though we had almost nothing else in common. Read More 

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The Reckoning: Our Nation’s Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal by Mary L. Trump, Ph.D.

There is something medicinal about hearing straight truth. With no affiliation to anything but the truth, clinical psychologist Mary L. Trump writes with muscular clarity, scholarship, and fury about anybody who acts in denial of the truth—from the beginnings of the practice of enslaving and torturing Black people to Obama and his justice department refusing to prosecute the architects of the Great Recession to the wanton cruelty and pathological lying of her uncle Donald to the January 6th insurrection to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stating that this is not a racist country even though there is systemic racism. Even the Supreme Court and Jimmy Carter don't get away without condemnation.

 

Mary Trump writes with the heat of a wildfire and truncates American history in a way that makes its carefully crafted hypocrisy even more shocking. There is not a lot of new material if you've been educating yourself with whole history (as opposed to filtered white history) and if you follow the news. That said, if you haven't been reading book after book on racism, antiracism, and the history of racism, this is an excellent summation and exposure of the creation of ongoing systemic racism. But whatever your level of education, you will benefit from the passion of the writing steeped in scholarship and the laser focus that makes this book vibrate.

 

It is a book about the historical creation of our national trauma. Trauma comes not simply from the brutality and torture of slavery and genocide done with impunity that form the foundation of the U.S.A., but it comes from many "good" people looking the other way because the inconvenience of addressing and redressing the wrong was/is just too damned hard. It comes from denial and lies to justify the unjustifiable. It comes because people are reluctant to give up anything—money, power, complacency, peaceful co-existence with people who would be offended if they rocked the boat, "willful blindness. (115)" And all this was there long before it manifested Donald J. Trump.

 

The introduction to The Reckoning is one of the best book intros I've read. In it Mary Trump recounts her own history of PTSD and going into a full crisis that led to a stint in a rehab treatment facility after the election of her uncle. All that along with her grounded knowledge of psychology bring something unique to the book—well served by the fact that she is such a good writer.

 

This is not a "Trump book." It is an us/U.S. book. It is a fearless demand that we Americans look at who we are, who we have been, how we birthed the current divisions and violence, and acknowledging the wrongs, atone and repair. Read More 

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PERSIST by Elizabeth Warren

I don't have kids and have never dealt with the difficulty of getting good, affordable childcare, but by the end of the first chapter of Persist, I cared so passionately about national childcare that, typing this sentence while eating a carrot, I got excited enough to swallow the wrong way and had to lurch from my desk to open my airway.

 

How is it possible to explain the tax code, tax deductions, and how business is constantly subsidized by all of us (aka socialized wealth distribution; what people are so afraid of is already going on, but the recipients are large corporations and billionaires!*) so clearly that the reader has an aha about the movement of money in the economy resulting in a feeling that she can articulate life itself: all life is movement and change, and Warren ties that to the economy so simply and coherently that you will never not understand this again, and hence, never not understand inequity of investment that is built into our system and an imbalance that will eventually topple us all if not corrected.

 

Simply put, Elizabeth Warren is a great teacher. I understand why Rep. Katie Porter changed her life while taking Warren's class (a wonderful anecdote). As I type this, I'm now in the middle of an explanation of a two-cent wealth tax and what that would mean and how it would work, and again, it's so exciting, I'm chewing my carrot extra carefully in order to stay at the computer.

 

One of my other favorite teachers, Bertice Berry, recently did a video about how being your authentic self brings light to all situations and people, so if another person who is not being authentic is illuminated in that light, it can expose them and make them really angry. I thought of this when Warren first talked about former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. I remembered her stunning exposure of his arrogance during the presidential debates (deliciously reported later in the book in a chapter called A Fighter). In that moment she exposed her authentic brilliance in a way that constantly flows through this well-made book.** Read More 

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