October 31, 2012
The aftermath of this horrendous, catastrophic storm reminds me of the days post 9-11. First there is the euphoria of mere survival—especially if we were fortunate enough to account for all our loved ones—then a stunned dream-state in which we tried to figure out what to do to help. I remember becoming active—volunteering with the Red Cross, walking miles and miles to various memorials, writing poems and reading them at memorials. Long before we were able to digest what had happened, the media informed us that we were living an historic event.
And now this storm. We are still living that history and will be for many months. Strange, that my NYU students are working on a “Witness to History” assignment this very week. That will be an extended effort, I am sure, as the term proceeds. But when will we see each other and where? The lower part of Manhattan, including the Washington Square area, has been amputated by a power outage and flooded subway tunnels leading in and out of the city. Some of my students live in Brooklyn and New Jersey. So, too, the NYU administration. When will they get back to work? When we will all get paid? What is their responsibility? What is our responsibility? The government’s responsibility—federal and local? The implications are filling my full to overflowing journal.
Nothing to do this morning but take a walk up to Sakura Park and assess the damage. I usually work there on Wednesdays with Hakim, an employee of the Riverside Park Fund, but he’s stuck out in Brooklyn.
October 29, 2012
We are waiting for the behemoth storm to arrive, gaining strength and depth as it hovers off-shore nearly 400 miles. It’s noon New York time as I write, and down in the Caribbean the clean-up has begun in Haiti, Cuba and other islands. These are barely mentioned in the ethnocentric USA press. It’s hard to imagine a more dire place than Haiti and, by comparison, the privilege of living on the Upper West Side as a storm approaches. When will we ever go hungry? Still, I think of one or two items I am sure I need— yogurt, a cucumber—and, as the storm has stalled, I quickly get into my workout clothes and take a long, brisk walk up Broadway. The air is fresh, no pollutants. A light rain, a few gusts of wind. Up on 115th Street near the entrance to Columbia, a couple of overseas students are laughing at all the preparations and the intensity of New Yorkers. There are sandbags at the entrance to the Barnes & Noble. Whatever for? “This storm is not to be taken lightly,” I say. “The Hudson is just over there.” I point my finger in a westerly direction which makes them laugh even harder. Perhaps they are amused by my tousled hair and foggy glasses.
Crowds congealing on busy street corners, a grocery store open. The manager has trucked around Queens collecting his workers. But how will they get home if the bridges are closed? Maybe they will have to sleep in the store, one suggests. During 9/11, New Yorkers opened their apartments to stranded workers. I have heard no such offers today. Hard times harden the soul and the altruistic post 9/11 spirit seems to have dissipated, the shops brazen in their exploitation. Are the prices higher here today or is it my imagination? And why is everyone grabbing and pushing?
Children are fractious as they wait on line with their worried parents. A boy to his father: “Dad, will the wind be strong enough to topple the buildings?” And the father’s reply: “What do you think?”
October 27, 2012
I arrived at the Jewish Community Center early this morning to find a note tacked to the outer door: “The JCC mourns the tragic loss of members of the Krim family. Our prayers are with them at this difficult time.” Though the language of loss is inadequate, these words were softer than the painful video loops and prying reporters on local broadcast news, all eager to get their stories and beat the competition. Who will gather the most salacious details?
I flashed my card to the security guard and walked through the cavernous lobby, not a stroller in sight, no nannies, no children running around, no parents. Mrs. Krim had been at the JCC pool with her three-year-old daughter when her two other children--a baby boy and her eldest daughter-- were killed.
Saturday morning is usually a busy time at the pool, but today it was nearly empty; I had a lane to myself. It was as though the whole neighborhood had been silenced and traumatized.
I swam for the Krims. I swam for the nanny’s teenaged son now bereft of his mother.
Who can account for such things? Not a writer. Not anyone.
October 25, 2012
We’re all in this together, one book answering another,” E.L. Doctorow said in his acceptance speech on Tuesday night at the PEN American Literary Awards, his words echoing in the hall and in this writer’s heart. Doctorow is 81-years-old and frail. Like several other authors that night, he had trouble getting up the stairs to the stage. But his voice is still strong, both in person and on the page. Most striking is his humility: one book answering another, an eloquent and sustaining phrase for every other writer in the audience and beyond, whether wildly successful or still striving every day to write something worthwhile and get published. It’s a striking contrast to the solipsism of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, "Joseph Anton," which I recently finished. Without question, Rushdie’s ordeal was horrendous and his determination to continue living his life and to continue writing, heroic and memorable, but he doesn’t have much to say to other writers, especially young writers. Perhaps that effort would have been a detour away from the armature of the book, I’m not sure; it is an important document. But when he encounters Arundhati Roy at a gathering, he has nothing complimentary to say about her Booker-winning masterpiece, “The God of Small Things.” It was a bristly encounter. Did Roy feel patronized rather than encouraged? I have no idea what that encounter was really about—what Indian sub-continent sub-scripts were written therein, what barbs were being thrown—but I can’t imagine Doctorow not taking the young woman writer in his warm, more experienced writer’s embrace.
October 16, 2012
I grew up with a father who was an ophthalmologist, an uncle who was an optician, and a stepfather who imported eye glass frames. I always wanted to wear more than the empty frames they gave me to play with, but I never needed glasses until I was over forty. I bought the inexpensive drug store variety with enthusiasm because I found all kinds of funky, fashion statement glasses to match my outfits. Now, suddenly, I have developed an astigmatism and need prescription glasses. I am in shock, mostly, because of the price: I need two pairs. Bifocals are not convenient at the computer apparently—neck strain. Still, I am amazed and grateful that my vision can be corrected so easily and dismayed that glasses—unless I can get to a Walmart or Costco—are so expensive.
How could this most basic of human needs—to see—be in the greedy hands of a monopoly—Luxottica, an Italian company? Go to this recent 60 minutes exposé:
The earliest pictorial evidence for the use of eyeglasses is Tomaso da Modena's 1352 portrait of the cardinal Hugh de Provence reading in a scriptorium, literally a place for writing, usually religious manuscripts. But that portrait was painted centuries after the advent of spectacles. In fact, they were invented so long ago that historians cannot agree on when they first appeared—perhaps in Ancient Egypt, perhaps China, and only among the royals and priests more than likely. Were women permitted spectacles? Children? And what of the totally blind as opposed to those impaired by aging? They were revered. Consider, for example, the blind seer Tiresias from Greek mythology and Gaffer Gangee from “Lord of the Rings.” It’s an ancient literary trope: blindness as an instrument of awareness and understanding.
What, then, if we decided not to correct our eyes with spectacles? Or if we couldn’t afford to correct our eyes with spectacles?
October 10, 2012
Malala Yousafzai, the first Pakistani child nominated by Unicef for the Peace Award on Universal Children’s Day, has been gunned down by the Taliban. “She is our daughter,” the President of Pakistan said when he heard the news.
As I write, the doctors are trying to stabilize Malala enough to be moved to Dubai for state-of-the art treatment. Let us hope—and pray if we pray—that she makes it. Two other girls were also injured in the attack which, as I understand it, took place in broad daylight on a bus.
Malala began writing when she was very young—eleven years old—about her life as a young girl in the Taliban-controlled Swat region of Pakistan. She is now only fourteen and the author of a blog that is published in Urdu by the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7834402.stm. Even in the English translation, the entries are breathtaking—concise, clear, and urgent. Reading them today, I am concerned about the young girls in Afghanistan who have been enjoying school under the American occupation, but will be endangered again once our troops are withdrawn and the Taliban reclaims the government. More than certainly, this will happen.
Living so far away in a land where—despite our own hardships—comfort, universal education, and the freedom to write and speak, are taken for granted for most of us, I am wondering, apart from solidarity and our own blogs, what we can do to help Malala and others like her. Does anything we say or write make a difference?
Oddly, Malala’s name in Urdu means “grief stricken,” and she wanted to change it to her pen name, Gul Makai. I do not believe in portents, but I am grief stricken about Malala—what she has had to endure even before this assassination attempt—and will dedicate my class to her tonight.