A Break From Beheadings, Please

February 27, 2015

Peaceful Cityscape by Gerard Brown

They have identified the monster who has been beheading men in the dessert. In these horrific videos, the men are wearing orange jump suits and the killer is dressed in black, sleek monster fashion to be admired/emulated by all his FB friends around the world.

Let us not give this criminal/terrorist a name or wonder with endless interviews what he was like as a boy, how he turned from the sweetest child into a monster. He and others like him must be stopped, as Hitler had to be stopped. Are these killings any less planned? Any less awful?

And I could go on, but have promised myself to take a break from the news—print and electronic—from the images of beheadings and all the geopolitics associated with them.

Is it possible for a writer to ignore what is going on in the world? Or for any artist? Can we create a work so insulated that it glows serenely in a utopian, cosmic firmament? How did Murdoch manage “By the Sea, By the Sea,” for example. Or Naipaul, how did he explain to himself “The Enigma of Arrival?” These are books of descriptive pastoral contentment and they are utterly relaxing. Perhaps these writers took a respite from beheadings, metaphorically speaking. We all need that. Is it any wonder that the renaissance in cable/tv programs keeps us glued week after binging week? What are your favorites, dear reader?

In a PBS documentary I watched last night, Philip Roth, a dark comic writer who claims he has permanently retired from writing said, “You don’t have to look for suffering when you’re a writer. It will find you soon enough.”

Indeed.

And so I am ignoring the pressing concerns of the world today, or just for today. I turned off my computer before noon, I went for a swim, I met a friend for lunch, I bought some bananas, I washed the dishes. And I will turn on the television after I sign-off here to watch a favorite program or two. House of Cards, Season 3, Episode 1. I'll start with that.

Book Bargains

February 20, 2015

It was so bitter in New York the other day that I took the Columbus Avenue bus for just six blocks which landed me in front of my favorite thrift store, Housing Works. Founded in 1995 by AIDS activists, the revenue from the thrift shops and the dedicated book store on Crosby Street supports life-saving services to the 20,000 homeless and low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS. It’s a terrific place to donate—anything—clothing, furniture, crockery. And they have online auctions, all very well done.

The thirteen thrift stores scattered throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn are gorgeous—well laid out, clean and well managed. And there are shelves of books—some new, some used, all in good condition, all reasonably priced. Yesterday, I hit pay dirt.

It was mid-morning and I was nearly alone in the store, just one other customer browsing. Someone—perhaps a book reviewer or an editor—had donated a slew of new books, a treasure trove. I could have taken home a dozen, then reminded myself I’d have to carry them uptown, not a good idea. But after three moves in recent years and feeling internally displaced, my bookshelves are culled; I have only kept books I plan to read again, or return to often, or need for my projects, or teaching. It’s not enough. The shelves look a bit lonely to me these days and I want to fill them again as my mother once did when she re-settled in America as a refugee; she had to leave her library behind. Building a collection feels like home, something I need to do again. And I am tiring of reading everything on my i-pad Kindle app. I read too fast and I want to slow down. Somehow, the electronic pulse speeds me up and the touch screen is so sensitive that I have the sensation of words flying by.

Slowing down has become my mantra these days, in fact, no matter how much I have to do or how quickly I have to get from one place to the other. After a hectic week of tweets and posts, an article published, my NYU workshop beginning, digging out my car, laundry, shopping, recovery from a bank account hack, a tetanus booster after a minor accident, the half-hour I spent flipping and perusing the pages of books at the Housing Works thrift shop settled me. I treated myself to two: Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea,” winner of the Booker Prize, and Julie Orringer’s “The Invisible Bridge.” Grand total: $4.

FDNY: Communications

February 7, 2015

Tags: FDNY, emergency preparedness, first responders

I was walking in the light snow late this morning when I spotted a FDNY Communications truck. What kind of communications?, I wondered. I had never seen a truck like this before. I put down my groceries and waited. There was a story here, that was obvious, and I am forever in search of a good story.

A handsome young man with Fire Department logos on his shirt and hat emerged from the truck with a sack of tools which he placed at the base of what I now know is an Emergency Rescue Service box, or ERS Box for short. The cover on the base of this nearly one-hundred year old structure was open to fresh new wiring that needed some fixing. Rather than scuttle the solid housing, they have been refurbished and rewired. History preserved. All of them are now hooked up to a central computer, and when one falters, the repair trucks are sent out pronto. They are now an important tool in the city’s emergency preparedness; if cell phones and the internet go down, these boxes will still work. There are more than 5,000 in all five boroughs of the city. Breathe a sigh.

Of course, I was as interested to hear all this as Edward, the technician, was to tell me about it. He was an articulate and voluble story teller, as are most ordinary people. According to Stephen Pinker in his book, “The Language Instinct,” we are hard-wired to speak, and by extension, we are hard-wired to tell stories. Electronic media short-circuits this hard-wiring with sound byte communication which is not good for writers. But a return to long form oral storytelling is good for writers. And though Edward had his cell phone on one ear as we were talking—his supervisor I hoped, not his girlfriend—we were conversing in long, narrative sentences about the Mayor’s recent snow-storm shut-down of the city, the perfect opportunity to test all the emergency services, including the ERS boxes. “We need to do this,” Edward said. “New Yorkers are always complaining, but they shouldn’t complain. Just last week, a woman was attacked, she pressed the fire button—there is also a police button—and the fire truck arrived in minutes. The attacker fled. I’ve been thinking about her. She was almost raped. This work I do, it’s important.”

Edward, thank you. This blog post is dedicated to you and all the other emergency service workers and first responders everywhere.

The Theory of Valerie Pepe

February 2, 2015

Tags: Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, AMC, ALS

I was eager to meet my new students. I never know who will turn up, it is always an interesting surprise, but when I arrived at the building, I realized it was not the best building to be teaching my class; it was not accessible. And sure enough, Valerie Pepe, was waiting for me in the lobby and she was understandably incensed. She had been dropped off from work by Access-a-Ride which she has to book well in advance, they were scheduled to pick her up at 9 p.m., and until then, she wasn’t going anywhere. She had three choices: quit (never an option for Valerie), register for another section of the class in a different—accessible—building, or find some way to get upstairs, a lot of them. And, of course, this was not her responsibility, it was the university’s responsibility. They—the powers that be—are mandated by law to make such an egregious error right, immediately.

So there was I and there was Valerie, incensed but insistent on taking my class, and this wasn’t flattery, she had heard about me and wanted to experience my class, she said. So I began a discussion with the security guard and the other building staff on duty and we decided, all of us, that we’d get Valerie upstairs even if she had to be carried. More students arrived and every one, to a person, also offered to help.

I need to explain here that Valerie has a congenital orthopedic deformity called Athrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC). She has had numerous surgeries and is on crutches. In addition to having a disability, she has a Masters Degree in Social Work, a full-time job with the city, more than one thousand FB friends, a polished fashion sense, an engaging sense of humor, boyfriends now that she is no longer married, a fund-raising organization for research into this deformity which also provides support to afflicted families (http://amcmusicfestival.com/valerie-pepe/), tireless energy, and great ambition to write a memoir about her life thus far. Does any one who knows her have any doubt that she will do this? No.

During the siege that we now call 9/11, Valerie’s co-workers trundled her down the stairs and up Sixth Avenue away from the falling debris and incinerated bodies. They made it as far as 18th Street where they stopped for respite at the Hollywood Diner which forever after has become one of Valerie’s writing rooms. They let her sit as long as she likes, she can order food or not, though she usually is starving after work. And I meet her there from time to time to discuss her pages. Our relationship as mentor and student is ongoing, for which I am most grateful.

The challenge of a disability, even a mental affliction, can be a powerful motivational force. I have seen it time and time again and it is always inspiring to me and to the other students in the class. Do most of us have such obstacles? We do not. If Valerie can make it to class and work on her writing day in and day out, why shouldn’t we?

Archives