When The Clocks Strike Thirteen

September 26, 2016

Tags: George Orwell, Presidential debates, 2016 Congressional candidates

Credit for the following: Nancy Pelosi and Poltifact. Opened in 1800, the first stone was laid by George Washington in 1793. Slaves for hire--from their owners-- constructed most of the United States Capitol building, the seat of our legislature. The records reflect 385 payments between 1795 and 1801 for "Negro hire," a euphemism for the yearly rental of slaves. Slaves were likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting. And they appear to have shouldered alone the grueling work of sawing logs and stones.
“It was a bright cool day in September and the clocks were striking thirteen,” the perfect ( “1984”) Orwellian description of our election season. I am sure you will agree, dear reader, that it has been painful.

I had a plan to meet a friend and his sweet Beagle, Sugar, for our bright cool day in September Saturday walk and talk. I peeled away as the path descended to Dyckman street in the Inwood section of Manhattan. The Saturday farmer’s market on Isham was sure to have early apples and I craved them. I was waylaid by bric a brac and books for sale on tables outside the church, and then a friendly greeting by a tall, lean man in a striped shirt and tie handing out flyers; Scott Fenstermaker, Candidate, running as an Indpendent for Congress in the 13th District, Rangel’s seat. I decided to stop and chat, not as a journalist but as a citizen. I thought to myself: good, a fresh face, new ideas, new solutions. We need politicians like him in Washington. “I don’t really see myself as a politician, he wrote to me in a follow-up email exchange, meaning that he won’t necessarily say what the electorate wants to hear and that he’s still “unsocialized,” as a politician, which I found amusing. He then launched into a deep analysis of the collapse of the global economy and its direct impact on the domestic economy. A long discourse, new ideas for me, much to ponder. And he’d taken the time to write.

After a stint in the Air Force, Scott went to Harvard Law School, graduating one year behind President Obama. He didn’t mention that he’d ever met him; he wasn’t trying to impress. And he shared that he has a daughter who is a freshman at NYU where I am an adjunct. So, most certainly, he cares about her future, what occupation she decides on, what her job options will be. The personal and the political merged in our email conversation; it felt human scale, it felt sane.

In the decade I lived in England, I interviewed many MPs in their local—sometimes-- scrappy offices which I preferred to appointments in the House of Commons which was noisy and frenetic. Out in the constituencies I was offered tea and conversation with very few interruptions. I got to know the MPs and to hear their bleakest and most optimistic musings. They lived near their offices, had families, children. I sometimes met them, too. I wasn’t handed policy papers or spin sheets as soon as I walked in, nor was I handled by PR’s. I took notes and recorded what we both had to say. Our conversation was a conversation, not a screed marinated in platitudes.

I hope this quaint authentic political world hasn’t entirely vanished from England since my return to New York, though I fear that with extra security measures and the recent murder of Jo Cox, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, it can’t possibly be the same. But I have fond memories of my years there as a journalist and Scott Fenstermaker brought them back to me. I wish him the best in the upcoming election and hope that he remains accessible and “unsocialized” when and if he makes it to Washington.

When Written Words Are Not Enough

September 19, 2016

First responders with names and families at the Chelsea blast site. We know who they are and we care.
My husband, Jim, and I were a block away from the undetonated bomb in Chelsea last Saturday night. We didn’t hear the blast on 23rd Street because were in a sound-proofed concert hall at the National Opera Center on 28th and Seventh Avenue listening to life-affirming music. Afterwards we went with our musician friends to a very loud pub downstairs to celebrate, still oblivious to what had happened. Sirens and emergency vehicle lights in New York are a constant; we didn’t pay attention. So it was only when we were ready to leave and began to check our travel apps that we knew something had happened: there was no 1 train. This meant walking to the A train which was several blocks away. By then we knew there had been a blast. NYU alerts told the rest of the story. Protocol is: stay alert, keep away from hubs, move out of the area as quickly as possible.

Before we even begin to think about the causes and consequences of such violent acts, we are into survival mode. New Yorkers, city dwellers around the world, and travellers, are now good at that. And we probably will have to be for the forseeable future.

Then comes the aftermath, the thoughts about what might have happened, how we have been spared, the lists of those who have been injured and, for me, flashbacks to 9/11, and nightmares. The next morning I may still feel unsteady but I force myself to write in my journal—actually that is a relief—and to post on Facebook. Those posts are important for friends and family who live far away. They want to know if we are okay and we want them to know we are okay. But once the post is up, the “likes,” are not enough: I wish people would call. Electronic voices may be rich in feeling if the FB friend takes the time to write more than one sentence; mostly they are fast and shallow.

I think we forget sometimes how we have communicated with our loved ones: was that a text, a phone call, an email, an IM? And we forget the importance and solace of the human voice. True, I hear people “talking” to me electronically, but it is not the same. There are situations—and last Saturday night was one of them—when written words are not enough.

Recently, a friend who lost her father told me how hard it was to read condolences on Facebook. “I’m sorry for your loss,” was the favorite shorthand cliché when people were at a loss for what to say. It works and then it doesn’t. What we need in such moments is some originality, a willingness to interrupt routines and pleasures to show some real-time warmth, even if it’s a long distance hug on the phone and an empathetic ear.

News Stories That Make Me Smile

September 13, 2016

Tags: MaineWorks, Donkey Park, The New York Times

Did you know that there are therapy dogs for people with diabetes? I met a woman on the street who stopped to ask directions. I was with two friends on our Saturday morning dog walk and talk in Fort Tryon Park. The woman with diabetes bent down to pet the dogs and said she had a therapy dog and loved dogs. Then she told us about her diabetes and how her dog nudges her when her sugar elevates. If she ignores the warning, he barks.The news about the therapy dog made everyone smile which is why I am reporting it here. It’s my personal news story of the day.

In general, the news has been so worrying of late, that I have been highlighting stories that make me smile and writing about them in my journal. For example, a story about donkeys. Pictures of a Donkey Park in upstate New York appeared in a column called “Pet City,” by Andy Newman in The New York Times on September 4th. The first sentence was: “A miniature donkey can change your life.” Unlike Isis fighters or presidential candidates, the donkeys are “contemplative” and “gentle.” We definitely need more of this, and of them. Every day.

On the same day, there was a story in the business section by Claire Martin about MaineWorks, a company started by Margo Walsh that secures construction jobs for paroled prisoners. Ms. Walsh is a former recruiter for Goldman Sachs and a recovering alcoholic. She has replaced her addiction with a sense of purpose and so have her clients. Her business is thriving. MaineWorks’s revenue last year was $250,000.

I found the news stories quoted above in a paper copy of the newspaper I treated myself to on September 4th. I read every section thoroughly. Real paper and the smell of newsprint and business and real estate and art and opinion. When I read electronically, I skim, dear reader, what about you? I settle on what seems most important and interesting, and move on. But turning the cumbersome paper pages forced me to slow down, so I noticed life-affirming stories buried in the morass of troublesome news. I discussed this phenomena with my husband and we decided to change our subscription to a Sundays-only home delivery for the duration of the election season. And though the Sunday paper is loaded with useless paper advertisements—more than ever, it seems—and is, therefore, environmentally incorrect, he agreed that we should do it.

Literary Friendships

September 8, 2016

I have just lost one of my cherished literary friendships. Gerry Oppenheimer died in Seattle on August 23rd, aged 94. In hospice care at home these past few months, he was dignified and alert to the end. I called him regularly, as I had promised when his wife, Mildred, died a couple of years ago. He hadn’t been a great telephone conversationalist and I had usually talked to her at greater length, but I enjoyed them both—books, politics, family. Both Mildred and Gerry were librarians. There wasn’t an author or book they did not know about. Mildred read more novels, Gerry more history. Both were avid consumers of the New York Times and The New Yorker.

When our daughter, Chloe, was born in London, they sent a beautifully illustrated book about children from all over the world. They were cultivated internationalists in the best sense of that word, and maintained their friendships with a devotion rarely experienced these days, despite the ease of social media. We never felt out of touch with them no matter where we lived.

Mildred was my husband, Jim’s, cousin. Their family had settled in Seattle at the turn of the 20th century. Originally fish brokers in Berlin, they also had salmon fishing traps in Ketchikan, Alaska. Youngsters in the family got to spend their summers working there and photos in the Ketchikan newspaper archives are testament to the family’s integration into the Innuit community. Only the boys were invited to Alaska, of course. The girls—still domesticated and religiously observant—stayed home. But the history of Seattle is also the history of the Bergmans in Seattle, and all of it is captivating. Gerry came to the city later, as a refugee from the Nazi genocide. He was a historian of the period and the perfect person to consult as I began working on a memoir about my Austrian and Czech family. So during one trip to Seattle, I took a long meandering morning walk with him and talked about what I was working on. He was a wonderful listener and asked sharp, useful questions. And as an archivist and researcher par excellence, he offered tips and then followed up with hard research he had done himself. “Searching for Fritzi,” would not have been written without him. So when I say Gerry was a literary friend, I mean just that; he wasn’t a writer himself. But he understood how to encourage and support a writer struggling with a project. He had nothing at stake except his desire to help. Later, when the book was in galley, he read it thoroughly and made corrections and suggestions.

And then came Trollope. This was during another stopover in Seattle, on our way to Alaska. More walks and talks along Lake Washington. Did I know, Gerry asked, that he belonged to a Trollope club? No, I did not! I had never read Trollope, I confessed. Should I read Trollope? Deep, rumbling laughter followed, very Trollopian, I now know since I have read Trollope ever since. In the very bedroom where we were staying during that visit was a shelf-full of Trollopes, all 47 of them. “The Warden first,” Gerry suggested. And that was that. I was hooked.

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