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Real Journalists

The holder of this card is a professional journalist and all authorities and IFJ affiliated organizations should extend to the bearer every assistance and courtesy in the performance of his or her mission.

 

 

I have just received my new International Federation of Journalists press card, which is accepted as a bona fide credential in 141 countries. As a free lancer, I have been reliant on press passes for many years and have never had a problem, until recently. I am a member of the prestigious Authors Guild which offers this prestigious card via the IFJ in Brussels. A writer/journalist has to qualify; the passes are not given to anyone. But now that I've proudly stashed the new card in my purse, I'm wondering if it will do me any good in the United States where there are so few news outlets left that value real journalists. Even worse, perhaps, are the many publicists who make certain that a journalist's uncomfortable questions remain unanswered. Obstruction of information. Sound familiar?

 

Controlling the flow of information, spinning, all that I accept as a publicist's job and a journalist's nemesis. But outright lying, refusal to grant interviews, stonewalling voice messages and emails in the hope that an intrepid reporter will go away and give up, that's new. And it does not bode well for our democracy. Isn't it an American journalist's mandate to exercise her First Amendment rights. Or have we forgotten?

 

Consider, for example, the demise of a robust local press. Stories in local—print and online—newspapers these days often read like unadulterated public relations handouts. So-called "facts" are unattributed and uncorroborated, and journalists on staff are frustrated by the lack of editorial support for their investigative efforts. In other words, we cannot blame the current regime in Washington DC for spinning, or faking the news, or telling vicious lies; they are merely taking advantage of the new, yet more market-driven news culture. And that includes all the punditry on broadcast and cable outlets. We need them, they are mostly doing a good job, but they are also making a fortune as they deliver their audience to the advertisers 24-7.

 

It's taken me a long time to accept this and, frankly, I am both disgusted and deeply concerned. It's one of the many reasons I started this blog. At least here I am free to write what I wish, uncensored, and oblivious to market pressures. Consequently, I don't quit. When I have a difficult question to ask, I ask it. I don't take no for an answer. If one source folds, I find another. That's what real journalists do. And when I discover a complicated story that requires the resources and clout of an institution, I pass it along to a still-standing, still reputable major news outlet such as The New York Times; they often pursue a lead for which all of us should be grateful. Most of the time. A recent story I generated didn't lead to much more than a cub reporter gathering clips and re-arranging them. No original interviews, no footwork. To say the least, I was disappointed. Time to get back into it, and unearth the real story behind the story, even if I have to do it on my own. Worse case scenario, it goes up on this blog which is RSS fed to four outlets. Dear reader, thanks to you I get some traffic. Viva the internet!

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Young Artists

Photo of Jingdi Ma ©copyright 2019 by Robin Weinstein

I met Jingdi Ma at the gym where I work out in New Paltz. She is at the front desk on the weekends working two back-to-back shifts and studying. She may have a book open as she takes hand-written notes in her precise, artistic hand-writing, or she may be using the computer. People come and go, she pays attention when she must, or answers the phone, but she is often studying. Though she is shy and soft-spoken, I've gotten to know her a bit over this past year. Adopted from China at the age of two, she grew up near Walden, NY, and went to public schools. When she arrived at SUNY New Paltz, she did not take anything for granted, least of all her acceptance into a prestigious BFA program.

 

Jingdi is graduating, a daunting prospect for any artist, or any young person these days, and moving to Indiana to join her boyfriend. How will she support herself? Will she be able to continue her studies? These are serious and difficult questions. And though the future is unknown, her determination to remain an artist is not. Here is the artist statement she wrote for the end-of-term BFA candidate show at the Dorsky Museum on the campus that opened this week:

 

"Some people may think you don't *become* an artist, you just *are* an artist. I really do not have a straightforward answer as to why I chose the life of an artist. I am sure part of it had to do with wanting to enjoy my four years of college. Sometimes it is still strange for me to say I am an artist because of the context behind it. I would say I am just taking the time to create. That is what an artist does."

 

I can say with as much conviction as Jingdi, that the same holds true for writers. Writing is what writers do. No matter what.

 

Like the other young artists I met at the gallery opening, Jingdi is formidable and her experimental, striking work is as accomplished as any I've recently seen in high-end galleries in New York. I had expected paint on canvas, but she has moved into video and has even produced a small multi-media book with images and words.

 

And all of this, let us remind ourselves, dear reader, with a federal Pell Grant and other financial aid at a public university. It's a telling reminder of the importance of investing in public, loan-free education.

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Biblical Creatures

 
A sweet mini donkey enjoying fresh hay.
Photo © copyright by Jim Bergman 2019

The donkey has been used as a working animal for at least 5000 years. There are more than 40 million donkeys in the world, mostly in underdeveloped countries, where they are used principally as draught or pack animals. Working donkeys are often associated with those living at or below subsistence levels. Small numbers of donkeys are kept for breeding or as pets in developed countries

 

--source, Wikipedia

 

 

As the world reels, as terrorists perpetrate atrocities on Easter Sunday, a Christian Holy Day, and the regime in Washington continues unabated with an anti-Christ at the helm, and Passover has passed, I wondered what to do to raise our secular spirits and remembered what I'd read a while back in a New York Times article about a "donkey park," in Ulster Park, NY, not far from where we live in New Paltz.


It was cool and cloudy, all the blossoms out after a day of heavy rain. A short ride down a long, quiet highway, the windows wide open, and when we arrived at the enclosure a small crowd of adults and children were standing among the donkeys, donkeys of all sizes, standard and mini. Although people were talking quietly to one another, and a few were brushing the donkeys, the animals made no sound and the air was oddly still, as it is in church, or in a canoe on a calm mountain lake. Sacred animals, tender and gentle animals, protective spirits from the antique world in my writer's imagination, they carry 5,000 years of history in their genes.


The donkeys walked around, they trotted a bit, they kept their noses to the ground eating hay, they seemed to enjoy having the back of their very, very long ears rubbed and their thick winter pelts brushed. "Their bellies are really soft," Carol, one of the volunteers told us. "But if you see them raise their tails, best move aside. They are about to poop," her husband, Larry, said. Carol and Larry live down the road and have been volunteering at the park for three years. They seemed comfortable in the enclosure, and were also eager to talk about two larger equines—a mule and a zonkey. The thought of cross-breeding a zebra with a donkey was a bit chilling, I'm not sure why. The large beast, not friendly exactly, not unfriendly, had stripes at the bottom of his long legs and looked more like a horse than a donkey. Not surprisingly, he was called Stripes. And there was a mule, too, which, by definition is a hybrid of a horse and a donkey, and therefore cannot reproduce, we were told. Perhaps that is for the best, I thought. Again, I'm not sure why. Maybe the deliberate manipulation feels unnatural, unlike the hybridization of plants, which we hardly notice, or the raising of animals for slaughter, which we do notice and question, if we are so inclined.


Stories about donkeys are plentiful in the Bible, in children's books, in mythology and fiction. The donkey can often seem ridiculous and is sometimes treated unkindly by storytellers—Pinocchio, for example. But I don't think of them as ridiculous creatures. When I told my colleague, Deb, at the SUNY Ulster Writing Center about our plans for a Jewish Easter Ecumenical Sunday—if that is not an oxymoron—she told me the story about Mary carrying Baby Jesus into the manger on a donkey. "That's why donkeys have crosses on their backs," she said. And, sure enough, they do. I snapped a picture of a donkey's back and sent it to her via a modern apparatus, the iPhone.


Check out the Donkey Park website: www.donkeypark.org

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This Writer Wears a Hijab

With thanks to my daughter, Chloe, and son-in-law, Ryan, for raising a flock of multi-ethnic chickens. Wishing all my readers peace in this season of universal rebirth. 

 

We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now.

         

--Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

If I confided to you, dear reader, that when you do not see me or hear me or notice me, in front of the classroom, or on the train, or on the bus, I am wearing a hijab not out of necessity, but out of choice, how would your opinion change about my professional status, for example? Would you ask me if I were documented, or if I was a first or second generation American, or if I prayed, or if I had terrorist inclinations, or if I even belonged here in these United States? Or would you remain silent, silent and admiring, or silent and enraged, or silent and curious, or silent and wary, or silent and frightened? Would you report me to your superiors, have me watched, or try to recruit me to spy on my friends? And in case you are wondering, dear reader, if these scenarios are real, let me assure you they are real, they have happened to me, been reported by me, and I have written about them  over the years in different guises—journalistic voices and fictional disguises. I am Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu and Kurd, Iranian and Iranian-American and Haitian-American and Honduran-American. I am an American. It does not matter where I come from—originally. I am here. This is my country. I am a child of refugees. I am a child of immigrants. Do not tell me this is not my country.

 

These were my troubled and angry thoughts as I woke this morning. And also the word enfiladed, out of a dream, the writer wearing a hijab in solidarity with the non-violent Arab world, which is our world, our extremely endangered world—walking along an enfiladed hallway of ash-filled urns, the remnants of what was once a multi-cultural, multi-faceted open society, a society without borders that still only exists in an internationalist's imagination.

 

Yesterday, this enfiladed hallway was alive with students attending a small community college where I work as a writing tutor for nine hours every week. It is a bit too quiet these days—not enough students take advantage of our services—but when a student enters and sits down, and is courageous enough to ask for help, it is always interesting. I know that the student—white, black, or brown, wearing a hijab or dreads or a pony-tail—is  probably struggling to pay the rent and  pay for school. Perhaps she has no health insurance and her parents are sick and she is looking after them. Perhaps she has been in the military, perhaps she has been in prison, or had a baby too soon, or is the first person in her family to go to college because she dreams of being a paralegal or a social worker or nurse; perhaps she remembers watching her father executed in front of her eyes—in Mexico, or Guatemala, or Sri Lanka during the Civil War, perhaps she was born blind. This is the post-colonial, endangered, gentrifying world, families fleeing from man-made violence and natural disaster, families trying to survive on declining incomes without a safety net or extended family to lend a hand, or government benefits, or unemployment when a factory shuts its doors, or farmland is bought up by conglomerates,or barns sold off to millionares from the city for weekend getaways. This is the neighborhood in which we live. These are the Americans forgotten by our politicians in the last presidential election. We have already learned our lesson: we  must never forget them again.

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Flashing Lights

I was driving down  Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.

 

This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.

 

I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on.  The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was  listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.

 

I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.

 

There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and  then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs. 

 

White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation.  But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.

 

The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.

 

The young, handsome cop got out of his car and  stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.

 

I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.

 

"You rolled through the stop sign,"  the officer said and smiled.

"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.

 

Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.

 

I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.

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Memory Box

Photo of Harmer Johnson © copyright by Judith Johnson

A dear friend, Harmer, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and is living, if we can call it that, on a locked floor in a nursing home. Before I moved out of the city and he was moved to the home, I frequently visited him and his wife, my old high school friend, Judy, on Friday nights. We'd have take-out dinner together, chat, and play with their cat. The sorrow of witnessing a steady decline in mental faculties was ever present in our conversation and goodbye hugs. When I left I wondered if Harmer would recognize me the next time I arrived, but this was a small, private concern compared to that of his wife and three children. Our ties have always been close, almost like family. Harmer and Judy's eldest grew up with our daughter. They went to the same nursery school, played together, kept in touch.

 

Harmer is British, originally from Faversham, near Canterbury, and when we lived in London, before our children were born, we saw Harmer and Judy when they stayed with his family, usually in the summer. His parents were warm, lovely people, and we enjoyed every moment of our visits with them.  

 

There is so much to say about this beautiful man; my memory box is overflowing. I don't want to talk about him in the past tense, not yet, though I know that his verbal acuity is fading fast, and that a memory box is, by definition, in the past tense, even when the person is still alive in body, and in spirit, too, because I do believe that even in this fading away an essence of a person survives that we can continue to feel and cherish.

 

Harmer was a writer as well as a well-known, highly regarded auctioneer and art appraiser. What happens to a writer who loses language? I can't think about this question, it is too terrifying. I never knew Harmer "scribbled," as he called it, until I mentioned I was forming a writer's group. He joined for a while and we shared work over lunch from time to time. We talked about our manuscripts, we talked about our children,  we talked about the political landscape, we talked about the environment. Harmer was "environmentally conscious," before anyone else I knew was environmentally conscious. We went on a whale watch together with our kids and I learned, quickly, that the dolphins were endangered by tuna nets and that the oceans were polluted. Harmer was more of a guide and mentor on that voyage than the captain of the ship who spent the hours we were at sea blasting cheerful ephemera into the loudspeaker.

 

Empathetic, cultivated, thoughtful, charming, a gentle man, a gentleman, rarely careless of others that I can ever recall, a tennis player, a collector of Olympic memorabilia, an avid reader, a scribbler, a devoted father and husband and son and brother.

 

I was determined to see him in the nursing home, though I dreaded the concept of a locked floor, however necessary, however protective, as Alzheimer's patients wander. Still, it felt like an incarceration to me. I hoped that Harmer would not know that it was a locked space, that he would already be so far gone that there would be no knowing this, no understanding that he'd be alone in the dark at night far away from his loved ones.

 

 It had been almost a year and Judy warned me that I might not recognize him, that he might not recognize me. We arrived during a chair exercise class, Harmer trying to follow along.  He looked deceptively like the man I remembered, the man in my memory box, but he missed all the beats and raised his left hand instead of his right and his right hand instead of his left. We met him in his room, which Judy had painstakingly straightened and organized as we waited for his arrival from the class. His expression was gleeful as he saw me, or was that my imagination? We hugged. My first words were, "I've missed you, Harmer." And he replied, "I've missed you, too."

 

Later, as Judy spoke to a social worker, I sat next to Harmer, put my arm around his shoulders and said, " How are you feeling?" And he said, "I am feeling sad. I am feeling bored." And then we both began to cry. Over lunch at a local diner he tried to say my name, but had to be reminded. Sentences began and then drifted away; Judy completed them. He ate more than I had ever seen him eat and he told an odd story about staying in control of something that has happened. "Oh, so you can control it," I said. "Yes," he answered. He wasn't distraught, he was satisfied that I had understood.

 

On the way back, walking in the sunshine, enjoying the fresh air, he constantly veered to the right with his walker and we made a joke of it until, finally, he almost drifted into the street, oncoming cars rushing by, and we had to rescue him.

 

Outside the doors of every room, an enfiladed hallway, are small vitrines, family-made memory boxes for every resident of the home, reminders to their loved ones of who they used to be once upon a  time, of what they looked like when young and hopeful. There is no future tense here, no becoming, no aspiration. The enfiladed hallway, the vitrines, are not memory boxes so much as memorials, sentinels on the way to a final resting place. 

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Before Photography

Giovanni Agostino da Lodi (active ca. 1467–ca. 1524), Head of a Bearded Man in Profile to the Right, ca. 1500, red chalk on paper. The Morgan Library & Museum, 1973.35:1, Gift of János Scholz. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2018.
 
 

I went to the Morgan to see an exhibition of  early Italian drawings by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael and others. The Morgan gallery is small, which is one reason I like it. I meander slowly, digesting  the art in small doses. I take notes. I might write down the name of an artist and the title of a work I like, or I might write a sentence that has nothing to do with the work at all. I am not gathering any data, or conducting interviews, or acquiring knowledge in preparation for a test. I am totally free, drifting in and out of the galleries. I prefer to go alone and only rarely make a date with a friend. By the time I leave, I am not only relaxed, I am restored.

 

Before photography. I kept thinking of that as I wandered through the Morgan. These drawings, mostly portraits, were drawn from real life. And the people who sat for the portraits were once alive. I was a bit spooked by that notion, but transported also. The features were vivid, palpable—cheeks and lips and eyes. I began to imagine their lives—how they lived and what they said to their loved ones first thing in the morning. These drawings are not only artistic renderings created for pleasure and decoration, they are a document of past lives. I am curious about those lives, or the life of the artist, or the artist's process, which is so analogous to a writer's process, and often do some reading after an exhibtion to supplement the visit. The experience of the exhibition and the reading may get folded into a piece of writing, or not.

 

Art has always been my second love next to writing. I think the reason is that my father dragged me to art galleries all over New York City from a very young age. We would stand in front of the painting and he would try to describe how it was made—the medium, for example—or how it made him feel. Sometimes he was at a loss for words and would just sigh or stand quietly for a long time. I was never restles; I felt safe, engaged. My father was a surgeon, and like many surgeons, had dexterous hands and drew well himself. Once I found a stash of his sketch books and wanted to keep them. He wouldn't let me, so I put them back on the shelf, reluctantly. He gave me my own sketchbook and I tried to draw  but did not have the gift. I took classes and even applied to Music & Art High School, and failed. I wonder if my father was disappointed. I never had a chance to ask him.  I became a writer instead and try to draw well with words.

.

 

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Quiet Resistance

Otto and Elise Hampel were a working class couple living in Berlin during the Nazi reign of terror. He was a factory worker, she was a domestic. They were Nazi sympathizers, or Nazi sympathizers by default, if that is possible. Let's just say that they did not know any better at the time. Sound familiar? After Elise's brother  was killed in action in France in 1940, they woke up. Something was wrong, they decided. But what?

 

Uncultured and semi-literate in a culture that was noted for its literary masterpieces, the Hampels began to scratch their own version of resistance propaganda on more than 200 postcards, which today would read like sophisticated agitprop. The messages were simple, yet forceful, despite many grammatical errors and misspellings. They admonished ordinary citizens to protest the war machine by not serving in the German Army and refusing to donate to Nazi organizations. Though the Gestapo was everywhere, the Hampels scattered the postcards in mailboxes, stairwells and other locations all over Berlin. Resistance had taken hold of the Hampels and they hoped that their non-violent action would inspire others. It did not. Most people who found the postcards handed them to the Gestapo and the Hampel's were eventually caught. In 1943, they were both executed by guillotine. Their story was unknown until Rudolf Ditzen, aka Hans Fallada, was given their Gestapo file by a poet friend working for the Soviets just after the war. Fallada was smitten with the Hampels and wrote a novel about them in just 24 days called, "Every Man Dies Alone." Published in 1947, it became an instant best seller and has now been adapted into a movie, "Alone in Berlin," which I watched the other night on Netflix. Although it takes some liberties with the facts, the basic story is there, the dignity of the couple beautifully portrayed by Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson. Some of my favorite young German actors are in it also, most notably Daniel Brühl and Katharina Schüttler.

 

Thinking about the Hampels as exemplars of extraordinary courage, my mind drifted to the silent, complicit majority in the United States Senate. They remain unmoved by the atrocities of the current administration and will be remembered as politicians who have damaged and disgraced our democracy.

 

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Family Narratives

I used to have a business called "Lifesounds." Using my journalist's interviewing and radio production skills, I captured family stories at the request of the families, for a fee. I turned over the raw interviews, or edited them down onto CD's to be presented as gifts at special occasions, or as legacy keepsakes. Often a family had the expectation that a trained reporter could pierce silence, or correct an apocryphal story that had become embedded in family lore over many decades, the fabrications embroidered with every telling. Not that this is a bad thing, from a writer's point of view, so long as we accept that we are listening to tall tales at times. Sometimes a family does not realize that this has happened. They've heard stories they find fascinating and they innocently pass them along without asking too many questions.

 

So my job was difficult-- not logistically, or technically—but for all the other reasons, as mentioned above. I wasn't always a welcome interlocutor, a stranger digging into the past and to what end? To correct the historical record? Or to satisfy a family's frustration at not knowing "the truth?"

 

 Once I was commissioned to interview an Irish-American woman turning 80 who had been a nanny to the family's children. They were planning a birthday party and the interview would be a gift, they explained. Everyone had adored her, but knew very little about her. They suspected she had been hiding something, but what?  They wanted her story badly; they were so curious it hurt. Though I suspected there might be a problem, I made the call to set up the first interview and was invited over immediately. Tea was offered. We made ourselves comfortable. The nanny was affable and she was Irish; oral storytelling is in Ireland's DNA. She talked and she talked. It was a good story. But as I started to store my equipment she told me that I couldn't release the interview until she was dead. This was a conundrum. Her former employer had hired me and she had consented. The interview was done. But she was so adamant that I turned back the advance. I still have that CD stored in a box somewhere.

 

I would wager that within every family there are so many buried stories and secrets that, once unearthed, they could fill libraries. They often remain untold and unexplored. In their place are false stories, evasions, the lacuna of unanswered questions, ellipsis. These gaps create tension in a family, and also curiosity, which is why I started "Lifesounds," as a tool to fill in gaps and find answers to troubling questions. Of course, not all the gaps are sad or troubling; they can be happy gaps, or humorous gaps, or just unintended gaps. That is why Henry Louis Gates' program, "Finding Your Roots," is so successful. The past is a treasure trove, the revelations both illuminating and life-affirming for his guests and his audience.

 

Everyone has a right to with-hold their stories though I always try to convince people I interview, and my family as well, that it is unwise, even unkind to do so. We are living in an era of obfuscation, lies, and brazen hatreds, openly expressed. More than ever before, I consider it my responsibility, as a reporter and a writer, to assert authenticity as a moral value.

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Green Book

Everyone is raving about "Green Book," and for all the seemingly "right" reasons I won't reiterate here as we are sure to hear them ad infinitum in the run-up to the Oscars. The film is nominated in five categories: Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Film Editing. Not bad.

 

Why, then, am I so disappointed, so concerned? "Green Book" is a Hollywood movie, after all, and they—the producers, the money men and women—will usually make market-driven, star-studded choices. Screen writers are instructed to make changes, a mostly hidden process. (Note that there were three screenwriters on this project, which is not unusual.) With "sensitive" subjects such as race and sexual orientation, especially when they are combined, as in this story—the screenwriter is slave--yes slave-- to the director and the producers and the money men and women. How do I know this? My husband is in the business, so to speak. He watched helplessly as one of his teleplays was ripped to shreds and then abandoned because it was too "sensitive" on the issue of adoption.

 

There is so much money in Hollywood that some screenwriters make their living off option money and never see a screenplay or teleplay produced. My husband backed away, though he still has a project cooking. The constant cycle of expectation and disappointment, of not owning one's own work, is far from glamorous.

 

So now we have a story, a period piece, set in the 1960's, that is both educational for those who have not lived through the Civil Rights Movement, and Romantic. In my view, it is essentially a love story. As we see the relationship between the two male leads evolve--and why is Ali considered a "supporting" actor, I wonder?—we learn their backstories. There are many car scenes where important conversations unfold, some of which are humorous, some not so humorous, some predictable. Thinly scripted, they leave the two outstanding actors with too little material to work with as character devolves into stereotype and then caricature. I cringed during the cartoon Italian-American Christmas scene, but was relieved the film was over. Thank goodness for the scroll at the end with solid, documentary information and real-life pictures.   

 

Don Shirley was a brilliant, erudite, courageous musician who suffered greatly during Jim Crow, and then de facto segregation, north and south. His story, his music, and his legacy, deserve better.

 

 

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