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When Friends Make Us Proud

 
 
 

In 1942, the United States government ordered more than 110,000 men, women, and children to leave their homes and detained them in remote, military-style camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were incarcerated during World War II.

             --from the Manzanar National Historic Site website

 

I met Carol Shinoda and John Tateishi in a Chaucer class at UC Berkeley. I didn't know their backstory, nor did they know mine. As young, carefree college students the words camps, incarceration, round-ups, detentions and reparations were not mentioned, or even fully known. They were buried deep in our families' histories and in our psyches, only to surface many years later when we were married and about to start our families. We were all living and working in London, simultaneously by design—John & Carol, Jim and I. And once we had our first born children, we all began to think about returning to America.


"I had always thought we'd be expats forever," John told me recently. "I imagined we'd live in France eventually because the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a Japanese American unit, many of their parents interned in camps during the war, fought with courage and patriotism in the bloodiest and fierecest campaigns in Europe. The French have never forgotten that; their gratitude is still palpable. But we thought it was important for our children to know what had happened to the Japanese-American community inside America after Pearl Harbor. So we returned to America to become a part of that community."


Five years after they returned to California, John and Carol not only found a community, they became active in that community. They joined a civil rights group, the Japanese American Citizens League. John eventually became the Chair of the Regional Redress Program and, in 1978, he became National Chair. He also gathered and edited a book of oral histories called, And Justice for All, and became a lobbyist in Washington for the Redress Campaign.


Now John has published Redress: The Inside Story of the Successful Campaign for Japanese American Reparations (Heyday Books) about the day to day, week to week, year by year travails and successes of the movement that culminated in reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned. It granted each surviving internee $20,000 in compensation. A total of 82,219 received redress checks.


The United States has a long history of racism, xenophobia, and violence against immigrants and minority groups. The World War II Japanese American chapter is only one chapter in our sordid story, a fault line as shameful as the Native American genocide and enslavement. We must continue to expose these stories, resist false narratives, and write about them with courage. I am proud of my tenacious friend--the book was not easy to write-- and wish him fortitude as he embarks upon his publicity tour. Check out John's website for a schedule of appearances: https://www.johntateishi.com/

 

 

Photo: Out of focus but poignant nonetheless. This is Manzanar where John Tateishi was incarcerated as a toddler. Like most interned families, his family lost everything--or it was stolen-- the day they were shipped out. It was cold in these mountains. Japanese American Californians, accustomed to a warm climate, did not even have the right clothes.

 

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Ask the Hard Questions

photo: courtesy Netflix

 

Several friends suggested I watch "Cheer," a Netflix-produced documentary series. It's a real-time portrayl of a cheerleading team from Navarro College, a small, publicly-funded, under-funded community college in Corsicana, Texas, county population 48,000, known best for its fruitcake and its 73% turnout for Donald Trump. It's an America many of us never experience, a picture-perfect town of upended devotion—religious and athletic—that conceals exploitation and cruelty.


Within minutes of the camera rolling in a bare-bones gymnasium, we hear one of the female "flyers" say that she's had five concussions. Despite this guileless confession from a young woman clearly eager to please her silent behind-the-camera interlocutor, and her hard-driving coach, there are no follow-up questions. In fact, there aren't any questions at all. And it is only once at the end of the six-part series that the viewer hears a reporter's voice. It seems to be an accident. Perhaps the footage was too valuable to cut.


There are many situations where cinema verité (fly-on-the-wall) film-making is useful. This series is not one of them. These still young, extreme athletes, many from troubled backgrounds, on scholarship, desperate for an education, require protection as they are filmed in the gymnasium, and in their personal lives. And though the strong, female coach, Monica Aldana, presents herself as a parental, caring force, her self-promotion pervades the series without respite. She is an emblem of the dark culture of American sports that exploits its talent and demands athletic prowess for the glory of the school, the team, and the final competition at Daytona. We watch breathless and expectant as the vulnerable athletes fall onto hard wooden floors, nearly break ribs, bruise muscles, damage their backs, sob and groan, cheer despite their pain, get into trouble, leave school, head for the hospital emergency room, return to practice. Navarro College only has a 21% graduation rate. That fact is never revealed; it requires explanation.


Does the series' director, Greg Whitely, have a point of view? Does he imagine that he's created an exposé, a raw record, and that we'll come away both admiring and disgusted, able to make our own decision? I found it interesting that he was a missionary for The Church of Latter Day Saints and had made a film about Mitt Romney. Is that relevant to his ominiscient style of film-making? Are the athlete's fates in the hands of the gods? In an interview with Mashable, an online magazine, Whitely said, "I tried as best I can to remain agnostic on different themes or issues, being generous with my subjects, while also documenting in cold detail who they are and what they are going through. And I trust that by doing that correctly, themes will just naturally emerge. They'll organically come out." Well, they do. But without a reporter's commentary and hard questions, the series has no ethical center.


We're in the midst of an election year, challenging beyond our imaginations. Credible reporters asking difficult questions has never been more important. I expect such rigor from my students, from myself, and from every working writer, reporter and documentary film-maker, no matter the social media hoopla and revenue value of an entertaining subject.

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Reading to Dogs

My favorite photo of Willow. We are both lap swimmers.
©copyright Chloe Annetts 2020

 

 

Saturday morning, the roads quiet, the temperature mild, no car to dig out, so off I went to meet Fletcher, a therapy dog, at the Gardiner Library. The blurb in the newsletter said:


Beginning and struggling readers sign up for a 15 minute time slot to read to certified therapy dogs.Come read to "Fletcher"! A fun, relaxed, stress free environment supports children's learning. Please sign up ahead of time. Spaces are limited.


Gardiner is a small town with an outstanding library, helpful librarians, events, donated books for sale for $1 (dangerous), a shelf of local authors ("Say Nothing is there), and peaceful nooks to read, get onto a computer, contemplate. Large windows bring in the light and a vista of the Minnewaska Ridge.


Alas, no one signed up; Fletcher had a day off. I was disappointed. I had never witnessed children reading to dogs in a formal setting and I was curious. Though the domesticated wolves we call dogs don't have language, their gestures, facial expressions and sounds convey to their co-dependent owners/companions all they need to know about their needs, feelings and the status of the environment. They warn of intruders more accurately than any electronic surveillance. They are protective of their territory and of us.


I have a particularly close relationship with my daughter and son-in-law's eldest dog—Willow—and I'd have to say, though many doubt me, that we completely understand each other. She is smarter and more abundantly caring than quite a few people I know. Although I am thinking and writing and reading all day long, when I am with Willow, I am, literally, entirely in the moment—her moment.


The younger rescue in the family—Nucky—is a comical, sweet-natured dog who I enjoy just as much as Willow, but because Willow is older and frailer, I take special walks with her these days. Sometimes we walk quietly, sometimes I talk to her and she looks up at me in acknowledgment of my chattering. The other day we witnessed an eagle with a squirrel in its talons being chased by a crow. Willow is a German Pointer with a strong prey instinct and I expected her to bark furiously, but she remained reverently silent, as did I. A van stopped; the driver had seen the eagle, and we chatted amicably about the sighting.

 

Eagles are no longer endangered, but bald and golden eagles—their feathers, nests and roost sites—are still protected under multiple federal laws and regulations. These regulations work, the eagles are back.

 

I had forgotten that The Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon on December 28, 1973. The Supreme Court called it "the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species enacted by any nation." Memories of that important day sustain my hope, if not my belief, that we will surface from our present political conundrums with courage and gusto.

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Our House of Mirth

"Pure Joy" ©copyright by Peggy Weis 2020

 

"He taught me to be hopeful, to be optimistic, to never get lost in despair, to
neverbecome bitter, and never to hate."


--Congressman John Lewis about Martin Luther King Jr.

 

"When and where will this end? What is a republic taking sides against itself?"

 

--Amos Bronson Alcott, progressive educator, father of Louisa May Alcott

"Don't ask whether you need an umbrella. Go outside and stop the rain."

 

--Jill Lepore, "In Every Dark Hour," The New Yorker, 2/3/2020

 

written for the Future of Democracy Series.

 


As if the sham trial and the sociopathic cowardice of most of the Republican senators was not enough this week, a colleague handed me a book by Adam P. Frankel called "The Survivors." I haven't read any Holocaust literature for a long time, but I could not refuse a well-meaning gift. And it was, after all, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz where the ashes of three of my grandparents and countless other relatives are what—buried? scattered? What verb shall we use?


I had flipped the book open at the table while my colleague was eating a scrumptious turkey, cheese and avocado sandwich and I was sipping on Sencha tea and eating an apple. I had not heard of the book. Frankel was a speechwriter for Obama, but I had never heard of him either. My comment in that moment was simply, "Oh, he must be a good writer," as the one speechwriter I have known well—for Kofi Annnan at the UN—is a good writer. Nonetheless, I wanted the book to disappear. I tucked it into my briefcase and continued to enjoy my apple, my tea and my friend. We had a wonderful conversation; it was good to see her.


The next morning, I emptied my briefcase and there was "The Survivors." It's a beautifully produced book with an inviting albeit simple cover. I opened it and started to read. This was a grave mistake. And we are talking about graves here, and not just graves but mass graves. I finished the book in a couple of hours. I skimmed a bit and read it backwards a bit, as I did with Daniel Deronda. And that got me through it, and through the agony of the history that is my history, that I cannot shirk or bury or ignore, a history that obsesses me some days, and enrages me on other days, more so recently as I have watched the regime in Washington do its calculated, autocratic dance.


I have a dear artist cousin I call when Holocaust angst, agony and despair overtakes me. Years ago, after the birth of her second grandchild, a therapist suggested she visualize joy and resist repeating Holocaust themes in her work. So she thought about her grandchildren and started creating adorable, fascinating, life-affirming work. I have three out-takes on my walls: a stone forest, a teepee, and a comical figure. I looked at them a lot this week as a reminder that there is life beyond children in cages, and Iranian students with operative visas turned away at the borders, beyond a fascist president humiliating a respected radio reporter, beyond a tell-all book and a voice vote on the floor of the Senate, and a regime—not an administration, a regime—that in three years has never governed anything but its own self-interest.



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