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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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Sundays in the Mountains; A Look Backwards & Forwards

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

Huguenot Street in New Paltz is a palimpsest, layers of history, some undisturbed, some excavated. It's my favorite walk in town, sheltered from the wind in winter, sun dappled but not fierce in the warm months. The Dutch Reformed Church anchors the street and it's bursting with parishoners on a Sunday. People pray here, people say, "Have a blessed day," when they open a door at a doctor's office, or the bank. They can also be stand-offish, guarded to the point of rudeness, suspicious, intimidated, afraid. This is the America I knew existed but never experienced first hand until I moved north of the city, beyond the suburbs, along the route of the mighty Hudson River. I'm still learning, I'm still reading, researching, and writing about what I discover here. Some days I am exhuasted by new insights, new projects, new people; on other days I am more relaxed than I ever was when I lived in the city. I had always thought, or assumed, that the competitive, ambitious, striving, assertive, materialistic pulse of the city was the only pulse that mattered. I was wrong.


I arrived here in the spring of 2018 in the midst of a "monuments" controversy on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Several dormitories were named after the slave-owning Huguenot families and the African American students wanted those names changed. Because it is a state university and the whole town is a monument to the Huguenot slave-owning families—whose descendants still live here—the university had to go through a laborious testimonial process; it took months. Any decision had to be approved by New York State, not the Huguenot descendants, and that was difficult for the families. Controversy writ large, bad feeling, hatred. The outcome, unlike the outcome in the Senate, was not pre-ordained, however. Indeed, the university fell on the right side of history; the names have been changed.


Because it touched on a subject that has always been one of my subjects—the way history is told, and for whom—I plowed right in. Within weeks I'd written a guest editorial for the Poughkeepsie Journal. Needless to say, I expected to be praised for my two cents, invited to seminars, consulted on my very important opinion. Instead, I experienced a kind of shunning. The shunning intensified when I was interviewed by the local paper about my book, "Say Nothing." Alas, my picture appeared next to the profile and I became instantly recognizable in this very small town where people refer to me, when I'm introduced, as a "newbie." My still urban, sophisticated, well-traveled self, did not anticipate any of this. Blind to life outside the New York City bubble, where I still happily commute to teach, see friends, and imbibe culture, I was humbled.


I have heard some New Yorkers say that New Paltz is a "'hick" town with only a handful of decent restaurants. This condescension now riles me so I guess I have adapted, finally, to living here. Who are we to say that a town we know so little about is a "hick" town, that the highly educated, privileged prism through which we view America and its conundrums is the only prism with which to view our beleaguered, divided country, much less solve its problems.


I needn't tell you, dear reader, where my politics reside—born and raised in a European democratic socialist family—I am on the "left" in the American political spectrum. But I have studied the politics of my new gun-toting, hunting, under-educated, semi-literate environs, as well as it's more privileged residents, and concluded that 45 is right in one important respect: the hinterland is another land, another country, decimated by cutbacks in educational opportunities, unemployment, outsourcing, and the opioid crisis, which has hit New York State hard. Any answers forthcoming must be local, grassroots, federally and state funded, and unstinting. I cannot count the number of young people I've met here who have had to quit school to work, whose loans are off the charts, and who cannot find a well-paying unionized job with benefits once they graduate. Even a day trip to New York City seems like Neverland to them.


Those of us who are educated, established in our careers, the owners of property and bank accounts, those of us who are altruistic, those of us who care, must help as much as we can and remain active and consistently empathetic, without condescension. Beyond the 2020 election, that is the only way we will take back America.

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Politicians; The Day I Met Bill Clinton

Once again, the Oval Office awaits an honest politician. I quote the New York Times: "Let the best woman win."

 

In celebration of the shenanigans in the Senate, this is a repost/ riff of a blog post called, "The Day I Met Bill Clinton." The image of Monica Lewinsky giving that two-term President of the United States a blow job in the Oval Office, Hillary Clinton standing by her man, and in a soon to be released documentary, that same Good Wife blasting Bernie Sanders as a "do-nothing Senator" who "nobody liked." Really? Spare us the destructive bitterness, Hillary. And I could go on. Instead, I offer you, dear reader, My Personal Clinton Story:


It was a hot day in mid-July 1992 and the Democrats had arrived in New York for their convention at Madison Square Garden. I had voted in the primary—yes, I am a Democrat—but not for William Jefferson Clinton. I'd read a lot about his tenure as Governor of Arkansas and when I'd learned that he had refused to stay the execution of a retarded man, that was enough for me. Clinton was also a union buster. I believe in unions—though belief is a scary word to use these days—and have belonged to two unions in recent years: the National Writers Union and ACT-UAW at NYU. At NYU, we have just negotiated our third, six-year contract. It's not perfect, but it's a contract that includes salary rises, improved working conditions, and benefits. Prior to unionizing, NYU, one of the richest universities in the country, was exploiting its labor—clerical, adjunct, and graduate students. It was the graduate students who unionized first; young people cannot tolerate injustice.


I wasn't thinking of any of this on the day I met Bill Clinton. News that he'd cheated on his accomplished and intelligent wife with impunity when he was Governor of Arkansas, that interested me. It stuck with me because of Hillary's reaction, or non-reaction. My intuition, long before Monica arrived in the Oval Office, was that these two political barracudas had struck a deal. Even then, that disgusted me. I voted for Jerry Brown.


It was 7:30 in the morning and already hot. I was trying to run my two laps around the reservoir without expiring. I stopped at the water fountains on the track near the Metropolitan Museum and took a long drink. And there was Bill Clinton at the fountain to my right. Flanked by two beefy security guards, he began running again and so did I. I suppose I was giving chase. Whoopee! I soon lost them as they sprinted ahead. So, great, I saw Bill Clinton on the track, I thought. In our celebrity driven culture that story alone would have some cachet at a dinner party. But there was more: When I stopped to stretch at the bars at the 90th street entrance to the track, he came up from behind—yes, dear reader, he lapped me—and we stretched together—me, Clinton and the two beefy guards. We stood up at about the same time and Clinton extended his sweaty hand.

 

"I'm Bill Clinton."


"Yes I know," I said.


Of course I had known this for the better part of fifteen minutes as I was giving chase around the track, but was loath to admit it.


The next ten minutes were quite an experience: No one else around and there I was being regaled by Bill Clinton. I could have been anyone. I could have been wallpaper. I stood and listened. I tried to open my mouth to say something intelligible. I wanted to ask about the retarded man who had been executed, for example. But I was stymied by the rehearsed, exaggerated stories about all he had done as Governor and would do once he became President of our United States. Were the stories fact, fiction or factoid? Was there any difference, even then, before Fox News and social media? I had no chance to even voice a doubt. To the very end of our brief encounter, I didn't have a chance to get a word in sideways. He didn't ask my name, whether I was a Democrat or not, or whether I had voted for him in the primary. He made good eye contact and was very handsome, however, that was obvious even to skeptical me. His sweaty handshake was not slippery, it was strong.


Eventually, we walked down the steps to the bridle path and, I was about to say goodbye, good luck, bon chance, and so on and so forth, when the paparazzi arrived, first in a helicopter, then in cars. They descended, deus ex machina, and surrounded Clinton and everyone in his wake. A few more joggers came along, some with babies in those over-sized special strollers, and they all hovered as the paparazzi snapped photos. A 50-something female jogger sidled up to Clinton and slipped him a piece of paper. I marveled at her foresight—to carry a paper and pen with her as she jogged. Perhaps she is a writer, I thought. I get my best ideas on the track or in the swimming pool. Yes, I must carry pen and paper with me from now on. Enough of bending down to the ash track and scrawling dirt letters on my arm.


Dear reader, this is not false news: Clinton took the piece of paper and slipped it into a pocket in his shorts. And though I witnessed this, I voted for him anyway. What choice did I have?



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In Memoriam

Illustration: © copyright by Tobias Tak 2017 from his book, Canciones, published by Scratchbooks, Amsterdam. Tobias transformed twenty poems by Francisco Garcia Lorca into a series of richly detailed and inventive ink drawings.
 

When friends die, it is a great sorrow. It does not matter if their death was sudden or expected, a release from pain and torment, or a peaceful passing. They are gone and the emptiness we feel is deep and long. At funerals and memorials loved ones rise to speak and tell their stories, often stories we have never heard before. We embrace other friends and partners, family members we have never met or know very well. We are all weeping.


At the turn of the New Year, two friends of mine died. I met both of them late in our lives, admired them both, and felt an abiding affection for them both. They did not know each other. One lived in New York, the other in Amsterdam and London. They were multi-talented, in the flow of their creative lives, connected and compassionate, kind and well-mannered.


I met Constance George through her dear friend, Stephanie Stone, who had once baby-sat for my daughter. I reconnected with Stephanie when I moved to Washington Heights and she introduced me to Connie. When I decided to stage—rather than read—excerpts from my book, Nomads, at the Cornelia Street Cafe, Connie offered to direct and act. Stephanie also performed what I had not realized were dramatic pieces. It was a thrill to work collaboratively with both of them over several weeks. Connie's enthusiasm and professionalism were inspiring. Most of her friends did not know she was sick. In fact, the last I'd heard she was planning to travel to Berlin and work in the theater there. In my imagination, she is there, singing and dancing, writing plays, making new friends, and cherishing them.


I met Tobias Tak through my friend, Norma Cohen. She wrote from London to say he was coming to New York to visit his artist-sister, Elise, who has lived in America for a while, and it would be wonderful if we could meet; she knew we would like each other. Tobi and Elise are Dutch, the children of Holocaust survivors, as am I, so we immediately had a point of reference for our childhood memories. Tobi was an esteemed tap dancer and dance teacher --Norma had taken lessons from him—but he also wrote and illustrated graphic novels and exhibited and published his work in Holland. I had an opportunity to critique one of these books, still in draft, and make a suggestion or two. Studying the relationship of images to words was new for me, and a welcome challenge. The story was complex and evocative. What a talent! But even more importantly were the kinetic conversations I always had with Tobi, whether on email, or the telephone. We never saw each other that much, but it didn't matter. Like so many solid friendships, we always picked up where we left off. I shall miss our discussions and his life-affirming spirit.


Dear Connie, Dear Tobi, rest in peace.

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Why I Still Love Anthony Trollope

 

I've been reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, for the past several weeks, how many I cannot exactly say. I started reading it electronically, then got a Modern Library edition out of the library. Gorgeous paper, big print, I thought that would help me along. I know that once I start skimming or reading a book backwards that I'm in trouble. I was on page 560 of 800 something when I started reading the last chapter. I was pleased that I'd made it that far.


I didn't read Middlemarch until a couple of years ago though I'd been intending to read it for a very long time. But intention is not enough. I finally succumbed to pressure from various writer/feminist friends, the same writer/feminist friends who recommended Daniel Deronda.


I have written about Middlemarch here so won't repeat myself; it's a masterpiece. Daniel Deronda is not. I had to plow and scythe my way through the reeds of George Eliot's formidable intellect, every over-long sentence a challenge to my patience. That poor author had something to prove—to everyone. Think of the life she lead in the aristocrat's Victorian England, the women in long dresses and flouncy hair-bobs, the men in their top hats smoking cigars at their clubs, marriage the only aspiration for those still-corseted, constrained women. But not Mary Evans, aka George Eliot. She was smart, she didn't want to marry, she lived with a married man, she became a famous writer in her own lifetime, her books are now classics revered by academics and intellectuals and any woman who can identify with her self-conscious, struggling female characters. In her time, Eliot would show up at the theater where her emancipated presence would cause a stir, or an uproar. Young women lined up to genuflect to her, and she would bless them, I presume, or say an encouraging word or two. At least I hope she did.


Despite all I know of George Eliot, and the admiration I feel for her as a writer and a Victorian free-thinking woman—if that isn't an oxymoron—I hit a roadblock with Daniel Deronda. Perhaps it is the "Jewish" subplot, which most agree is awkward and sentimental. Perhaps it's an insistence that we pay attention to this strange subplot. Eliot was a scholar of the world's religions and offended by anti-Semitism. Kudos to that. Or, perhaps, it's the prose itself which feels blunt and immovable, an obstacle to empathy.


The emotional experience of reading a work of fiction is important to me. Am I engaged or detached? Does the author let me in or keep me at arm's length with convoluted overly-written sentences? Alas, my dear George Eliot, Anthony Trollope remains my favorite Victorian writer. Straightforward, precise, progressive in his politics, a champion of women, every one of his novels I have read is accessible to a contemporary reader. I'd definitely invite him to dinner. If it were a potluck dinner, I imagine he'd bring something artisanal and tasty. He'd hug me as he entered and as he departed. Not so George Eliot. She'd bring me one of her books, inscribed to me personally, admonish me to read it cover to cover and to write my own book. A mentor. Kudos to that, too. We would then meet for tea and I would have to explain what happened at page 560. Or would I?

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Catch and Kill

 

Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.

 

--Walter Cronkite

 

To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!

 

Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America," a novel published in 2004

 

In the beginning, all the world was America

John Locke

 

I've been thinking about the upcoming Harvey Weinstein criminal trial, which begins in a few days, and Ronan Farrow's riveting podcast, "Catch and Kill," based on the book of the same name, which I have not, as yet, read. I did read the New Yorker pieces upon which the book is based, and I'm impressed with Farrow, a still young, brave investigative reporter who has been "hunted," surveilled, forced to move, threatened. It took him more than two years to get the story.


His interview style is patient and kind, and he's well educated, a lawyer and Rhodes scholar; he asks incisive questions. It is no wonder that several of the eighty-seven women who were assaulted by Weinstein entrusted him with their stories. Formerly an anchor and reporter for a NBC investigative unit, Farrow's bosses at the network did not value his integrity and determination. They succumbed to pressure, a complicated story in itself, and killed the Weinstein story.


I've lamented the demise of real journalism in my blog more than once, and the struggle of determined reporters to do their work, free of prior restraint, a form of censorship unacceptable in a democracy. The firewall between the editorial departments and business departments eroded slowly over a period of years; it has now completely shredded. What we cover, what eventually is published or broadcast, depends, largely, on the demographics of the audience and the stated—and sometimes unstated—wishes of the advertisers. In many regions in the United States, one person, or one corporation, owns all the newspapers, cable, television and radio stations, an unhealthy monopoly, and though the reporters on staff are real reporters, many of the articles read like PR handouts. Equally insidious is the reliance on clickbait, a headline, article, or photograph designed to entice readers to click on a sometimes questionable hyperlink.


I often have students from China in my NYU workshop, usually the children of government officials or successful business owners. I have a prepared speech about freedom of the press in the United States, an explanation targeted particularly at them, and any other overseas students from despotic regimes. It's our mandate to get under the skin of a story, I say, and write our hearts out in a bold voice. A writer must feel absolutely free, and we are free here in America. Witness the proliferation of podcasts, print stories, editorials, online magazines, and investigative reports in recent years. That's how I begin. It's only later in the term that I talk about the censorship of the marketplace, clickbait, product placement, the presence of the publicist at the interview spinning the story, the power of advertisers and targeted social media, the new phenomena of journalists being "hunted," not jailed, thankfully, but "hunted." I was shocked when I heard Ronan Farrow use this word on the podcast and relieved that he was not hurt as he gathered the story, though he admits that he was frightened when he realized he was being followed by a private spy agency.


As editors and writers we swim upstream against these dangerous anti-democratic trends and a regime in Washington that is oblivious to our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We must be as courageous as Ronan Farrow and persevere.

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When Language Dies

This 1930 photo is by Walker Evans.

 

But one may say very true things and apply them falsely. People can easily take the sacred word duty as  a name for what they desire any one else to do.

                                 

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876

 

               

It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths.

 

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, January 9, 1928, Berlin at a training conference for Nazi party members.

 

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

 

George Orwell, All Art is Propaganda: Critical Essays, 1940

 

 

I thank George Orwell and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) for the inspiration to write a "critical" essay this morning, which hopefully will sustain my readers' interest and attention. In this sound-byte culture we are living in—and as a writer and educator—I despair at the loss of attention, curiosity, and language itself. I had wanted to write a humorous blog post this week, or to post some lovely holiday photos and mountain sunsets, which I am assured my friends will "like," but it feels impossible.


And with that preamble, I will proceed:


These past few tiresome weeks, we have been witness to an unprecedented political spectacle, aided and abetted by both the mainstream media and social media. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, or what market-driven channels we watch, we are consumers of this media, all of which delivers us to the advertisers. Books and commentary are proliferating; 45 is a media cash cow.


It is time to take a breath and think.


The outcome in the Senate is pre-ordained: Donald Trump will remain in the White House until the election, possibly beyond. We are at great risk and must prepare for such a result. I ask myself and my readers to consider this possiblity, and worse, and to initiate a process of self-questioning and problem solving.


What can we do in the short term? What can we do day-to-day to make our individual, too-short lives joyous and fulfilling while, at the same time, remain constant in our efforts to resist fascist impulses, retrograde laws, and constitutional challenges.


I cannot ask others to do what I must do to answer these questions. I will list a few suggestions here and ask you, dear reader, to add yours to the mix with your comments in this open forum:


1. Read more history to maintain persepective about the fault lines in the American Experiment that have led us to this dire moment. Resist escapist literature and series binging, at least some of the time. Each day, shut down electronic devices and read. Reading slows us down and exercises our cognitive muscles so that we can think deeply and precisely. We will need strengthened brain power in the months ahead.


2. Help a young person become educated. If you do not have children or grandchildren, and even if you do, volunteer some hours every week with the other 98% as well as the entitled 1 %. Both are important. Help deepen literacy in the broadest sense of the word. Encourage and participate in a content analysis of the media this young person relies on for information and entertainment. Study together. Talk constantly. Use evolved language to defeat propaganda.


I work in two disparate educational instituions—one privileged, one under-privileged—and I can attest to a stark similarity: Americans are under-educated. All of us need to raise our knowledge base.


3. Think global, work local. Wherever you are, in whataever town, village, hamlet, city or county--volunteer. Canvas. Meet and greet your local politicans, call them when you have a concern, write them emails, insist that they speak to you in full, considered sentences. Resist jargon, platforming and fund-raising pitches. Most are good people who want to serve until they get swept up into the "system." Insist on continuing accountability.


4. Get outside, away from the computer and television and news feeds, into the fresh air and sunshine. Walk with a friend, or wander and explore solo. Let your brain and spirit rest. Talk to everyone, do not assume anything, including a political point of view. People are more than one thing: they have struggles, they have stories. Listen to their stories. Remain open and compassionate. We owe it to the next generation. We owe it to ourselves.

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The Secret Language of Sport

Getty Images: The Victorious US Women's Soccer Team

 

What in the midst of that mighty drama are girls and their blind visions?

 

                     George Eliot, "Daniel Deronda"

 

 

Think of yourself as an athlete. I guarantee you it will change the way you walk, the way you work, and the decisions you make about leadership, teamwork, and success.

 

               

         Mariah Burton Nelson, National Council of Women's Organizations

 

 

I have just returned from a post-Thanksgiving 50-lap swim where I out-swam and out-paced three men to either side of me, and then sat in the sauna and had to listen to an all male conversation about marathons, hiking and climbing prowess. I was the only woman in the sauna, which is unusual, but I think these men had arrived in a male-bonding clutch after a run in the mountains. They seemed oblivious to my presence; I was not oblivious to theirs. I did insist that someone make room for me on the crowded benches after no one moved. After a day of cooking and cleaning-up, my body was craving the swim and the sauna, and I was not to be turned away because they—the male bonders—were taking up all the space. Chit chat chit chat. Then one man said he'd run in the Boston Marathon, and please excuse him for being politically incorrect, but he'd be damned if he could accept that men and women were allowed to compete in the same race. No one said a blessed word to contradict or correct this misogynist. And, for once, I didn't either. A day of relaxation requires remaining silent, right? But I could not stop the words that came into my writer's brain: devolution and disinhibition. In the not so long ago past, we had evolved; now we are in a devolution trajectory it seems. Certainly, in the not so long ago past, there was an understanding that we keep private hatreds private. Earlier this week, I heard someone refer to an accomplished woman athlete as a "tomboy." I haven't heard that word since—when—the 16th century?


I am an athlete. In high school, I was on the basketball team; we were not allowed to dribble. We had to stand and shoot. On the softball field, playing with the local boy athletes, I was allowed to hit--I was a slugger-- but not to run the bases. In the lake at day camp, I only raced against the girls. I was bored. At NYU in the pool my junior year, I only competed against young women, though I was faster than all of them. Eventually I joined the modern dance club, which was less frustrating.


I wrote about my experiences as a pre-Title IX young woman athlete for an anthology of stories called Whatever It Takes; Women on Women's Sport published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


So let me be very clear: I—and every woman athlete, professional or amateur, are beneficiaries of Title IX, the 1972 Federal Civil Rights Law, a law that protects everyone, not only women, from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. The protections of the act extend beyond federal financing. With the #metoo revelations, court cases, accusations and resignations, the conversation with and about women --as well as LGBTQ men and women-- has changed and expanded.


Will the packed Supreme Court mess with Title IX? I certainly hope not. All women athletes expect equal opportunity, respectful conversation, and pay equity on every playing field.

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Welcome To My Village

Canal Street, Ellenville, NY, is picture postcard perfect. It still looks this way, more or less.

 

I taught a writing workshop in the Ellenville Library yesterday about an hour west of New Paltz into the mountains and then south on Route 209 towards Sullivan County. It was a cool-to-cold day and the air was fresh. Strobic light bouncing through the nearly leaf-bare trees disturbed my vision. I have to drive everywhere here, keep our old car in good shape, and brave all weathers, which I find both annoying and challenging. But I eventually relaxed into the mellow day. Past the turning in Kerhonkson, past Shop Rite and Walmart, "The Sound of Life," sermon on the radio, I flicked the search button and found a country music station. The evangelical stations play good music, too, and the bible readings are sometimes literary, but I am struck by the amount of repetition and the pounding—almost abusive—exhortations. How close is belief to obedience, I wonder? At election time, for example.


Just past Walmart the cars were rubber- necked, two tall guys in neon vests with empty plastic paint pails in the middle of the road. Cops? Volunteer firemen? Accident? Escaped prisoners from the state prison? The clunky castle-like structure loomed over us, casting its shadow.


My turn to roll down a window. How about a few dollars for the Ellenville Little League? Was this a question or a demand? These guys, who may well be volunteer firemen, were in the middle of the road stopping traffic, a bit coercive, I'd say. I popped a $5 bill into the pail and asked for $2 back. There's a limit to my generosity on a Saturday when I am trying to get somewhere, I thought. Isn't it enough that we have to endure lockdown drills nearly every week around here? Felled trees? Ice storms? Tail-gating? Gun shops?


Welcome to the Other America, not the urban, ghetto Other America that Michael Harrington wrote about in his iconic book, but the current, rural other America.


One thing that 45—or his oligarch handlers—got right: there is more than one America and that Other America is right outside the borders of our cities. Unexpectedly, I am living in it. Thankfully there are good schools, the roads are kept well, and everyone cares about the environment. Equally important for this writer is the interconnected library system; I can get any book I want quickly.


The new librarian at the Ellenville Library, Kristin Fowler, is wry, warm and energetic. When I first went out to meet her a few months ago, she booked me for two workshops and a reading of "Say Nothing," which is set in these mountains. Miraculously, the library has a budget beyond book purchase, and Kristin, a woman who cares about her job and her constituency, has made sure she uses it to develop free programs, services, workshops, and more. People are smiling when they walk into the library, and smiling when they walk out.


Six aspiring writers signed up for my workshop, four turned up. Three are avid readers, two have fascinating life stories they are eager to write, the fourth was there to listen and explore, a mom with three kids who still works night-shift to support her family and never made it to college, or at least not yet. I could not help but encourage her. "Your turn," I said. She is a John Grisham fan for the same reasons I am: He writes page turners and he has a social conscience. Who would have thought we have so much in common?


I still expect huge crowds at my workshops and readings and am surprised, even disappointed, when only a handful of people turn up. Entitlement syndrome: Am I not a well-known professor with a sterling reputation, reams of publications, and a CV five pages long? But Ellenville, like other hamlets and towns in Ulster County, is just a small village—population 4,000 and change—with a long, rich history and complex culture all its own and I am an outsider, a stranger, a traveler, passing through, not yet of the community. I am often met with skeptical expressions, even hostility, until I've got the room in my grip. It's a good thing I am experienced because it's not always easy. As I have written here in a recent post entitled, "Lockdown," I've even encountered anti-Semitism and shunning in Ulster County. I try not to take any reactions to my gentrified, educated persona personally, if that makes sense, and to meet everyone I encounter with curiosity and an open heart. After all, I'm still a free-thinking city girl. 

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