I used to write poetry. It’s been a long time, but lately, I’ve had an urge to start again. So it was interesting timing that my Christmas present from Sweetheart’s father and his wife was a volume of Seamus Heaney’s poetry.
There are massive holes in my literary education. Heaney was one of them, but thanks to D&K, that will be changing.
All the Christmas books from D&K include, somewhere inside, a photograph of a dead white guy. It’s fun to get money any time, of course, but there’s something truly special about being part of a family in which every holiday means that someone spent significant amounts of time imagining what you would love to read and went hunting for it.
Getting back to poetry, one of my favorite under-appreciated poets is Kelly Cherry. I met her when I was a baby journalist and my first editor sent me out to interview her. We don’t see each other often, but established enough of a connection to remain friends nearly 30 years down the road.
I was writing a lot more poetry then. Reading hers blew me away. It still does. I once told her – because it’s true – that my poems were like melody lines and hers were entire symphonies. Here’s one:
“From Venice: Letter to an Ex-Husband” (The Horses of San Marco)
Anyway, back to when we met. It was an interesting time. First Husband had just met Better Wife than I’d Been, and I was madly in love with a guy I now refer to (when I refer to him at all) as Mr. Perfect from the Neck Down. The first time he dumped me was just after Thanksgiving.
Like most working people in the US, where Christian culture is majority culture, I’d been looking forward to a couple of days off at Christmas.
It’s not my holiday. But I get to partake of its best parts because Sweetheart’s family is a mashup of Lutherans, atheists who grew up as Lutherans & Catholics-by-choice. Sweetheart was nine when his parents split. From that point on, it was Christmas Eve with Mom and Christmas Day with Dad. That’s carried into adulthood, except now Dad is at the Mom celebration and Mom comes to Dad’s brunch. They’re what it looks like when you decide to stop letting the past get in the way of the present and learn new ways to be kind.
It makes those big life transitions so much easier. When First Husband died, Better Wife than I’d Been called me right away. (Unexpected, as BW adored FH and loved my children, but not so much me. I was fine with that – she didn’t have to be nice to me as long as she was good to them.) Together, we got the six combined kids (three apiece, ranging from 19-29) through that terrible time. At that point, I hadn’t spoken with First Husband’s father Sidney for about five years. But BW’s father was dying, and she’d just been widowed for the second time. She had her hands full. So I started calling Sidney every week to check up on him and let him know how his granddaughters were faring.
I was particularly worried because of Mrs. Sidney – I’ll call her Barbara. He’d married Barbara within a year of FH’s mother’s death when FH was 15. She had never warmed to Sidney’s children, and didn’t share his level of anguish. She wasn’t crazy for me either, but time passed. Things changed.
We’ve had lots of breakfasts and dinners together, a couple of Passover Seders (one that included BW & her family) and those weekly calls.
I’ve seen Sidney go downhill steadily since First Husband’s death.
This past June, he pulled Barbara down as she was trying to help him up after another of his increasingly frequent falls. Doctors diagnosed a brain tumor. They gave him two to six months. Barbara, who doesn’t drive anymore, found a nursing home nearby. She visited a couple of times a week and wondered aloud more than once what, if anything, either of them was getting out of those visits. My mother is in a nursing home here, and I see lonely people with no or infrequent visitors. It’s not pretty. I had a hard time understanding the way she was dealing with things until the day she told me she’d never seen anyone die before.
She’d never seen anyone die before?
She’s in her mid-80s. I feel very lucky to have seen people die. It’s made me much less anxious about the whole process.
Now, Sidney has given two of his granddaughters that gift.
The youngest, Talia, is a 27-year-old undergrad who works as a nanny. She lives about two hours from the nursing home. Since June, she’s been there every week when she’s not in school and every other week when she is.
On Tuesday, the evening before my first day of Christmas break, she called me at 9 p.m.
“Has anyone told you what’s going on with Grandpa?”
“Ummm…..no. What’s going on with Grandpa?”
“I’m in his room. He’s dying. Barbara called to tell me they said she needs to have a CNA in his room 24/7, so I told her to tell them I was coming down,” she said. Then she said something I knew she hadn’t told Barbara.
“There’s no way I’m going to let Grandpa die alone with a stranger in his room.”
I live a scant hour and a half from Sidney’s nursing home.
“Do you want me to come down?”
She burst into tears.
“Oh, Mommy! Would you?”
When I got there, he was actively dying (unconscious and in a state of possible semi-awareness). He was also agitated. I rousted the nursing staff when I found out that his last dose of morphine had been about two hours before.
I had Talia call Former Sister-In-Law, who was in from Texas and had taken off from her job to be there. (All I could think was – Lord, please don’t let him die with me in the room and NOT her). SIL and her lifelong best friend arrived at about 11:30. By 5 a.m., when they left to nap and shower before returning later in the day, Talia’s sisters had flights. Alex was coming in at 1 p.m. and Liza, who’d just seen him a week before, would arrive the next night.
Barbara showed up at about 8:45. The Hospice Nurse was there and told her she might want to tell him that it was okay for him to go.
She sat by him. She took his hand and said, “You’ll be in a better place, and we will all be okay.”
Then we went out for breakfast. She offered to split the bill. I didn’t let her.
I dropped her back at her place for a hair appointment (she lives in one of those all-inclusive assisted living complexes), hit up the grocery store for some provisions (a box of clementines, some grapefruit soda, a green plant) and headed back with food. Talia ate the to-go breakfast I’d gotten her and took off to fetch Alex from the airport.
We were alone for a bit.
I told Sidney that we’d all be okay and I’d keep up the weekly calls to Barbara. I played my guitalele and sang a bit for him, and then Vicky the Hospice Nurse, who turned out to have a great voice, showed up. We harmonized on songs we couldn’t remember the words to and told Sidney we were worth every penny he was paying us.
I also told him that for a man whose stock lines included “I’m not big on long goodbyes,” he sure seemed to be stretching this one out.
Then, I remembered that I had Mandy Patinkin singing Yiddish songs on my iPad (Sidney was a big fan of Yiddish songs). So I put that on for him. Alex & Talia arrived, then Cathy. When my daughter-in-law Abbi showed up a little after 3, it was okay – better in fact – for me to head out. The room wasn’t that big and at that point I was just extra baggage.
I sat beside him. I gave him a kiss.
“I’m not big on long goodbyes,” I told him.
Then, I made my way back to Milwaukee, exhausted but just in time for Christmas Eve with the in-laws.
Talia called at 8 to tell me Sidney had died, with Alex and Talia each holding one of his hands, Cathy with her hands on his head and Abbi sitting nearby.
Black man killed by white cop. It’s a scenario we’ve seen way too often this year in US cities.
Here in Milwaukee, where I live, that story has a particularly sad and horrible twist. Dontre Hamilton was 31 when he died last April. I never met him, but his situation falls within my slice of Tikkun Olam Pie.
Tikkun Olam is a Jewish concept. When the messiah (for whom we’re still waiting) shows up, there’s no rapture. We stay here and heaven gets established on earth. In the meantime, we’re supposed to clean up the house, as it were, and make it ready for Big M’s arrival. That’s Tikkun Olam.
I’ve come to think of it as a pie. There’s an overwhelming amount of misery that needs to be addressed and a lot in need of cleaning up. No way can any reasonable person take that much on. It would be like trying to eat an entire pie in one sitting. So I’ve chosen mental illness, which comes with a la modes that include stigma, access to medical services, shelter, employment and criminal justice.
Dontre Hamilton’s story touches on all of it. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he was homeless, and not on medication. He had family members who cared about him and were struggling to advocate effectively for him as best they could. The day he died, he was napping in a Downtown park, where he could be seen from the window of a coffee shop. Employees there called police, figuring their customers didn’t want to watch some homeless guy sleep while drinking carmel macchiati.
A squad responded. Hamilton was deemed not a threat. The officers left. Then Christopher Manney arrived, unaware that a couple of other officers had already checked things out. A physical fight ensued; Hamilton was shot. Fourteen times.
Between that April day and October, when Manney was fired for not following protocol during the encounter, black men killed by white officers in other cities were a constant reminder of what had happened in Red Arrow Park.
Peaceful demonstrations took place amid calls for justice, calls for Manney to be identified by name (he wasn’t for months), calls for his dismissal (he was, and is appealing) and that he be charged (a decision is under review by the District Attorney’s office).
On Friday, protestors shut down the Interstate during rush hour. Several were arrested, the rest gathered in front of the main police station, just across the street from where I work.
I thought about joining them. I didn’t. I’ve been asking myself why all weekend, and have come up with some reasons, but nothing that feels like the complete right answer. So I listed them to see if some coherent theme would emerge.
Why Taking Part in Demonstrations & Protests is Not My Thing
I do not like crowds. I handle them okay if I have a press pass, a notebook and a deadline. But it’s been years since that was my reality, so unless it’s something I really want to see (ie: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Phantogram or King Crimson), don’t bother trying to find me in any mass gathering.
I have trust issues, particularly when it comes to groups. They can turn on you, and I don’t mean physically. I mean that the herd mentality, when combined with high emotion, can result in bad decision-making. I prefer to do my thinking and reasoning about high emotion issues on my own or in groups of five or less.
It doesn’t feel like I’m really doing anything worthwhile or meaningful when I’m standing there chanting the same thing over and over. I’d rather try to come up with solutions, or gain access to people who have the power to effect change and share or brainstorm solutions with them. This might be a function of a feeling – real or imagined – that I have privilege – the ability to figure out how to get to the people who can make things happen. I might. Or I might be delusional.
I’m not much of a joiner. My first instinct (See #1 on this list) at the sight of a crowd of any substantial size is to move as quickly and discreetly as possible in the other direction.
That said, I’ve been working on community mental health issues in various capacities for a long time. That’s one reason I know exactly how big a deal it is that one response to Dontre Hamilton’s death is a recent decision by the Milwaukee Police Department to provide all officers with special Crisis Intervention Team training to help them to identify and respond appropriately to people with mental health issues.
So it’s not really that I’m not outraged enough to be out on the street, holding a sign and yelling for change. It’s that I prefer to eat my slice of Tikkun Olam pie in the kitchen, not at the picnic.
Update: This morning the announcement was made that former Officer Manney will not be charged. It’s too early for me to make any sort of intelligent comment because I’m reacting and not processing. But my first reactions are shock, disappointment and great sadness for Hamilton’s family, who have just gotten the ultimate in Christmas lumps of coal. As to Manney, this decision is not going to make his life any cakewalk, either. It wasn’t a win/lose situation as much as an elevate/diminish one, for my money. And this decision diminishes everyone involved, directly and indirectly. May we strive for and find better ways of being as we are carried forward by time, the thing that does not stop.
When we were little, my sister and I really wanted a Christmas tree.
We did not want Christmas.
We had no problem with Christmas, but we were perfectly happy with Hanukkah. We liked being Jewish. We loved potato latkes and we got eight night’s worth of presents. So we never felt as if we were missing out on that score. Plus, as a religious minority, we got to partake in a fair share of Majority Culture’s fun. We sang Christmas carols in the school concert and participated in classroom gift exchanges.
Outside of school, Mom let us stand in line so we could sit on Santa’s lap (we always told him we were Jewish and he always wished us a Happy Hanukkah). And our parents took us on an annual nighttime ride around the city during which we oohed and ahhed at houses and houses dressed for the season. They’d pull over, leaving the car running and the heat on, giving us time to take it all in – block after block of lights stretched across houses and dripping from gutters, lit crèches and nativity scenes, rootop Santas and pine wreaths on front doors. If the curtains were open, we might get a glimpse of the family’s tree, festooned with ornaments, boxes piled below.
Then we’d go home to our darkened house. Debby and I never talked about how desperately we wanted a tree. Not to each other, and certainly not to our parents.
We never spoke of it.
It seemed too – blasphemous. Which was not a word either of us knew at that point in our lives. But Debby and I understood that a Christmas tree had no business in the rabbi’s living room, no matter how much the rabbi’s daughters wanted it. And boy, did we want it. A big ol’ fir tree strung with lights and popcorn chains, dripping with silvery strands of tinsel and delicate glass ornaments and maybe even candles you could really light.
We were about seven and eight when we solved our Christmas Tree Lust problem to my satisfaction. (I had a genuine “shock and awe” moment when I learned much later that Debby had, for years, also been decorating a triangular tree-like object she kept hidden on a shelf in her bedroom closet).
Mom & Dad regularly threw us out of the house on weekends.
“Go out and play!” they’d say. It was cold and inside was nicer. But they were in charge.
So we’d put on coats, hats, snow pants, mittens, scarves, grab sleds or whatever and head off looking for what to do and other kids with whom to do it.
One of those days there was just us. We’d walked the neighborhood looking for other kids, but everyone was busy or not home. I’m not sure who got the idea first, but it was just past Christmas. Discarded trees were everywhere.
I looked at her. She looked at me. We looked around, and chose. For the next two or three post-Christmas seasons, we would set out, hunting for the perfect discarded tree. We knew nothing of shape, or symmetry. We looked for tinsel, and types of needles, and whether we could get our hands around the trunk to drag it home. Then, we could imagine it had been in our living room, decorated with popcorn garlands, strung with lights, hung with tinsel and dripping ornaments.
Even though I only imagined one tree inside the house, there was usually more than one laying in the road outside our living room window. We’d see one that was just too perfect to resist (particularly if it still had tinsel slung over the branches) and add it to our collection.
My sister and I never talked about it. My mother and father never brought it up.
Decades later, after my father was long dead, I finally asked my mother what they’d thought about it all.
“We’d laugh,” Mom said. “And then, the night before the garbage truck came, your father would go outside after you were in bed and drag the trees next door to Dr. Cantor’s house.”
Celebrity gossip and pop culture are two of my guilty pleasures, and I follow world affairs and politics the way some people follow sports. I even have an unofficial list of Celebrities and World Leaders Welcome in my Home (it’s very short).
This was particularly driven home in a Facebook post by a former editor. She’s a thoughtful and delightfully opinionated woman who now runs a non-profit. Its mission is to train community volunteers as advocates for abused and neglected children needing safe and permanent homes. She said, in part:
“The racist joking about the President had news value to the extent of exposing racism, but does showing it publicly do any more than that? Their personal conversation – racist or not – has no real implications on the general public, IMO, as they made no plans to carry out hateful acts against others.”
To put it in newspaper terms, the Entertainment Industry’s op-eds are liberal (in the form of political affiliations and donations) and say all the right things about fairness, justice and equality. But its articles support a status quo that keeps us so mired in class- and racially-based divisiveness that it might as well just save its money and ditch the op-ed page altogether.
People like Amy Pascal (as an Amy, I have wondered aloud whether there is there a whiter name, but that is another topic for another day) and Scott Rudin regularly commit hateful acts against all of us. They’re just the latest links in a long chain of industry executives who’ve acted similarly. (They’ve also joined my “not on the list” list.)
People in their positions have tremendous influence. They control the stories we hear. They control the faces of those stories and the voices that tell them. They control the message, its volume and when and how that message gets released, heard and processed.
They frame the narrative of our culture.
It’s all about green at the expense of black and brown – and, I’d argue – white, too. That’s no surprise to anyone with a working brain. But Pascal’s e-mails really illustrate of the degree of insidiousness, denial of and willful obliviousness to past, current and future damage.
From that standpoint, the Sony hack, in its own way, is no less important than the Watergate scandal or release of the Pentagon Papers.
The Entertainment Industrial Complex has made lots of money selling us its sanitized version of reality for public consumption. Maybe it’s time we stopped buying.
So, last Friday I took a half-day off work because it was Writer’s Lunch. Every December for the past five – or maybe six – years, Annie, Elaine, Judy, Shauna and I pick a restaurant and go out for lunch. We have the best time. We laugh, we drink, sometimes I empty my purse because it’s filled with weird things that make people laugh (and inspired Shauna to write a poem) and, of course, we trade gifts.
I was really excited about the presents I found my writer pals this year, and even more excited that I could include myself as a recipient. My friend Amy Waldman Smith in Toronto is an amazing artist, and recently she started making little glass birdies. I screeched and sent her an e-mail begging her to make some red ones so I could buy five for Writer’s Lunch.
That’s because Judy is a writing teacher and writer who owns and runs Redbird Studio.
If this had been last year, I would have bought four birdies. Elaine (who has written 13 of the most fabulous vampire novels ever*), Annie (short stories and edits) and Shauna (novels, short stories, how-tos) have all done Redbird things years ago and for years. This past fall, my life was finally in a place where I could, too. I signed up for and took a four-week workshop. She is an incredible writing teacher and mentor. I’d always suspected it, but it was a great thing to discover as I move ever closer to producing a pile of paper with words on it.
It also earned me rights to birdie ownership. Everyone unwrapped, and then we put them in the middle of the table. Judy got to choose first. Two were wearing pearls, and Shauna showed up with a gorgeous strand around her neck, so we all agreed that she had to have one of those. I took home the little birdie left after everyone else picked. Each is cuter than the next, so it was a win-win situation for all.
Shauna was a judge for the 2014 Giller Prize, and she gave us all some of the books she most loved from the competition. I got a book of short stories by Dave Margoshes, “God Telling a Joke.” Shauna said lovely things about him, that he’s a really seasoned writer and a great one. She loved the book and was heartbroken that it didn’t even make the long list.
Awards are funny, fickle things. I’ve gotten a few over the years, and they’re fun, but I think it’s a bad thing to take them too seriously. Shauna’s remark – that she loved the book and would have shortlisted it, but she wasn’t the only reader – is exactly why. The whole process is the very definition of subjective. In a different year with a different crop of judges, Margoshes might have walked off with the Giller.
Then I read (thank you, Social Media) about Ayelet Waldman’s (no relation) tantrum because her novel wasn’t chosen as one of the New York Times Notable Books of the year. First I wanted to slap her. Then I felt sorry for her.
Truly, the only thing I want for my word pile is for it to exist. Once that happens, I can make it what I want. If anything happens after, that’ll be fine. If not, that’ll be fine, too. Which is my way of saying that if I’m going to rip a page out of another writer’s book when it comes to handling non-attention, it’s going to be one of Dave Margoshes’.
I like to think I grew up in a practical family, but as I get older, I’m realizing the truth is more that I grew up in a family that liked to think it was merely practical.
I’m in the process of working out exactly what to call us. For now, I’m gonna go with Practical Gothic.
My grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They got to the United States in the early decades of the last century, just in time to raise their children – my parents and their siblings – during the Great Depression.
Dad’s parents settled in Boston. Mom’s were in Central New York. I never met Dad’s father, a cantor whose poor health prevented him from succeeding in business.
My mother’s father died just before my third birthday. I remember Zaydie. My sister and I used to crawl around on his lap as he lay on his recliner, his legs covered with a blanket. He called us “knaidlach,” the Yiddish word for dumplings. He was 25 when he married my then 14-year-old grandmother, the second-oldest girl in her family.
My parents were the first in their families to graduate college. Mom’s parents were farmers who hadn’t gone past third grade. She became a teacher. Dad, from a long line of Orthodox rabbis and cantors, went rogue and became a Reform rabbi.
By the time my sister and I showed up, things were pretty much etched in stone.
We were the youngest of Bubby and Zaydie’s 15 grandchildren. The nearby next-ups were four years older than we were. The oldest, Larry, was born 20 years before me.
We spent lots at “the farm” where Mom had grown up. Mom’s older brother and his family lived there, but my uncle had stopped farming and become a photographer. Duke and Penny, the dogs, were the only animals. Calling it a farm made no sense to me, but I was a kid, and no one much cared what I thought.
Half a century later, with more information, I’m lurching toward answers.
The good news is that I have a few. The bad news is that they’ve raised a lot more questions.
My family’s practicality is a fact. My immigrant grandparents worked hard and stressed the value of education. They passed those values on to my parents, and my sister and I have passed them on to our children.
But they passed on a few other less socially acceptable things, too.
Some of those can be traced to money, or, more accurately, its pursuit, and the fallout of its absence. Some of it can be traced to mental illness, which definitely ran in my father’s family.
I’d like to think that that ran in my mother’s family too. Which might seem strange. But it’s so much nicer to imagine that your great-grandfather killed his children, beat his wife and got his oldest daughter pregnant because he was mentally ill and not just evil.
Unless, that is, you’re still figuring out whether to be practical about it all.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).