books, opinion, politics

American Library Association declares war on former food stamp recipient, plus a mini rant and a throwback post featuring Israel, Palestine and feral cats

Seven years ago, I decided to go to graduate school, because I don’t ever want to qualify for food stamps again. I want them to be there for people who need them, and I am all good with my tax dollars going to do that.

In fact, I’m pretty good with my tax dollars going to all kinds of things that make other people jump up and down and throw big fat tantrums. Things like public education – from pre-kindergarten through college – and health care and green space and road repair and publicly funded transit and art and music. I even like having my tax dollars go toward police and fire and prisons.

I’m not crazy for prisons, but there are nasty people out there who need time – sometimes a lifetime – to cool off and think about what they have done. I also think there should be education and constructive things for people in prison to do. Even someone behind bars can contribute good things to the world. Years ago, I reviewed a book called Cruciverbalism: a crossword fanatic’s guide to life in the grid by Stanley Newman. In it, he reported that because crossword puzzle design is a painstaking and time-consuming endeavor, a lot of puzzles are designed by prison inmates. (The book is a really fun read, and I highly recommend it.)

And speaking of cross words, I got an e-mail yesterday from my friend Saundra. Her son is my very favorite son-in-law. Saundra also has a master’s degree in library science, but she got hers at a more sensible point in her life. So she’s been a librarian for something like 30 years, and has deep connections in that world. I am a baby librarian, and still very idealistic. Or was, until Saundra’s e-mail asking whether I’d heard that the Council of the American Library Association, of which I am a member and which is meeting in Chicago this weekend, is taking up a resolution to boycott three American companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola) for doing business with Israel – specifically the IDF, its armed forces.

Talia_and_Alex_Frolkis_at_Maale

My two youngest offspring in Israel with Shelli Beham. Shelli’s humans Danny & Arlene were my adopted parents when I spent a year living at Ma’ale HaChamisha, a pre-1948 kibbutz 22 kilometers outside of Jerusalem.

I am having a big problem with this. For starters, the Council is doing this on a Saturday afternoon, which is the Jewish Sabbath. I know, I know – this is about Israel, not Jews. But…hmmmmm….Israel? Jewish state? Anyone see any sort of connection? I had a whole bloody comprehensive exam question on cultural warrant and its importance in librarianship. I have a problem with the resolution all on its own already. Now I have the extra problem of feeling like the ALA Council is a great big sneaky baby with its fingers in the cookie jar because it knows Mom is on the phone. Which I would not have had if it had scheduled this voting session on, say Sunday afternoon.

Then there’s the whole idea of the ALA Council voting on this. (I’m not going to even get in to the question of whether this is an appropriate issue for this particular governing body to address.) Really, ALA Council? I get the whole “commitment to social justice and fairness” thing. I even agree with it.

Which is why I just keep thinking “Aren’t we better than this?”

Here’s my problem: If the ALA wants to put to a vote a decision divesting itself of any investments in American companies doing business with Israel’s military, then it needs to do the same with American companies doing similar business in Sudan, Iraq, Syria, China, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Liberia, Congo, Angola, Russia and others. I could go on with my list of countries engaging in naughty behavior, but I won’t.

I also won’t get into how I feel about a group that prides itself on scholarship and accuracy of information taking on a really complicated issue in a manner that is reductive and simplistic. Not going to go there.

I have no clue as to what will happen on Saturday afternoon. I wasn’t planning on going, but if any of you library types think I should show up, maybe I will.

I’m going to end this little rant with a throwback post I wrote some five years ago.  I was just playing with bloggy formats between grad school assignments, and I think I let about seven people see what I was posting.

A throwback post

Ugly and frightening pretty much sums up the latest chapter in Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world.

It’s hard for me to talk about Israel in general, because I love it so much and want it to thrive and be safe; and I also want to hear the Palestinian National Symphony and see the Palestinian National Dance Company perform before I die, because that will mean that there is a Palestine that’s taking care of itself and its people.

My views on the situation aren’t popular with anyone. My conservative friends think I’m a sellout for not marching to the beat of “Everything Israel Does is Right.”

My liberal friends think I’m a fascist for thinking that Israel has a right to exist at all.

The truth is that Israel needs to exist, and Palestine needs to exist. There needs to be two states – side-by-side and the Palestinian state needs to be contiguous. Both sides need to respect the borders and safety of each other and live like decent neighbors.

And Jerusalem, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims? Sorry, dudes. You need to share it. And I get the whole not wanting to share things. I am an oldest child. I don’t want to share anything. But I am practical. Plus, I have a younger sister. So, bad news, Israel and Palestine. You each have your own country, but you still have to learn to share. You are not only children. You are siblings. Get over it

My latest scheme to institute Peace in the Middle East involves feral cats. I have no idea how, but it seems that trying to solve the feral cat problem has caused as much anguish for some people as the Middle East situation has for others. And there are other similarities. Feral cats are stubborn and difficult to deal with. Dealing with them requires a great deal of finesse and patience. And there are no guarantees that you’ll get the results you’re looking for – trust, affection and a chance to get them neutered or spayed and the chance to love them the way they deserve to be loved.

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books, education, Family story, Heartbreak, opinion

Ruth Goldbas & Ernie Banks, who died old, and Baki, who died young

Four Februarys ago, I attended two funerals in the same week. It was the first time that had happened. A month later I was in New York hanging out with my niece and nephew. My sister had decided to fly down from Edmonton during their spring break, and New York is always a great place for a family rendezvous.

Funerals must have been large on my mind, especially as our cousin Debbie (z”l) had died that January. We were (and still are) still more or less reeling from that one as a family.

Anyway, I was telling Elizabeth about the two-funeral week when this slid out of my mouth.

“I know a lot of people,” I said, “and that means that one day I’m going to know a lot of dead people.”

Elizabeth burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. I accepted the invitation and joined her.

Sure enough, it’s four years down the road and my dead people list keeps getting longer.

This past Thursday, our family friend Ruth Goldbas died. She and her late husband Moses loved my parents, and Ruth played a large and quiet role in helping to salvage what was left of my family the year after my father died.

Once a week for that entire year, my sister and I would go to her house after school. Mom would meet us there when she got off work from her teaching job.

They had seven children, which I thought was the neatest thing ever.

Two were around our age, but way too smart and cool to pay attention to a couple of fatherless social misfits. To be honest, Debby and I probably weren’t great company at that point in our lives. That mattered not one iota to Ruth. She always treated us as if we were the most interesting people in the room, and always had a dinner prep job for us to do that made us feel welcome and useful.

When I went to represent the family at Aunt Bessie’s funeral this past September, I used some of my 36 hours in town to find out where Ruth was living and go see her. It was clear that she was not going to be around for a whole lot longer, but getting to experience her radiant smile again was a huge gift.

“I was sure that the Waldmans were in my past!”

We just sat there, happy as a pair of pigs in you-know-what and then dialed up Mom, so she and Ruth could have a chat. When her son David showed up, he snapped a picture of us.

Ruth Goldbas and me in September. Photo by her son David

Me and Ruth in September. Her son David took the photo, and her daughter Esther, who’d been up to visit the day before I showed up, had brought her the chocolate cake.

Like his son David, Mosie was an attorney. He even merited a mention in Roger Kahn’s book “Good Enough to Dream,” about a season Kahn spent with the Utica Blue Sox.

I mention this because on Friday, baseball great Ernie Banks (aka “Mr. Cub”) died. He never played for the Blue Sox, but he did spend a night at the Treadway Inn.  I know this because our dad took me and my sister there the morning Ernie and his fellow Cubbies were to play an exhibition game in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame. We brought our autograph books and cameras. The autographs are long gone, but I have my memories of Ernie Banks, and of his teammate Ron Santo.

I took this picture of Ernie Banks in 1971, the year my father took us to get autographs from the Chicago Cubs. We weren't the only kids there, as you can tell from this picture.

I took this picture of Ernie Banks in 1971, the year my father took us to get autographs from the Chicago Cubs. We weren’t the only kids there, as you can tell from this picture.

Ernie Banks isn’t the only athlete I spent this weekend remembering. Baki may have made it into the Baseball Hall of Fame too, if he’d gotten a chance to grow up.

I was at work the Monday morning he died. It was 2005, and Baki was 12. His parents Marge & Andy are two of my dearest friends.

He wasn’t sick. He’d spent Sunday afternoon and early evening snow tubing with a group from synagogue. He went to bed happy, sharing a bed his nine-year-old brother, the way they always did. Their 16-year-old brothers shared another room, with separate bunk beds. M&A tucked four kids into bed that night. The moment before Marge went to wake them up for school was the last before her family’s life took a turn into a place no parent ever wants to go.

More than 1,000 people showed up for his funeral. On Saturday, about 50 of us gathered at the same synagogue for a Baki-centered memorial. There was some singing, some study of texts from Pirke Avot, and a lot of great storytelling. We shared our memories of Baki and what of him we have carried forward with us these past 10 years.

Baki was an astonishingly graceful and talented athlete.

He was a middle child who navigated the shark-infested waters of sibling competition with the same elegance he brought to his soccer and softball games; he had a quiet sense of mischief he deployed skillfully and well. There was more than one comparison to Buddha, and those making it were people who had known Baki, but not one another.

His soccer teammates told of having started every game for the season after his death “one man down” for the first 10 seconds. Baki’s jersey number had been 10, and that was their tribute. The year they were high school seniors, their soccer team went to the state championships. They started their game “one man down,” because, as one of his teammates said, “If Baki had been alive, he would have been here with us.”

Everyone who spoke had beautiful things to say. His grandmothers read of adventures they’d had with Baki dating from shortly after he was born through to his last birthday, a month before he died.

The most powerful moments of the afternoon, for me, centered around Baki’s classmates, teammates, brothers and the family friends who had been peers. Now young adults, they had experienced his death and mourned his passing as children. Seeing them express, as adults, with adults, the grief they felt as children in a setting where their friend’s memory was the focus, was profound.

It was important for them in a way that was different for the rest of us, possibly because when you’re a child, adults are in charge. They may not be able to control death, but they control a lot of other things. So a kid experiencing a friend’s death may not really understand that the adults are as absolutely lost as they are in this particular situation.

What I saw happen in those young adults, all with the same particular searing hole in their psyches, is as close as I’ve ever been to a healing event in a spiritual setting. For them, being able to pull those feelings out and air them in a setting where they were not only safe, but welcomed and encouraged, was transformational in a very different way than it was for us adult mourners.

I know a lot of people, alive and dead. Yesterday’s event gave some things to chew on in terms of how it is and what it means to carry forward the memories of those we loved, liked and cared for.

Today, it also makes me realize that down the line, if I’m lucky, someone will be doing that for me.

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Book review, book reviews, books, Family story, opinion

North Korea and Canada between covers: A pair of mini book reviews

One of the best things about finishing grad school is getting to read for pleasure again. I recently finished one novel – “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson, and am currently about halfway through “All My Puny Sorrows” by Miriam Toews.

My Facebook pal Chase recommended the Johnson book in the wake of the Sony hack. Here’s his post:

“Re-recommending one of the best books I have read the last decade, in light of the focus on North Korea; if you want to understand their society, read The Orphan Master’s Son.”

I’ve never met Chase in person (he’s a friend of a friend and we connected that way). But I trust his taste. Also, when I was the editor of The Key Newspaper, a publication for new adult readers, I discovered the DPRK News Agency site  and it remains among my favorite internet recreational reading destinations to this very day. (Check the calendar for today’s date – 22 January, 2015) and look for this article – “U.S., Germany Urged to Give Up at Once Screening of Anti-DPRK Movie: DPRK FM Spokesman” if you’d like to get the North Korean perspective on “The Interview” straight from an approved government source.)

Anyway, the book. Which received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. That was the year I moved my mother across six states while trying to work and go to graduate school. So it’s not surprising that I missed the news of its existence.

I’m not usually so good with violence in literature, but I can handle it if it makes sense within the context of the story. And here, it makes lots of sense. It helps, too, that Johnson plays it straight. Much of what happens in the book is deeply upsetting for a reader experiencing – albeit vicariously – North Korean culture for the first time. But horrors and small daily normalcies of life in the DPRK are just facts of life for his narrators.

Johnson’s ability to pick out details that make us, as US readers, look at ourselves in ways we might not be entirely comfortable, was one of my favorite parts of this book. Here’s an example:

“This was a signal that breakfast was over, but the still the boy had one last question to ask. ‘Do dogs really have their own food in America, a kind that comes in cans?”’

The idea was shocking to Ga, a cannery dedicated to dogs. ‘Not that I saw,’ he said.”

General Ga is the star of the second half of the book. Jun Do Park, the son of the book’s title, narrates the first. There’s another narrator in the second, a creative soul whose main goal is to record truth for posterity.

I really want to talk about this book with someone, so I’ve made it my book group pick for next time I host. Sadly, it’s not until September. I plan to serve edible flowers, peaches and ice cream, all of which play roles in the story.

The Toews was recommended by two people – my friend Shauna (who read it as a judge for Canada’s Giller Prize) and our mutual pal Dan, who owns Boswell Books, my favorite independent bookstore. He doesn’t usually tell me, “You have to buy this one.”

But he did. So I did. It’s the story of a pair of sisters, Yolandi and Elfrieda. The big thread in their Canadian Mennonite family is suicide, and the story is centered around Elf’s determination to end her life.

It sounds depressing, but it isn’t. By ordinary reckoning, Elf has plenty to live for – a devoted partner and a great career as a concert pianist. Yoli, six years younger, is at the tail end of her second divorce – from the father of the younger of her two children – and carrying around a manuscript of her novel in a plastic grocery bag.

Toews has structured the novel to move forward and back in time, but not in the jarring way that too many less accomplished writers do. I’d like to tell you more about it, but I’m going to stop here so I’m not late for work.

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education, entertainment, lifestyle, music

A high school high point and why now is better

We were standing in the living room of my sister’s house when my 16-year-old niece (who will never be smarter again in her life than she is now) said, “C’mon, tell me you wouldn’t want to be 16 again.”

What I wanted to say was “*#^K NO!!!! ARE YOU CRAZY????”

What I said, instead, was “Not for all the money in the world.”

What was going on inside my head looked something like this:

  • Early childhood
  • Grade school
  • High school
  • College
  • The marriage part of my first marriage
  • The unemployed/bad relationship part of the aftermath of my first marriage
  • Being working poor well into my 40s

What I was thinking about those times can most easily be expressed using some imaginary xml tags:

<cower><cringe>Early childhood</cringe></cower>

<cringe><cower>Grade school</cower></cringe>

<cringe>High school</cringe>

<shudder>College</shudder>

<cower><cringe><shudder>The marriage part of my first marriage</shudder></cringe></cower>

<cringe><shudder>The unemployed/bad relationship part of the aftermath of my first marriage</shudder></cringe>

<shudder>Being working poor well into my 40s</Thanks but no, thanks>

Now is definitely better.

Anyway, back in my cringe-worthy high school days, I was an orchestra geek.

Orchestra was a bright spot in a dark time. No matter how bad the rest of my life was, eighth period meant I got to play music and be part of something larger and far better than myself.

Also, our urban public high school had no defined ruling class and a really great performing arts department. In 1975, music and theater faculty wrote and received a grant to create an original musical work celebrating US Bicentennial in 1976.

Here’s a description from a document prepared by New York State:

“As an outgrowth of a Pilot Project Search program to develop an interdisciplinary approach to cognitive learning, the students and faculty of Utica Free Academy decided to create and produce a rock opera for the bicentennial. Vocal, instrumental, drama, art, English, social studies and audio-visual students and faculty have used classroom and extra-curricular time to create, write, design, plan, organize, build, and produce ‘Revolution.’ Through music, dance, drama, and the visual arts, the sense of the American Revolution rather than the revolution itself is conveyed. Aspects of local history are included.”

Revolution_T_Shirt_Kutz

Me, in my “Revolution” T-shirt, during my cringe-worthy high school years.

It’s probably more realistic to contemplate keeping 200 frogs in a wheelbarrow than trying to get a bunch of high school kids to write a musical. But Mr. Barone, Mr. Hanosh and Mr. Hebert (theater, choir & orchestra) and Mrs. Schmidt (dance – yes, our urban public high school had a dance teacher) pulled us together. Every Wednesday night that fall term we met in the orchestra room. Anyone who showed up was welcome to pitch in.

My sister and I ended up with co-writing credits. My song was in the first act, hers in the second. I remember how jarring it was the first time I heard the brass section belting out the notes I’d been hearing as guitar chords.

Our friend Jeannie wrote lyrics. Prodigies like Sam & Sar wrote music, lyrics and did their own orchestrations. Mike wrote lyrics and designed the logo, which appeared on the stage curtain and on the T-shirts we wore for performances. Joe worked on lighting and tech design. I could go on, but I won’t.

Fast forward 40 years. Through a series of events I can best describe as serendipitous and confusing, I am part of a three-person planning committee with Jeannie and my high school stand partner, John. Along with ex-officio members Mr. Barone & Mr. Hebert – now Bob & Ron – we are in the midst of planning a Revolution Reunion this coming summer. In the spirit of our high school, we’re throwing it open to anyone who was part of the performing arts department, whether or not they were in high school for that show.

I don’t remember when I last spent more time laughing with other people while getting real work accomplished. The three of us haven’t interacted in any meaningful way since high school. So it has been a joy to discover how much we still like each other, how compatible we are as a work team and how closely aligned our ideas and expectations are for the reunion.

We’ve been meeting via Skype on a quasi-monthly basis across three different time zones (Pacific, Central & Eastern) since October. We bought a domain name and John (a professional web designer) created a splash page. We wrote a letter and designed a survey. Bob locked down a location, and we’re now collecting data – via survey – on how many people to expect and what sorts of activities other than the afternoon event we’ve taken on people might want to see occur.

For me, though, the best part of the reunion has already happened.

Call it one of life’s minor miracles. Or some sort of reassuring sign from the cosmos that maybe the world isn’t a completely terrible place. Which, based on my experience, is what happens when you suddenly reconnect with people you liked a lot in your teens and they turn out, in your fifth decade, to be people you like even more now.

Someone’s probably coined some snappy one-word definition to sum up that feeling. But I’m old school. So I’m just going to say that being on Skype with John and Jeannie is a non-stop flight to that zone where nothing bad can touch you and your next big laugh is never more than 30 seconds away.

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caregiving, Family story, lifestyle

Travels with Mom: a trip to the Neurologist

So, yesterday I took Mom to the neurologist.

She’s been having more of these spells where one minute she’s fine, and the next she’s crumpling up like a boneless doll. They’re not pretty. The nurse practitioner at the nursing home where she lives thought it might be the Parkinson’s disease progressing, so we moved her April neurology appointment to yesterday.

When I showed up – after a stop at our current favorite Thai restaurant for the fresh rolls and sushi she’d requested – she was waiting for me with her coat on, but instead of using her walker, she was sitting in a wheelchair.

“Where’s your walker?” I said.

She looked at me the way she does when she doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. It’s not a fun thing to see. The mother I used to have would have said what was on her mind without hesitation.

Photograph of blogger and her mom

A picture of Mom and me during our 2011 “From Massachusetts to Flyover Country” road trip.

“We always use the wheelchair when we take her off the unit now,” Jennifer said. She’s one of the nurses at the Home. She’s tiny, efficient and delightful. “We always use it for any distances, if she’s going to Temple or an activity off the floor.”

For the past month or so, we’ve mostly been hanging out in Mom’s room, so this was news, although it made sense. I was just trying to figure out where to leave the wheelchair when we got to the car, the logistics of getting one at the hospital where her appointment was, and then doing the whole thing on the trip back.

When Jennifer explained that it was a travel wheelchair that would fold and I could take it along, I felt better. So, off we set. I had to get her to a standing position when we got outside and help her fall, more or less, into the front seat. She has a disc that rotates – kind of like a lazy Susan for your butt – on the seat, so I was able to lift her legs and swing them into the car once she sat down. But she ends up sprawled into the passenger space, legs on the floor, her back not touching the backrest and her head kind of aimed at the ceiling. It looks as uncomfortable as Mom has assured me it feels. So then there’s the part where I direct her, (“Put your weight on your feet and push yourself back in the seat. You can do it, Mom. You can! …Good….good….you’ve got it…you’ve got it….yes!”)

Then I buckle her seat belt and get the walker (or in this case, wheelchair) into the car, and off we go. It used to be that I’d pick her up early and we’d go out for lunch. Picking up “to go” and eating at the hospital seemed like a smarter idea this time. But I was reconsidering even that. She seemed half asleep. Then she said something.

“What?” I asked.

“You know Lou,” she said. Lou is one of the women at the nursing home. Her granddaughter and Alex were playmates when they were small.

“What about her?” I said.

“Her parents were coming to pick her up and take her out today.”

Lou is 94. This was not good.

“Her kids, you mean,” I said.

“No,” Mom said. “Her parents.”

This went on for a couple of rounds. Mom is not usually this kind of dotty, so it took awhile to sink in that my mother didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary about a 94-year-old woman’s parents driving to the nursing home to pick up their daughter who has dementia in order to drive her back to their house for a visit.

I did a bit more checking, and sure enough, Mom was totally cool with the whole 112-year-old parents thing. (That’s assuming they were 18 when Lou was born, of course, which they probably were not. They were probably older, probably closer to 118.) So I dropped the subject and thanked whatever deity there is out there that we were on our way to see the neurologist.

We got on the highway. I kept my eyes on the road, except when I was checking on Mom. Who did not look like she should be going anywhere, unless it was bed.

“Help me.”

The words came out in barely a whisper.

“What?”

“Help me.”

“What do you need me to do?”

“I don’t know.”

I didn’t know either. I was just glad we were on our way to a doctor. It took us about 15 minutes to go 10 miles. It took another 20 to go 1,000 feet from the hospital driveway turn-in to the drop-off point where we could ditch the car and enter the building.

Mom spent that time probably regretting having been such a good role model for road rage. Worry and hunger do not bring out my best self.  We had left a comfortable time cushion for getting to the appointment. But it was supposed to have been for lunch-eating purposes, not being cast in “Hospital Apron Traffic Jam, the Reality Show from Hell.”

Cut to: the exam room. I tried to get Mom to eat. She wouldn’t. I tried to get her to drink. She wouldn’t. I was hungry. I ate. I was thirsty. I drank. Dr. B came in. She asked Mom about her trip to Canada in June. I showed her photos and a video of Mom walking down the aisle at Alex & Tevie’s wedding.

She asked about what was going on. We told her. She read the contents of the envelope the nursing home had sent. She tested Mom’s strength. It was good. Then she took Mom’s blood pressure. It was low. She said that it was a simple fix, and would account for the weakness and the weirdness.

“If there’s no blood going to your brain,” she said, “You’re gonna be dopey.”

Dr. B said she would call the nurse practitioner at the Home and have a conversation about the blood pressure issues. She also told Mom that she needs to eat and drink, and asked us to come back in three months.

Mom looked a lot more alive than she had when we’d come in.

“That was good news,” she said. I agreed. I handed her the fresh roll she wouldn’t eat before.

I wheeled her to a place near the door but not outside, and went to get the car. When the valet parking guy said it would take about ½ hour to get the car, I told him I was going to take Mom for a coffee while we waited.

We chatted on our way down to the café, and when we got into the dining room, a work colleague was sitting at a table by herself. Melanie teaches nursing at the tech school where I work. She was visiting a friend at the hospital. We sat together. I introduced her to Mom, and we talked about the appointment, what had happened, about nursing homes, about getting older and exchanged a little work gossip. Mom was more animated than I’d seen her in ages. She even ate all of her sushi, which hardly ever happens.

Mom and Melanie

Mom, eating her last piece of California roll, because Melanie told her how happy she was seeing Mom enjoy it so much.

On the way back, I told her how upsetting it was to have someone ask for help and be in such visible distress and not know what to do to make it better. I asked her what she was experiencing in those moments, and what I could do.

“I don’t know,” she said.

We’ve talked previously about quality of life issues, and I asked her if she was getting to a point where that was starting to matter. She told me that mostly, it isn’t. We agreed that the best thing in the world would be to die peacefully in your sleep, either during a nap or during the night. We talked about what would happen if that didn’t happen, who would be with her, and how we would do things.

Then, we made plans to go see an exhibit at the Jewish Museum this weekend. When we got back to the her room, I showed her – with no small amount of trepidation – the post I wrote last week about my dad and breasts.

I watched her read it. It felt like it took as long as the hospital apron traffic jam had (it didn’t).

She liked it.

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Family history, Family story, lifestyle, opinion

Debbie Friedman, number eight of Bubby & Zaydie’s 15

When Debbie Friedman died four years ago, the whole Jewish world stood up and paid attention.

I’d been paying attention to Debbie my whole life, because she was nine when I was born and our mothers are sisters. That first year after she died, pictures kept showing up on Facebook, synagogues were singing her songs and newspapers were printing article after article.

Sometime during that year, I started posting pictures of my other cousins. It took me awhile to realize what I was doing and why. When I did, it was one of those head-slapping “DUH!” moments.

It happened again this weekend. Pictures of Debbie show up on my Facebook feed and people share their thoughts about how much they miss her. I want to yell, “Hey! I have other cousins, too! And they are very cool people!!!!” (Sometimes I wonder if Beethoven’s cousins felt that way, or Hildegarde of Bingen’s.)

Photograph of the oldest eight cousins

The first eight of Bubby & Zaydie’s 15 grandchildren. Larry (z”l) is the tall one. Barbara and Dianne are next to him. Debbie (z”l) is standing in front of Brad, who is next to Chuck. Cindi is next to him, and Cheryl is next to Cindi and in front of Dianne.

Growing up, I had 15 first cousins. (Thirteen were on Mom’s side, two on Dad’s.) My sister Debby and I were the drop-dead youngest of Bubby & Zaydie’s 15 grandchildren, and the middle two of Grandma-Grandma’s four.

On Mom’s side, my favorites are Barbara and Chuck. Barbara became my favorite cousin when I was seven. When I was 18, a road trip with Chuck and his wife sealed his place in my Cousin Hall of Fame.

Barbara is Debbie’s oldest sister. She still refers to us as “the baby cousins.” She is fabulous, funny beyond funny, and has been married to Werner for almost 50 years. Debby and I were six and seven the summer they came to town after their wedding. They took us to the zoo, and the four of us spent the most glorious afternoon chasing chickens, petting goats and getting to know each other.

I made sure my daughters got to spend as much time as they could with them when they were kids. They love and adore Barbara and Werner as much as I do.

I also made sure my daughters got to spend as much time as they could with Chuck (whose father was Mom’s only brother). He is also married to a Barbara. They met at a wedding; his sister – my cousin Dianne – married Barbara’s cousin Larry. They were 20 when they married, and have been married almost as long as Barb & Werner. Chuck got an associate degree in engineering technology and went to work for New York State the same year he got married. It wasn’t long before he was doing the same work the full-on engineers were doing, but at a fraction of the salary because he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree.

So, with three young children at home, Chuck went back to school. It took him six years, and he got his bachelor’s degree in engineering the same day my sister got hers in journalism, both from Syracuse University. It was a great day.

My cousins Dianne, Brad, Hal, Cindi, Marc, Mark and Cheryl are bright, interesting, accomplished and have made good lives for themselves. They’ve written music, run businesses, taught school, practiced law, cooked professionally, married and loved well, raised families and cherished their dogs and cats. They’ve also helped little old ladies across the street.

Randy, Larry and Gary are no longer alive. But they, too, left marks on the hearts of their parents and, in Larry’s case, his children.

Not everyone leaves great big footprints on the world. But we all leave footprints.

Debbie never set out to score herself a half-page obituary in the New York Times. She fell into something that carried her along, and they took off and did big things together. She worked hard for what she had, and she deserves the honors she received in her lifetime and the outpouring of love after she died. But I don’t think she’d want to just be remembered as having done the impossible things she did, as if she were some sort of superhero.

She had doubts and faults and worries, but she was amazing. So are her sisters, and the rest of her cousins.

So, probably, are you.

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food, journalism, lifestyle, opinion, writing

Why France, journalists and the Iliad will always have a place in my kitchen

So, it’s been a slightly dismal week here in Flyover Country. That bitter cold that used to live north of us and comes to visit more often is in town and I am unsuccessfully fighting off some sort of winter sinus-related pestilence. Also, my favorite clothing store is going out of business. And of course, there’s France. France may be a long way away geographically, but when it comes to the free expression of ideas that upset people, it might as well be the house next door.

That hit me particularly this morning. I’d just finished scraping the pan drippings from onions, mushrooms, garlic and a seared bison chuck roast and was putting the mess into my blue Le Creuset roaster.

LeCreusetPot

The “Fancy French Cooking Pot” getting ready for its day trip to the oven.

I got that roaster when I was the lifestyle editor at a small-town daily paper. I’d gotten a press release hyping the brand. I was so broke back then that I qualified for food stamps at one point, and I had only one question for the press contact whose name was on the release.

“So,” I asked. “Tell me why eggs scrambled in your fancy-pants cast-iron frying pan taste better than eggs scrambled in the cast-iron one I just picked up at a garage sale for 50 cents?”

That’s how I got my blue Dutch oven, which I never made eggs in, but did write about in “Messing Up the Kitchen,” my monthly cooking column. Talia and I called it “The Fancy French Cooking Pot,” and that remains its name to this day.

The edgiest thing I did while working at the paper, which I did from 1993 to 1996, was run the city’s (and possibly the state’s) first (and possibly only even to this moment) same-sex-couple birth announcement in 1996. Which is how I discovered that the editor and publisher didn’t read the birth announcements. If they had, I would probably have been out of a job.

I was willing to risk that. I’m not sure I would have the guts to risk – as did those brave French journalists and Ahmed and the other police officer protecting them – my life. I’m deeply grateful to them for standing up for all of us, as they did every time they put out an issue of Charlie Hebdo.

I’m also grateful, this week, to the Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Maryland. County Council Representative Kirby Delauter threatened to sue News-Post reporter Bethany Rodgers for mentioning his name in a story without his permission. The paper’s response was to publish an editorial using his name as an acrostic, a headline and 27 times in the piece. Kudos to Delauter, too, for apologizing – in a statement to the News-Post – instead of suing, as he initially threatened.

Journalism is in flux right now. Papers are shutting down, and much of the reporting that’s done in the most dangerous areas of the world is being done by poorly-compensated stringers for whom what they’re doing is a calling.

There is, however, one constant.

We will never stop needing people who are willing to witness the truth about what they see happening in a place and then take the time and care necessary to accurately inform the rest of us. That matters. A lot. Our survival as a species has always depended on our stories and on our storytellers. Everything from what happened to the person who ate those berries and the fight at the big sale at the edge of town to this:

Anger be now your song, immortal one, Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss and crowded brave souls into the under gloom, leaving so many dead men — carrion for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done. Begin it when the two men first contending broke with one another — the Lord Marshal Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Achilles.”

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