I watched some of your testimony last week and want you to know that I thought you were amazing. You made sense out of something that was hard to make sense of, and you did it with elegance and good humor and decency.
It was easy to imagine you as a very popular and respected professor – when you alluded to concepts you teach, you did so in an accessible and welcoming way. I bet your students love you.
I’m sure your life has been so up-ended by this. I think I read that you had to leave your house, and that your family is all separated for their – and your – safety. That sucks. I hope you are not paying too much attention to people who have nothing kind or charitable to say about this or you. (Yes, that does include you, President That-Was-One-Shameful-Display and Press Secretary Shameful-Display-Enabler.)
I hope things get back to a new and better normal for you soon. Your display of courage and integrity might not have been enough to keep now-Justice Kavanaugh from being sworn in. But it was more than enough to provide fuel to fans of doing what’s right even when it’s not easy, but are really, really discouraged and hurting right now.
These things change slowly.
I was so ashamed of what happened to me (we were in eighth grade and it happened in school when a teacher sent us out to fetch something from another part of the building). I was sure that it must have been my fault somehow. I couldn’t possibly tell my mother (or heaven forbid, my dad!). So I never did. It was 1973.
But in the 1990s, I had a conversation with my daughters when they were middle schoolers, and when a boy tried pulling that on one of them, he ended up with a swift knee to a tender spot. And now, here we are in 2018. There’s #metoo, and there’s you, who came forward with nothing to gain but preserving your own sense of integrity.
It might seem as if it made no difference.
But it did.
These things change slowly, but change they do. Make no mistake. Eventually, the power of our stories will overwhelm the deniers hanging on by a thread to power that is eroding. It’s power they don’t deserve. When that happens, our sons & daughters and their sons & daughters will live in a world that doesn’t reward violence and belligerence.
I’d like to see it in our lifetime, but I’m a realist.
Two weeks ago Sunday, two carloads of my Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom chapter drove down to Chicago for an afternoon of camaraderie and training in how to engage in thorny discussions.
Along with the Wisconsin contingent (Milwaukee and Madison), women came from Illinois (Chicago and beyond) and Iowa (Quad Cities).
Our facilitators did a great job, and the hours passed quickly.
The following week, my story about my own experiences pre-dating and since joining the group ran in the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. So, in the spirit of “well, maybe we can’t all just get along but damnit, I’m not gonna stop trying,” I’m posting it here.
It was interesting to write, because I’d just been told to “write a first-person piece” about the group. Looking at where I’d come from and how I’d ended up as a SOSS member was the most respectful way to accomplish that without accidentally violating the privacy of my chapter sisters.
The journeys for all of us are so different. I’d love to see an anthology of personal journeys to chapter membership.
I caught a little of the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee today.
It was horrifying.
The contrast between the two witnesses was stark. Dr. Ford told her story with remarkable composure. She was visibly upset, but did an amazing job describing her reasons for coming forward. She answered questions about the event that had brought her to the Senate hearing room, recounting the feelings of a traumatized teen and also using the vocabulary of an expert in explaining the biology of trauma. She was respectful of the process, answering the questions she was asked and asking for clarity when she wasn’t sure about a question.
Before today, I’d done a lot of thinking about Judge Kavanaugh and whether, if he did what Dr. Ford described, whether it should disqualify him from serving.
My conclusion was that while it would have been horrible and terrible and wrong, it would not necessarily have been a deal-breaker.
If Brett Kavanaugh had said, “In my youth, I did things I regret and one of them was sometimes drinking to the point where I didn’t remember things. I don’t do that any more and haven’t since (whenever he realized that this was not a great thing).”
Then, he would have apologized to Dr. Ford, and there might have been some sort of private meeting between them that none of us need know about. And he’d probably have been confirmed. Which he probably will anyway, but we’ll never know now whether he would have been otherwise.
What we do know after today is that Brett Kavanaugh is an overentitled brat whose sense of entitlement is only matched by his sense of outrage at the possibility that he might be called out for his behavior. And I’m not talking about what happened with Dr. Ford. If I thought I was being falsely accused of something that big, I’d be salty, too.
It’s the other stuff, about his drinking and his actions around a woman who’d attended a nearby girl’s school.
He reminded me of Ex 1, who was at his nastiest when someone challenged his version of reality, whether or not it matched actual events. It was his way or the highway.
Kavanaugh explained away yearbook references to heavy drinking, eg: “Treasurer of the 100 Kegs or Bust Club” and “Beach Week Ralph Club, Biggest Contributor,” to his love of beer and“weak stomach” and insisted he’d never been drunk enough to forget anything that happened under the influence.
He insisted that he and a bunch of his buddies who repeatedly referred to a girl named Renate and posed for a photograph as the “Renate Alumnius” did so because they had such reverence for her. That makes him sound like a) a really pathetic liar and b) a patronizing asshole. I mean, seriously. How dumb does he think we are?
It was painful to watch the contrast between the lack of respect he seemed to have for the process and Committee. It was even more painful to listen to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) try to out-nasty Judge Kavanaugh.
Not a great day for the Senate, for Dr. Ford or the Judge Kavanaugh. And most definitely not a great day for We, the People.
On Wednesday, The New York Times published an anonymous op-ed by someone serving at the pleasure of President Trump.
It was not exactly news to read that the current occupant of the White House is a petty bully who does whatever makes him feel good and repudiates anyone who dares to intimate that he is anything less than the Greatest Being in the Entire Universe.
Also not news? Covert resistance and dissent in the White House. Rogue POTUS Staff announced itself on Twitter shortly after the inauguration in 2017.
From the get-go, it was clear that @RoguePOTUSStaff was comprised of mid- and lower-level staffers, worker bees beneath the notice of their imperial betters.
The news part was that this writer self-identified as one of the Imperial Betters.
“…many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them.”
The operative word, of course, is “parts.”
“We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous….”
(These, according to Imperial, include “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.” Imperial isn’t specific about “more,” but based on his or her definition of “safer and more prosperous,” all signs point to a hawkish member of the 1 percent class who has never sat in the cheap seats.)
As to President Trump’s “worst inclinations,” Imperial provided this example:
“Take foreign policy: In public and in private, President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un…”
I have lots of thoughts about this whole matter, but the one thing that I keep coming back to is the book passage of which I was immediately reminded. It’s from “The Outlaw State: Saddam Hussein’s Quest for Power and the Gulf Crisis,” Elaine Sciolino’s examination of Iraq and the rise of Hussein’s Baathist Party was published in 1991. Which I know because I reviewed it for The Milwaukee Journal. (Sciolino was a New York Times reporter covering Iraq – file under “random weird coincidences.”)
Here’s an abridged version. If you get a copy of the hardcover edition, it’s on Page 90.
“In 1982, just as the war with Iran started to go badly, Iraq’s minister of health, Riyadh Ibrahim, was executed. Saddam told foreign reporters that Ibrahim had knowingly distributed contaminated medicines. In a rambling speech to the Revolutionary Command Council, which was also filmed and distributed to Party leaders, Saddam called the minister a dangerous saboteur, a traitor. His crime was not just an inadvertert action, a mistake, but a political crime against the state.
“Those who knew Ibrahim and his family told the tale differently. According to an Iraqi doctor who investigated the matter, Saddam became worried when Ayatollah Khomeini began to demand Saddam’s ouster as the price of peace. “One day, when the pressure of Iranian military forces was very high and Iraq was under the threat of occupation by the Iranian Army, Saddam called a cabinet meeting,” the doctor said. “Saddam was in a critical situation. He asked the cabinet ministers, ‘Is there any solution you can find to solve this problem?’ They said, ‘No, Mr. President, you are the hero of our country. You are defending our territorial integrity.’
“Saddam replied, ‘No, tell me the truth. What is the best way to stop the Iranian invasion, even if you believe my resigning is the way to stop the war.’ All the ministers said, ‘No, we don’t agree with you.’ Then Saddam said, ‘No, I don’t mind if you tell me the truth.’
“The health minister said, ‘Yes, Mr. President. I have a suggestion. If you resign temporarily, for three or four months, the Iranian Army will go back to their bases and then you can reappear again.’ Saddam said, ‘Yes, thank you very much. You are very brave. Thank you for your solution.’ He asked the other members what they thought and they all said no to the suggestion. After the meeting, Saddam turned to his bodyguards. They captured Ibrahim and led him out of the room.
“The wife of the minister knew the First Lady. She asked the First Lady to intervene and ask the President to release her husband. When Saddam’s wife told him about the matter, he called the minister’s wife himself and asked if she was asking for her husband’s release. She said, ‘Yes. You’re his friend. You are the leader.’ Saddam asked her, ‘When do you want your husband?’ and she replied, ‘As soon as possible.’ ‘Can I send him tomorrow?’ Saddam asked her. She said of course.
“The next day the security forces came to her house. She rushed to the door and asked, ‘Where is my husband?’ They gave her a big black bag and said, ‘This is your husband.’ And she found the body of her husband, chopped into pieces.”
Cataract surgery #2 is in the rear-view mirror. I have decided to use the opportunity to don my journalist/ “Enemy of the People” hat and pull back the curtain on how trained reporters go about preparing for and conducting interviews in order to bring readers useful information.
Why am I qualified to do this? The obvious reason might seem to be those two recent cataract surgeries. The actual reason is my history as a professional journalist.
Before the “Social Work by the Seat of my Pants in a Snake Pit” years and my current gig as “The Happiest Public Librarian in North America,” I worked as a reporter and editor at two newspapers and one magazine. I continue to write freelance pieces for a couple of outlets.
Some reporters go to journalism school. My sister falls into that category. Some just write and write, starting at a tiny little publication – maybe their high school or college paper or a local alternative weekly – and work their way up the food chain. That’s how I did it. All my training was on-the-job, with some second-hand wisdom from the good professors in the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire courtesy of the newsroom at the Marshfield News-Herald, full of reporters who’d all attended there and regularly quoted their professors in conversation.
By the time I got to Marshfield, I’d already developed my own writing hierarchy, to which I continue to adhere.
Accuracy – If the facts aren’t right and it’s not coming out exactly the way you’re trying to express what it is you’re trying to express, keep trying.
Accessibility – If you have to use big words and long sentences to be accurate, so be it. But if you can say it with small words and short sentences, that’s better.
Cleverness – If you can do those two things above and be entertaining and witty and clever, more power to you!
The pay was terrible, but being a reporter was a great job. News reporters go where things are happening and gather information on it. The major questions in newsgathering are Who? What? Where? Why? When? How?
Let’s say the “happening” is a house fire. Here’s what a reporter sent to the scene of a fire needs to put together a story:
Whose house? Where is it? Was anyone inside? How did the fire start/how was it contained/how did people get out? When did it start/when was it contained? How many firefighters/battalions responded? If there were people in the house, did they get out? Was anyone injured? Killed? Were there smoke detectors? Who reported the fire? When does the fire department expect to issue a final report? What is the cost of the damage? Was there insurance? How much? (The Public Affairs Journalism prof at Eau Claire told his students to “follow the money.”)
The reporter gathers the available information and writes it in a way that anyone reading it can easily follow. Here’s what it might look like:
“Three people, including a firefighter, were injured in a house fire at 123 Broad Street on Wednesday. Captain Edward Schnauzer of the Mayfield Fire Department said the cause is unknown at this time, as is whether or not there were working smoke detectors.
A passerby noticed smoke coming from an upper window and called the fire department shortly after midnight. Two occupants of the house, a 39-year-old woman and an eight-year-old boy, were taken to St. Bernard hospital for smoke inhalation. One firefighter was treated and released for minor injuries, according to a hospital spokesperson. Three other occupants of the home escaped without injury.
Four battalions responded to the fire, which took two hours to get under control. No nearby houses were damaged.”
That’s news reporting. You go to the event, you find an authority who knows what’s going on, you cite that authority in your story (eg: the fire captain), any other authority who you end up needing to talk to as a result of talking to the first authority (eg: the hospital spokesperson). You might also get a quote from a neighbor watching, one of the people living in the house or, if the house was rented out, its owner, depending on their availability and the time between your reporting and your news outlet’s deadline.
This same principle applies to municipal meetings, political gatherings and basically any event in which there is a beginning, middle and end. If deadline precludes you from reporting on the middle/end, you report as much as you can on the beginning and then follow up to write the rest if the event warrants doing that. (Maybe the fire turns out to be arson for insurance purposes, children playing with matches, or faulty electrical wiring. Depending on the cause, the story you write will either be a small thing or something you follow through to a trial and sentencing. You never know, which is part of the adrenaline rush of being a news reporter.)
But today, I am going to be a feature reporter doing a feature on cataract surgery.
That “who, what, when, where why and how” of newsgathering is also going to come into play.
Who gets cataract surgery? Why? How? What happens? Is it covered by insurance? Are there complications? What are they? Those are the questions I’m going to look to answer.
Because it’s a feature story, I’m going to want to talk to (preferably local) people who’ve undergone the procedure. I will look for someone who is happy with the results, and someone who isn’t. I’ll want to interview a doctor who performs the procedure to get his or her take on what happens, what prospective patients should know going into it and about aftercare and followup.
I can’t do those interviews, though, until I’m educated enough to ask the right questions.
I’ve had cataract surgery. But this isn’t just a first-person story, even though I’m going to let readers know I’ve had the procedure. So I will set my experience aside for the moment.
When it comes to background research, Google and Wikipedia are your friends, as long as you treat them as starting points and not final authorities.
Entering “Cataract Surgery” into a Google search box turns up 11,600,000 results in .54 seconds.
The top result is an ad, which I know because of the “ad” box to the left of the URL.
Someone has paid money to have their listing come up first, a big ol’ red flag to anyone in the news or library business. Librarians and reputable journalists share a reverence for reliable, unbiased information. Our goal is for end-users to be able to make an informed decision about whatever it is they’re looking to figure out. The best way to help make that happen is by providing high-quality, objective source material.
Which is why Google is only a first step. I make a point of going several pages in – usually seven to 10 – to get a sense of what’s out there and what people are looking at and for. (Paid ads aside, Google tends to rank its results, so more popular results show up on the initial pages.)
I gravitate toward sites with .org, .edu and .gov as extensions. I don’t rule out commercial sites (.com), but if a site’s main objective is sales, there’s an obvious bias. I can probably do better with a different type of site.
In addition to my Google search, I’m going to hit up my local public or university library (assuming I have access to a university library) and check out their books and databases.
The difference between a search engine and library database is like the difference between your grandmother’s attic and her spice rack (if your grandmother is a great and adventurous cook). The former is full of random stuff that’s been piling up there for years; the latter is orderly, relevant and everything on it is fresh. In other words, it’s highly curated. Library databases contain information that’s been pre-selected by subject experts for reliability and quality.
I select my source material, I read it, I get literate about my topic. Some of that will come into my story, with citations from those articles ( e.g.: “According to a 2018 study by…. ). Other information will come from interviews. I’d want to talk to at least one person who had the surgery before I talk to the doctor, which would inform some of the questions I asked the professional.
The finished story will emerge from these elements.
With all my information gathered and in one place, I look at it as a whole, searching for a starting point. (I call this part “finding my way in.”) If I get it right, my final product will be accurate, accessible and entertaining.
Here’s a completely true sentence that could serve as the lede (journalist-speak for the first sentence) of how I’d start this first-person story:
“If I had run over my glasses three weeks earlier, it would have been a disaster. But cataract surgery rendered it a non-issue.”
Two weeks ago I underwent a procedure most people call cataract surgery, which I have unilaterally nicknamed “extreme Lasik.”
It has left me unsettled, crabby and neurologically unhappy.
I know cataract surgery is different than Lasik. With Lasik, a medical professional reshapes your cornea using a laser. Cataract removal is when your cloudy lens gets broken up, suctioned out and replaced with a new, custom-made clear one.
The results are the same in that (worst-case scenarios excepted) you end up with clearer vision. That’s the good news.
The bad news – for me, at this moment – is that in the US, cataract surgery is done one eye at a time with a minumum of four weeks between procedures.
Which means that I have another two weeks of walking around like this, “this” meaning that at the moment, one eye doing is one thing while the other is doing something else completely.
For the first time since I was eight, I have nearly perfect distance vision my left eye. I remain wildly nearsighted in the right. If I put my glasses on (with the lens removed from the “fixed” eye), I have clear vision in both. But because glasses distort an image slightly, everything is two different sizes and my brain – to use a scientific term – spazzes out.
Glasses are no longer a viable option.
So, at the moment, I am not wearing glasses. Visually, it’s like being being stuck in that point in “Stranger Things” right before everything goes horribly sideways.
Evidently, I’m legally able to drive with one eye, so I am, but just during the day. When thngs get too weird, I just put my hand over my right eye and look out the left for awhile. Some people suggested wearing a patch, but I will only do that if I can accessorize with a parrot and a bottle of rum. Which are definitely not part of the library’s acceptable dress code, so…no. I have settled for whining a lot, which is making me excellent company (NOT!) for everyone lucky enough to be in my orbit.
Meanwhile, the world goes on. I am reading “The Lemon Tree” by Sandy Tolan and absorbing information about the founding of the State of Israel that diverges wildly from what I was fed as a kid. Integrating what that means moving forward is going to be a sad and important job.
Omarosa figured out that she was better off throwing President Trump under Air Force One instead of trying to reboard it. One grandkid is learning to swim and the other one is working toward getting up to eight pounds.
And as of yesterday, the world is a sadder and more silent planet with the passing of Aretha Franklin. Sweetheart and I were lucky enough to see her perform four years ago at the Wisconsin State Fair, a peak moment because she is – as is the case for so many people – part of the soundtrack of my life. Unlike a lot of performers I’ve seen at “smaller” venues, she very much did not phone it in. Her three-hour set included all of the big hits, lots of new material and plenty of solos by members of her 20-plus piece band.
At one point, between songs, she said she had an old friend in Milwaukee and asked if that woman was in the crowd. She was. They had a conversation right there – the friend from her seat and Aretha from the stage. They did a little catching up. Aretha asked about her children and grandchildren (some of whom were there) and made arrangements for her to come backstage after the show. Then, she continued on, dazzling us with her voice, piano styling and her very talented nephew, who was part of the band.
If anyone with a social media presence wants to see their blog stats tank, here’s my advice:
Even though my blog is my gift to me, a place where I write what I want to in order to loosen myself up to write better and more freely and not about how many readers and followers I have, I will freely cop to being a little sad at how dramatically my readership disappeared when I parted ways with Zuckerberg & Co.
But, I’m over it now. (Okay, maybe I am. Or maybe I’m just lying to myself.)
In the meantime, I have made excellent use of the time between blog posts to do something I have not been able to do since moving into my current house. With a little push from the house’s longest resident, Edna Frida Pietsch, and a lot of help from a couple of neighbors, my house has turned into a place I want to hang out in instead of run away from.
Well, the first floor, at least. Which is a lot, given that the first floor includes a kitchen, living room, parlor, dining room and a couple of porches. All presentable, all beautiful.
What brought on this miracle?
Two things, actually. One was our neighborhood’s annual home tour. Sweetheart and I live just outside a historic district that has hosted a home tour for the past 28 years. When he lived here with Then-wife, they were asked multiple times to open the house up for the tour, but didn’t.
I’d done the tour before. My previous house was inside the neighborhood boundaries, and there was nothing wrong with it that a cash infusion of roughly $250,000 wouldn’t have addressed nicely. It was 2005’s “house-in-progress.”
The tour prep process resulted in a lovely, tranquil and neat first floor that stayed lovely, tranquil and neat for six months. Then, a car accident rendered me unable to do much of anything involving cleaning up after people who messed up faster behind me.
Still, it was a valuable lesson. I learned I could create and maintain order – something I had not had the chance to know about myself prior.
In the ensuing years, my decision to live in what could diplomatically be described as a pigsty was informed by my priority list.
When Sweetheart bought his house back after By-Then-Ex-wife put it up for sale, I was working full-time and in graduate school. That overlapped with helping Mom move across six states into an assisted living high-rise and then to a nursing home. Good grades, keeping my job and caring for my mother took precedence over housekeeping.
Still, the process of organizing Mom’s house while she was still there to ensure maximum safety and efficiency while she lived independently, then breaking it apart twice more for her moves showed me I had somehow mastered the art of hanging on to the right stuff without hanging on to all of it – or even too much.
There are people for whom housekeeping and clutter-repelling comes naturally. Sweetheart and I are not among them.
So, for almost 10 years, I lived in this house and whenever I had the time to look around, mostly wanted to cry and run away because there seemed no way to get it under control.
Graduating from library school in 2014 freed up time, but by then Mom was in the nursing home. My free time went there until she died.
Then, it was March of 2018, and all I had was a job. No Mom. No school. Just an upcoming neighborhood home tour focused on the arts.
And Edna Frida Pietsch, the neo-classical composer whose father and grandfather built our house. Pietsch spent either all of her life here or lived here from the time she was five – in 1899 – until she died in 1982. She taught theory and composition at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music for 35 years and composed solo, chamber and symphonic works.
Given that, there was no question that her house had to be on the tour. So, thanks to a pair of Sallys – the tour chair and the volunteer chair – we cleaned, and scrubbed, and excavated. (Good people going through rough times –intimate partner violence survivors and people living with brain disorders – will make good use of what we don’t need and won’t miss.)
I took a trip to Madison’s Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin, where Pietch’s manuscripts and recordings are housed. Library Director Jeanette Casey and her staff were wonderfully helpful. After I left, they digitized some of her music so I’d have recordings to play on Tour Day.
Hands in Harmony, a local piano studio, provided three hours of live music from teachers and students, including some works by Pietsch. The house looked fabulous.
The morning of the tour, I was putting the finishing touches on a display board. An empty board was laying on the dining room table.
“Can I use this?”
Sweetheart was cocking his head at the display board, his arms wrapped around a worn-looking cardboard box he’d brought from some cluttery corner of the attic or basement.
He began laying chunks of dusty plaster on the cardboard, arranging them in lines. Some broke apart as he lifted them from the box.
“Um….what are these?”
Which is how I found out about the second chimney sprouting a leak, causing a dining room wall to buckle. Sweetheart and Then-wife had to remove the plaster and replace it. Underneath the molding, they found the 1886 wallpaper. He’d boxed and kept it, along with a sample of the old-school jute-lined linoleum that had been under the carpet when they’d redone the floors.
We gently wiped the wallpaper with damp cloths. The plaster dust vanished, revealing a floral pattern in deep burgundy, with various shades of pink, almost silver, and gold. I thought – not for the first time – of how lucky I am to have a life partner like Sweetheart.
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).