Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bernie makes it Better

The March 6, 2016 Democratic debate is over. That it was held in Flint seems more amazing now than it did the Sunday I stood in a line that snaked around the Whiting parking lot---students, Flint old timers (“I walked to Flint Central fifty years ago!”), guys with union hall physiques and no topcoat, proper ministerial types, politicos in snug-fitting silky suits.

I got a ticket through Flint Neighborhoods United---my name went into a pool of people who posed questions for the candidates.  None of my questions were used, but I got an email with two attachments:  one pdf for parking and one explaining times and logistics and behavior (“no noisemakers!” no “light-up attire!”).  
You’ve heard the clips and spin on that 7th debate.  If you are a political junkie like me you’ve now moved on to subsequent debates, town halls, and the primaries.  But what fascinated me at the Flint debate was the “pre-game” show---the hour warm up with the locals before broadcast that TV viewers don’t see. 

Young volunteers checked my ID on a smart phone list and handed me a green admission card that placed me up in the second balcony; those with purple went to the first balcony.  The lucky stiffs with gold cards headed down to the main floor---the first rows of the orchestra designated for the Michigan Democratic delegation who mostly just mill around.

Here in the balconies excitement was palpable as the camera boom would swing toward us and then a communal sigh as it sailed away to more important panoramas below.  I spied Mayor Weaver working the main floor. 

Up here, people chattered, leaned over the railing looking for friends, peered out intently at the CNN set up on the stage.  To my left sat an elderly gentleman, shepherded to his seat by a young woman; he could not hear well but his face is a beatific glow.  To my right was an Indian couple---she in hijab and madly clicking on her phone.  The second balcony has some faithful Democrats, behind me were several who work for Lansing legislative committees.  Dayne and Carrie Walling are here, and Deb Cherry too. 

I could hear the muffled voice of Wolf Blitzer somewhere beneath us. At 6:55, with some scattered vacant seats remaining in the balconies and the Michigan delegation on main floor still swarming, a CNN warm up man comes down stage at house left:  the pre-event routine begins.

Dressed in black and equipped with a multi-mic headset (one mic for us in the audience and one for the stage crew), he calls for everyone, especially the swarming, to take their seats.  Then he coaches us on what to expect and what not to do---it’s the live show drill. 

At 7:03 the white shirted Flint children’s choir files in to the box seat area and sings “America the Beautiful”---their sweet voices unaffected by lead or politics. 

Next comes a roll call of welcomes and thanks to the locals (including an energetic welcome from UM-F Chancellor Sue Borrego).  Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC chair, introduces the phalanx of Michigan Dems and reminds the audience why we are Democrats.  But the pre-debate welcome crown goes to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Hurley Medical Center.  She strides out to a standing ovation.  In her melon-bright shirt and with her dark hair swinging, she speaks smilingly and without a single note---she is our heroine.  I think I can see Dr. Mona’s dimples. The Flint audience adores her.

Mr. Multi-mic reappears: “Are we ready to have some fun tonight?”  (I’m not kidding; this is in my notes).  He gives us our cue—five, four, three minutes to live and clap---and Anderson Cooper turns round to face the audience and Don Lemon settles into his swivel seat on the opposite side of the stage.

Once Anderson Cooper introduces the Democratic candidates (Hillary’s applause deepened by the party faithful) we stand for the brisk, bracing rendition adult voices of Flint City Wide Choir’s national anthem. Their powerful voices are directed by Darnell Ishmael, a conductor of heft and brio.
Cooper sketches the context:  CNN and Democratic Debate is here in Flint, land of successive plagues---most recently, lead in the water.  Number three if you are counting back through the loss of auto jobs in the 1990s and the great recession of 2008.

And the debate begins, shaped by questions from eight local or at least regional folks. The first questions focus on repair of the lead problem and the possibility of candidates using the issue for their campaigns.  Then one question each about education, gun control, bringing jobs back, and racism (from Don Lemon).  The final two questions concern fracking and a two-part wild card typical of America today---is God relevant?  Do you pray?  To whom and for whom? 

Watching live makes me alert to candidates’ one liners and rhetorical strategies. Out the outset Hillary strikes pay dirt with her “amen to that” (Sanders’call for Governor Snyder to resign).  Her take away line, “It’s raining lead in Flint,” is so deft that people (around me at least) don’t seem to realize this is the first time she’s called for Snyder to go.

Bernie’s works the audience with his powers of concision and irony (“I hate to break it to you . . . ). His line, “We will devote a lot of funds to mental health.  Maybe the Republicans could use this” prompts hearty laughter and applause.  Alas, his more icy jabs seemed less well grasped, at least, up in my balcony. “While you were in Europe you may have noticed health care.” “Why should people trust government?  I suppose they should trust corporations, maybe Wall Street.  I will trust government.” 

Bernie’s been called “handsy.” And his hand gestures warrant anthropological research.  I’d wager they come from Jewish life in Brooklyn sixty years ago, but as I say, the scholarship on this awaits. 

Hillary has her verbal ticks.  You can count on her to open with “Well you know, or “Well, let me start.”  She works what I call “the litany” ---the list of what she will do, or “I will do more”, or “I have a comprehensive plan.”  Sometimes she pads the list with even improbable items: “I will commit to 5 years and lead in soil and in the houses.” 

Really? Lead in our soil?  Makes water seem easy. 

She promises thoroughness: I will “double, triple check all work when [the water] is fixed.”  I’m a bit OCD myself, but even I grow weary.  Alas, instead of building audience enthusiasm, Hillary’s approach comes across like a list of chores.

The depth of Hillary’s machine appears when she’s able to include in the list a last minute initiative (brokered at Mott Community College earlier Sunday afternoon): Flint Waterworks which will pay Flint people to deliver water.  Great applause.  No surprise---Mayor Weaver had broached the idea earlier. (See

This 7th debate shows Hillary strong, empowered; she now talks over or through moderator Cooper.  She interrupts Bernie who, justifiably irritated, says “Can I finish please” and elicits some boos. But no one seems perturbed. Throughout the debate applause seems keyed to the issue and boos signal the intensity of audience attention to local pain---especially an issue like NAFTA. 

I was impressed by how much the candidates teach about how bills and legislation work, while at the same time using the tactic of skewering the opponent for voting for or against a bill.  Bernie was the first to do this.  He reminded the audience that bills have bad and good provisions; if you voted for this, then you voted for that.  What was the most important provision in the bill determined whether to vote for or against.

The 1990s provides contested legislative ground: Hillary recites a litany of good economic stats; Bernie retorts that the decade deregulated Wall Street and passed NAFTA---a lot of good, a lot of bad.  The 1996 Welfare Reform Bill scapegoated the poor, increased extreme poverty (Bernie); the bill’s best provisions were stripped out by George W. Bush and Republicans (Hillary). 
I found myself taking notes---what to look up about the candidates’ positions, past and present. 

The final two questions crystalized the rhetorical contrast between Hillary and Bernie.  To the question about fracking posed by a UM-Dearborn student Sarah Bellaire, Hillary set out her list of conditions:

“You know, I don’t support it when any locality or any state is against it, number one. I don’t support it when the release of methane or contamination of water is present. I don’t support it — number three — unless we can require that anybody who fracks has to tell us exactly what chemicals they are using. So by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”

But Bernie’s weapon of concision wins the audience: 

“My answer — my answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking.” A burst of applause. “We have gotta be bold now. We gotta transform our energy system to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. We've gotta do it yesterday.”

No wonder the students love him.

The announcement of the final question devoted to religion elicited some audience groans (including mine).  Its two-part format---is God relevant, why or why not? (addressed to Bernie) and to whom and for whom do you pray (addressed to Hillary) suggested some assumptions.  Did the questioner (Denise Ghattas of Flint) assume that Christians pray and not Jews? Or, perhaps Jews only deal with the big theological stuff?  The question opened a back door for Anderson Cooper to interject a follow-up to Bernie---was he keeping his Judaism in the background? 

On the relevance of God Bernie responded

“Well, I think -- well, the answer is yes, and I think when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.”

And from Hillary? Five paragraphs on her personal prayer habits. Once again, a list.  Well, I was not surprised.  The candidates’ responses epitomized their favored rhetorical patterns.

Getting my coat at coat check, I chat with people whom I don’t really know, but in Flint so many faces are familiar we all think we’ve met somewhere.  The garderobe system at Whiting remains an old world experience of community.

A short, rumpled Columbo-type guy passes our line; it’s Mark Ruffalo, smiling and waving at the people who’ve recognized him.   

I’m high on politics and so I’ve decided to head over to The Torch to get a beer and a burger.  It’s after 11, but the place is nearly full---friends are at the end of the bar waiting for take-out.  

The Torch alley sign light is inexplicably out, but this is Flint.

* * *

Read more essays like this at East Village Magazine,

Pulling Weeds by Moonlight

I got home late, a bit after 9 pm, coming back in June to my house in Flint after several months living near the south bay beach cities west of Los Angeles.  My partner Dennis---an LA native---won’t arrive until July.  I’ll be by myself here for a while. 

Dennis lives in Torrance, just over the hill from the Pacific coast.  It’s usually warmer than at the beach, but when I hike up the hill behind his house I can see the ocean in the distance. This part of SoCal (as the media call it) is about as perfect a late winter getaway as a Michigander could have.
The climate is “temperate,” sometimes called Mediterranean.  Locals lament the lack of rain (or the threat of mudslides if rain comes), the sirocco-type winds called Santa Anas, and the long allergy season that starts in February. There’s always potential earthquake drama too. I heard on public radio that someone’s developing an app to sense tremors---users will know what area is hardest hit. Just check your phone as roof and walls collapse.

So the region has a climate but not weather---at least by Midwest standards. The weather crawl rarely runs across the bottom of the TV screen.  The term “outerwear” is unknown and no one has a coat closet at the front door. Gutters and eaves troughs are afterthoughts. No one seems to tend them. Screen doors are optional.  

The Torrance population boomed in the 1950s as the postwar aerospace and petroleum industries grew. New homeowners planted fruitless olive and pepper trees for shade. The small yards of two-bedroom houses accommodated citrus---lime, lemon, orange, or plum, avocado, and pomegranate.  Water was no problem as the city utility grid expanded.

Today residents ignore the trees laden with fruit in winter despite the last five years of drought.  Tree roses still thrive along walkways to old apartment buildings. In a neglected corner of a faded stucco house, I’ll see a blooming pink camellia bush, thick with deep green leaves above patchy, jaundiced grass.  Brilliant cerise bougainvillea drape their papery flowers over collapsing fences.  Mexicans armed with leaf blowers and the fervor of Zapata’s army propel the dry olive and pepper leaves from one yard to another.

Things have changed in this drought-era and landscaping is all about native plants.  Nurseries and websites educate gardeners.  Some water departments give credits for purchasing rain barrels. Guides at area conservation sites explain native flora to hikers and birders.  I’m trying to learn the varieties of sagebrush, toyon, blue elderberry, and lemonade bush.  But I have to say none of them seems very distinctive to me. Spots of natural color come from lupines, sunflowers, poppies and primrose, and manzanita with its red bark.  Small and subtle in contrast to the florid tropical blooms.

In southern California, land of sand and clay, the dirt is a creamy tan color.  Where bulldozers have cut away hillsides, the carved earth exposes no striations of color or texture.  Its light consistency sheds a powdery dust everywhere that natives seem not to notice. 

Gardeners plant in pots, but the fluffy perlite soil quickly dries out to the delight of squirrels. It’s a hard go. Two years ago Dennis’s landlady capped her sprinkling system pipes, poured pea gravel in the borders and sprayed it with plastic so the pebbles never move.  Then last year she abandoned the lawn struggle and laid down a carpet of AstroTurf in her front yard.

In the alley behind Dennis’s house there’s a prickly pear cactus. Opuntia ovata, it’s one of the few naturally thriving plants and now some six feet high.  If a car makes a tight right turn, some of the flat spikey pads, nopales or cladodes, break off.  I once backed into it myself. Only an elderly Mexican lady respects the cactus dignity; she trundles down the alley to pick its fruit when its yellow, orange, and pink blooms fade in late spring.

Walking up to my Michigan house I can feel that it must have been a perfect day here, perhaps in the mid-70s.  And now I’ve returned to a perfect Midwest evening---still and mild. No jacket needed; the air warms my skin like velvet. Not yet humid and it’s three days until the summer solstice.  

In the eerie half-light I can see the shrubs flourishing---an incandescent green sumac, spirea beginning to flower, phlox erect at attention but the blossoms not yet open.  Against the garage wall the peonies lay prostrate on the grass, collapsed beneath the weight of their blooms.

Around my front porch the photocell outdoor lights flicker and hiccup, hesitant to commit to their nighttime task.  It won’t be really dark for another hour.

Friends messaged me that May had been cool in Michigan, some rain but no sudden heat waves.  Great weather for gardens. In the new front yard flower bed clumps of feathery wild barley grass (hordum leporium) rise over a foot tall.  Their mandorla tufts glow in the light of the not quite a half moon.  Silent invaders in my absence.

Lugging my roll aboard up the front steps onto the porch, I pass the window box with its wilted leaves---remnants from Home Depot’s paltry assortment of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth.  I resolve once again to order really big bulbs from Holland for next fall. 

The twist of my key in the old lock and clatter of the suitcase wheels across the front doorsill that should be repaired---all sounds I’ve not heard for months now. 

As I prop my suitcase up in the hallway, through the kitchen windows I can see the back yard.  Above the retaining wall the orange poppies have come and gone, and now their seed filled rattle heads dangle from the crook of their tall stems.  The lilac is finished too, its dead clusters of  blossoms signal another loss.  But at the edges of the security light beaming from my neighbor’s garage can see the roses.  Last year I had battled black spot and mildew on their leaves, sprayed with dish soap. Midway through their first blooming time and it seems they’ve flourished in my absence.

My SoCal winter getaway spared me several months of cold and ice, but I have missed early June and the moist black earth of the Midwest and its worms as thick as my little finger. 

I’m on Pacific coast time---my body says it’s only six o’clock.  The gardening gloves are still on the kitchen table where I left them in March. I pick them up and turn back to head out the front door.

I can already feel the give of the soft earth against my tug when I grab a first handful of that barley grass.

Read more essays like this at East Village Magazine,

Monday, February 1, 2016

Fluttered away like a pack of cards

When I was about 8 years old I was very sick with a fever that must have been unusually high.  What caused it or what my mother and grandmother surmised it might be, I don’t remember now.  But I was in bed in a dark room, restless and confused. 

The family prescription was that I needed to sleep, sleep being the general cure-all in household pediatric advice, circa 1953.  But domestic illness lore also warned that fever would spike at night. 

Worry must have been considerable.  We lived in an undeveloped area in Marin County, miles away from the nearest town, Mill Valley.  In the early 1950s neighbors were sparse, doctors unavailable.  Few people had telephones in those party line days.

My Kentucky-born grandmother mobilized.  Her remedy was a large spoon in which she crushed a single aspirin which she then dissolved with a droplet of warm water.  Into this she sprinkled some sugar and added a generous dollop of whiskey.  I know that spoon’s size and pattern---the same family silverware rests in my kitchen drawer now.

My mother propped me up and cajoled me into swallowing this potion, encouraged with a more sugar water as a chaser. 

The fever broke of course, but what I remembered as vividly as my grandmother’s nostrum was a mysterious experience I had at the time.  At some point in the darkness a large, an overstuffed armchair loomed and grew, magnifying as it moved toward me.  Other objects, chiefly furniture, ballooned and closed in on me.  Advancing, then retreating.  Expanding, then shrinking, the shapes tinged with a reddish halo.  I could close my eyes and block out the images, but when I opened them, they returned.

I think I told my mother about this---maybe that’s what galvanized my grandmother to resort to the sugar and whiskey. 

My hallucinatory experience (and I had it at least one time later) is a phenomenon called “Alice in Wonderland syndrome” (AWS) or “Alice in Wonderland-like syndrome” (AWLS).  I had nearly forgotten my childhood sensations of it until I saw an article in The New York Times (“I Had Alice in Wonderland Syndrome,” June 23, 2014).  Author Helene Stapinski reports the experience of her daughter who suffered from a bad headache at bedtime and then saw distorted perceptions like what I remembered.  A first-hand account by Robin Tricoles in the Atlantic (“Objects in the Brain May Be Bigger than They Appear,” March 9, 2015) confirms continued research and notes the distinction now made between AWS and AWLS.    

Characteristic perceptions during “Alice in Wonderland-like syndrome” include micropsia (objects appear small) or the opposite---what I experienced---macropsia (objects appear large).  In “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” body parts grow or shrink.  The phenomenon appears chiefly in childhood, often at sleep onset, and in most cases the experience is outgrown.  Triggers seem to be infection, migraine (reputedly Lewis Carroll suffered from them), or perhaps a type of aura that precedes a migraine.  Stress or drugs---particularly cough medicines---may stimulate the syndrome, but in many cases no cause is found.

Cursory web surfing didn’t bring up much more, so---tickled as I was to recapture the memory of a strange event from over sixty years ago---I turned to the classic that gave its name to this odd childhood phenomenon.   Had I ever really read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or just seen a movie or TV adaptation?  Time to pay Wonderland a visit.

Reading Alice delighted me---it’s a gleeful take down of education, Victorian manners and smugness, and the indoctrination of children.  Nonsensical animal banter softens the parody of learning by rote and ridicule, and authority asserted by bombast and bluster.  Perplexed at the play of language and logic, disconcerted by alternately growing and shrinking, still Alice presses on.  Even the grotesque Duchess or Queen of Hearts does not diminish the enticing beauty of Wonderland; curiosity propels Alice forward. 

The Wonderland adventures climax in the final two chapters where satire turns sharp. Carroll skewers the English court system.  Accusations rest on evidence no one understands and the Queen’s dictum, “Sentence first---verdict afterward,” satisfies foolish jurors.

The plucky heroine is at an impasse.  Only a return to her real size rescues Alice.  She outgrows the Wonderland world.   In the original Tenniel drawings Alice raises her arms in mock horror, exclaiming as she escapes that it was all “nothing but a pack of cards.”

It’s pretty easy to see that Alice’s adventures mimic growing up and exploring identity.  Fantasy and whimsy capture the child’s perception of the adult world in all its bewildering arbitrariness.  But Alice is inquisitive and intrepid.   Changing size may be unsettling, but our girl is on to the main issue of life.  As she declares to the White Rabbit, “Who in the world am I?  THAT is the great puzzle.” 

My only gripe concerns Carroll’s condescending narrator; why did a Cambridge mathematician choose a voice so unworthy of this fantasy?  When Alice first encounters the White Rabbit, narrator cavils that Alice “should have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural.”  At the end he grows priggishly sentimental, blathering that one day as an adult Alice’s sister will recall funny stories and a sunny afternoon on the riverbank. 

Give me a break.

Childhood---even a loving and secure one like mine---is a weird combination of things that don’t make sense to a kid but seem quite natural.  Like my fevered experience of macropsia.  Growing up means negotiating the contradictory admonitions and exhortations of adults,  being frightened and at the same time dependent on big people in a world of rules and riddles.

My 1950s childhood seemed natural to me too.  And I navigated it pretty well.  I was a compliant kid, more eager to please than (I’m embarrassed to admit) to question---out loud at least.  Rebellion came later in the 1960s---when the wonderland garden of adulthood that beckoned to me was the counter culture. Not psychedelic hippiedom, but political protest and a rejection of middle class expectations that spumed out of dissent.  My parents were appalled.  In the end the social side of my rebellion mattered less than they feared.  By the 1990s, many proprieties of my forebears, conventions I grew up with, collapsed and fluttered away like Alice’s pack of cards.  Flimsy and foolish.

I’m in my seventh decade of life with a lot of time to mull over my past, a biohazard of longevity.  A strange childhood event and a literary allegory of adulthood has set me to musing.  That pack of adulthood cards---or at least the part of the deck called middle age---has fluttered away.  In its stead, the “great puzzle” of who I am seems to have returned.  I feel as if I am growing again, coming to myself as an older adult. 

It’s all a bit disconcerting, as might have been said in Alice’s day.  Did I expect at this at this point to have more certainty, more peace of mind?  I never thought about it.  My memory of that childhood fever recalls my redoubtable maternal forebears who cared for me, and whose genes I share.  And like Alice, I am curious; there are still mysteries of my inner life to explore and a self and a story to explain.   

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Love after Love

by Derek Wolcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life. 

“It is common knowledge that nobody is born with a decalogue already formed, but that everyone builds his own either during his life or at the end, on the basis of his own experiences, or of those of others which can be assimilated to his own; so that everybody’s moral universe, suitably interpreted, comes to be identified with the sum of his former experiences, and so represents an abridged form of his biography.” 

---from Primo Levi, The Reawakening (1965)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Throwing out my files

Three years ago I retired and I am still sorting folders of papers.  I’m not talking about those icons on our computer screens here.   I mean real file folders, the original article and a significant feature of my pre-electronic academic life.  Despite rounds of purging and pitching, a distressing number of folders survived.

My dear friend and colleague Nora used to exhort me that no academic problem was hopeless if you could organize it into file folders.  New and fresh ones were the key, she said.  Turning previously used ones inside out might remind you of past projects that did not end well. When folder supplies in our department storage closet ran low, Nora would alert our lackadaisical secretary to the impending file folder crisis.  

For countless years the folders were a smooth creamy color called “manila.”  A bow to global economics here---the name is from the abaca plant (a banana relative) indigenous to the Philippines.  Since hemp had been the source of fiber for centuries, the abaca fiber was called “Manila hemp.” Strong, durable, and water-resistant, Manila hemp was used for rope in ship riggings. Cultivated in the Philippines since the 1500s, it was cheap to produce, biodegradable, and lustrous in texture. Manila hemp went into rugs and hats and paper. 

The manila file folder, humble office servant, had wide and distinguished affiliations.  

Some five years before I retired, however, a revolution burst into academic office life.  Without forewarning, it seemed, file folders blossomed in different colors. Suddenly the manila haven of calming uniformity---and research impartiality---was invaded by riotous color.  

It must have been a Pendaflex catalog that roused our fainéant secretary to action.  She ordered boxes of colored folders, crates perhaps.  The department supply closet was narrow; its shelves rose to the ceiling tiles.  A rickety paint-spattered five-foot step ladder was wedged into a corner behind the door.  The incoming boxes of colored files---stacked in no particular order---displaced the old manila boxes upward.  When grabbing a folder from the supply closet shelves, five different colors met me at eye-level. Not much of a spectrum in the fine arts, but for me in the social sciences an unsettling dilemma. 

The alternative?  Close the door, open the rickety ladder and climb up to the manila boxes and heave a clutch of folders down to the floor.  

I made my peace with the new regime, of course.  Such is the power of office supplies. A color code even began to emerge in my personal file drawers. When by beset by campus politics, student complaints, and research deadlines, I could therapeutically fritter a quarter hour refining the color code. 

Folders of new course ideas gravitated to green (verdant with brainstorms for courses and articles).  Yellow housed student records (names easily readable on the light tab).  Campus committee work was relegated to red, a reminder of the principle of  administrative emergency.  Red folder in hand, I appeared passionately concerned and was less likely to forget my notes and doodles laying on the table at meetings.  

My favorite shade, however, was a pale, milky violet which I reserved for my contracts and promotion and tenure files.   Always a comfort to pull up a folder from this color group and remind myself that the College had once granted me a raise or nominated me for an award.   That I had a number (in the single digits) of insightful articles published.  That indeed a few students appreciated my teaching enough to record a positive evaluation.  

Conferences were filed in aqua, a color I associated with the fashion concept of accent. A glance into these files triggered images of distant colleagues, some competitive or condescending, their coteries in which I felt inadequate. Riffling through the folder tabs organized by year, two decades of “cutting edge” research trends fanned out before me. 

But the authentic and humane turned up too.  Here and there a pre-digital photo dropped in the files reminded me of a heart-to-heart conversation with a female colleague. A shared wine or coffee with another struggling academic or a kindly senior scholar just taking a break from the panels. 

I made it through several rounds of file purging while still resident in my campus office.   Most of the folders, manila and colored, were emptied.  Their paper contents dumped into a bin by the shredder, folders stacked for reuse.   A few stragglers were boxed and hauled home to my basement office and there to rest until some moment of reflection would allow me to look at them again before sending them on to Republic’s domestic recycling.

Then late last February the weather gods intervened.  

During a week of record-breaking subzero cold, the pipes in my upstairs bathroom burst.  Gallons of water coursed downward through a ground floor bedroom and thence into my cozy basement office and onto a whole lot of paper.  Dragging plaster and shreds of old insulation, the water saturated a stack of file folders before it hit the linoleum. 

Future perusal? Too late now.  Color from file folders bled into the contents.   Red was the worst. I stacked soppy clumps of paper between Trader Joe bags and set them on the fireplace hearth to dry slowly, weighted down with bricks to press the swollen, crinkly sheaves flat. I note for the archaeologists that the computer prints outs were barely decipherable, while pages written in ballpoint pen remained legible.  

The stacks are still on the hearth.  It’s already June and time to tend to tomato plants and the zinnias. The next months will be spent outdoors and on the front porch.  November will be soon enough to return to the fireplace hearth and look at file folders.   Stiff and corrugated, I can twist them into kindling rolls and watch them burn in the first fireplace fires of the coming winter.   

Read more essays like this at East Village Magazine,

Monday, April 6, 2015

Gardening Season 2015

The trees are leafless sticks but the mottled grass grows greener every morning.  Birdsong pierces the gray light of 4 am.  By 7 am robins and starlings bob and poke on the grass.  Chipping sparrows, song sparrows, and common finches swoop across the hypotenuse from the porch eaves to living room gables.  High in the bare branches cardinals chortle and tilt their heads as if to hear better.

It’s April. 

I’ve packed away my 10,000 lux light therapy device, my shield and buckler against winter depression. Bulbs have straggled up, never as bountiful as the Dutch promise.  No matter; I’m on to Burpee’s now.   Gardening season has finally come. 

Time to peek under the crumbling corners of the Styrofoam cones that cover the backyard roses and see if any tiny green leaves have sprouted on the canes. I will scrape back the remaining straw that covers two raised beds and learn how the strawberries have fared.

Then comes serious inventory, clinical assessment.  I will troop the yard and inspect, imaginary clipboard in hand---the gardener’s triage.  I will note the dead, the reviving, the remotely hopeful. Treading the damp grass my feet sink unevenly when I cross a mole runway beneath.  Summer struggles with scalopus aquaticus ahead.  A non-protected mammal and formidable opponent.

Gardening knits my Mott Park neighborhood together.  April is the month our master gardener, Ginny Braun, buys seed geraniums that volunteers will plant in May in the four neighborhood flower beds.

The neighborhood honors gardeners and gardening.  Every summer Mott Park applauds the prettiest garden and the most improved garden each with a $100 award.  We have so many new neighbors---renters, leaseholders, land contract residents. I want to tell them put a geranium in a pot and we love you.  You could win for most improved garden.

Meantime, we old-timers garden to please ourselves.  We revive our spirits with gardening, nourish our bodies with something fresh out of our own ground, even if the carrots are oddly shaped, the lettuce bears teeth marks, or the abundant kale proved bitter.  Gardening connects us with life. 

And with history. I read once that Louis XIV worked on building and garden projects for Versailles to the day he died at age seventy-seven.  Warfare, diplomacy, and domination of Europe for la gloire of seventeenth-century France?  A mere sidebar to his real passion---building and landscaping.  Gardens were outdoor rooms, integral to architecture.  The tarnished panes of silvered glass in the Hall of Mirrors look shabby today, but the regiments of trees and shrubs and splotches of color within the hedged gardens are still breathtaking.

In eighteenth-century America, gentlemen farmers envisioned a republic where endless land promised a self-sufficient agrarian future. In Founding Gardeners, author Andrea Wulf documents the life-long interest of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison in crops and gardening.  Founding a successful republic entailed laying out its boundaries and planting it to advance public and personal goals. Not by accident were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson land surveyors. Their daily concerns included species and crops for the new land they were settling (having wrested it from native peoples who merely foraged it).  They warded off invasion and drafted a constitution while they wrote home to their estate managers about what to have planted. Their agrarian idyll rested on slave labor, the contradiction that would undo it.

In the 1890s American magnates built edifices to wealth attained otherwise---in transportation, industry, and finance. They erected enormous homes imitating European styles and crammed their rooms with furnishings ordered from abroad.  The Vanderbilt brothers, Cornelius II and George W. , hired landscape architects to plan the gardens of their estates.  But Gilded Age ostentation sank with the Titanic.  You can visit the Newport mansions and Biltmore House if you can manage hours of viewing imitative styles.  The real value?  The rare trees and shrubs imported for The Breakers in Newport and the thousands of native azaleas gathered for the Biltmore gardens.  

And here we are---ordinary folk with our yards and gardens.  My next door neighbor is Italian.  Gardening seems to come naturally to Carmie.  She tears ivy off the brick walls and tosses the vines onto an old bedsheet spread out on the ground. Then she tips the sheet into the big paper bags for garden trash. Grass cuttings and fall leaves get the same treatment.

In the late afternoon we water our back yards and talk through the chain link fence.  Carmie’s father was a gardener who grew tomatoes. He built things too.  One year she had a garage sale to clear out stuff from her parents; I eyed a low table, painted white, and two small push brooms.  All looked homemade.  One of her sons carried the table over to my garage---though small, it was heavy in the way of handmade things. Too many braces for the legs, too many nails, but indestructible.  I stack my garden tools on the handiwork of an Italian gardener.  

Carmie takes a walk in the afternoon, when it’s not too cold---the village pattern of generations. On summer Sundays the family gathers at her place, offspring and their offspring, and sometimes a dog. If there’s a birthday, there are more cars and it’s noisier.  I love it.  Laughter and some of the talk drifts my way as I fertilize the roses in my back yard.   When the men sit outside on the deck, they sometimes call out in my direction.  “Hey, don’t worry about our shouting---we’re just having a good time.”  I shout back that they are a joy to hear.  Swear your socks off.  Have another beer.  It’s beautiful. 

And it’s all just beginning in April.