Friday, June 17, 2016

Pulling weeds by moonlight


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

I’ll be on my own in Michigan 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 steep hillside 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,” also termed Mediterranean.  What could be more perfect? 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. Potential earthquake drama lurks in the background, although people don’t fret about it much. I heard on public radio that someone’s developing a mobile app to sense tremors---users will know what area’s shaking the hardest.  Just check your cell phone as roof and walls collapse.

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

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 trees---lime, lemon, orange, or plum, avocado, and pomegranate.  Water was no problem as the city utility grid expanded along with the population.

Today few residents tend the trees laden with abundant fruit in winter despite the last five years of drought. Plums, lemons, and limes fall into the street to be mashed by traffic or roll under the cars parked on the pavement after everyone returns from work.  Garages were long ago filled with stuff or turned into extra rooms.

Along walkways to old apartment buildings tree roses still thrive. In a neglected corner against a faded stucco house, I’ll see a blooming pink camellia bush, thick with glossy green leaves above patchy, jaundiced grass.  Brilliant cerise bougainvillea drape their vines of papery flowers over collapsing fences.  Mexicans bent beneath shoulder pack leaf blowers propel the dry olive and pepper leaves from one yard to another with the fervor of Zapata’s army. Brittle and desiccated, the leaves never rot.

Landscaping in drought-era SoCal is all about native plants.  Nurseries and websites educate gardeners; some water departments give credits for purchasing rain barrels. At area conservation sites guides 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. Small spots of color come from lupines, sunflowers, poppies and primrose, and manzanita with its red bark.  Subtle shades---or wan, depending upon your view---in contrast to the florid tropical imports.

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

Gardeners plant in pots, but the squirrels rummage in the container mix, scatter the ersatz soil. It’s a hard go. Two years ago Dennis’s landlady capped her sprinkling system pipes, poured pea gravel into the box hedge borders and then sprayed the gravel with a plastic coating.  The shiny pebbles never move.  Finally, 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, one of the few naturally thriving plants and now some six feet high.  A tight right turn with the car and you can break off some of its flat spikey pads, the cladodes, or in Spanish, nopales.  I backed into the cactus myself once. 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.

Stretching my legs after a five-hour flight, I walk up to my Michigan house and sense that it must have been a perfect day here, perhaps in the mid-70s.  I’ve returned to a perfect Midwest evening---still and mild. No jacket needed; the air warms my skin like velvet. I breathe in the continental air, not yet humid, but heavy compared to the bracing Pacific coast. It’s three days until the summer solstice.

Above 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.

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 siding the peonies lay prostrate on the grass, collapsed beneath the weight of their blooms.

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 (hordeum murinum) rise over a foot tall.  Their mandorla tufts glow in the light of the not quite a half moon.  Silent invaders in my absence. Days of weed-pulling are ahead.

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.  Read up on late blooming tulips at the Michigan State Extension website.  

The twist of my key in the door lock and clatter of the suitcase wheels across the loose metal 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.  The orange poppies have come and gone, and now seed-filled rattle heads dangle from the crook of their tall stems.  The lilac is finished too, its conical clusters of blossoms deceptively intact, but dead. Another loss.

But at the edges of the security light beaming from my neighbor’s garage I can see the roses, twelve of them lined against the retaining wall.  Three bushes are a decade old.  Last year I battled black spot and mildew, sprayed their leaves with dish soap and baking soda. Wept when one of them developed twisted leaves and thorny stems, symptoms of the bizarre rosette virus. It was a summer of struggle.
Now midway through their first June blooming time, the roses have flourished in my absence.

My SoCal winter getaway spared me several months of cold and ice, of dreary days of Great Lakes overcast.  But I have missed early June and the moist black earth of the Midwest where the worms are as thick as my little finger.

I’m on Pacific coast time of course---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 will grab a first handful of that barley grass.

Read more essays like this one at East Village Magazine, http://www.eastvillagemagazine.org/




Sunday, May 1, 2016

Water

We sit in a rectangle of tables, old manila file folders halved and then creased so we can write our names and prop them up in front of us.

I’ve found my way to the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church for the meeting of a group called Communication/Publication. It’s something to do with water and print media.

Jan has asked me to find out what’s going on.  Is there a role for East Village Magazine here?

I am clueless, but diligent.  Ready for an hour and a half meeting on a cold Monday afternoon in late March.  

Around the table are some 25 people from non-profits, grass-roots organizations, churches; many greet each other and chat---it’s clear that they’ve been working together for some time.

Jamie-Lee, tall and strong-voiced, in a Live United tee shirt convenes what I now understand is the Communication Workgroup, one of six workgroups that together form Flint Water Crisis Community Partners.  All around the table people introduce themselves, say whether they represent an organization. In fact, just being a Flint resident or concerned citizen suffices----the group is open to all.  Every meeting begins this way, I learn later.  Every meeting someone new comes.

I’ve styled myself as an observer from East Village Magazine, glad to seem useful. And I live in the city of Flint.

Scanning the manila cards scrawled with first names and organizations, I decipher the initials:  EPA, HHS, ARC/LWV, and AARP are clear to me.  Some I am learning:  CBOP (Community Based Organization Partners) and CAC (Communication Access Center)---services for the Deaf. Two signers are here.

Present too are Salvation Army, Genesee County Health Department, Michigan Works, the Genesee County Medical Society, Save the Children (they target the over 5000 children not in Head Start), Valley Area Agency on Aging, and two uniformed National Guard officers---presumably from the Mayor’s office.  They listen, sometimes answer questions. 

The Unitarian minister, Deane, contributes her pastoral insight and experience with clergy who advocate for the people of Flint. 

A few people strike me as old hands at community organizing: Joe King from Flint Neighborhoods United, Jane Richardson from Salem Housing and the paper, Flint Our Community Our Voice, and Jane O’Dell from the Flint’s Community Resolution Center.

A regional organization, Crossing Water, is here in the person of Michael Hood, acerbic and outspoken.  Devoted to disaster relief for vulnerable communities, Crossing Water coordinates with social services and mobilizes teams of volunteers who go house to house, install, fix or change filters. Check if young children (under 6 years) or pregnant or nursing mothers are in the home.  The reports from the front is discouraging.

But after a winter of blaming and castigation, suspicion and aspersion, MSNBC exposés, presidential candidate slogans, and Congressional hearings, I am cheered to sit in a group where local staff from EPA, Health and Human Services, and the Genesee County Health Department respond supportively to questions, text queries to their superiors, and take notes to get more information from their offices.

And it’s clear from the discussion that answers do come back. These folks see one another every Monday; they evince the ease of people going at a common problem for a couple of months together.   
As a veteran of decades of academic committees, I can see the picture emerging.  First order of business is a review of “open issues.”  Who has answers for the list from last time?

The Communication group works steadily  through questions about organ and blood donation (various reasons why lead transmission through blood transfusions would be low; organs also low since majority of lead is stored in blood and bone rather than organs), the effect of heat on plastic water bottles (EPA doesn’t anticipate problems since the kind of plastic is stable), getting a flow chart that shows the official entities involved in Flint water recovery efforts (Jamie-Lee is getting this; word is that a unified document is in the works but will take months).  The community needs a single source of information; this is a traumatized population.

Discussion moves to today’s concerns. First voice at the table comes from the Genesee County Medical Society about problems with calling 2-1-1 to report skin rash issues and get to free screening with dermatologists; why is there a 40-60% no show rate? 

The deaf community representative notes that those using the “relay” ID complain that they are often denied service (a problem in general with doctors). Someone mentions that a lead screening program was also put in place right away and it’s not being used. 

Then there’s the media and conflicting information. Water Defense (Mark Ruffalo’s group) hasn’t shared their data on why not to bathe in the water with EPA.  The EPA stance remains the same: except for young children bathing is ok.  Both EPA and CDC continue to test.

What about people with pacemakers and metal implants?  It goes on the list.

Back to the media and how to hold them responsible for accuracy? Corrections after the fact are useless.  What about a press conference with media? (This is voted down). Sometimes the headline is inflammatory while the whole article body not. Local radio does the same.  Media expand the context of misinformation while the real news is that there is conflicting information.

Then there’s the issue of uniformed National Guard at the points of distribution for water---the PODs.  Some populations (such as the undocumented) are wary of uniformed presence.  Fire stations are phasing out in favor of community PODs, C-Pods, one in every ward in the city.  More education---verbal information and flyers---can take place at C-PODS.

I check the time; the hour and a half is nearly up and the group has not yet broken out into its two task groups to work on the website and print publication.  The issues that have come forth today have swamped the meeting.  

Although it’s too late to work today, the two task groups report:  website people have made progress  and a shell is ready. It’s a measure of our computerized society that the website seems an easier task than the print challenge---up-to-date material in simple language for a range of different groups unlikely to use the internet (senior citizens, homebound, illiterate, vision impaired, homeless, undocumented, and non-English speaking are some of the 19 categories).

The print people also have a list of 50 trusted sources to communicate print information. How to cover printing costs, especially high because color graphics are needed. EPA has produced an effective flyer with simple language and graphics, but it bears the EPA logo.  So the next question is who are the people whom will these populations trust?  Who are the individuals and organizations who can get reliable information to people on the other side of the digital divide, mistrustful, wary of endless conflicting information, worn down by changing conditions?  

I am a print person, happy to find myself among those struggling with paper and text and distribution. It’s 5 pm and people are packing up.  The publications task group is frustrated. They assure me that today’s meeting was a exception; next Monday the break out into the two groups will happen first. 

For me, for now, I take home what one participant leaned over to me and said as today’s session ended, “you come to one meeting and you are no longer observer; it is your meeting now.”

Note:
This was the first of a series of meetings of the Communication Workgroup of Community Partners that I attended on March 21, 2016.  I’ve continued to attend their Monday meetings.  The website has now been launched; find it at http://flintcares.com The publications task group has developed a print flyer using simple language and graphics called “The Bottom Line.”  Information comes from the website where accuracy is vetted; content of “The Bottom Line” will change according to current need.  First issue deals water resource sites and using and changing home filters.  Next issues will deal with nutrition and Legionella.

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East Village Magazine
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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 http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/03/hillary_clinton_partners_with.html)

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.

* * *

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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.   

Read more essays at http://www.eastvillagemagazine.org/

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, http://www.eastvillagemagazine.org/