Get Real: Titanic on Wheels (Part 1)

“Everyone’s up in arms about the poor horses, and I don’t mean any disrespect for those horses, but they are treated better than tour guides. The real victims out here are the humans driving this business.” Stefan Stanley.

So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

There is nothing new to be said about Robin Williams and his death, and it’s a good thing. I cannot find words to describe how I feel. I mourn for his wife and especially his children, I mourn for a world that will have one less astute observer to provide gleeful yet sobering reality checks, and I mourn for the man whose inner voices gave him so little peace.

A friend pointed out as I moped through the first day of life without Williams on the planet that “At least he wasn’t a family member or a close friend. . . “ Agreed. But I can’t help feeling like he belonged to me. To my family. He was a glue for us; many Saturday nights when other teenagers were out driving aimlessly in cars, ours were home sharing a Robin Williams video with their (gulp) parents. We loved him equally, and he seemed to speak for us as well as to us. He got us the way we got him, and he made us feel like we belonged together.

An iconoclast who married an iconoclast, I shared a love for Robin with my husband, and with him we completely intersected. It would be difficult to ascribe too much credit to Williams for keeping us together for 33 years; there were so few things we truly, honestly enjoyed in common. Laughing with Williams, I felt like I could endure whatever did not bind us together because the laughter and the tears his performances wrought were delicious enough to make up for all the things that drove us apart.  Better still, our kids loved him equally, and we laughed aloud, in unison, in perfect harmony at his jokes and ahhed as one at the deeply human characters he brought us in his films.

Williams spoke to me from somewhere inside me, often observing things in a way I was hesitant to admit, and he gave me courage to see them my own way. My parents died, and my siblings wandered far afield of me, but Robin was always there as a surrogate brother, reminding me that I may be weird, but there are weirder ones on the planet, and weirdness can make joy . . . as well as pain. I learned to savor the joy and swallow the pain.

I imagine the pain Robin Williams swallowed finally choked him. But I can’t judge, can’t know what was in his heart or his stomach. I loved him, I identified with him, but I was never he. In the end, I can only think how lucky we were to have had him with us for his time.

I think about the Apple ad that asked, in Williams’ unmistakable (“Captain”‘s) voice, what our verse would be. He was exactly the right person to ask because he knew about verses — he left us so many, and they were well crafted, eminently memorable. We’ll always have those.

What’s a (Grand)Mother to do?

Variations on a Surreal Scene of Violence

Show me the country, where the bombs had to fall
Show me the ruins of the buildings, once so tall
And I’ll show you a young land
With so many reasons why
And there but for fortune go you and I, you and I.

Phil Ochs

1. This is personal

I am a first generation American Jew. I am here by a fluke, by the accident of my mother’s survival, the miracle that she was not exterminated by the complacency, conciliation and paralysis that killed 6 million of her co-religionists and at least 5 million of her co-Europeans over a period of less than six years.

As the child of that happenstance, I owe a huge debt to my grandchildren. It is absolutely necessary that I not keep my mouth shut, that I not stand by and watch as Rome burns, that I not look the other way when society and government conspire to allow rampant murder to take over the country. It is time I look you in the eye and say aloud that if we do not find a way to stop mass murderers from infiltrating our schools and theaters and shopping centers and lives, each of us is complicit in the deaths and/or maiming of every victim.
All right. I’ve spoken. I’m probably preaching to the choir. Our voices join in outrage.

Now what?

Trouble is – and I’ll bet this is what happened to a lot of folks who might have wanted to change things in the 1920’s, 30’s and ‘40’s – I don’t know what we should DO. I have a perseverant Facebook friend who posts every few days that she may be only one voice, but she will keep saying how terrible it is that kids die in places like Newtown. But a voice, a post on FB, is not enough. What action can we take?

Well, to begin with, we might attempt to take down the gun lobby, get them to back off their insane stance that assault weaponry belongs in American homes, that armaments equal liberty. There is no question that the idiocy that prevails over our legislative bodies needs to be tempered with something like intelligence. It would be a good place to start, but we all know that even controlled guns, like controlled substances, can be lethal. The weaponry used in the Newtown slaughter was duly registered to the mother of the assassin. Further, in Canada where guns stand at the ready in every corner, there are no mass murders akin to ours.

Clearly, gun laws are not The Cure. Yes, we need stronger enforcement of more stringent laws, but the American black market is a cornucopia of easily obtained ill-gotten gains; gun laws won’t stop the killings. What else?

We need better health insurance and a medical community equipped to fully treat mental illness rather than stuffing sufferers with pills and telling them to call in the morning once every six months. We require a national societal outlook that accepts that mental disorders are as honorable as any other; no one hides diabetes in the family closet, but few are willing to talk openly about the schizophrenic who lives upstairs. That has to change.

We need more empowered and more effective training for law enforcers. When the Isla Vista murderer was reported to local police for his stash of weaponry and his menacing, disturbing videos, the police found him “polite” and “well-mannered” so they left him to his diabolical planning. That boy’s red flags were waving all over the Internet, all over his lifestyle, all over his face, and no one took him seriously because he was polite and well mannered? Who trained those investigators?

We need sensitivity to the vagaries of iconoclasm. Perhaps rather than labeling some of the perpetrators, if their communities had found a way to embrace them, they might have facitated ways to work out anxieties and anger. As a drama teacher, I often saw misfits find satisfying niches that turned their outsider statuses to a special kind of belonging, and I know that drama’s sister arts – music, individual sports, crafts, visual arts, etc. – are equally adept at “normalizing” weirdness.

We need mitigation of the violence we call entertainment and/or to understand why mad violence is so compelling to us all. A favorite character on the unremittingly brutal Game of Thrones is stabbed in the eyes, and everyone shudders but no one fails to tune in next time to see who’ll be the next prolific spewer of blood. Life on television and in video games is a bowl of splayed intestines, relentlessly devoid of sanctity. But while video games, television drama and even the news might inure our youngsters to the savagery around them, it is not the reason some carry AKAs into elementary schools and shoot five- and six-year-olds.

I could go on, but the point is clear: there is no one way to stem the tide. And even if every item on the list suddenly appeared in our communal midst, the ill might not be cured.

Because the one thing we need absolutely is a way for all of us who decry the violence to work together. We need organizations that send us out into the communities to preach and teach and listen and learn. We need to host meetings where kids and their parents and the disgruntled and the disenfranchised might come together for group support. We need to create a movement through which we are empowered to act.

A few groups do exist that claim to be fighting the madness, but when I try to get involved, they offer me no action; they simply ask for money. I have none. I can write, and I can speak, and I’m experienced in working with people; I want to put my skills to work making a difference. It should not matter that I am not solvent enough to contribute financially.

I am as baffled by it all as the next one. But other countries with problems far worse than ours, with cultures that have far less aversion to violence than ours, do not suborn the kind of terror we seem to be witnessing with increasing frequency here all over the country. I do not want my legacy to be my silence. I do not want my descendants to judge me complacent.

There must be something we can DO. Now.

What about we start with a mass protest meeting? We all join on Skype or Google or some common space online, and we have a huge symposium to brainstorm solutions. We sign a promise to sling no blame. We vow to listen to all suggestions, make no judgments, and we select volunteers to compile our ideas and to schedule follow-ups until we have plans of action, at which point we set about implementing them.

Anyone have another suggestion? It’s time. While we still have some.

2. Nobody is Safe

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend May these days. May’s not her name, but everything else I write about her will be faithful to the person I knew.

May and I taught together in a fairly small English department in a mid-sized town in Connecticut. She was a veteran by the time I began teaching, though we were nearly the same age. She is one of those exceptional people called to teaching, and while I did not agree with her approaches, she was undeniably driven to spend her life in a classroom. She loved her work, loved her school, loved her students.

But more than that she loved her family. Her husband was a semi-retired business owner, and together they kept horses, which both enjoyed riding. They had a daughter whose disabilities made her dependent on them for life, but whom May adored with unfettered warmth. But the light of May’s life was her talented, intelligent son.

Because I had a son a few years younger than hers, and because my son was a very accomplished young man who attended our school, May never tired of sharing photos and mementos from her son’s glory days in high school, then college; and when I left my position as a teacher in the room down the hall from May’s, that son was about to be married to a girl May adored. May was beside herself with joy. Grandchildren were on her horizon, and she was thrilled.

I didn’t see May for a lot of years. I left that school, moved to another one and then left teaching altogether; I hardly thought about her. But when Newtown happened, I saw that one of the children murdered there had her last name. Unwilling to imagine the bottomless pain of being a parent of a Newtown parent, I dismissed the name as a coincidence until a week after, when someone I knew from that town wrote me to tell me that the child whose name I had noticed was indeed May’s grandson.

Connecticut is a small town, and May’s was not the only family I knew pummeled by the awful rubble. But having reached grand-motherhood myself, having spent so many hours hearing the golden son stories, the news of May’s loss struck me like a serrated knife slicing away the edges of my heart. I couldn’t even write to her. I hadn’t been in touch with her for over twenty years; it would have seemed to her disingenuous to write of sympathy, of love.  I was dumbstruck.

There is no bottom to the kind of despair I envision in the wake of such a loss. And today, for the 75th time since that horrific day in Connecticut, another grandmother’s life has been strangled by a duly registered semiautomatic pistol aimed pointlessly at her child’s child.

It is time to stand up as a nation and say ENOUGH. We will take no more. We will make it stop. And we must do it now. We have no time to lose. We are all being watched through the sights of those guns aimed at our loved ones. Those guns must be hobbled.


Skeptical Idealism

I once was a union maid. Singing along with my soul father Pete Seeger, I turned 13 in a world where the unions, which had little to do with my life, existed to make workers feel appreciated, keep their bellies full and protect their rights. I would have followed “Dad”  and Uncle Woody to the ends of the earth carrying placards, recruiting for the unions.

Practical experience, however, has taught me skepticism.

In 1988, I went to work as a teacher in the state of CT, rejoicing that unlike AZ, where I had earned my certification and where no unions represented teachers, CT offered membership in a local chapter of the National Education Association.  I served on the bargaining committee and was part of a team that won my district some important concessions.  Then, after twelve years of fighting the politics of bureaucracy vs the arts, after feeling castigated for my perceived iconoclasm, I decided it was time to leave the profession.

Had I been a true devotee of my union, I would have stayed on indefinitely.  I had tenure.  I didn’t have to fight, didn’t even have to work very hard anymore.  My contract, buoyed by my Union membership, would have allowed me to get away with almost anything short of criminal behavior without being fired.  I could have followed in the footsteps of so many teachers who had gone before me, sleeping through classes, disengaging further and further from education, sitting for hours in the teachers’ lounge complaining about my lot but doing nothing to change things,  safely and securely ensconced in my job.

Instead, I saw that I was becoming ineffective.  I was distracted by personal traumas and exhausted from the constant round of fundraising and fighting for auditorium time that constituted much of my life.  I couldn’t focus on the student writing I was supposed to be coaching, and I feared allowing my negativity to rub off on the kids.  Nothing is worse for education that an ineffectual teacher, so I left.

And that’s when I found out just what the union had really done for me.

Long before my time, in the 1950’s, the Connecticut Teachers Retirement System voted to opt out of Social Security, and in 1959, at the request of the Connecticut Education Association, the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut prohibited members of the Retirement System from holding any further referenda on the matter.  To this day, the ban on Social Security for teachers in the state of Connecticut remains in place.

Which works out great for those teachers who stay  – even those who stay too long — from youth to age.  Had I been able to max out with 37 years in the system, I could have had a pension that exceeded my working income, and I would have had lifelong healthcare benefits.  But I began teaching at 50; I was hardly going to make it to the end any way I sliced it.  Today, at 65, my social security looks like I didn’t work for twelve years, and I have no pension.  The union did a great job for the one group and totally screwed the others.

Basically, the union made it possible for me to keep my job forever.  But it failed to protect any alternatives to the ties that bound me to the system, as it failed to allow the system to realistically assess my worth.

No union can make a perfect system.  None should promise to do so.  The union I am affiliated with now made promises, got commitments from management but the enforcement of all the concessions is a huge task, and in our case, implementation forced whole segments of the work force to compromise their well-being and/or to sacrifice their jobs altogether.  For the most part, the union shakes a hefty stick and makes noise but falls short real advocacy.  Yesterday the union actually gave credence to a management censure of a colleague who is dressed too well.  He breaks no rules, he comports himself professionally, and he even wears the required uniform.  Yet the union allowed his time and theirs to be wasted over nonsense.

There is no panacea.  No union can promise universal satisfaction any more than any politician can.  I don’t blame the unions.  I blame myself.  I expect too much.  Employers will exploit workers every chance they get, and workers will take advantage of any opportunity to bilk the employer.  It’s the way of the world.  Why do I keep hoping there is any protection from it?

Oh well.  It don’t scare me.  I’m sticking to the union . . . but I’m also lookin’ out for numbah one.  Know w’ad I mean?

I, Mother

Every year on Mother’s Day I feel let down.  Everywhere I look are reminders that it’s Mother’s Day.  In the street, when I take my morning walk, I see children carrying flowers to Grandma’s house, and families decked out in their Easter Sunday best coming out of restaurants sated from celebratory Mother’s Day Brunch, and strangers call out, “Happy Mother’s Day!”  When I get to work today, the dispatcher who supervises the buses during my shift, whom I have come to like and look forward to seeing, won’t be there.   Her husband bought her an I-Phone 4S for this day, and she booked off  to enjoy a day with her feet up, learning the in’s and out’s of her new toy.  My Mother’s Day is just another Sunday, except that I write anti-war emails and FB posts while I watch a flurry of new ads telling me what I should be receiving as gifts.  How can I not succumb to jealousy?

I have to remind myself that I made it so.  When my kids were little, I scoffed at the ads for the Hallmark Holiday the day had become, and I told them that I didn’t subscribe to the notion of a day to say thank you.  I have a day already; it’s my very own day, my birthday.  Honor me and respect me and love me all the days of your life; celebrate my birth on its day.  But don’t buy into the aberration of this day.  Let’s keep Mother’s Day as it was originally intended: a day of contemplation on the horrors of war.

In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, the poet who (perhaps ironically) authored The Battle Hymn of the Republic, pushed for the adoption of a day, a mothers’ day, set aside to remind people of the true nature of war, the true  cost.  War was, in her estimation, a simple carnage, the wasting of mothers’ sons’ lives by other mothers’ sons.  Later, she averred that the “collateral damage” of war was also the annhilation of mothers’ children, and Mother’s Day should be a day when mothers stand up and insist that their children not be slaughtered and that their children not be sent out to destroy other mothers’ lives.

I take this day very seriously.  I am a mother, neither a good mother nor a bad mother, but a mother who would be devastated by the loss of any of my children.  I weep for women who do not predecease their offspring; it’s a suffering I never want to endure.  I don’t need flowers or candy to prove to me my kids and grands love me; each of them shows me that in her/his own way.  What I do need is to be sheltered from the worst horror I could imagine: one of them being swept up by hatred and bloodlust, by politics and insanity, by the firestorms of war.

Julia Ward Howe

It’s Mother’s Day.  Let there be peace.

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. . . .”

                                                         Julia Ward Howe
                                              Mother’s Day Proclamation