Current Affairs

Inside Story

Download-1A bit of positive news which makes me feel happy, or if not happy, at least a little proud and a little less helpless.

This week I was asked to draw up guidelines for a program in which incarcerated men and women could start keeping Coronavirus journals. The project, of course, is a remote one, and in a world that does not have Zoom, or Internet for that matter,  we try to connect the old fashion way - through (security vetted) paper.

Writing in a journal is something I feel strongly about. I started keeping a diary when I was 8-years-old.  Even as a little girl I felt a significant disconnect between what I was being told and what I actually saw happening. There was a general sense of "I better write this down."

Looking back, I think I was profoundly lonely and wanted to talk to someone. It was also a way of sorting out my confused emotions, not to mention to develop trust in my own perceptions. Those diaries were lifesavers for me, piling up over the years, with their cloth flower covers, or in my teenage years, black, no-nonsense sketch books.  Of course, prisoners won't have actual journals, but they can write down their thoughts and experiences on whatever paper that may be available to them.

So I was thrilled when asked to do this project. For inmates, keeping a journal right now is important for a couple of reasons. First, I hope it will be therapeutic for them in the same way it's always been for me. They can channel their anxiety, focus their thoughts, and hopefully better manage their stress. Second, they have an important story to tell. Only people who are locked up can tell the story of what it's like to experience the pandemic behind bars, with little way of protecting themselves. Someday the history of Covid-19 will be told. And this will be part of it. Download

There's one other thing I feel VERY strongly about. These men and women will be writing in journals.
They will NOT be "journaling." Journal is not a verb. It is a noun. For instance, we do not say we are  "diary-ing." We keep diaries or we write in them. 

Clearly all these years of writing has turned me into a curmudgeon. But standards must be upheld, even in a pandemic.


Here Comes The Sun

At my local hospital, when someone survives Covid-19 and is able to leave the hospital, they play "Here Comes The Sun" over the public address system. The medical staff lines the halls and sings along, sometimes through their masks. I have always loved this song (who doesn't?) and I nominate it as the official anthem to mark when this horrible pandemic is finally over. 



 

 


Every Day Losses

2019-05-ce-social-isolation_tcm7-255721_w1024_n"At least he lived a long life."

"At least you weren't diagnosed with a fatal disease."

"At least you have a home."

"At least you don't have to line up at the food pantry."

Brene Brown, a professor of social work who has spent years studying empathy, once said, "Rarely, if ever, does an empathetic statement begin with 'at least.'"

I've been "at least"-ing myself for a month. And my privilege is no small thing. At least I live in an area where I can take walks outside. At least I have a house. At least I can afford food. 

These are not the kind of things I would ever say to someone else, but I say them to myself constantly. And let me add, as someone who teaches in a prison, at least I'm free to protect myself from cornavirus as best I can. At least I'm free, period.

But it's important, too, to acknowledge our losses, big and small. Big - deaths of people we love from Covid-19. Inability to hold a funeral, or be with people you love who are also mourning, and to wrap your arms around them in comfort.

But Lord, the other less dramatic losses add up. Canceled weddings. Canceled trips. Canceled...every day life. I miss my (grown) children most of all - I was trying to conjure up their smell and the feel of their arms around me, and it's growing dim. I miss my friends, my work, the gym, hiking, traveling, going to the movies, restaurants, getting hair cuts, blah blah blah. 

Many of the ways that I cope with sadness and stress are also off limits  now. 

At least it's not worse. And that's true.

But it's really, really hard. 


Ghostly Google Calendar

Download-3As every day life has gotten more surreal with Covid-19, a ghost has taken residence in my computer. It hangs out in my Google calendar and makes things disappear. That mother/daughter trip to Seattle? Gone. The trip to California to see my son and daughter-in-law? Gone. Next three memoir classes to teach in prison? Disappeared. The in-person interviews scheduled with elderly folks? Not there anymore. Non-urgent doctor appointment. Vanished.

Will the April calendar, so full of plans, soon be wiped clean too? Who knows? Download

I am NOT complaining. I'm fully aware of how lucky I am to have a warm home for sheltering, a husband to be with, access to a 3 month supply of medication (covered by insurance, no less), and two kittens to cuddle. And there's always FaceTime for friends and family.

But don't you feel like time is beginning to warp? Working from home is disorienting, not going to the gym is disorienting, not keeping up my regular social contacts is disorienting. And the least said about the empty shelves in the store, the better. There must be a grocery ghost too.


Presidential Pardons

Images-1Linda and I started teaching a new semester of our memoir class on Wednesday - new prison, new men. Linda knew a few of the guys, having volunteered on theater productions at this correctional facility years before. But the men in the class were all new to me. It seems to be an older group - they're well into serving long sentences - and already I can tell their writing skills are at a pretty high level. This particular prison gives some men access to a college education, and it shows.

So the President of the United States decided to pardon some convicted criminals in the last few weeks. Let's see ... Michael Milken, former billionaire and junk bond king, who pleaded guilty to securities fraud and conspiracy, Rod Blagojevich, former governor of Illinois, who tried to sell a Senate seat ("I'm just not giving it up for nothing," he said at the time), Edward DeBartolo, former owner of the San Francisco '49's, convicted of extortion, Bernard Kerik, former NYC police commissioner, convicted of eight felony charges ... you get the picture. Some of these guys were already out; some still serving time.  Oh, and let's see what happens with Roger Stone.

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I'm guessing all of these pardoned men - not coincidently all white and wealthy - had the best lawyers money could buy at the time of their trials, but they were still convicted.

The incarcerated men I've worked with over the last year and a half are all poor, and are mostly men of color. Some were sentenced to life without parole as teenagers. (New York State no longer permits this, but the change is not retroactive.) At trial, many were represented by overwhelmed public defenders, who urged them to plead guilty. Some students in our classes have been behind bars longer than they were free.

I'm guessing these guys are not on Trump's radar for pardon or clemency. 

Sigh.

 


Reunited with the Guys

DownloadYesterday I was back in the prison where I taught a memoir class. I hadn't seen the men from the class since last spring. (Needless to say, they are all still there.) 

This time I was an audience member. The men put on a mind-blowing theater production of "Father Comes Home From the War." And hats off to the prison authorities who allowed it, because this is a play that deals with slavery and deep issues of freedom. It's a provocative work.

As always, I was blown away by the talent inside the walls. Who knew that soft-spoken "M"  could not only belt out a song, but also do a hilarious comic turn playing a dog? Who knew that "G," who struggled writing English, could design and draw such a compelling playbill? And "P!" Wow, the guy was an insightful writer, but shy and unsure of himself. He played the lead with confidence and skill.

What made the afternoon incredibly poignant was that, for the first time ever, prison authorities permitted the inmates' families to see a performance. Watching "A" embrace his daughters after the show, tears running down their cheeks, was ...what was it? Wonderful? Bittersweet? Heartbreaking? Images

And imagine my delight in reading the bio "A" had written for the playbill. He says that he has his daughters keeping journals now. Nothing could have been a greater gift to my co-teacher Linda and me. We both wanted more time with the guys from our class, but we were quick with our hellos (no hugs allowed) and praise. Time with their families is too precious. Anyway, we'll see them next week at a "processing" meeting, where they'll talk about what they learned by doing the production.

The key to all this work is not that we are training professional writers or actors, but that by working together, by learning to identify and express emotions, by meeting deadlines and expectations, these men are building valuable skills which will help them when and if they go home.

As always, when I walked out of the prison and over to visitors parking, I took great whiffs of fresh air and looked up at the sky. Unfathomable that these guys, some who arrived as teenagers, are in there day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.

[Had to use stock photos - no cell phones permitted in prison.]


When Media Knows You Want To Turn Away

Download While looking at the inevitable "year in review" stories, not to mention the "decade in review" stories, I was shocked to see The New York Times offering a filter to turn off political stories. Check this out:

"Below are the most-read stories we published in 2019. Want a break from politics? Click “no politics.” Want to settle in for some deeply reported stories? Click “long reads.” Or explore them all."

The underlining is mine. Wow. Just wow. I mean who doesn't want a break from politics? I've written  a number of times about limiting my exposure to political news in the name of mental health. But what does this same about our Democracy and the coming election season? Not good. Not good at all.  

 

 


In Times of Trouble....Kittens!

KitiesMeet Lily and Van Gogh. They are sister and brother, 2 pounds and 6 ounces, rescues, and the latest addition to our family.

These two are not following the impeachment. They don't stress out over partisan politics. Frankly, they seem to have no interest in the news at all.

However - a shoe lace drives them to distraction. A dangling feather is a source of incredible joy. The world is a wonder. They've only been in the house a week (as of today) and among the places I have found one or the other of them are in my husband's slipper, in the dishwasher (it was open, don't worry), and peeking out of a small trash can. They love to cuddle, though their favorite resting place seems to be smack in the middle of my laptop keyboard. 

In short, they are goofballs and a source of great joy. And a perfect antidote to today's world.


How To Hold A Non-profit Gala

ImagesOctober seems to be fundraiser season - one event after another, all of them competing for time, money and attendance, and most of them for great causes.

Last night, I was at a particularly compelling event. Yes, there was the usual "rubber chicken" meal and the usual crush of people around the bar. But here's what made it special:

-The advisory board for the benefit included people who are actually served by the organization.

-The event was attended by people who had benefited from the organization as well as by donors.  Some who have benefited in the past are now donors themselves. 

-The table seating mixed everyone together - those who had been helped, those who give money, those who volunteer, those who are on staff.  It was one of the most diverse events I've ever been to - and I mean diversity in many senses - racially, economically, socially, age-wise, etc. Which of course made it super fun and interesting. 

Why is this important? Because a gala like this celebrates community. It's not "donors" feting themselves; it's everyone coming together as family. Because a great nonprofit realizes that there is not much difference among the people who serve and the people who are served, and that the tables could turn at any time.

 

 


The Reality Gap Widens

IMG_9862
Every day the news is more horrifying. Locking up immigrant kids indefinitely? Denying green cards to people who seek health care or food?  Every day the president degrades humanity, the environment (roll back emissions rules, drill in the Arctic, deny climate change, and on and on) - not to mention the overall dignity of our country. 

For me, the only antidote to all this despair (other than political action which I think is critical) is to spend time outdoors. Lots of time. Not just to get away from the media, but also to gain perspective. Being in the Adirondacks this week is a special balm. The photo is yesterday's picnic lunch spot.Grateful to be here.

 


Say what?!

ImagesI use a digital tape recorder when I'm doing interviews. Then, I send the mp3 recording to an online service which transcribes it. In minutes.

This, in my opinion, is up there with the discovery of penicillin and the first moon landing. For most of my career, I spent countless hours transcribing tapes, hitting stop and rewind and stop and rewind as I tried to capture the exact quotes. (Yes, I take notes, but not shorthand, and you need to get it exactly right.)

That said, voice recognition is not yet a perfect science. Earlier this week, I had a long interview with several members of the Yonkers police force. I'm working on an article on opioid addiction. Now I am reviewing the transcript. For your amusement (Lord knows it cracked me up) here are a few of the boo-boos: 

"Some narcotics..."  = "Summer cottage"

"A paramedic..."   = "Apparent nada" 

"Narcan" = "Archive"

"They need to get their fix somewhere" = "they need to get that fixed summer"

"Cartel" ="car town."

"Westchester" = "what chefs are"

And MY FAVORITE:

"I could attest to that, having run Narcotics" [dept.] = I could test that bed and bring narcotics."

 


Love and Hate

DownloadStill struggling with integrating disparate worlds. The Pittsburgh synagogue murders break my heart. I cry whenever I read about it. I hadn't even finished reading about the bombs sent to 14 people before this slaughter happened.

Our country is in deep trouble. Every day it gets worse. 

And then there's my family. Last weekend we spent my son's 30th birthday in upstate New York. My husband and me, our daughter, our son and his wife. I wanted to freeze frame just about every minute - the hikes (all of us in ridiculous matching bright orange wool caps, which I insisted we wear because it's deer hunting season), the laughter, the games, the meals, listening to my daughter and my daughter-in-law compare notes on political canvassing, watching the tender relationship between my son and his wife, watching my husband quietly take care of stoking the fire to keep us warm....

Sheesh - I'm teaching tonight at the place-that-shall-not-be-named, and I was going to focus on run-on sentences. Doctor, heal thyself.

Anyway, I know I am privileged to be able to put some distance between my family and the political nightmare that is our country. Many people, especially those living in war ravaged countries, cannot. And yes, most of us are doing what we can to repair this broken, broken world.

But I'm scared. And you can only hide out in the mountains for so long.

 

 


Do You Ever Outgrow The "Back to School" Impulse?

Download-1It's happening again. After a long, delicious summer where I spent a lot of time outdoors, and not much time producing work - I have that back-to-school feeling. So much to do! But in September, it's not overwhelming - it's exciting.

Suddenly I'm bursting with story ideas - journalistic and memoir. I have new thoughts about articles to pitch and where to pitch them.  I'm really looking forward to a new gig in which I'll be teaching a memoir class to inmates upstate.

Oh, and I need to get new back-to-school supplies, which at this stage of my life translates to a new, electronic organizer/planning app, updating my website and ....er...some new back-to-school outfits. (Fine, I generally work in the room over my garage where no one sees me. A girl still needs new things.)

I'm even thinking about soups and stews, and (say it ain't so) getting tired of tomatoes and corn.

Here's what surprises me. Today it was 90 degrees today and humid. Not a hint of Autumn in the air. But somehow my internal clock knows when to get revved up and back to work.

 


Understanding Our Country

Why can't we understand each other? Media silos. Depending on what we read/watch/listen to, we have our own realities, which are constantly reinforced, an echo-chamber of our own beliefs. That said, there is legitimate journalism and then there's opinion masquerading as reporting. The best way to sort through all of this: consume a broad media diet.

Check out yesterday's some media homepages to get an idea of how different sites weigh the importance of unfolding events.

The New York Times:

NYT

Fox News:

Fox

Wall Street Journal:

WSJ

Make your own call on the relative importance of the lead stories, and the spin given.


Supporting the Media

CNN baby haterI'm regretting my last post, though not to the point of deletion. 

Today I interviewed a CNN journalist for a magazine profile I'm writing. I asked her describe her day.

Her alarm went off at 3 am. She worked out for half an hour, dealt with some summer camp stuff for her kids, took a quick shower and was in the studio by 4:45 am. After a 5:15 am production meeting, she was in makeup at 6 am, then reviewing stories with producers until she went on air from 9 - 11 am as a substitute anchor. I'm writing this post after 5 pm, when she is again on air, filling in for another anchor. The time in between was just as action packed for her, checking and rechecking stories, reading feeds and updates, meeting again with producers and more. Images

So what's it like, I asked, being a journalist at a time when the media is portrayed as "the enemy of the people" and the President of the United States personally attacks your work? (If you can't make it out, the button on the baby pictured above left says, "CNN sucks.")


Rope tree journalistShe told me she was proud to be a journalist, and tries to do the job the way she says she's always done it - "focused on fact and getting it right." Media people are well trained to deal with other media people.

But it is clear to me that dealing with intense hostility, hateful internet trolls, and even threats to physical safety have all become part of the job description. 

Freedom of the press is a critical part of our democracy. So instead of whining about how difficult it is to consume the news these days, I'm changing my tune. Pay attention to the work that is being done. And thank a journalist for the important job they're doing. 


Citizenry versus Sanity

 

TV Trump

I'm still struggling with this issue: how can I be a good citizen and guard my mental health at the same time?

This week I was chatting with a friend about our current political situation, and she told me breezily that she doesn't waste any time thinking about it or exposing herself to the news. She'd rather take a walk in the woods, read a good book or play with her grandchildren. Brook

I get it, oh how I get it! And I've blogged on this before - cutting back on media exposure so I don't lose my mind.

BUT - what about Democracy? Remember that old slogan - "Democracy is Not A Spectator Sport"? What about our obligation to be informed citizens? Active citizens?

Anxiety Girl (moi) tends to think in Black and White, and I have to constantly remind her to to think in shades of grey. Some news and political activity, and lots of time outside as an antidote. (Like along this gorgeous Adirondack stream.)

Meanwhile, I am writing a magazine article for which I'm interviewing three well-known female broadcast journalists. (Well, one is actually a former journalist who has a "NDA" so I can't ask her about her settlement for $$$$ over sexual harassment.) I may have to break down and watch a little television news and see them in action,  so I don't sound like a complete idiot when I conduct the interviews.

 

 

 

 


I Already Bought One

Download-1Maybe this already exists but if not, someone needs to invent it: the "Already Purchased" click.

It happens to everyone who shops online. You're browsing for a pair of shoes, comparing prices and then you make your choice. In the days and weeks to come, every time you Google something, dozens of pairs of the very shoes you already purchased parade across the screen, following you from site to site. Images

For me this week it's the parade of washing machines. I bought one a few days ago - actually at my local appliance store which gave me the best deal. Nonetheless, options for top loaders, front loaders, commercial and apartment-size washers and continue to show up.  Download-1

I know, I know - it's an advertising algorithm, "cookies" and more. 
Download-1
Download-1But wouldn't it make more sense for everyone if you could click on something to say "I Already Bought One." The companies are wasting their advertising dollars and the consumers are getting annoyed.

On the other hand, it's creepy enough how much the Internet tracks everything about us. Maybe they don't need to know this too.

So, just a personal heads-up to Whirlpool, Sears, Maytag, Kitchen Aid, Best Buy, and the rest of you: I no longer need a new washer. I already bought one.

 

 

 

 


Make. It. Stop. Make. It. Stop.

Download-1
All my life I've been a news junky. I was in the biz. I never watched much TV news, but I was a newspaper hound. I still subscribe to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Journal News (my local Gannett paper) and I get highlights from several other publications, including the London Times.

But at this point, those subscriptions are as wasted as a hastily purchased gym membership. It's not the fault of  journalists.  A great deal of quality work being done. It's the emotional damage from absorbing the content. News should come with a warning label: "Consuming this product may be harmful to your mental health."

This is no joke. Numerous studies have made the link between news consumption and anxiety and depression.

My news aggitation wasn't doing much for my marriage either. For the last year plus,  I thought I was scanning the headlines silently. But evidently, I was constantly spewing, "Oh my God!" and "UNBELIEVABLE" and "Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse..." in a loud voice until my husband asked me to kindly keep my commentary to myself.

My husband actually reduced his news diet before I did.  And yesterday, I had lunch with two of my best friends - super-smart, informed women - and they, too, also have cut way back on  reading/watching and listening to the news.

 I feel like a bad citizen - democracy runs on an informed citizenry. But right now,  I just can't....

 


Psycho Mom Returns!

When I talked about "The Mama's Boy Myth" on NPR's "All Things Considered," they introduced the segment by playing a clip from "Psycho" - with Norman Bates saying, "Well, a boy's best friend is his mother." It was the ultimate illustration of the worst kind of Mama's Boy stereotype. 

UnknownWell, it's back.....I just found out there is a series coming out next month on A & E called "The Bates Motel." Here's the tagline: "Fans will have access to the dark, twisted backstory and learn first hand just how deeply intricate the relationship with his mother, Norma, truly is, and how she helped forge the most famous serial killer of them all." 

Hoo boy. Here we go again. Because we all know that behind every serial killer is an over-bearing mother.


And now a voice from the other side....

Images Today I want to give a shout-out to a father who took the New York Times to task for an article that included this throw-away line stereotyping dads as bumbling and incompetent: 

"Fathers misplace their children at the supermarket; mothers miraculously transform tofu to make it palatable to 3-year-olds."

Here's his response ( especially love the last dig): "This is an appalling statement, a profound insult to the many fathers who work tirelessly and competently to raise their children. Maybe next week's Times can offer a column examining how a sentence like that could make it through the editing process. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go look for my kids on the Interstate embankment where I dun left 'em."

Bravo to Scott Tobias!


Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice....

Unknown-2The debate on boys' school performance is heating up again. Check out the opening of this letter to the New York Times, written by a retired male public school teacher: "Even in the late 1950s, educators sensed that girls had advantages over boys. They're verbal, orderly, quiet, submissive and cooperative. Boys? Polar opposites: outgoing, active, loud and unable to sit still."

Gender stereotype much? 


Boys And Easy Bake Ovens

Images-1Just came across an AP story about a 13-year-old Rhode Island girl who wanted to buy her little brother the Easy Bake Oven he wanted for Christmas. But when she went to the store, she found the toy came only in "girly" pink and purple and just featured girls on the packaging. The sister, a resourceful girl, managed to collect more than 30,000 signatures on a petiton to Hasbro, asking them to market the oven to kids in general, not just girls. One of her supporters is celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who had an Easy Bake oven when he was a kid.

When I was writing The Mama's Boy Myth, I heard a very similar anecdote about a boy wanting an Easy Bake oven. In this case he didn't have a supportive sister, but an anxious father who worried about the future sexual orientation of a son who wanted to play with this toy.

Oh, for Heaven's Sake. We have got to stop with all this gendered packaging and handwringing about who plays with what.

This is just reminding me that at the Food Pantry where I volunteer, we distribute toys during the holiday season. We get the gifts through Toys for Tots, which is a great program, but they ask how many "boy" gifts and how many "girl" gifts we need. Time to update this too.


The End of Your Life Book Club

ImagesBeen reading this beautiful book which weaves together a son's love for his mother with their mutual devotion to literature. Came across this passage last night:

"There's also still a schoolyard stigma to being perceived as overly attached to your mother. I think it's far less pronounced today than it was when I was growing up, but it's still there. Most of the men I know freely admit to loving books about sons coming to terms with the lives and legacies of their fathers - books like Big Russ and Me by Tim Russert and The Duke of Deception by Geoffrey Wolff and The Great Santini by  Pat Conroy. But those same men are a little more embarrassed about loving books like The Color of Water by James McBride or The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer, maybe talking about the first in terms of what it says about race and the second for its depiction of the joys of bar life, when both books really, at their hearts are about the fierce bond between a mother and son."


Recognizing Today's Dads

ImagesInch by inch. Block by Block. Even Mattel gets that the times are changing and that girls can do things besides dress and undress their over-sexualized Barbie dolls. But what interested me the most about a NYT piece on "The Mega Bloks Barbie Build 'n Style line" a construction set - in pink of course - was that Mattel was marketing it to fathers. They recognize that fathers are not only doing a lot of the buying of kids' toys, but also the playing. One-fifth of fathers with preschool-age children and working wives say they are the primary caretaker in 2010, according to the latest census data. 

Of course Dads like to build things, because they were encouraged to build things when they grew up. And studies show that when kids play with blocks, puzzles and construction toys, it improves their spatial development. So score another one - not just for gender equity for girls (because there's still a long way to go- the kits build a pink mansion, a beauty shop and a fashion studio) but also for men. Nice to see them recognized not just as caretakers, but as parents who can bring a great deal to level the toddler playing field. 


Post-Thanksgiving Sniffles

ImagesMy Son came home for Thanksgiving - the first time I've laid on that boy since July. He has been teaching 5th grade in East New Orleans. Like many first and second year teachers, he seems to catch every single bug his students (referred to as "scholars" in his school) bring to the classroom. 

It was heaven to have the whole family together - My Beloved Daughter was home too. But now the kids have gone back to their regular lives. I'm left with just enough turkey for a turkey curry and turkey soup, a great deal of laundry (sheets and towels) and a sore throat/sniffles/ fatigue that I suspect had its roots in  a fifth grader living in Louisiana. 


The Casanova Myth

UnknownYou know how guys are- always thinking about sex and how to get it from as many women as possible. Right? Wrong - just another one of those myths about men. Of course there are guys like that, but it turns out that for the most part, men, like women want connection and relationships. 

In his new book, "Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Sterotype of the Promiscuous Young Male," psychologist Andrew Smiler pushes back against this tired image of guys. His research shows that it's a small percentage of men who are having sex with multiple partners. Most guys are seeking people with whom they can connect, who share similar values, a similar sense of humor, cultural taste, and the like.

"What we do know is that most guys do get into relationships, they enjoy relationships, they do a lot of things in relationships that are not about sex and they're not doing them just to put up with them in order to get sex," Smiler told Salon.com in an interview. "Guys get something out of relationships; they like relationships."

 This is exactly what I found in my research for the Mama's Boy Myth. Boys and men are longing connection. Thank you, Dr. Smiler.