Wednesday, October 17, 2018

In the month since my laptop fell out of my fingers onto the floor and broke when I was moving it from my lap on the couch to the table in front of me while trying to do something else at the same time with my other hand I've been coming here to my neighborhood library and signing-in to use one of their computers at a long table with other people some of them homeless. I like doing this. It feels more part of something than staring at a computer at home. I only get 45 minutes on it. I wish I got more. I like the setting. The people around me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Michelle Obama Announces New Project to Help Educate Girls Worldwide

Michelle Obama.

On Thursday International Day of the GirlMichelle Obama announced a new initiative to empower girls around the world through education. In an op-ed for CNN, the former First Lady writes that education has been proven to to help girls earn more later on and live healthier lives.

There are more than 98 million adolescent girls globally who are not in school at the moment, according to the op-ed. “The reasons for this are many, including scarce resources, early pregnancies, dangerous commutes, and threats of violence,” Obama writes. “Equally pernicious is something they’re taught from an early age — the belief that because they’re girls, they’re simply unworthy of an education.”

Because of this, the Obama Foundation is launching the Global Girls Alliance, she writes. The new initiative will be “offering scholarships, launching mentorship programs, preparing girls to become entrepreneurs,” and also reaching out to parents about ways they can help their daughters. The Alliance will also work with grassroots organizations and leaders already helping to increase girls’s access to education globally, and it aims to help with their fundraising efforts as well.

“We’re seeking to empower adolescent girls around the world through education, so that they can support their families, communities and countries,” she writes. “The evidence is clear. Girls who attend secondary school earn higher salaries, have lower infant and maternal mortality rates, and are less likely to contract malaria and HIV. And studies have shown that educating girls isn’t just good for the girls, it’s good for all of us.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

There are some faces I like to see come by when I'm holding my sign. Some faces have a look. One older guy always has a faint smile. He gives an appreciative nod to the sign. Today he stopped for the first time. He's a Freudian analyst, he told me when I asked. He's 83 which you'd never think. He still has an office. He wanted to know all about me and the sign's message. What I think really made him stop today is that last week he became a grandfather for the first time and he wanted to show someone who also might be a grandfather the little bundle's photo which he took over the weekend in Boston where his daughter lives.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Incarcerated Pennsylvanians now have to pay $150 to read. We should all be outraged.

Jodi Lincoln is co-chair of Book ’Em, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that sends free reading material to incarcerated people and prison libraries.

Every year, thousands of people in Pennsylvania prisons write directly to nonprofit organizations such as the one I co-chair with a request for reading material, which we then send to them at no cost. This free access to books has dramatically improved the lives of incarcerated individuals, offering immense emotional and mental relief as well as a key source of rehabilitation.

But as of last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has decided to make such rehabilitation much harder. Going forward, books and publications, including legal primers and prison newsletters, cannot be sent directly to incarcerated Pennsylvanians. Instead, if they want access to a book, they must first come up with $147 to purchase a tablet and then pay a private company for electronic versions of their reading material — but only if it’s available among the 8,500 titles offered to them through this new e-book system.

In case you forgot: Incarcerated people are paid less than $1 per hour, and the criminal-justice system disproportionately locks up low-income individuals. Adding insult to injury, most of the e-books available to them for purchase would be available free from Project Gutenberg. And nonpublic domain books in Pennsylvania’s e-book system are more expensive than on other e-book markets.

This policy, part of a larger trend of censorship in state prisons around the country, should alarm everyone. Not only does it erect a huge financial barrier to books and severely restrict content, it also dehumanizes people in prison. 
The changes in Pennsylvania follow an unprecedented lockdown in the state’s correctional facilities during last month’s national prison strike. The Pennsylvania DOC argues that these new policies are necessary to prevent contraband drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids such as K2 from entering prisons after a string of incidents in August involving staff reportedly being exposed to contraband substances. 

But this argument doesn’t hold up. Based on the DOC’s incident report, out of the 60 staff members exposed to unknown substances, only six tested positive for drugs. The DOC has also published examples of contraband drugs they have intercepted, none of which came from free book organizations. It is, of course, important to protect staff and inmates from exposure to drugs, but the DOC is purposefully exaggerating the risk to push their draconian policies. The DOC should instead focus on real security risks and addiction treatment, not further collective punishment. 

In addition to the financial barriers, this policy also severely damages an incarcerated person’s ability to fully reenter society. Not only do organizations such as mine provide education material such as GED and SAT study books, textbooks, nonfiction books and business and trade books, but many organizations also send individualized workbooks designed for self-improvement or focused on the needs of minority populations such as LGBTQ inmates. The list of available e-books is missing some of the most requested books, including dictionaries, textbooks, graphic novels and books focused on incarceration issues such as “The New Jim Crow” and “Illegal to Legal.”

By using their time in prison to prepare for reentry into society, incarcerated people have a greater chance at living a productive life and their time in prison is enhanced through reading as a form of self-improvement. Books-to-prison organizations also offer inmates connections with the outside world, as people request books over and over again, often sending personal updates, drawings and sharing their stories. These connections cannot be replicated by e-books or ordering a specific book through the DOC.

Perhaps more alarming is that the head of the Pennsylvania DOC, Secretary John Wetzel, is president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. If Pennsylvania’s policies remain in place, other states are sure to follow suit. Increasing literacy and education should be an essential part of the correctional apparatus, but by imposing financial barriers to accessing books and restricting content, Pennsylvania is failing to serve the greater good.

Friday, October 12, 2018

from the latest New Yorker, excerpted from an essay on Frederick Douglass by Adam Gopnik.

Image result for frederick douglass

The story, simply told, is that Douglass was largely spared the worst of slavery by inhabiting its more familial edges, at a time when who owned you and where you were owned shaped the course of your life as someone else’s property. After he had been passed from his brutal first master to the man’s kinder son-in-law, Thomas Auld, the transforming event of Douglass’s life was his arrival in Baltimore, at the age of eight, to live with members of Auld’s family. City slaves were better treated than country slaves. “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on a plantation,” Douglass wrote. “He is a desperate slaveholder who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave.” As a child, he had, unusually, been treated more or less as an equal playmate of his first master’s son, and soon Sophia Auld, the wife of Thomas’s brother, began to teach him to read and write.

Absolute power, even when well meant, always becomes arbitrary. Sophia first took immense pleasure at Frederick’s celerity as a pupil, and then, under the pressure of her husband’s disapproval (“If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him”), turned violently against the boy’s education. Frederick persisted, trading bits of bread with street urchins for secret reading lessons. Here, as elsewhere in his life, he defeated the expected racism of his fellows by the sheer magnetism of his manner.

He was also able to take advantage of the oppressor’s hypocrisy: slavery being a Christian institution, it was important to expose the slaves to the Gospels. This meant that the innocent business of studying the Bible could be turned to the subversive aim of acquiring literacy. Having learned to read by literally buying words, Douglass had an intense sense of the power of language, of the double meanings of individual words; irony was ingrained in him. He heard the word “abolition,” for instance, as a mysterious, forbidden incantation; he didn’t know precisely what “abolition” meant, but he could tell from the murmur around it that it mattered enormously.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

 from The New Yorker:

 Growing Up in the Library

Learning and relearning what it means to have a book on borrowed time.

I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way. My family lived in the suburbs of Cleveland, about a mile from the brick-faced Bertram Woods Branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system. Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, my mother drove me there a couple of times a week. We walked in together, but, as soon as we passed through the door, we split up, each heading to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place that I was ever given independence. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to go off on my own. 

Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together, we waited as the librarian pulled out each date card and, with a loud chunk-chunk, stamped a crooked due date on it, below a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.

Our visits were never long enough for me—the library was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the shelves, scanning the spines of the books until something happened to catch my eye. Those trips were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I desired and what she was willing to buy me; in the library, I could have anything I wanted. On the way home, I loved having the books stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight, their Mylar covers sticking to my thighs. 

It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for; such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read. We talked about the order in which we were going to read them, a solemn conversation in which we planned how we would pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due. We both thought that all the librarians at the Bertram Woods branch were beautiful. For a few minutes, we discussed their beauty. 

My mother then always mentioned that, if she could have chosen any profession, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been.

When I was older, I usually walked to the library by myself, lugging as many books as I could carry. Occasionally, I did go with my mother, and the trip remained as enchanted as it had been when I was small. Even when I was in my last year of high school and could drive to the library, my mother and I still went together now and then, and the trip unfolded exactly as it used to, with all the same beats and pauses and comments and reveries, the same pensive rhythm. My mother died two years ago, and since then, when I miss her, I like to picture us in the car together, going for one more magnificent trip to Bertram Woods.

My family was big on the library. We were very much a reading family, but we were more a borrow-a-book-from-the-library family than a bookshelves-full-of-books family. My parents valued books, but they had grown up in the Depression, aware of the quicksilver nature of money, and they had learned the hard way that you shouldn’t buy what you could borrow. Because of that frugality, or perhaps despite it, they also believed that you should read a book for the experience of reading it. You shouldn’t read it in order to have an object that had to be housed and looked after forever, a memento of the purpose for which it was obtained. The reading of the book was a journey. There was no need for souvenirs.

By the time I was born, my parents’ financial circumstances were comfortable, and they learned how to splurge a little, but their Depression-era mentality adhered stubbornly to certain economies, which included not buying books that could be obtained easily from the library. Our uncrowded bookshelves at home had several sets of encyclopedias (an example of something not easily borrowed) and an assortment of other books that, for one reason or another, my parents had ended up buying. That included a few mild sex manuals. “Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique” is the one I remember best—I read it whenever my parents were out of the house. I assume that they bought the sex books because they would have been embarrassed to present them at the checkout desk of the library. There were also some travel guides, some coffee-table books, a few of my father’s law books, and a dozen or so novels that were either gifts or somehow managed to justify being owned outright.

When I left for college—I went to the University of Michigan—one of the many ways I differentiated myself from my parents was that I went wild for owning books. I think buying textbooks was what got me going. All I know is that I lost my appreciation for the slow pace of making your way through a library and for having books on borrowed time. I wanted to have my books in piles around me, forming totem poles of the narratives I’d visited. In my junior year, I moved into an apartment, lined it with bookcases, and loaded them with hardcovers. I used the college library for research, but otherwise I turned into a ravenous buyer of books. I couldn’t walk into a bookstore without leaving with something, or several somethings. I loved the alkaline tang of new ink and paper, a smell that never emanated from a broken-in library book. I loved the crack of a freshly flexed spine and the way that the untouched pages almost felt damp, as if they were still wet with creation. I sometimes wondered if I was catching up after spending my childhood amid sparsely settled bookcases. But the reason didn’t matter to me. I actually became somewhat evangelical about book ownership. Sometimes I fantasized about starting a bookstore. If my mother ever mentioned to me that she was on the waiting list for a book at the library, I got annoyed and asked why she didn’t just go buy a copy.

Once I was done with college, and done with researching term papers in the stacks of the Harold T. and Vivian B. Shapiro Undergraduate Library, I sloughed off the memory of those marvellous childhood trips to the Bertram Woods branch, and began, for the first time in my life, to wonder what libraries were for.
It might have remained that way, and I might have spent the rest of my life thinking about libraries only wistfully, the way I thought about, say, the amusement park I went to as a kid. Libraries might have become just a bookmark of memory more than an actual place, a way to call up an emotion of a moment that occurred long ago, something that was fused with “mother” and “the past” in my mind. But then libraries came back into my life unexpectedly. In 2011, my husband accepted a job in Los Angeles, so we left New York, where we had been living, and went west. I didn’t know the city well, but I’d spent time there over the years, visiting cousins. 

When I became a writer, I went to Los Angeles often to work on magazine pieces and books. On those trips, I had been to and from the beach, and up and down the canyons, and in and out of the Valley, and back and forth to the mountains, but I never gave downtown a second thought, assuming that it was just a glassy landscape of office buildings which hollowed out by five o’clock every evening. I thought of Los Angeles as a radiant doughnut, rimmed by milky ocean and bristling mountains, with a big hole in the middle. I never went to the public library, never thought about it, although I’m sure I assumed there was one, and probably a main branch, probably downtown.

My son was in first grade when we moved. One of his first school assignments was to interview someone who worked for the city. I suggested talking to a garbage collector or a police officer, but he said that he wanted to interview a librarian. We were so new to the city that we had to look up the address of the closest library, which turned out to be the Studio City branch. It was about a mile away from our house, the same distance that the Bertram Woods branch was from my childhood home.

As we drove over to meet the librarian, I felt a gut-level recollection of this journey, of parent and child on their way to the library. But now it was turned on its head, and I was the parent bringing my child on that special trip. We parked, and walked toward the library, taking it in for the first time. 

The building was white and modish, with a mint-green mushroom cap of a roof. It didn’t look anything like the stout brick Bertram Woods branch, but when we stepped inside the thunderbolt of recognition struck me so hard that it made me gasp. Decades had passed, and I was two thousand miles away, but I felt as if I had been whisked back to that precise time and place, walking into the library with my mother. 

Nothing had changed—there was the same soft tsk-tsk-tsk of pencil on paper, and the muffled murmuring from patrons at the tables in the center of the room, and the creak and groan of book carts, and the occasional papery clunk of a book dropped on a desk. The scarred wooden checkout counters, and the librarians’ desks, as big as boats, and the bulletin board, with its fluttering, raggedy notices, were all the same. The sense of gentle, steady busyness, like a pot of water on the simmer, was just the same. The books on the shelves, with some subtractions and additions, were certainly the same.

It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries—and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up—not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.

So the spell that libraries had once cast on me was renewed. Maybe it had never really been broken, although I had been away long enough that it was like visiting a country I’d loved but had forgotten as my life went galloping by. I knew what it was like to want a book and to buy it, but I had forgotten what it felt like to amble among the library shelves, finding the book I was looking for but also seeing who its neighbors were, noticing their peculiar concordance, and following an idea as it was handed off from one book to the next, like a game of telephone. I might start at Dewey decimal 301.4129781 (“Pioneer Women,” by Joanna L. Stratton) and a few inches later find myself at 306.7662 (“Gaydar,” by Donald F. Reuter) and then at 301.45096 (“Dreams from My Father,” by Barack Obama) and finally at 301.55 (“The Men Who Stare at Goats,” by Jon Ronson). On a library bookshelf, thought progresses in a way that is logical but also dumbfounding, mysterious, irresistible.

I knew that part of what had hooked me had been the shock of familiarity I felt when I took my son to our local library—the way it telegraphed my childhood, my relationship to my parents, my love of books. It brought me close, in my musings, to my mother, and to our sojourns to the library, and I decided to write a book on the subject. That decision was pleasing and it was bittersweet, because just as I was rediscovering those memories, my mother was losing hers. 

When I first told her that I was writing about libraries, she was delighted, and said that she was proud that she had a part in making me find them wondrous. But the reason that I finally embraced the subject—wanted, and then needed, to write about it—was my realization that I was losing her. Soon the fingers of dementia got her in their grip, and they pried loose bits of her memory every day. The next time I reminded her about the project and told her how much I had been thinking about our trips to Bertram Woods, she smiled with encouragement but with no apparent recognition of what I meant. Each time I visited, she receded a little more—she became vague, absent, isolated in her thoughts or maybe in some pillowy blankness that filled in where the memories had been chipped away—and I knew that I was carrying the remembrance for both of us.

I found myself wondering whether a shared memory can exist if one of the people sharing it no longer remembers it. Is the circuit broken, the memory darkened? My mother was the one person besides me who knew what those gauzy afternoons had been like. I was writing about libraries because I was trying hard to preserve those afternoons. I convinced myself that committing them to a page would save the memory of them from the corrosive effect of time.

The idea of being forgotten is terrifying. I fear not just that I, personally, will be forgotten but that we are all doomed to being forgotten; that the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed. If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment, the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts nothing matters. Everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody. But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are a part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future. We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.

The writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ once said that, in Africa, when an old person dies, it is like a library has been burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realize that it was perfect. Our minds and our souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories catalogued and stored inside, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share; it burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from your internal collection and share it—with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story told—it takes on a life of its own.

This piece is adapted from “The Library Book,” by Susan Orlean, out in October from Simon & Schuster.

  • Susan Orlean began contributing articles to The New Yorker in 1987, and became a staff writer in 1992.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Trump's face and voice disgust me. I have to turn the TV sound down or make noises when they show him speaking. If I'm out on my daily big old-guy exercise walk with the news on in my ears, and he comes on, I turn the station to sports talk. Yesterday in my room watching the news on CNN on my computer he came on. I just turned it off and said to myself, This is crazy. I picked up Alice Munro's book of short stories and read one I'd read before, 'Haven.' I'm increasingly doing this, reading something instead of watching or listening to him or to stuff about him. He wants nothing more than for us to be attending to his every word. Fuck him. Read Alice Munro.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A new week. Sign still seems fresh to me. I'll keep holding it. The message could change things. 


Saturday, October 6, 2018

from the Times:

Review: ‘Girl From the North Country’ Sets the Darkness Aglow

In “Girl From the North Country,” the songs of Bob Dylan exist independently of their creator’s gravelly, much-imitated voice. Mare Winningham, left, delivers “Like a Rolling Stone” as a curse. CreditCreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

  • Brightness flickers fitfully in the bleak, beautiful landscape of “Girl From the North Country,” a rich and strange marriage of the talents of the Irish playwright Conor McPherson and the American songwriter Bob Dylan. The setting for this haunting musical melodrama of unmoored lives is, after all, a premature winter. In Minnesota. During the Great Depression.

    So when something like joy or hope or love promises to light up the night in this ravishing production, which opened on Monday night at the Public Theater, it doesn’t stand much chance against the prevailing darkness. This is a story of an age of privation and separation, in which homes are lost and families riven.

    Yet when the people onstage sing, huddled together before old-time microphones as if they were campfires, they seem to conjure light and warmth out of the cold, cold night that surrounds them. These fleeting moments register with the glow of retinal afterimages, as though they were happening behind closed eyes.

    As for the sweet, sorrowful voices, backed by fiddles and piano, they seem to come, beseechingly, from half-remembered family histories you might have been told by your grandparents. If you’re a hard-core Dylan fan, you’ve heard these songs before. But, for me at least, they’ve never sounded quite so heartbreakingly personal and universal at the same time.

    As arranged and orchestrated by the British composer Simon Hale — in collaboration with Mr. McPherson, the show’s director as well as its writer — the songs exist in self-sufficient independence of their creator’s gravelly, much imitated voice. You hear them ripening into new fullness. 

    Those who scoffed when Mr. Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016 may find they have to think again.
    “Girl From the North Country” debuted at London’s Old Vic Theater in the summer of 2017, eight months after the prize had been announced. Five years earlier, Mr. McPherson was approached by representatives of Mr. Dylan about using the songwriter’s catalog as the basis for a musical.

    Huddling together before an old-time microphone, from left, Ms. Winningham, Jeannette Bayardelle, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams, Luba Mason, Caitlin Houlahan and Kimber Sprawl conjure warmth out of the cold, cold night that surrounds them.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

    It seemed like a bizarre conjunction, that of a Gaelic dramatist and an American balladeer. But in plays like “Shining City” and “The Night Alive,” Mr. McPherson has shown a mystical appreciation of music as an expression of the numinous in life.

    That respect for the ineffable has been translated into the most imaginative and inspired use to date of a popular composer’s songbook in this blighted era of the jukebox musical. In unfolding his portrait of the desperate tenants of a boardinghouse in Duluth, Minn. (Mr. Dylan’s birthplace), in late 1934, Mr. McPherson never uses songs as a substitute for or extension of dialogue, à la “Mamma Mia!”

    Only occasionally does a number — like the 1966 classic “I Want You” — seem to echo directly the thoughts of the characters singing it. Instead, nearly every ensemble member becomes part of a choir, with soloists, that is as persuasive a latter-day equivalent of the Greek chorus as we’re ever likely to see.

    What’s created, through songs written by Mr. Dylan over half a century, is a climate of feeling, as pervasive and evasive as fog. It’s an atmosphere of despair — with lyrics about lost chances, lost love and enduring loneliness — that finds grace in the communion of voices. coming together.

    Certainly, the script is as forbiddingly fatalistic as that of a Greek tragedy. At its center is Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), who rents out rooms in his ramshackle house in the hope of forestalling foreclosure. His family includes an alcoholic young son, Gene (Colton Ryan), who hopes to be a writer, and an adopted daughter, Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), who is pregnant, though how or by whom no one seems to know.

    Nick’s wife, Elizabeth (Mare Winningham), is there and not there, suffering from a dementia that has turned her into a dependent, unruly child with a sailor’s mouth. So Nick seeks comfort in the arms of a boarder, Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), who expects to come into some money.

    Most everybody here has such expectations; nobody really believes in them. Images of lost and murdered children haunt the narrative, specters of snuffed lives and broken hopes.
    Also living on the premises are the Burkes — the blustery, big-talking father (Marc Kudisch) and the louche mother (Luba Mason) of Elias (Todd Almond), a grown man with a toddler’s mind. The newest arrivals are a self-described man of God, Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu), and an ex-convict and boxer, Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt).

    Sydney James Harcourt, playing an ex-convict and boxer, is a force of nature. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

    The visitors include Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis), a septuagenarian widower who is courting Marianne; Gene’s sometime girl, Kate Draper (Caitlin Houlahan); and the family physician, Dr. Walker (Robert Joy). The doc is a cracker-barrel philosopher and occasional omniscient narrator in the folksy tradition of the Stage Manager of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” He is also addicted to morphine.

    These elements might have come from a build-your-own-vintage-American-social-realist drama assembly kit. I regard the 47-year-old Mr. McPherson as perhaps the finest English-language playwright of his generation. But last year, when I saw “Girl” on its opening night in London, with a British ensemble straining for Americanness, the script often felt labored and imitative.

    With a uniformly excellent American cast that wears its roles like confining and prickly skins, and on a smaller stage, “Girl” feels far more convincingly of a piece. The work of the same team of designers — Rae Smith (set and costumes), Mark Henderson (lighting) and Simon Baker (sound) — comes together here with the self-containment of a poem.

    Within the production’s alternating visions of the claustrophobic boardinghouse and desolate roadscapes, the fraught denizens of Duluth seem perched precariously on the brink of infinity. There’s a mythic quality to the silhouetted figures who step from the shadows to sing and play instruments. (Lucy Hind’s movement direction is superb.)

    And how they sing, every one of them. Moments I seem destined to recall forever include Ms. Winningham delivering “Like a Rolling Stone” as a curse and “Forever Young” as an elegy; Mr. Harcourt leading “Hurricane” like a rampant force of nature; and Ms. Mason (who doubles as a drummer) singing “Is Your Love in Vain?” with the wounded cynicism of a seen-it-all barroom chanteuse.

    Oh, and I haven’t mentioned how Ms. Sprawl turns “Idiot Wind” into a philosophic half-acceptance of romantic attraction. Or the miraculous moment when Mr. Almond’s stunted Elias croons “Duquesne Whistle” in the style of a big-band heartthrob.

    The show’s most heartbreaking moments, though, are perhaps its happiest. I’m thinking in particular of the jubilant performance of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that begins the second act.

    It’s performed as a sort of hoedown celebration, with dancing that defines each participant as an idiosyncratic individual and as part of a synchronized whole. You may find yourself thinking that this is as close as mortals come to heaven on Earth. And for just a few, infinitely precious moments, a radiance eclipses the all-devouring night.

    Friday, October 5, 2018

    from The New York Review of Books:

    ‘Called Back to the World’: An Interview with Alice Walker
    Alice Walker, Mendocino, California, September 17, 2018

    Of her more than thirty-five books, Alice Walker’s Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, published this week, is her first bilingual work, presented in both Spanish and English. In 2015, during a period that Walker calls “a time of great sadness and feelings of loss and despair” in the world, she started writing a series of poems—seventy in total, into 2016—that would speak to that particular time, and memorialize the lives of activists and artists, past and present, who’ve used their voices to fight on behalf of those most vulnerable among us. This collection moves swiftly across a variety of places and settings, including Oakland and Havana, Palestine and Rwanda, from blues clubs to state prisons. Taken together, Walker not only captures the varied complexity of our world as it is, but also seeks to imagine our planet as it could be.  

    Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart is in many ways a return for Walker, whose first book, Once (1968), she wrote as a student on her first visit to Africa in 1965. Most well-known for The Color Purple, a 1982 epistolary novel that traces the coming of age of Celie—an African-American girl from Georgia in the 1930s who is twice impregnated by her stepfather—Walker was first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The novel was then adapted into a movie in 1985 and a Broadway musical in 2005, and revived again in 2015. In Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart, Walker continues to explore the themes of feminism, loss, and redemption that colored her earlier work, but poetry allows Walker to adopt a different relationship to time. Rather than traveling back to the far past or suspending time, Walker’s poems, as urgent responses to the events of the past two years, are imbued with a sense of immediacy, intense engagement, and heightened hope. 

    In mid-September I sat with Walker, who is seventy-four, at her home in Northern California, to discuss her new book, working in two languages, and how the political events of the last two years have shaped her writing. (This conversation had been edited and condensed.)

    Salamishah Tillet: Why did you title this collection Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart? In your introduction, you mention that it was originally going to be called The Long Road Home [also the title of Walker’s 2016 poem for Muhammad Ali] and you changed it.

    Alice Walker: I think that I was called back to the world. I was called back to the reality that people are suffering so deeply and that many people are not even calm enough and centered enough to contemplate the long road home. They’re still fighting with the arrow that they have been pierced with. About the media and the reality of what is happening on the planet, the murder of children, the abuse of the earth, the ocean, everything.

    So even though you changed the title, you still decided to open with the homage to Ali that inspired the earlier title?

    Muhammad Ali was a stellar warrior who refused to be complicit in the slaughter of the Vietnamese people at a time when every media outlet on the planet was saying that we have to go and kill those people. He said, “No, I’m not killing any of my brothers and sisters anywhere and if you think I’m going to do that, you’re crazy. Why don’t you just put me in jail right now.” This was a wonderful stand to take and so admirable. He reminds us that the American way of just shutting your brain to other people’s misery is bound to catch up with us in one form or another, and we see that today.

    As I traveled through the book, I kept thinking, only Alice Walker could honor such a disparate group of people, like Ali, Chelsea Manning, Jesse Williams, and Fidel Castro in this way. But for you, they really are all of the same world and not simply discrete entities.  

    Okay, you want to hear about Chelsea? When I speak in that poem [“Later We Would Miss You So Much”] about the people who attain the same bar of courage and fierce determination to share the truth they see, I think of Chelsea [the US Army intelligence analyst who was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for delivering classified documents to WikiLeaks. President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence in 2017.] They brought to consciousness what war really does to people. Somehow, Americans are anesthetized almost completely, which is really scary when you think about it. I walk in the airports and there’s this voice that comes on talking about military families and preferential treatment, but it covers up the fact of what you’re actually doing. You’re sending off parents… to kill or be killed by people they’ve never even seen.

    You seem to insist that we should not compartmentalize the ways in which the US government approaches foreign policy versus how it treats its own citizens. Your poems traverse such a wide political and geographical terrain, and that doesn’t even include the bilingualism of the book. Are your poems modeling how we should live in the world, together and different? Did that influence your decision to publish a bilingual book?

    It’s partly that. I have a house in Mexico and I spend two or three months there [each year] but I still write in English because my Spanish is still really poor. I have such a love of Mexican culture because of the kindness that I have encountered from people there. Because many people there don’t read or speak English, I have always wanted to be able to share with them what it is I do, how I am addressing our common situation. So I wanted to create a book that my friends would enjoy, those who’ve been laboring all these years to teach “Alesia” to speak Spanish and getting nowhere.

    When did you first visit Mexico? I ask because you visit there in earlier works, like your novels, Temple of My Familiar (1989) and By the Light of My Father’s Smile (1998). 

    I first visited when I was pregnant with Rebecca in 1969. My husband and I were living in Mississippi, which was both incredibly dangerous and, even more than dangerous, boring. We went to Oaxaca and that was my first experience of the country. Then, when I was trying to write The Temple of My Familiar, my partner and I went to Mexico and rented a house so I could work because a lot of the people in the novel were Spanish-speaking; even though I didn’t speak it myself, there they were, chattering way. That was in 1986. I bought a house there shortly after that.

    In your poem “Imagine,” you recreate what Pope Francis and Fidel Castro might have privately said to each other when Francis visited Cuba in 2015.

    I loved that poem because I think both of those old men in their own ways tried to bring something decent out of a corrupt environment.

    In it you write, “When folks bow to me/ I want to shout at them: bowing/ to your masters/ is what you were forced to do in the first place:/ Straighten up!/ And how bizarre that they want me to kiss their babies.” In your telling, Francis resists the very status that he now embodies.

    Well, because he knows it’s a sham. Any intelligent person would know it’s just total ridiculousness. If they care about the babies, they would share all that gold they have. They have all this wealth.
    Alice Walker and Salamishah Tillet at Walker’s home in Mendocino, California, September 17, 2018
    Your work is always political, but I feel a different sense of urgency here.

    Well, I always feel like if you can see it maybe you can change it. Clearly, part of what any writer does is try to help you see what it is they see, that’s really all you can do. You can’t make people change if they’re not moved to do it, but that’s why we have writers, poets, fighters, and dancers.

    Is that why you returned to poetry? 

    My first love.

    In your introduction, you write, “Here as a poet I intervene.” What kind of intervention does poetry allow you to achieve?

    Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” had a great impact on me as a very young child. It opens with the lines, “If you can keep your head when all about you/ Are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and the last line is, “you’ll be a Man, my son!” Well, I don’t care about the man part, but I did know at that age whenever I heard it, it gave me permission to understand that I can go my own way. I can keep my head and not care what everyone else is doing with their heads, but I need to keep mine. That’s the kind of power that poetry has.

    This book is also a calendar of loss. There are a lot of people, besides Ali, who passed away in either 2015 or 2016 to whom you pay homage. Some with whom you were close, like Julian Bond.

    I adored him. Still do.

    And there is a great poem about B.B. King in which you try to imagine what he had to endure when he was still alive. Are you trying to remind us that we should appreciate these people while they are here with us on earth, too?

    So much blues music of that period and earlier is flawed because of the misogyny; B.B. King is one of the few men from that time who is always pleading with whatever woman he’s thinking about to just, Let’s work it out, I’m sorry. You’re sorry. He had a real good heart and he wasn’t a hustler.

    Your poem “I Believe the Women” reminded me that you probably have always believed women. How do we read this in this age of #MeToo?

    In that poem, I’m talking about how it is good to acknowledge how some of these old men [like Bill Cosby] who have made terrible mistakes got to be that way. It doesn’t mean that you have to go over and give him a big hug. It does mean that you see with compassion that here is a twisted being who is suffering.

    Grief and forgiveness dominate in this book. I’m thinking specifically of the poem “Making Frittatas” about your daughter, Rebecca Walker, from whom you were estranged for a decade? 

    Well, in lieu of going into all of our struggle, I prefer to express what we missed: ten years of being mother and daughter and thus will never come again.

    In his opening translator’s note, Manuel García Verdecia writes that you have constantly been showing him “that poetry is everywhere around us, even in the most trivial or unnoticed things, because they all share or add something to the complex and total function and sense of life.” I felt the weight of loss in your meditation on something as simple as “frittatas.”

    Grief, after so many years of feeling it so intensely, what I hope for is to come through it still at peace with myself. In a sense, the poem is again about gratitude. There is no regret or there is no even wishing it had not happened. It’s just a realization that we lost ten years of making frittatas together. As a mother and a daughter who loved each other and who love each other, that’s a lot.

    Does this return to poetry mean that you don’t want to write another novel?

    I don’t really get to say. If life says to me—or whoever it is that directs—“Okay, get out your stuff and get to it, you have another couple of years here,” there’s nothing I can do but try to do it. I’ve done the best with what I could do and I hope you all are happy. I’m pretty happy.

    Alice Walker’s Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart is published by Atria


    Thursday, October 4, 2018

    I wish they'd stop and talk about it. They don't though. They just march by pointing at the sign, hardly looking at me, and saying, 'Aaah, I think you need a question mark.'  They don't, but they all could have Red Sox caps on. Luckily it doesn't happen often

    If they thought about it, they'd realize there'd be a difference in the tone and meaning of the sign's message if I'd put in a question mark. I'd say to them, if they stopped, that a question mark is too soft a landing.


    Wednesday, October 3, 2018

    The Times was sold-out in the bodega where I get it in the morning. I had to go across the street and look for one. This is the Times editorial on the massive story it ran today:

    Donald Trump and the Self-Made Sham

    Now let’s see your tax returns, Mr. President.

    “I built what I built myself.”

    This boast has long been at the core of the mythology of Donald Trump, Self-Made Billionaire. As the oft-told story goes, young Mr. Trump accepted a modest $1 million loan from his father, Fred, a moderately successful real estate developer from Queens, and — through smarts, hard work and sheer force of will — parlayed that loan into a multibillion-dollar global empire.

    It’s a classic American tale of ambition and self-determination. Not Horatio Alger, exactly, but appealing, and impressive, nonetheless.

    Except that, like so much of what Mr. Trump has been selling the American public in recent years, this origin story was a sham — a version of reality so elaborately embellished that it qualifies as fan fiction more than biography. Also, as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Trump, the creation of this myth involved a big dose of ethically sketchy, possibly even illegal activity.

    As an in-depth investigation by The Times has revealed, Mr. Trump is only self-made if you don’t count the massive financial rewards he received from his father’s business beginning as a toddler. (By age 3, little Donald was reportedly pulling in an annual income of what today would be $200,000 a year.) These benefits included not only the usual perks of hailing from a rich, well-connected family — the connections, the access to credit, the built-in safety net. For the Trumps, it also involved direct cash gifts and tens of millions in “loans” that never charged interest or had to be repaid. Fred Trump even purchased several properties and business ventures, putting ownership either fully or partly in the names of his children, who reaped the profits.

    As Donald Trump emerged as the favorite son, Fred made special deals and arrangements to increase Donald’s fortunes in particular. The Times found that, before Donald had turned 30, he had received close to $9 million from his father. Over the longer haul, he received upward of what, in today’s dollars, would be $413 million.

    Along the way, it seems that certain liberties were taken with tax laws. The Times found that concocting elaborate schemes to avoid paying taxes on their father’s estate, including greatly understating the value of the family business, became an important pastime for Fred’s children, with Donald taking an active role in the effort. According to tax experts, the activities in question show a pattern of deception, a deliberate muddying of the financial waters. Asked for comment on The Times’s findings, a lawyer for the president provided a written statement denying any wrongdoing and asserting that, in fact, Mr. Trump had little to do with the dizzying transactions involving his family’s wealth.

    Everyone can understand the impulse to polish one’s background in order to make a good impression. For Mr. Trump, whose entire life has been about branding and selling a certain type of gaudy glamour, this image-polishing has been all the more vital to his success. And he has pursued it with a shameless, at times giddy, abandon.

    Veterans of New York news media still laugh to recall how Mr. Trump would call them up, pretending to be a publicist named John Barron, or sometimes John Miller, in order to regale them with tales of Mr. Trump’s glamorous personal life — how many models he was dating, which actresses were pursuing him, which celebrities he was hanging out with. As gross and tacky and bizarre as this all seemed, it was aimed squarely at fostering the image of Donald Trump as a master of the universe who, as the cliché goes, women wanted and men wanted to be.

    With this glimpse into the inner workings of the Trump family finances, some of the grimier, ethically suspect aspects of Mr. Trump’s mythmaking begin to emerge — and with them, many questions about all that we still do not know about the man and his business empire. Seeing as how that empire and his role in building it are so central to who Mr. Trump claims to be — the defining feature of his heroic narrative — the American public has a right to some answers. For starters, now would be an excellent time for Mr. Trump to hand over those tax returns on which he has thus far kept a death grip.

    In his 1987 memoir “The Art of the Deal,” Mr. Trump famously offered his take on the origins of his success: “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”

    But increasingly, Mr. Trump’s willingness to bend the truth — and the rules — in the service of his myth looks less like innocent exaggeration than malicious deception, with a dollop of corruption tossed in for good measure. It’s not the golden, glittering success story he has been peddling. It’s shaping up to be something far darker.