Cura: A new journal of art and action

Late last spring, a group of Fordham students got together with Sarah Gambito, our Director of Creative Writing. They were frustrated that all the work they were doing on the student literary journal resulted in a pretty little booklet that sat in stacks on the radiators of our building, ignored. How could they convey their passion for art and their desire to change the world in ways that would touch other people?

Lots of brainstorming, conversations, coding, and a few visits to Zuccotti Park later, and Cura is the result. I’ve been tweeting about this for a while, but I haven’t written about it here.

Cura is going to be an online magazine, available on Kindle and with a number (how many? we’re not sure yet) of print editions. Four times a year, we’ll publish a prompt, each one related to the theme, and select the best art—fiction, poetry, photography, or any new media that can be displayed on a website—we get in response. The students write the prompt and they’re also writing the Muse, the blog that riffs on that prompt.

Our theme is Home.

Our first prompt is “What does your white picket fence keep out? And what has slipped in?”

Our first deadline is October 17th.

But that’s not all. We are committed to art and action and with the theme of home we’ll be hosting some fundraising events to benefit Covenant House, a nonprofit that benefits homeless youth. Any money we make from sales of the print journal will go to Covenant House, too.

We are so excited about this! I am super proud to play a small role as a faculty advisor. I hope that you’ll pass the call for submissions to all your friends, that you’ll submit your work, and that you’ll come back at the end of the month and read what we’ve put together.

Bonar Law, The Forgotten Prime Minister

One couldn't laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits--poor chap, all rigged up in gold lace. And to be fair, as he went his rounds, first with Clarissa, then with Richard escorting him, he did it very well. He tried to look somebody. It was amusing to watch. Nobody looked at him. They just went on talking, yet it was perfectly plain that they all knew, felt to the marrow of their bones, this majesty passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English society. Old Lady Bruton, and she looked very fine too, very stalwart in her lace, swam up, and they withdrew into a little room which at once became spied upon, guarded, and a sort of stir and rustle rippled through every one openly: the Prime Minister!--Mrs. Dalloway.

For the Record

Years ago, I heard a charismatic Marxist professor give a lecture on modernism, the General Strike of 1926. One of the main points he made was an anti-Woolfian one: how could people claim such great political credentials for a woman who barely wrote a thing about the General Strike?

In fact, Woolf did take notice of the strike. More than that, she supported the miners and the workers striking alongside them. More than that, she bicycled around London (no buses or tube, of course, for it was a strike) collecting signatures from other artists and writers in support of the strikers.

But that, for this Marxist critic, was not enough. Clearly he was wrong, but I was shocked to think of all the world events that some (narcissistically imagined) future biographer would be able to claim I had shockingly failed to take an interest in. It’s a distressing standard.

In my head, I can compose the self-condemning judgments: “In spite of Fernald’s commitment to feminism/Africa/workers, she had surprising little to contribute to the discussion of how the revolutionary changes in North Africa/Wisconsin might affect women’s rights/political freedom/economic stability for the working and middle class…”

Let me just say, for the record, that my feelings about these exciting changes are about as complex as the complexities of the situations require. I have no insights. I have many fears. I have great hopes that the downtrodden and disempowered will retain and regain the dignity that we all deserve.

I know my house is glass; I cast no stones.

Anne is as good as any man

The semester started just after Martin Luther King Day. Right around then, I got an email from a colleague whom I really like. Her son is in 6th grade. The 6th graders in his class were doing reports and, as part of their assignment, had to interview someone. Would it be o.k. for a 6th grade girl to interview me about women’s suffrage.

Sure. After all, I had just been reviewing the suffrage movement in preparation for my beginning of semester lecture (something I ended up not giving, as it happened).

But then I got her email. She was researching Seneca Falls. 1848. America.

That’s not my specialty.

I panicked, then calmed down. After all, this was for a 6th grader. Her very smart, focused email was as much about women’s lives before and after the vote as anything. I could do this.

Oh, and when would I be available to come to her school to be videotaped.

Oh, no! Part of me did not want this at all. Part of me wanted it a little too much. On the first day of teaching, I took a taxi across town to meet this young student. Was I really so narcissistic that I would travel across town to be videotaped by a middle schooler? Was I such a procrastinator that I would take time out of my day for this rather than create that calendar for program administration that I always mean to create? Half mad at myself for wasting my own time and hers, half excited, I signed in at the school.

As soon as I met her, I knew I had been right to come. We went to the library where I met the AV teacher. We talked about how she got interested in the topic (through a longstanding interest in equal rights for women). She set her flip camera up on a tripod and set the tripod on top of a stack of thin books, a series about marine invertebrates. She asked me to kind of repeat the question in my answer as she planned to edit her own voice out. She had a couple other coaching questions for me. And when I answered one question honestly, she laughed nervously and, departing from script, said, “Oh, that turns out to be a stupid question, doesn’t it? Let me ask a different one.” Once or twice, my answer pleased her and she squeezed her arms in tight to her sides, lifting up her shoulders and scrunching her eyes in delight.

I don’t know why it took me until then to see that this was the very best thing about teaching, this was really one of the coolest, most exciting things I had done in a long time. I am so glad that I let that young student interview me!

After all, when I was in 6th grade, I ran for president (and lost) on a platform of unilateral disarmament and the Equal Rights Amendment. My slogan? "Anne is as good as any man." One of my favorite talking points was why I chose "as good as" in lieu of "better than." (I felt that my superiority was for me to prove.) My campaign poster—with a picture of me in my favorite batik unicorn t-shirt--is in my office to this day. 

The Problem with The Big Short

I had been wanting to read The Big Short since it was published. I finished it a while back and Michael Lewis’ account of the very few investors who bet against the real estate bubble and won—big—did not disappoint. As you probably know, he follows the stories of a few men, highlighting their quirks and the elements of their personalities that enabled them to take a contrarian view in the midst of a mad market, and, through those stories, tells the story of the subprime mortgage crisis.

I think Michael Lewis means it when he expresses a kind of impotent frustration at the number of readers of his first big book, Liar’s Poker, who read it not as a warning, but as a guide to getting rich. I think he’s sincere, too, when on occasion he laments that all of these contrarian investors used their insight for personal gain; none of them became advocates for regulatory reform.

However, upon reading The Big Short, I wanted nothing more than to figure out how to get rich, too. I didn’t feel moved to write to Senator Menendez to demand stronger regulations on predatory lending; I wondered if I should buy that investment book that one of the guys used to start his own fund. On the one hand, this makes sense. This is America, after all, where, as James Baldwin said, there will never be a strong worker’s movement because there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter. That is, we all see ourselves—far too easily—as potential rich people. Furthermore, I’m writing this from Jersey City where Goldman Sachs dominates my skyline and my culture: they buy the trees that beautify the park by our house and their employees use their multi-million-dollar bonuses to scoop up and renovate the brownstones on my block. I, too, would like to own a house one day, and my husband and I, more than once, have thought that, fiscally conservative and middle class as we are, we might be able to benefit somehow from some poor sucker’s inability to make their mortgage payment. Such a sad chance, in fact, might be our best hope to buy a place in this artificially inflated environment.

But what is it about The Big Short that fuels my interest in making money while increasing my sense of impotent despair about the possibility of real financial reform?

I think it’s endemic to the topic and the structure of the book. Lewis tells a story about outlaw heroes, but these men—they are all men, though a few interesting women play bit parts as whistleblowers—are all disaffected insiders. When we do hear about a victim, the story is abbreviated and stereotyped: there is a Mexican strawberry picker with an $800K mortgage, a Vegas stripper who’s flipping multiple homes, and the Jamaican night nurse of one of the bankers who owns multiple houses in Queens. The class, race, and sex-snobbery is not subtle: Lewis makes clear that he feels for these people, but that they are not fit to play with the big boys.

Can’t you just hear the condescension at the Princeton Club?
“Whitley, have you read Mike’s new book? It’s really too much! Do you know that those brokers actually wrote an $800K mortgage for a Mexican strawberry picker?”
“But Sterling, the one that was really over the top was the stripper who was flipping houses on the side!”
“The flipping stripper!”
“I liked the Chinese guy—the one who went to Babson—who thought he was making a killing--”
“Hilarious! That was a great scene—with the Brooklyn guy double-dipping his edamame. Hey, where is Babson again, anyway?”
“Isn’t it in Wellesley?”
“I dated a girl from Wellesley sophomore year. She got to be VP at AIG. Wonder what happened to her….”

A better book, I think, would tell the story at every level: showcasing the stupidity, gullibility, corruption, unmerited optimism all up and down the chain: of the immigrant, the branch officer, that officer’s manager, all the way on up to Tim Geithner and Alan Greenspan. That book might get us storming the barricades. 

The Kindle, Again

My dad surprised me with a Kindle for my birthday about six months ago. I was thrilled, but, truth be told, I haven’t used it nearly as much as I planned to. I downloaded a raft of free classics right away and even re-read This Side of Paradise on the PATH train.

To be honest, however, the prospect of reading Kant on the Kindle on the morning commute is a little bit of an uphill climb. I haven’t done it.

Fitzgerald, to be sure, is less of a challenge and I fared better with him. Still, I found the Kindle made my novel reading a little more scattered—somehow, and in spite of that %-read sign down below, I found it more difficult than usual to keep track of the plot and where I was in the arc of the story. On the plus side, however, I was really tickled when I belatedly remembered there had been some business about a taxi in the book and could simply search “taxi” and find each appearance of the word. It’s too bad that, when I go to write about it, there’s no easy way to translate the %-read or page marks to page numbers in a print edition, but I can do that by hand, no doubt. In fact, that %-read sign distracts me and eggs on my competitive side.

That is just part of what I thought from the beginning: that the Kindle really would be ideal for reading bestsellers: ephemeral books of the moment, books that are more fun to read when they come out but that you may not want or need to own in a personal library.

At dinner in Seattle last week, our friends both raved about Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Game Change. Since I was traveling (with my Kindle and a lot of books), it made sense to download it and I’ve just loved reading it. The book is really fun: well-written, full of gossip, and fast-paced. As long-time readers here know, I was really engaged in the 2008 election and my taste for hearing about it has not slackened. But reading along on the Kindle, and watching myself rise from 22% done to 35% done, has made the reading itself into a race just as merry as reliving the election (without all the angst and worry about the outcome this time around).

So, I have renewed enthusiasm and purpose for the Kindle. I’m always really interested in those nonfiction books that people devour fast and I love to read them fairly soon after they come out, so the Kindle can be my spot for that.

There are so many different kinds of reading: some really do require a lovely edition, others are just fine online, others—somewhere in the middle—look to me like they’ll work great on an e-reader. 

Those Cute, Cute Foreign Orphans

I’ve been riveted by the whole sad debacle of the imprisoned missionaries, jailed in Haiti for taking children across the border without permission. The conversation seems to have changed, ever so slightly, in the past few years, towards a better understanding of how best to help and away from the kind of imperious behavior that these Americans seem to have displayed. (Though, I hear that Angelina may be on the ground in Port-Au-Prince…) From the first, CNN interrupted its “disaster porn” coverage of the earthquake to remind people that the best course of action was not to swoop in and adopt a little Haitian baby, even as endless heart-wrenching stories of accelerated adoptions already underway fueled our hunger to reach out and help.

I was reminded of this wonderfully biting satire by Binyavanga Wainaina (who wrote that great Granta piece, “How to Write about Africa”): 
Hello kitty kitty kitty¦ Are you an orphan? Are you Sudanese? Chadian? Are you a sub-Saharan African suffering from mild mental retardation? Are you an African woman suffering from the African male? Would you like an Oxfam biscuit? Organic antiretrovirals? Have you been raped? You might not know it, but you are an orphan, a refugee. Can we fly 103 of you to France to be loved? We can breastfeed you. We can make you a Darfur orphan. Even if you are not. If you are black and under 10 years old, please come talk to us.
Come kitty kitty.

Isn’t that fantastic? Especially in light of this Haitian story, in which some of the children reportedly still have parents(!). I love “You might not know it, but you are an orphan.” As with the longer piece on Africa, he cuts right to the core of blind sentimentality, the 21st-century Mrs. Jellybys, so sure that they are offering the best help for those whom they are so sure are desperately in need of it. You can read the whole piece here.
Or, as
a commenter in the Times writes: 
Don't play poker with a guy named Doc. Don't eat in a restaurant named Mom's. Don't go hiking without a compass near the North Korean Border. Don't travel to Iran to participate in anti-government demonstrations. Don't take a busload of kids across the border without their parents' permission. That's what my Daddy taught me.

Happy Birthday, Dr. King

In honor of the Martin Luther King Holiday, I wanted to remind you of Charles Johnson’s wonderful short story, “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” from the collection of the same name. Here’s how Z. Z. Packer summarized it in her 2005 review of the collection:
In this story King stays up working on an overdue sermon, and when he looks into the refrigerator for a late-night snack he finds ''bright yellow slices of pineapple from Hawaii, truffles from England . . . a half-eaten Mexican tortilla . . . German sauerkraut and schnitzel right beside Tibetan rice . . . macaroni, spaghetti and ravioli favored by Italians.'' Struck by how something as basic and elemental as food can represent the interconnectivity of life, King basks in this revelation only to be brought to earth by his loving wife.
My husband and I had the privilege of hearing Johnson read this story at a conference in Seattle a few years back. It was fantastic.

Enjoy the day and honor the legacy of Dr. King.

Forgetting Haiti

''Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it's unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this.''--Edwige Danticat (via Tayari)

It’s easy to forget about Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is so hard to think about—even before this latest castatrophe—that, unless there is a hurricane or a new novel by Danticat, it’s easier to focus elsewhere.

Eight years ago this month, I spent three weeks on a service-learning trip to the Dominican Republic. We had been scheduled to go to Haiti, but the events of 9/11/01 worldwide and a coup d’etat in Haiti led my university at the time to prudently shift the trip to the more stable DR, the Eastern and more prosperous half of the island of Hispaniola.

It was one of the hardest times of my life: my husband and I read and studied Michele Wucker’s amazing book about the island, Why the Cock Fights; we read Edwidge Danticat’s stories of Haiti and Haitian-Americans, we read In the Time of Butterflies. We longed to lead our students on a trip about social justice. Instead, we worked with an orphanage in Monte Cristi, on the Haitian border, to build a wall. 

That wall became a metaphor for the barrier between the kind of aid work I believe in and the corrupt, self-congratulatory, neo-imperialist mission excursion that I found myself on, but not able to lead.

For all that was hard, I must admit that I was not sorry that we didn’t go to Haiti. My husband’s scouting trip to Haiti, in the summer of 2001 (before plans changed) had been intense and life-changing for him, but his stories of the rural mission in Northern Haiti that would host us, of the drums at night, of the village that was little more than a collection of shanties, made me painfully aware of how ill-equipped I am to comprehend the gap between the poorest in the world and myself. 

In 1804, Haiti became a free nation. The second democracy in the Western Hemisphere. In the two centuries since, it has failed—and we have failed it. I don’t want to make a catastrophe—or a nation—into a metaphor. I hope and pray for better days for Haiti. I texted “Yele” to 501501 twice this morning, sending my $5 two times to Wyclef Jean’s nonprofit. But when I see the Haitian Ambassador to the U.S. on television last night, mainly concerned with reassuring us that the first lady is fine, I boil with outrage at the intractability of a problem—theirs and ours—that I do not begin to know how to think about solving.

My college friend, the brilliant Annie Seaton (now a Dean at Bard College) suggests that this catastrophe—the earthquake and all the things (poverty, deforestation, buildings without re-bar in the concrete, political instability, racism) that make this earthquake so horrifying—is a result of the Enlightenment. I think that maybe she’s right. Maybe, as she suggests, we should all read Susan Buck-Morss on Hegel and Haiti and, while we pray for the victims, the survivors and all who help them, we should also try to think our way to a more just world, one in which Haiti would not always and forever suffer.

The Clintons at the Minetta Tavern

My dad and I were utterly charmed by Frank Bruni’s review of the new Minetta Tavern. So charmed that we had the same idea: this would be the perfect spot for our Saturday night dinner in September, my birthday dinner. My parents still live in Seattle, where I grew up, so these twice-yearly visits of theirs to New York City are much anticipated on all sides. They revolve around eating and we have made it our custom to get a babysitter on Saturday and go out someplace really fancy. The Minetta Tavern would be a bit of a break from tradition--it’s a steak house in the West Village—but Bruni made it sound so fun and fabulous that it seemed worth it.

When the only reservation we could get was for 6:00, we hesitated: do we really want to settle for such an unfashionable time? After all, the city has many, many other grand restaurants. My dad and I held fast and, since this was for my birthday, I held the day.

That block of MacDougal Street is still caught in the 80s: falafel shops and beer dives, tourists eating lousy looking nachos, thinking they’re experiencing the West Village. My husband and I walked around the block to see Il Mulino, where Presidents Clinton and Obama had lunched a few weeks back. That was exciting and funny, too: on the one hand, Il Mulino is tucked away. On the other hand, it’s across the street from NYU law. Not hard for them to find, we thought. The Minetta Tavern inside leaves the falafel far behind; it is full of old world charm: just as lovely and hip as Frank Bruni promised.

We walked in at 6:00 and couldn’t be seated right away. It was packed and the energy was young and vibrant. Passing from the bar to the dining room, I overheard one waiter/manager say to another: “San Francisco chef and restaurant owner; position three.” It seemed we were in a happening spot. Little did we know. When our waitress came to take our order, the hostess and maitre d’ were opening and shutting the side door; we could see red flashing lights; our waitress was distracted.

Five minutes later, we could see why: Hillary Clinton came in with two aides.

That was exciting, but it was even more amazing when, a few minutes after that, Chelsea and her boyfriend arrived.

When, ten minutes after that we heard a familiar voice say “Sorry I’m late,” as the Big Dog himself sidled into the booth.

It was very, very exciting! And distracting. And fun. Hillary Clinton looked beautiful—really happy and rested and lovely in a pretty ivory jacket with boucle details on the lapels. Chelsea is very, very pretty, too, in a black sleeveless tank and a gorgeous necklace of gold loops.

It was hard not to gawk or ask for an autograph. We did keep track of their orders—beet salads for the Clintons to start, burger for Chelsea and fish for Bill at dinner. Not a lot of wine at all. (The four of us, on the other hand cruised through a bottle of champagne and 2 reds.) I wanted to meet Hillary Clinton especially, but once it was a family dinner any intrusion seemed cruel and wrong. We giggled that I should start mentioning my days at Wellesley and Yale really loudly, but, in the end, we let them eat in peace. So did everyone else.

That is, until Rob Reiner came in with his family. (I know!!!) Meathead, as I still love to call him, greeted the Clintons and President Clinton greeted the Reiner family while Reiner talked with Hillary.

(Turns out, there was a tiny little Streisand concert at the Village Vanguard last night…)

It is very strange to think of the Clintons as people, to see that they are real. Hillary’s charisma was palpable from the moment she entered: she was powerful, kind, beautiful, and self-posessed. Bill, in tattersall and a blue blazer, was more like charisma in retirement: stunning, but in repose. I have been thinking, this fall, that maybe I’m becoming a New Yorker (with a Jersey zip code) but this knocked me right back. I was utterly star-struck.

Three Cups of Tea

My sister-in-law gave me Three Cups of Tea for Christmas 2007. I was a snob about it: it looked so Oprah, so popular, that I was skeptical. But also curious. I finally read it. It is amazing that Greg Mortenson could manage, with a ghost-writer, to take such a gripping, thrilling story and write such a clunky book. It took me a very long time to get past the clumsy prose. I would read a page and come across an inadvertent pun, an odd Germanic neologism, a word that might be an adverb or a verb, rendering the sentence needlessly ambiguous and confusing.

And then, Mortenson is such a Western type. He reminds me of guys I used to date—or try to date—out in Seattle. Living in his car, dating a doctor, he grows angry at her desire for a meal. He is saving his pennies to build a school in Pakistan! She should be happy with ramen! Believe me, I’ve been there. I once made ramen and a tuna sandwich for a boyfriend who grew enraged that I had cooked two nights worth of food in one.

But I remembered that Nicholas Kristof (who shares the Western boy ethos but remains a hero) had written a glowing account of Mortenson’s work, founding schools in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, focusing on girls education. I know, too, I need to know more about Pakistan and that when faced with a more serious article, I tend to skip or skim.

There is quite a bit of The Man Who Would Be King to this tale. There are definitely moments, especially early on, when Mortenson’s story made me uneasy. The son of missionaries (as I am the great-granddaughter of missionaries, so I cast no stones, only recognize the dangers of that drive to set off to elsewhere in the hopes of changing it), Mortenson failed to reach the summit of K2, got lost and disoriented, and, after a long recovery, promised his host village that he’d return to build them a school.

When a fellow American arrives at the construction site and Greg asks him to march around like a “Big Man,” I grew really worried. The account of his detention in Waziristan, too, reads like a scene from any recent Muslim-baiting Hollywood film. (This will be a film, mark my words.)

But there is a lot more here. The prose improves as the story chugs along and the adventures make the lousy prose less obtrusive in later chapters. (Still, if you read it, I counsel you to read fast and for the plot! It could have been so much better.)

Mortenson seems to have learned genuine lessons about cooperation and humility. So, although his charity now trades on his story as the cowboy who singlehandedly built over 60 schools (a major, major achievement, there is no doubt), what I love about the book is the way that he has the village elders cut the ribbon at a school’s inauguration.

I am most moved, however, by how this man grew to recognize the power of educating women. When he sets off to build that first school, the town surprises—and frustrates—him by asking for a bridge first. But that bridge suddenly permits women to walk home to their mothers every Friday. In a remote, craggy region where marriage often means saying goodbye forever, this is a huge gift to a community: young wives remain connected and, through this connection, are happier people. When he returns, years later, a young girl marches into a council of elders and demands tuition for a certificate program in maternal health. Now. Mortenson first puts her off, but then suddenly sees that she represents all he has been working for: a young woman, leapfrogging over centuries of patriarchy, to stand up for herself and the women of her village, proud, confident, and utterly unafraid of men. It is hard not to see the goodness—the greatness of this.

Education matters and it matters most among those who have so little access to it.

If, as Kristof argues, as Mortenson shows, we cared more about education and less about bombs, we might just remake the world. For all the posturing and purple prose, I came away impressed by the book.

If personality-driven charities make you more allergic, Kristof also recommends this one, Developments in Literacy, run by Pakistani-Americans. It’s all about the kids.

A new era

If I had more energy and were so inclined, I would fashion this into a proper editorial. But, while inspiration is here, let me just quickly note that the withdrawal of Caroline Kennedy from consideration for Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is but one more sign that a political era has ended, that a newer and better politics has, for the moment, come to claim the stage.

Don't get me wrong. I admire Caroline Kennedy. I feel for her many losses. I think she is beautiful, smart, classy. She has handled her life in the public eye with grace and with a deep commitment to service. She is also a scion of America's greatest political family.

We bid goodbye yesterday to a horrible president whose main claim to power was that he was a president's son.

The election to replace him saw the failed bid of a supremely qualified woman who came to our attention primarily as a First Lady.

Now, a woman who wanted the former First Lady's seat has withdrawn. Her main claim to fame is as the daughter of a president.

This is a democracy.

It feels divine to put nepotism to rest.

Divine but also problematic for women: it's been hard in this patriarchal nation for women to find paths to power without the authorization of men. Being a daughter or a wife marks a woman as acceptable; it marks her ambition as an understandable family trait: the tomboy daughter, the wife who learned from the sidelines. Unmarried woman like Condi Rice or Janet Napolitano, are suspect. Married women, well, let's talk about married and partnered women.

See, there is this whole problem of child-bearing, child-rearing, childcare, that comes right at a really strong moment in women's lives. Just when your career seems to be taking hold--BOOM!--you're spending five or six pretty intense years wiping bottoms and wiping tears. Or, maybe you have your kids on the early side and, when jobs beckon you back, there is nothing on your resume to catch anyone's eye, so you end up with a dull job, a job with no leadership potential.

I have no doubt that both Hillary Clinton and Caroline Kennedy were able to fulfill the posts that they sought and, for different reasons did not get. I do not doubt, either, that Obama will be a better President, that Clinton was a better Senator than C. Kennedy.

It just feels more democratic, better, more redemptive, and more politically right to have elected someone who fought for the post out of intelligence, canniness, and good policy.

It's too bad that we're still a long way from having a path for women that permits a Barack Obama to emerge.

Inauguration Celebration

I must admit, the Rick Warren debacle took the wind out of my sails. I tried to view it pragmatically, but the anger and pain in the voice of a good friend washed all those excuses away. Her sense of having been betrayed--just as she (a Hillary supporter) always knew she would be--, that same sense of defeat and betrayal among many of my friends, added to my own disappointment, were too hard to overcome for much of Christmas.

That flatness has faded. I am excited again. I read on Jezebel that Obama’s letter to his daughters in Parade magazine was unbelievably adorable; Girls Write Now’s Twitter feed confessed to tearing up. On the strength of that, I decided to read it. But it didn’t come up on my iPhone before the train drifted out of range. I read it aloud to my 6 y.o. daughter as part of her bedtime reading, tears streaming down my face. She thought it was nice, but beloved children are used to hearing our outsized hopes for them and their future. It’s the grown-ups, parents or not, who understand the odds against those dreams coming true and the faith it takes to commit yourself to working toward dreams in spite of those odds.

The next day, I asked her to write a letter to the President. She came up with a sweet, noir note that makes Jersey City sound like Dodge:
"Dear Presudint Obama I am vere happy that you are going to be our
Presudint love Olivia age 6
In a town wer crims are arownd evre cornr ples make those crims stop."
That is, in conventional spelling:
Dear President Obama, I am very happy that you are going to be our President….In a town where crimes are around every corner, please make theose crimes stop.”
I find this both odd and dear: not a letter for the ages, not really about a top pressing issue for the nation or even for our lives here. Still, I’ll stick it in an envelope with our fervent prayers for some of the promises of this election to be fulfilled.

I have been thinking since November about what this Obama victory means. Those thoughts are on two tracks: one is about race and identity, one is about competence and ideas. As for competence and ideas, I am moved and humbled and also angered to feel the tremendous relief of knowing that Obama’s election brings some grown-ups back to Washington. On the one hand, he calls us to be more engaged in our country. On the other, I can relax in the assurance that my President is not actively seeking ways to begin wars, to circumvent the Constitution, to ignore the entrenched problems of poverty.

As for race and identity, I am so relieved to move a new generation into the White House. It’s moving and meaningful to me, as the working mother of two little girls, to think that my concerns are not far at all from their concerns. For all that is incredible, outsized, and amazing about the Obamas, I have more in common with them than with any other First Family in U.S. history. Selfishly, this makes me hopeful that issues that matter to me will also naturally occur to him to work on. But I have not failed to notice race, of course. And that matters more than I can say with any great intelligence or insight.

I do however, think about two crucial facts of my elementary school days and how different they will be from now on: Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. Both celebrations, central to my schooling forever, were always accompanied by some grouchy, skeptical racist mumbling from somewhere in the back of the room. Now, think how that curriculum can change to shut up the doubters. Even in the most conservative corner of the most conservative state, the narrative has a happy and victorious chapter. This is not the whole story, by any means, but it’s a useful piece, especially for those children under ten: to be able to say, “….and then, 40 years after 1968, Barack Obama was elected President.”

I keep thinking about the shoebox diorama I lovingly made in my 4th grade class. Toilet paper rolls for tree trunks, moss growing on the north side of the tree, Harriet Tubman running sure-footedly through the forest. What is Mrs. Goings thinking this week? What would Harriet Tubman make of this? I was raised on hope. I’m a sentimental West Coast girl. I can’t say this moment surprises me, but it moves me deeply and I do think it changes the world for the good in profound ways.

What will my daughters’ dioramas look like?

Pure Poetry, Alaska style

via Andrew Sullivan, a quotation from Sarah Palin's communications specialist, Kate Morgan:
Other issues facing the state — what some people consider to be inaccurate — how would I put that — listings of certain Alaskan animals as endangered or what is that second term that they use? They’re at risk? No… That’s not the technical term. Anyway, there’s two listings there specifically dealing with polar bears and there’s also the issue with beluga whales. So there’s different things and the issue there is of course wanting to provide a substantive lifestyle for our first Alaskans here which are the indigenous people and also wanting to protect our environment wanting to be good stewards to that and to take care of the animals that make Alaska. What it is however if they are improperly categorized then that can run snags on other types of development that would benefit not only people of Alaska but the world such as depending on certain kinds of drilling that we do off-shore either or people are in a hurry to list groups of whales as endangered or at risk than that might impede the progress that we’d be making to free or to lighten the the load that America has us obtaining oil from overseas. Emphasis added
I don't know whether to be amused or alarmed by the utter lack of knowledge--and lack of embarrassment about that lack. Or the free-floating "also" and "anyway" and "of course" as filler. Or all the sentences that begin one way and then veer off in an entirely new grammatical direction.

Putin may not be rearing his head, but literate people everywhere have their sights trained on Alaska. Oh Alaska!

Obama Mix

A week ago, I sat in my office, knowing that it would be a L-O-N-G weekend of hope and worry. I needed a new mix for my iPhone to get me through Tuesday and beyond. I decided to make an Obama mix that would make me feel fierce and inspired; something to give me the courage to keep working whilst awaiting election results, something to boost me at the end of a long day, something both tough and idealistic. I started with the Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” and knew I would end with Springsteen’s “The Rising.” Lots of the Jackson 5 in the middle because that’s been sounding good to me lately. Today, I added the Sondheim song that I blogged about yesterday and Shirley Horn’s version of “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” I did download CocoaTea’s reggae hit and the new, but they’re not the best parts of the list in my view: still, it was worth the .99 cents times two to have those little snapshots in song. The playlist is swelling and I expect it to be in heavy rotation until January 20.

Some highlights:
  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly--Ennio Morricone—because that whistling makes me feel tough.
  • The James Bond Theme (Original Version)--City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra—you have no idea how awesome, in a Clark Kentish way, it feels to be riding a crowded train in my little jacket, burdened down with groceries and papers to grade, with James Bond blasting in my ears. Besides, like Obama, it's just cool. And a little nerdy.
  • La Ronda--Marta Gómez—a gorgeous acoustic song, “Dame un besito…”
  • Green Light (feat. Andre 3000)--John Legend—the Starbucks freebie (with $4.06 latte) a few weeks back, but it features the line “Even Steven Wonder got down sometimes” which makes me smile so hard.
  • Galveston--Glen Campbell—which I downloaded when the hurricane hit. It’s a great retro-country song and it reminds me to remember Katrina, to remember the neediest.
  • A Prayer For Our Time--Vusi Mahlasela—I love Mahlasela’s sweet sincerity and this came up when I was searching for the Sondheim so I added it in.
Other suggestions? Several friends sent me links to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—the Rufus Wainwright version, or a friend singing it himself. What songs have you been singing to celebrate?

I’ll close with a disclaimer: I continue to be proud and amazed at how many of my friends and acquaintances worked at all levels of the campaign. No such work here: with two jobs and two little ones, it was all I could do to boost Obama from this little blog, blog once in a while over at DailyKos, and send all my spare change to Barack. I did what I could. I'm relieved my little was enough and I'm SO grateful to all who did more.

Yes we did! Still smiling edition

Well, we did it: President-elect Obama. What a great week.

I'm still exhausted and overwhelmed. And just now, in my little stolen hour (my husband took the kids to the park), I'm listening to Jonathan Schwartz' very old-fashioned standards on WNYC. Critics say it's like being stuck all afternoon at a stuffy great-aunt's house, but I love all the Sinatra and Sondheim.

He's been playing a version of "It's not Easy Being Green" for weeks, one in which the singer stops to talk & says, "Maybe one day, we'll even have a green president. Hmmm...a president of color...." It's very dear--just as dear and touching as the song has been for 40 years.

Today, though, he opened with Sondheim: "Our Time" from "Merrily We Roll Along."
Something is stirring,
Shifting ground …
It's just begun.
Edges are blurring
All around,
And yesterday is done.

Feel the flow,
Hear what's happening:
We're what's happening.
Don't you know?
We're the movers and we're the shapers.
We're the names in tomorrow's papers.
Up to us, man, to show 'em …

Oh, I'm weeping like a baby. And not for the first time this week. So happy. So relieved.


For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.--Luke 12:48.

When Obama talks about tax reform and tax breaks on the middle class (those making annual salaries less than Sarah Palin's wardrobe & make-up allowance for early October, say), it's not so much Marx as it is a revisitation of JFK's modernisation of a verse from the Bible.

I'm just saying.

Yes we can! Nothing naive about that.

So, Obama is up in the polls. My fingers and toes are all crossed. But I’m missing a little of that joy that occasionally flooded over me in the primaries. I can see it from here, but I’m too deep in the muck of the bailout and my plummeting 401K (not to mention my daughters’ 527 plans—why did I look?), I needed a jolt of joy.

Luckily for me, a friend passed along this link to an essay in The Brooklyn Rail. The author, Alex Gallo-Brown, writes about his continuing optimism and admiration for Obama. It’s a stirring testimony from a young writer eager to move into a new era of race relations, one that keeps its main focus more on the promise of the future, that seeks to emerge from what Obama calls a 40-year stalemate, not by forgetting, but by looking to the hope and power of youth, of the future.

In a week when the Republican ticket has been so despicable in its invocation of past hatred and fear, it’s quite stirring to remind ourselves that we can know about racism, current and past, without succumbing to it. We might, maybe, even be able to push ourselves forward into a future that looked brighter for all.

He writes about the effect of his time at Garfield High School on his perceptions of race, too. I’m a lot older, but I’m a Garfield alum, too. I’ve written about Garfield a couple of times here, but I’ve never captured the feeling of a Garfield assembly as well as he did in these paragraphs:
In February of my freshman year, we had an assembly to honor Martin Luther King Day. It wasn’t very much different from previous assemblies held at my middle school: A black girl performed a soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner; a white boy gave a platitudinous speech about leadership or hard work, I can’t remember which. (There was one novelty, a troupe of Ethiopian girls who shook their asses so fast they managed to titillate the audience and inspire a sense of cultural appreciation all at once.) Then there was more singing, more dancing, more speeches.

I don’t remember exactly what it was about that day; but I do remember the feeling as I stood in the bleachers of the Garfield gym, this surge of emotion. It said—and we said back!—we are here, and we are different than what came before.

It said that we weren’t like our parents, or our parents’ parents—we weren’t subject to their prejudices or preconceptions. We weren’t connected to the America that practiced slavery and put people in internment camps, slaughtered Native Americans and tolerated the laws of Jim Crow.

It said that we have this power—awesome power—to make something new.

Such were my feelings in high school. Then I went to college, the first of three I would attend, and quickly received a remedial education in small-mindedness and unconscious bigotry.
I don’t quite know how to explain it any better. I am amazed and moved to think that the ethos of my Garfield persists. But he is utterly right: Barack’s Yes We Can! seems deeply, deeply familiar to me, and I think it comes out of those assemblies in that old gym. A willful, intense sense of power: aggressive, occasionally even a little angry, a little naive, but full of hope. And that, for me, is the best argument I know for strong, diverse public schools: they help a diverse world full of difference feel like home. They can show young people that their job is to know our history and change our world for the better.