Monthly Archives: January 2010

Supreme Gall

Before Mr. Alito shook his head in protest during President Obama’s speech last night, I was thinking something about those judges. The big judges. The special judges. The are like statues, I thought. They do not clap, emote, move, breathe. How do they do that, I wondered. Do they train for it? Do they play statue with each other on the lawn in front of the court, their robes billowing in the Washington wind? Whoosh, whoosh.

But then, coincidentally, the guy on the end manipulated his face into that grimace and bobbed his head. So unexpected it was, and obnoxious, too, that he could have been standing on his skull bellowing. That is how large his movement seemed, how wrong. Clearly, he couldn’t restrain himself, couldn’t put aside his own feelings just then, couldn’t listen to the statement objectively. Hmm, funny. Judge…restraint. Judge…objectivity.

And, all this after overturning the critical law that he helped overturn this past week. Such presumption. 


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Rrring, Rrring…

In order to boost sales of my expert writing services, I have cast the net, recently, into unfamiliar waters. Used to be, the phone would ring.

“Hey, Pam. Are you available to write a piece for us?”

I’d pitch my own ideas, in between the calls, and all would be well in the land of words.  These days, of course, the phone is pretty quiet. Do it differently, then, I told myself not long ago. Do it the way you haven’t done it before. Flex with changing times. Stretch, twist, be happy.

So, I posted my resume on several writing websites, in the place where writers say they are available for assignments. It felt weird, out there, on its own with people, anonymous people. Not like a story in a magazine, or a newspaper. These people you know. Anyway, I forgot that I had sent my life story into the ethers until the phone rang while we were eating dinner the other night. Yes, the phone. 

“Is Pamela there?”

“Who’s calling, please?”

“Greg.”

“Greg.”

“I saw your resume. Are you free to do an assignment?”

Wow. Just like that. No interview. No spec work. No writing samples. These online writing websites are super, I say to myself.

“What kind of assignment,” I ask, grabbing a pen from the kitchen counter.

“A script. Have you written scripts?”

“Oh, sure. I have written scripts,” I answer, encouraged. “What kind of script…industrial, commercial, film?”

“Adult.”

Okay, not kids. No little characters with blueberries for heads or anything. Adult, sure.

“You have to write that kind of stuff,” he went on.

Oh…adult. I thanked Greg and hung up.

“Who is Greg?” my twelve year old daughter asked. “And what was that about?”

My twelve year old daughter has a unique ability to hear three words and know exactly what is going on in the rest of a conversation. I could say, “No thank you,” and she could state the parties involved, offer made, and impetus for my reply.

“He asked if I could write a script.”

“You can write a script. What kind?”

“An adult script.”

They didn’t know the term.

“You know, G, PG, PG-13, R….it is after the R.”

“Oh,” both of my kids said. “Ick.”

Last night, I went to a school meeting about the transition from middle to high school. The subject was extracurricular activities. The journalism advisor stood in front of five hundred parents and kids and promoted the profession as a wonderful career, a way to hone analytical and creative skills, express yourself, see the world. I was pretty much stunned, given the current state of journalism. I do not think she should have been allowed to say that, in order to attract students to her class. As much as I love what I spend my time doing, or try to spend my time doing, she should not have been allowed to say that.




 


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Ladies of the House

We got the Sylvania in 1970. It felt big in all ways, a monolithic cube of wonder to ten year old eyes. Until the television arrived, crossing the threshold of our suburban split-level like jetsam from a futuristic ship, we were happy enough with the standard appliance in the corner of my parents’ bedroom, even if you had to nudge the antennas every third minute to clear out the picture. But this bit of technology promised more than we ever thought could emanate from a machine in our house. We were part of progress. We had a color TV.

Its predecessor went to the basement. The Zenith, a black and white. MaryJane lived in the basement. She was the second maid to live there. Not housekeepers, but maids. There was a distinction, I presume, but I could not define it then. Betty was the first, hired two weeks before my mother and I both began kindergarten, she as a teacher and me, a student in puffed sleeves and tennis sneaks. One of Betty’s hands was missing fingers, but she could tie shoelaces and attach safety pins and chop whatever needed chopping for dinner. Betty lived in our finished basement from Sunday evening until the following Friday, when she left by taxi to go somewhere, home, maybe. Three decades of black women followed her, making the weekly trip from a New York borough to Westchester, by train or bus, or both, earning money to send to family in “the islands” or elsewhere. Sons, daughters, husbands, in-laws…we never quite knew, or knew why.

MaryJane worked in a beer factory before moving to New York to clean houses. It think it was Milwaukee. She was in her twenties, slim and efficient. We played games in a spiral notebook after school sometimes, word hunts, mainly, in ball point pen. The basement was a large rectangle, with a trapezoidal alcove cut into one of the walls, long enough for a twin bed, wide enough for a dresser. My mother had provided bolsters for the bed, so it could pretend to be a couch during the daytime. The Zenith sat on a gold metal stand, with wheels and a basket underneath. On the front of the set, MaryJane taped a square sheet of pliable plastic, striped in a rainbow of colors. The black and white images behind it turned yellow or turquoise or green, but without regard for what they were. A person’s face could have been half-purple, half-red. An apple, orange. An orange, blue.

MaryJane wasn’t part of the progress, I sensed, then, in my wood-paneled cellar in New Rochelle, New York. But she wanted to be.

It wasn’t long that it began to bother me that maids, and only black maids, worked in our home, a liberal home, an intellectual home. I didn’t like that they ate meals after we did, by themselves. I didn’t like that they never used the phone. I started to go into the kitchen, early, and help them prepare, and afterwards, clear as many plates as I could carry. I learned their daily schedules and hurried to make my bed and straighten up my room before they came upstairs. No toothpaste hit the bathroom sink. I didn’t like that the women served me, and I didn’t like that the women were black. My parents didn’t choose them because they were black, clearly. They just were. All of them were, lined up in chairs against the wall at Mrs. B’s, the domestic agency in Larchmont where Mom went to pick them up their first day.

I’ve come to realize that my notion of race and equality was formed early, in my childhood house, and because of the presence there of Betty and MaryJane and Winnifred and Annie, women who straddled culture and class and burned in me, a white child from an affluent family, the necessity of respect.

The ladies who lived in my house–the employees, companions and quiet witness to our family dynamics–served my psyche, I know now, more than anything else.

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To Ponder

Excerpts from the writings of Jacques Roumain, a Haitian poet and activist who lived in the early 1900s…

And Manuel embraced his mother and they laughed together: Délira’s laugh sounded surprisingly young; that was because she hadn’t really had the chance to make it heard; life was just not happy enough for that. No, she never had time to use it; she had kept it fresh as can be, like a birdsong in an old nest. 

***

Manuel showed her his open hand: “Look at this finger, how meager it seems, and this one even weaker, and this other one no stronger, and this one all by himself and on his own.” 
Then he made a fist: “But now, is it strong enough, big enough, solid enough? It seems so doesn’t it?” 

***

Being resigned is no good; it amounts to the same as being discouraged. It breaks your two arms, and you wait around for miracles and for Providence, holding your rosary, doing nothing. You pray for rain, you pray for the harvest, you do your litanies to the saints and to the loas. But, let me tell you, Providence is nothing but man’s will not to accept hardship, to tame, day to day, the earth’s bad will, to bend the water’s whims to fit his needs. Then the earth calls him ‘Dear Master’, and the water too calls him ‘Dear Master’, and there is no other Providence than his work as a serious peasant, no other miracle than the fruits of his hands. 

***

Misfortune is never invited. And it comes and sits at the table without permission and it eats, leaving nothing but bones. 

***

 We sing the funeral, as goes the custom, with the hymn of the Dead. But Manuel, he chose a hymn for the living: the song of the coumbite, the song of the earth, of the water, the plants, of fellowship between peasants because he wanted, as I now understand it, that his death for you be the renewal of life. 


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Katy Perry For Governor

Rick Perry is so wacky. Why, just today, the Governor of Texas decided that Texas will not compete for the $700 million in federal education money that the Obama administration is offering states so that they can improve their schools. Rick doesn’t want to improve his schools.

Which would be fine, I guess, if his schools didn’t need improving. But lookie lookie…

Texas is 49th out of 50 in performance on the verbal SAT. 46th on the math. Only 68 percent of high school students graduate from high school. That’s 36th place on the list. 46th when it comes to how much the state spends per pupil and 50th, bingo!, 50th for how many Texans (just 78 percent) actually have a high school diploma. 

Of course, the state ranks really high on one thing…the percentage of student growth. SO MANY KIDS! So many kids (with the largest rate of growth in low income and minority families who would probably need a little boost) who won’t be getting a little boost, thank you, Rick. Silly Rick. 

All this after the State Education Commission spent months preparing a proposal to get the funds and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $250,000 to the effort.

Coincidentally, The Great State was one of two (Alaska’s the other…hi Sarah!) who refused to write common curriculum standards last year. I see it coming. Perry/Palin. On a horse, galloping in front of the Capitol, the two of them, in hats. Save me.


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Sports Are BIG in Texas

Wow. It’s no myth. Sports are big here. Really big, a phenomenon. It starts at age four and does not stop. I have watched it not stop for some time, now. It’s interesting to me, someone who is no stranger to competition, that this is some other kind of competition.

On Saturday mornings, kids who should be home drinking formula from bottles are out on the soccer fields, strapped up in guards and cleats and scoring goals. They have British coaches, from the Premiere League. By third grade, boys are wearing shoulder pads and helmets. Little mini Joe Namaths. Or what’s his name, Romulo. Romeo. Oh, Romo. 

I went to a high school football game with my daughters last year. It could have been the Meadowlands. There was a professional announcer, a color-commentary guy, dancers, cheering people, flag-wavers, bands. It was an extravaganza. And on the field, they were ready for the NFL.

My girls juggle balls on their toes, shoot lay-ups into hoops, slam backhands, dash down tracks. We have nineteen bags of team jerseys, which I am saving for posterity. I am a professional spectator. Last night, while eight trillion crazy people were screaming for the college boys, I was thirty miles away in a school gym with 250 crazy people screaming for their eighth grade daughters. It was very exciting, the game in the gym, I mean. 40-4. They are not allowed to lose.

Some people might think that this is all a little much. If I were still in New York, I would probably think that. But, actually, I think that it is good, especially for girls. Keeps them where you want them, on the field, focused, managing time, riding the bus with their buddies, figuring out how to keep their bangs out of their eyes when the refs won’t allow clips. Feminine, tough, all at once. All good. 

In ninth grade, I joined the gymnastics team, not because I had done any gymnastics, but because I could dance. I could do the floor ex. That’s short for floor exercise, which I  had seen in the Olympics, noticing the dancing involved. I could not do a walkover without getting stuck in the backbend  in the middle. Uh oh. Stuck. But pirouette? No one was better.

“I was on the gymnastics team,” I told my kids not too long ago.

“What event did you do?” they asked.

“Floor ex,” I said. “You know, exercise.”

“Really, how’d you do?”

Such questions. “I did well, with the dancing part. And I threw in some cartwheels. They said I should do more gymnastics since it was a gymnastics team.”

“Yes, Mommy, you probably should have,” they said, laughing, in a mocking sort of way. “Did you do any other events?”

“Oh no, I was afraid of the beam. And those bars. So uneven. And high up.”

They could not imagine it. I couldn’t either, in retrospect, though I really appreciated the experience. We wore maroon leotards, with zippers, and warm-up suits with the stripes. We didn’t have the stripes for ballet. Of course by tenth grade, I was cartwheeling into the school newspaper office after school, which probably made a little more sense. 

These days, in Texas, I am rediscovering my athletic prowess, though, accompanying my kids to the track or field or court and giving them a run for their money. Oh yeah. Watch this. Out of my way. Slam dunk.





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Find Me, Idea

It has been cold here, so the 1 pm walk/run has been eradicated from the schedule. Instead, I hop on the Stairmaster, but only if it is 40 degrees or above, as such hopping requires a dash across the yard to the back house. In Texas, some houses have back houses, separate little buildings that could have been garages or extra bedrooms. They are also called “quarters,” the kind of quarters for guests.

All of this is irrelevant. Except for the cold part. I have lost my tolerance for it, I am embarassed to say, and even a trot across the little lawn is too unpleasant at 39 degrees. So, I stay inside and exercise in my bedroom. I do aerobics in my bedroom, in front of a mirror, just like the eighties.

“What did you do today?” my daughters will ask.

“I did aerobics in my bedroom,” I tell them. They look at each other, thinking, “What. What have we been given in this person. What does it all mean?”

Anyway, when I do aerobics in front of my parents’ antique oak mirror, which has moved as many times as I have, I think of other things. That is because aerobics is boring. I should inject, here, that I do not do the traditional Jane Fonda-style work-outs, but have my own modern take, more dance, more Fosse, more moi. The ideas that pop into my brain when I do this are generally very good. I learned a long time ago that when you are a writer, you are always writing, even when you are at the movies or having a little snack or doing aerobics in your bedroom.

Today was terrific. I’ve been working on a nonfiction book that today became a “concept.” A whole “thing.” Not just one, but many. It could be many. I am not going to say what it is. It is going to be a secret. When I got the idea, I was finished exercising. That is how it works because then, you have to do the idea. But since I needed to go to my daughter’s basketball game in fifteen minutes, I had to shower before doing the idea. In the shower, if you can believe the wealth, I had another fabulous jolt of creativity. Yet another something poured out of the head into my head and I had to stay there until it was finished. It was a long shower.

I tell the girls to hurry up in the shower. The younger one uses enough water for a small nation. Maybe I should permit it, I am thinking now, as long as she emerges not only clean, but inspired.


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