Ahead for women: good news & bad

The years ahead could be not good times to be a woman.

Childcare support? Abortion access? Equal pay? Contraception coverage?

How we will fare in the years ahead — those of us who are females of the species — is an open question; and some of the answers being bandied about are not pretty.

Paul Ryan’s budget would repeal benefits and protections currently enjoyed by millions of women, forcing us to pay out-of-pocket for potentially life-saving things like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings. Cuts in food stamps would hit women disproportionately, cuts in Medicaid would have a similar impact: women make up 70 percent of Medicaid’s adult beneficiaries. Prescription drug costs? Up, thanks to the re-opened Medicare drug coverage gap, the late and un-lamented donut hole. The list goes on, almost as glaringly as the list of benefits to the super-rich goes up. There are not a lot of women, especially single head-of-household wage earners, among the super-rich.

At a recent Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific (CA) gala, former Michigan Governor and Current TV host Jennifer Granholm ticked off these and other ways GOP policies take from women and give to the super-rich. But Granholm, in a conversation with CA Attorney General Kamala Harris moderated by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carla Marinucci, framed the opposing political policies as overall good news. With the GOP’s social and economic attacks on women in such sharp focus, she said, they can be seen for what they are — and defeated.

One can hope.

There are plenty of smart, honorable registered women Republicans. Whether they will worry about senior women having to pay more for drugs, or low-income women losing health benefits, or all women continuing to have to work three months more per year just to make what men make, that’s one of the questions still open. Reproductive justice? All women lose when reproductive rights diminish.

But at another meeting last week the focus was on distaff good news. The National Abortion Federation held its annual meeting, complete with continuing medical education for physicians, nurses and all those who will enable the progress and preservation of reproductive rights in the years ahead. This writer was fortunate to be invited to the Membership and Awards Luncheon, surrounded by extraordinary men and women including several award winners I am privileged to call friends. NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta was among the speakers, and her report was one of optimism. My own optimism about the future for women in the US.is centered in three of the award winners whom I quite fortunately happen to know. They include:

Maggie Crosby, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, honored for her decades-long fight for reproductive justice — or, more accurately, her repeatedly successful fights for reproductive justice wherever it was about to be compromised.

Beverly Whipple, an extraordinary woman whose story — at least some small snippet of it — is included in Perilous Times. Whipple was leaving immediately after the NAF meeting for an extended motorcycle trip around Europe with her partner, but they slowed down long enough for a table-full of us to celebrate at the awards luncheon. More on Beverly Whipple in a few days.

Sarp Aksel, Past president of Medical Students for Choice and current Executive Clinic Chair of the ECHO Free Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. For those of us in despair about the future of abortion rights, Sarp Aksel is the face of hope. Bright, highly skilled and highly trained, and totally committed to women’s health and autonomy, Aksel is representative of the men and women determined to protect women’s reproductive rights.

Those who would take away women’s right to choose or ability to earn might well make gains for the super-rich in the near future. But they will have to contend with people like Saporta, Granholm, Crosby, Aksel and a host of other fighters for justice… including most of the women of America.

More on kindness…

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

Some favorite people – okay, my daughter and daughter-in-law – recently posted a link to a heartwarming story from “Prank it Forward,” about a waitress who clearly deserved some good luck getting a LOT of it from her co-workers and friends: $1,000 cold cash, two airline tickets to Hawaii, a dream job and a new car. It was hard to follow without laughing and crying all at once.

Clicking around for the source revealed an originating site heavy into pranks of all sorts, apparently good-natured ones even if not always winding up life-changing good news for the prankee. The site originators seem committed to bringing moments of joy, and if there’s anything this world needs right now it’s moments of joy.

Clicking farther led to another site surely worth visiting, DoSomething.org. Over at DoSomething.org, members are doing things like collecting jeans for homeless kids, recycling cans to save the planet, or campaigning to stop bullying. You have to love the DoSomethingers. Their avowed purpose is “to make the world suck less.” This writer, unfortunately, can’t join them, as their members are between 13 and 25 and everybody over that is Old People in whom they are pointedly not interested. And who can blame anyone under 25 for that?

But it’s still the personal random acts, those small kindnesses anyone can do and no one organized, that most warm this writer’s heart. The little things: picking up the neighbor’s overturned trash can, handing the grocery checker a $20 for the food stamp buyer behind you in line, giving away roses from your garden, sending a snail-mail note to a perfect stranger in a nursing home.

Catherine Stern, co-founder, with Carole Mahoney, of Project Grace and herself an act of kindness, shared one such story about a Project Grace participant. The young family had just moved into a new house in a new community when their three-year-old was diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of cancer, forcing them to spend long hours driving to the hospital many miles distant. They were faced with juggling care for their other young children alongside the overwhelming needs of the sick child. Every time the exhausted parents pulled into the driveway of their new home they worried about what the neighbors must think of their unkempt yard, overgrown with weeds and scraggly grass. But one day, coming home after another long and exhausting time at the hospital, they were astonished to see their front lawn fully landscaped, grass mowed and flowers planted by their unseen neighbors who had somehow learned what was happening with the new family in the community.

Which is what kindness is all about: the community of humankind.

In the Abortion Wars: A Judge Speaks of Women’s Rights, Women’s Needs

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, in his recent ruling that Alabama’s abortion law must go to trial, raises the interesting issue of an “undue burden” on pregnant women.

Imagine that. Bringing the focus around to women.

In the frenzy to ban abortion anywhere, anytime that’s currently going on across the U.S., it is all about the fetus. Opponents of choice and sponsors of restrictive laws often frame their measures as “protective of women,” as if wider hallways, more parking spaces or the host of line items proven to be medically inappropriate were aimed at anything but preventing women from having abortions. Once fertilization happens, the zygote takes precedence.

It’s heartening, therefore, to have a judge speak about the person who is solely able to know the full circumstances: the woman.

The specific issue in Alabama – as with states including Texas where it’s being used to force clinic closures – has to do with requiring doctors to have hospital admitting privileges. There is extensive evidence that admitting privileges are unnecessary. An in-depth article by Imani Gandy of RH Reality Check titled “Why Admitting Privileges Laws Have No Medical Benefit” covered some of that evidence: only a tiny fraction (less than 0.3%) of women experiencing complication from abortion require hospitalization; the risk of death from childbirth is 14 times that of abortion; should something go wrong with an abortion, the ambulance EMT can make the appropriate choice of hospital.

Other laws, such as those restricting medical abortion or many citing physical details of abortion facilities, are cloaked in “protecting women” language. They do exactly the opposite.

Abortion opponents cheer passage of these laws for one reason: they create more roadblocks to abortion. Thus, opponents reason, more women will be denied access, forcing them to bring unwanted pregnancies to term. It is hard to find any good news for women here.

But Judge Thompson said, in an 86-page opinion, that the Alabama trial will focus on whether the law violates women’s constitutional rights by imposing “a substantial obstacle,” possibly placing an “undue burden” on women seeking an abortion. Since abortion clinics more often than not use traveling physicians, the law could result in closure of all but two of Alabama’s five facilities. Alabama has a total land area of 52,419 square miles. It’s hard to believe there would not be an undue burden on countless women required to travel very long distances to exercise their constitutional right to an abortion.

Not all judges seem overly concerned with women. In letting the Texas admitting privileges law stand, Judge Edith H. Jones of the extremely conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals located in New Orleans said she did not believe that driving 300 miles round trip would pose a serious obstacle to Texas women seeking abortions. Judge Jones spoke of good highways and 75 mph speed limits as if the impoverished women of the Rio Grande Valley all had Cadillacs at their disposal.

And more recently, District Court Judge David C. Bury let stand an Arizona law restricting the use of the drug mifepristone to the first seven weeks, despite extensive evidence that it can be safely taken outside doctors’ offices through the ninth week of pregnancy. What this means is that countless Arizona women, unable to have the safer, preferable medical procedure, will be forced to have more expensive and complex surgical abortions… and to travel hundreds of miles, twice to comply with the regulations. But this does not concern Judge Bury. None of that, he wrote, qualifies “as irreparable harm.”

For now, Judge Thompson’s words offer some solace, whether or not his decision ultimately goes in favor of the women of Alabama.

“If the court finds that the statute was motivated by a purpose of protecting fetal life, then the statute had the unconstitutional purpose of creating a substantial obstacle,” Thompson wrote in his opinion. “Evidence establishing that the legislature passed a statute with the purpose of closing down the clinic would suffice to establish a constitutional violation.”

Crime on the political stage: It’s funny… until it turns sad

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

You can’t make this up. Prominent longtime politician, a state senator now running for Secretary of State, gets caught in a years-long FBI operation allegedly involving enough nefarious big-money schemes to fill a library of pulp fiction. One associate indicted for gun-running, drug trafficking and purportedly arranging a murder for hire. Political pals already in trouble for things like holding legislative seats for districts in which they unfortunately do not reside. Throw in an ex-con accomplice by the name of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow

A recent “Week to Week” political roundtable at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club led off with what panelist Josh Richman termed “a journalist’s dream.” Richman, who is a State and National Politics Reporter for Bay Area News Group, remarked on the thorough and extensive media coverage of what is a local scandal playing out on a national stage.

California State Senator Leland Yee is the centerpiece of this improbable media bonanza. Yee has been charged with seven federal felonies described by San Jose Mercury News writer Howard Mintz as resulting from:

… dozens of… clandestine meetings with undercover FBI agents, many involving promises of political favors, influence peddling with fellow legislators and a Hollywood-style scheme to arrange a multimillion-dollar illegal weapons deal through the Philippines for an undercover operative claiming to be a New Jersey mobster.

“At the heart of the government’s case against Yee,” Mintz writes, “are his own words — replete with expletive-laced demands for money in exchange for political favors, even if it meant dealing with gun runners and organized crime figures.”

The roundtable, regularly hosted by Commonwealth Club vice president of media and editorial John Zipperer, also included Hoover Institution Research Fellow and Stanford University Lecturer Tammy Frisby, and Melissa Griffin Caen, an attorney and contributor to KPIX-TV and San Francisco Magazine. All four — along with audience members — tried hard to deal seriously with the issue; there were a lot of “allegedly” air quotes in use. But it is preposterous beyond all limits of credulity. “Insane,” was the term Frisby used; “like Grand Theft Auto come to life.” Caen brought along a copy of the entire 137-page criminal complaint.

Lee has posted a $500,000 bail — hardly a problem, as he has more than that already raised for his Secretary of State race and is legally entitled to use it for bail money or lawyers or whatever else lies ahead. He continues to draw a $95,291 salary for the state senate job despite having been suspended from that body.

Eventually the roundtable moved on to national and global affairs, but it was the Yee scandal that held the entire room in thrall. How could it not?

Most of those following this outsized drama — and it’s impossible not to be following it unless you’re (already) in solitary confinement — are simply shaking their heads. Some are saying “Oh, all politicians are crooks.”

And it’s that last reaction that turns the comedy into tragedy. Caen said she found, reading through the 137 pages, it was almost funny. But she came to two parts where it turned terribly sad. Those were when Yee “demeaned the office” by suggesting that financial contributions could be beneficial (to the contributor) in future actions of the Secretary of State relating to, say, supervision of elections; and when he “allegedly” accepted cash with the remark that his children “could write the check” to launder the money.

There are more than a few good books waiting to be written on it all, and probably a TV show or two. But in the interim, the goings-on of one alleged political bad apple in San Francisco are making it difficult to shake one’s head over corruption in Ukraine.

The Guns-Everywhere Law Comes

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

Some of my favorite people live in Georgia. Old friends, family, two gorgeous pre-teen granddaughters, some greatly beloved others. As far as I know none of them are currently packing heat — but it does look like everybody else in Georgia will be doing so if they choose, as soon as Gov. Nathan Deal signs the Guns Everywhere law recently passed by the Legislature.

Is this the new reality for American weaponry?

Photo Courtesy: Steve LaBadessa/ZUMA Press

Probably so. Those who hold the Second Amendment holy have a ferocity unmatched by all the peaceable kingdoms of the world combined. This writer, a peaceable Pollyanna if there ever were one, posted an essay suggesting stricter gun control laws might not be all bad several years ago on a news aggregate website. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Threats were made. So taking on the Georgia guns-everywhere legislation has little appeal.

Pieces of it, though, do invite consideration. The following is offered purely as food for thought.

For example, the law will not necessarily mean the worshipers in the pew behind you have brought along their AK-somethings — unless your church or synagogue “opts in.” Having sat on a few governing boards of religious organizations, this writer can only imagine the discussions ahead. They are not likely to focus on What Would Jesus Do. One appropriate comment did come from Episcopal spokesman Dan Plummer, who was quoted in a Los Angeles Times story as saying that allowing guns in churches was “bad theology.”

At kids’ schools? Why not. Schools will be authorized to arm their staff members. This assumes that staff members will be quicker on the trigger than recent school shooters, and hopefully will shoot the shooters rather than innocent others. Still…

If you want to hang out in a gun-free bar, no problem. Just find one that has opted out and posts a No-Guns-Here sign. Otherwise, the law is fine with your carrying a loaded Glock into a crowded bar, you are just not supposed to drink alcohol. This law, therefore, will be easy for all those teetotalers who like to go to bars.

Best news of all, for the 75.9 million people who go through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport every year, there will probably be a stranger packing a loaded gun nearby in case you need one. He or she is not supposed to go past the security people, but if it happens — and you know, gun-carriers can be forgetful — it’s only a misdemeanor.

None of this is to imply that the Georgia law is a bad thing! Please, NRA and gun enthusiasts don’t come after me again.

The Brady Campaign is still at work in Georgia.

Random Acts of Kindness

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

One particularly gray day, the kind of day writers have when their brains fog over and their vocabularies vanish, I had an email from the irrepressible Anne Lamott. Lamott is a longtime friend whose writing and gumptious spirit I greatly admire — but not someone from whom I would have sought literary endorsement in a million years.

“I can’t wait to blurb your book,” she wrote. Clouds vanished, vocabulary returned, book was soon published with a classic Lamott remark on the back cover proclaiming Perilous Times “rich in (the author’s) trademark blend of stories, history, knowledge and passion… an important contribution to (the fight for reproductive rights.)” Unsolicited kindness from a casual friend: an incalculable gift.

The kindness of strangers, though, is priceless. And might surely be a movement whose time has come.

Susan Johnson Nelson is up for starting the movement. She is also anxious to change the image of America and Americans from the ugly to the kind, as is her husband Andy. A few years ago the Nelsons traded in a comfortable life in San Francisco, where he was well established in a career in law, to join the U.S. Foreign Service. Having just completed a two-year tour in Managua, Nicaragua, he is now in an immersion program in Washington preparing for their next assignment in Hanoi. The Nelson family — which now includes 3-year-old Bode and 1-year-old Lake — is one you would want to represent the U.S. abroad. (The Nelson boys already enjoy love and adoration from fans on several continents.)

Susan Nelson decided recently to celebrate the Christian season of Lent not with the traditional giving up of one thing or another but with a daily act of kindness. Jesus would probably be fine with this. The inspiration actually came, she wrote in an initial social media post, from being on the receiving end of a double act of kindness herself not long ago. While negotiating the streets of downtown Washington with two screaming toddlers who had just received immunization shots, she ducked into a sandwich shop on a cookie diversion mission. A long queue of tired, hungry people let her jump to the front of the line (kindness #1), where the lady behind the counter smilingly offered not one cookie but two (double kindness #2.) Nelson’s first random act of kindness: a bouquet of flowers delivered to the lady behind the sandwich shop counter.

Others follow daily. They have included homemade cupcakes for Pete at the front desk, a basket of flowers painting by Bode for a post-surgery teacher, pick-up and delivery of recycling left in hallways (double kindness: gift to building residents and anger aversion for the maintenance workers who would otherwise have to deal with it.) There was babysitting for a friend in need, banana bread baked and delivered to the local firehouse. There was Andy’s kindness to Mother Earth, buying toothbrushes from all-recycled materials (hey, credit where credit is due; Andy also does extraordinary acts of fatherly kindness when Mom is wearing down) and on one dark and snowy Saturday morning both boys slept in until 9 a.m. — duly reported in the online exchange as a great kindness on their part.

The digital saga has also prompted reports of other acts of kindness elsewhere, such as the story of a woman with cancer, having her head shaved in a beauty salon as chemo-induced hair loss began and then finding her bill had been paid by an earlier customer.

They may be small acts of kindness, but who knows how large their effects? For many of us, frustrated with what seems the impossibility of world peace, tiny moments of joy bring renewed hope. It’s a start.

Wanted children, planned families… Why not?

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

The wanted child, the planned family. Can anybody argue that the wanted child and the planned family are not infinitely better off for everyone: child, family and society in general?

So why are we fighting these battles?

The Supreme Court, for example, is taking up the question of whether Hobby Lobby — which presumably prefers unwanted children and unplanned families — can refuse to provide contraceptive insurance for its employees because doing so would somehow offend (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act uses the word “burden”) the religion of its corporate soul. Assuming corporations have a soul, which may or may not be true for Hobby Lobby — this is subject to individual opinion. The RFRA is, of course, also about people, but the Court has already hopelessly blurred the line between people and corporations.

This writer is not a Supreme Court judge, which most U.S. citizens would deem a good thing. But can we think this through? Hobby Lobby goes to a church that thinks sex should occur strictly for purposes of procreation, and conception should therefore never be prohibited. Never mind any Hobby Lobbyists who may have planned their own families; Hobby Lobby still finds it offensive that he should be required to help an employee plan his or her own family. Excuse me?

In particular, Hobby Lobby does not want poor people to plan their families. People of means (and Hobby Lobby is definitely a corporate person of means) have plenty of access to contraceptives enabling them to plan their families. Poor people could use a little help. According to a report recently completed by the Guttmacher Institute (full disclosure, this writer supports the Guttmacher Institute; Hobby Lobby does not), almost nine million disadvantaged women every year get help protecting their health and planning their families through the successful U.S. family planning effort. This effort — which includes funding for contraceptives — substantially reduces the rates of unintended pregnancy. In the process it saves us taxpayers some $10 billion per year.

Some of the details of the Guttmacher report, excerpted below, are worth noting:

• Nearly nine million women receive publicly funded family planning services each year. Three-quarters of these women (6.7 million) received this care from safety-net health centers and about 2.2 million from private physicians. Of these nine million women, 4.7 million obtained care from a health center that receives some funding through Title X.

• Publicly supported contraceptive care enables women to avoid 2.2 million unintended pregnancies each year; absent these services, U.S. rates of unintended pregnancy, unplanned birth and abortion would be two-thirds higher than they are.

• Underscoring the critical role these safety-net providers play in women’s lives, six in 10 women receiving contraceptive care at a health center consider that provider their usual source of care. For four in 10 women who visit a reproductive health-focused health center despite having other options, that provider is their only source of medical care throughout the year.

• Every public dollar invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they did not want to have saves $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures that otherwise would have gone to pregnancy-related care; in 2010, that amounted to a net government savings of $10.5 billion. Safety-net providers that receive some funding from Title X accounted for $5.3 billion of those net public savings.

Dollars saved, wanted children, planned families, individual rights and everything else aside, Hobby Lobby insists that provision of contraceptive coverage infringes upon its religious rights.

It is encouraging to note, though, that 47 religious organizations, through their leaders, have weighed in on the side of wanted children and planned families. They are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others.

This Presbyterian is proud to join them.

Laboratories of the States: The good… and then, the very bad and ugly

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

Will a few states rule the United States? Or fundamentally change it? And if so, who are the winners and losers? Depending on your point of view, this “laboratory-of-the-states” business is good news today… or not.

The metaphor dates to the dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in a 1932 case, New State Ice Company v. Liebmann and is often used today to assert the success of one social program or another. The best most recent — and decidedly successful — laboratory-of-the-state demonstration is Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. This writer’s extraordinary attorney friend Kathryn Tucker published a paper in the 2008 Michigan Law Review, when she was Director of Legal Affairs for Compassion & Choices, titled “In the Laboratory of the States.” Tucker wrote, “Because Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act has proven both useful and harmless, this Article concludes that it is time for other states to follow Oregon’s lead and enact their own legislation to allow their citizens an alternative to what otherwise could be a prolonged and painful death from terminal illness.”

Tucker deserves much of the credit for expanding the Oregon law into the movement that now seems a clear national trend, along with Compassion & Choices (full disclosure: this writer has long been a C&C supporter, volunteer and local board member). Washington and Vermont have passed similar bills and Montana wisely concluded that it’s none of the state’s business what a doctor and patient decide to do, making physician aid in dying now legal in those states. A handful of other states have pending bills and still others are mounting strong movements. So Oregon’s laboratory of success is likely to be the nation’s overall policy in the foreseeable future, and we’re all better off for that. (Opposition has come from religious and political forces that hold onto a belief that God requires some sort of existential suffering be visited upon Her dying creatures.)

The laboratory-of-the-states pathway is both effective and well trodden, said San Jose State Professor/author Larry Gerston at a recent Commonwealth Club political panel event. The panel was looking at other current trends, but Gerston specifically cited the Oregon Death with Dignity model as an example of how it all works.

Now — what if Texas becomes a laboratory for the denial of reproductive rights?

In Texas, just for a rough overview, recent laws have passed requiring parental notification and now parental consent; requiring abortions to be performed in ambulatory surgical centers with hospital-grade operating rooms; requiring women who seek abortions to submit to ultrasounds and then wait 24 hours for the procedure. The list of harsh, medically unnecessary restrictions and requirements is long, and a clear violation of both ‘best medical practice’ and women’s rights.

It is worth noting who are the winners and losers in these state laboratories. In Oregon, the winners are we the people everywhere. Few of us would turn down the right to a humane and compassionate death, which is made a possible choice by death-with-dignity laws. Losers? No one. No one is compelled to choose a hastened death, anywhere, any time.

In Texas, however, the scorecard is seriously skewed. The winners are archconservatives that have learned that this is a good way to get votes. Winners also include those, men and women alike, whose religion teaches that life begins at conception and thus all abortion is wrong. This writer can appreciate those who hold such views, but it is not possible to uphold the rights of a fetus without denying the right of the woman in whose body it resides. Many of us come down on the side of already-alive women and on the doctrine of church/state separation.

And the losers in Texas: women. All women. Primarily they are women without money or resources, who are frequently disadvantaged and disproportionately women of color. These women are already turning to desperate measures to end unwanted pregnancies; increasingly they are turning up in emergency rooms with failed attempts to self-abort. To a lesser degree, but still worth considering, the losers include those — men, women, boys, girls — who need the other services provided by rapidly closing clinics: birth control, sex education, STD testing, breast cancer screening and many other critically important needs that will now go unmet.

It’s hard to contemplate the win-lose picture of this Texas laboratory. But if it indeed becomes a laboratory-of-the-states argument in upcoming Supreme Court cases, and elsewhere, the losers will be all of us. You and me. We the people.

The (Abortion Docs) Holiday that Wasn’t

This post first appeared on Truthout.com as a SpeakOut essay

With abortion providers and abortion rights fast disappearing, it is particularly regrettable that the National Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers came and went on March 10 with little fanfare. It was well worth celebrating and its passage is worth noting.

The day did indeed get some good coverage, including at least one excellent blog post noting the degree of vilification and abuse that providers suffer today. And it raised the hackles of a few on the right fringe: a blogger on Free Republic, for example, called it “the most disturbing holiday of the year,” – tossing in the opinion that abortion providers are “people who make lucrative piles of money for tearing babies apart.”

Not exactly. Abortion providers, many of whom work hard to keep services available to the mostly poor and voiceless women who are victims of today’s fringe politics, would be surprised to hear themselves described as making “lucrative piles of money.” What they do is in fact poorly compensated in dollars but richly rewarded by the gratitude of women who seek their services.

A National Year of Appreciation for Abortion Providers – while their ability to provide this fundamental women’s healthcare need remains – would be appropriate.

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

I’m in mourning for Mavis Gallant.

You don’t remember Mavis Gallant? If you’re older than 14, you shared a century with her characters. You would have passed them on the streets of Manhattan, or Montreal, or Paris. They were people you recognized… even if you might not have stopped to talk with them. Where you really got to know them was in the pages of The New Yorker, which published 116 of her stories over a span of 40 years.

Mavis Gallant died recently at the entirely respectable age of 91. She produced sharp, beautifully crafted and highly readable short stories for more than half of those years. Collections of her stories were published in 1956 (The Other Paris), 2009 (The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories), and a dozen more collections appeared in the years in between — it boggles the short story writer’s mind.

And here’s the rub for me: In addition to the mourning, there is envy, admiration and — to be honest — a dash of literary despair. On the one hand is the shimmering example of a writer — a woman writer at that! — still writing great stories well past the age of, ahem, this octogenarian writer. And on the other is the sheer heft of her oeuvre. One volume of collected stories alone ran to 900 pages. We are not talking pages of tripe.

Mavis Gallant understood the abandoned and deceived; her own mother deposited her at a boarding school when she was four, saying, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” She also understood the displaced, having left her Canadian home for France, briefly wandering elsewhere in the post-World War II years when displacement was a fact of life for much of Europe and Asia. As a woman who defined the phrase “living by one’s wits,” she turned those wits to short fiction in a singular way. She also wrote novels and essays, critically acclaimed nonfiction.

But here is another rub: On top of the lack of maternal love and affection, Gallant endured other unimaginable emotional assaults and upheavals, realities that underlie her fiction. As a girl of 10, she was lied to about her father — she waited two years for him to reappear because nobody told her he had died. She was briefly and unhappily married, and heart-breakingly betrayed by her literary agent, who pocketed the money from the first New Yorker stories while Gallant struggled with hunger and despair in Spain and France. Gallant took it all in, survived and turned her life to short fiction, to the benefit of us all.

The rubs boil down to this: Suppose you’re a writer with a plain old happy childhood? You’ve already watched with envy — sometimes admiration and way more than a dash of despair — the flood of memoirs documenting addiction, abuse and aberrations of every conceivable kind, most of which inhabit bestseller lists for months. And here are the obituaries for one hugely admired short story writer, with the news that she too has a personal depth of Shakespearean tragedy to mine. Bless her battered heart.

At least she shared it all with us, in those dozens and dozens of marvelous stories. And kept at it until the end of her 91 eventful years.

Rest in peace, Mavis.

 

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