Four Things You Cannot Fix at 3 AM

A CAREFULLY RESEARCHED SELF-HELP GUIDE

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1 — That small, niggly message from your stomach that says it needs a couple of peanut butter-filled pretzels. Maybe just three or four? Please? You can ignore this, but you can’t fix it — unless you get up and go find that bag of peanut butter-filled pretzels. Really bad for the teeth.

2 — The problems your favorite niece is having with her mother. OK, the parents’ divorce was hard on her and now she doesn’t like the stepfather. So she’s going to drop out of school and join her brother in the ashram. You can rewind that reel as many times as you want; it’s going to come out the same. Have you ever fixed anything with that bunch?

3 — Democracy. I know, I know. You should’ve signed up for another few hundred postcards or letters with Activate America or Vote Forward or whatever, but you quit. Should you get up and fill out another form? Or send $5 to a few more candidates? Before breakfast? C’mon. Really now.

4 — World hunger. You are in that tiny percentage of people around the globe able to hunker down in a comfy bed after a perfectly good dinner, without a care in the world. Guilt will not lull you back to sleep.

You could, however, get up and go find the bag of peanut butter-filled pretzels.

The Brave New AI World

WITH A SALUTE TO THE HUMANOID BRAINS OF WRITERS PAST

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I was confronted with an ad on a busy urban thoroughfare, promoting the newest thing in my chosen profession.

That is, writing. I have been a writer forever. You could say Journalist, or occasional Essayist. Columnist. Author. Proud MFA in Short Fiction graduate. Periodic ghostwriter when I needed the money.

But over a bunch of decades I have just said, when someone asked what I do for a living, “I’m a writer.”

Alas, I have been replaced. By a bot.

Author photo

Needing to understand the competition, I looked this up. Here’s what I learned:

You — company manager, CEO, whoever — don’t really need to hire a person who knows how to write stuff, because a friendly bot can “accelerate content” while remaining “on brand.” Jeez Louise.

I already knew my once-beloved profession was in trouble the first time I heard the phrase “content provider.”

Well, anyway. Who am I to stand in the way of your unlocking the power of generative AI?

In the olden days, every press club worth its salt had a touch football team.

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Maybe you missed a deadline, or somebody else scooped you on a great story, or you were just brain-weary from too many words. You could always find a pick-up game with a bunch of writers needing to work out their literary frustrations. (Then you went for drinks.) I’m satisfied that similar collegial opportunities to blow off steam still exist, even if my football days — as you can tell from the attitude here — are over.

All that generative AI can replicate your voice, and stay on-brand for optimum marketing potential, and you can refine its integrated content to align with your pre-approved messaging . . .

But can it play touch football?

Can We Talk About Guns?

Can we talk about DOING SOMETHING about guns?

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I am, to be clear, just a little old lady who never messed with weapons of any sort beyond a couple of curiosity-type visits to rifle ranges and a youthful flirtation with archery. But still.

At last count (according to a recent ABC News report,) 9,870 Americans have died from gun violence this year. It’s probably more by now, since people are shooting themselves or each other at an alarming rate. The rate at which one person is shooting a bunch of people is somewhat more alarming. The Nashville school tragedy was the latest of the 130 mass shootings this year counted by the Gun Violence Archive. Since then: Kentucky.

Isn’t it all worth talking about?

I don’t mean talk as in making a speech or broadcasting your great thoughts into the wind; I mean talk as in having a conversation. An old-fashioned civil dialog: you tell me stuff while I listen, I’ll respond with more stuff while — hopefully — you listen.

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A lot of people just talk about “Second Amendment rights.” Well, okay. Those guys who wrote the second amendment a few centuries ago were, of course, talking about “well regulated militias;” apparently James Madison wanted to be sure state militias could defend themselves against the feds.

Fast forward to 2008, and more guys (on the Supreme Court, in DC v Heller; Ginsberg was among the dissenters so it was all guys) expanded that to mean everybody has a right to handguns for self-defense. Seems a stretch, but here we are.

Could we talk about my right to enjoy a latte without being freaked out by that guy with a gun on his hip v his right to swagger round bearing arms?

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Shouldn’t it be okay for little old ladies to talk about how freaked out they are by guys packing heat? Thank heaven I don’t live in Florida, where now, apparently, just about anybody any time can pick up a gun and carry it anywhere he or she (women & girls packing heat at Starbucks also freak me out) feels inclined. I would write a book on this but it would get banned, so why bother. Then there’s the congressman – I wiped his name from my conscious memory – who suggested parking tanks at schools.

I do not believe we are helpless. Or that tanks will make our kids feel safe. I do not believe, as TN Rep. Tim Burchett does, that there’s nothing we can do about guns because “criminals are going to be criminals” and Congress is “not gonna fix it” (though so far he’s right on that) or that we need “a real revival in this country” rather than gun control of any sort.

I know revivals. I’ve been to a bunch of them. I promise you no revival is going to reduce gun violence, or even the sheer number of guns that freak out little old ladies.

I do not believe, as does TN Rep. Andy Ogles — he who posed for a Christmas photo with his happily armed family — that it is “ridiculous” to blame guns for those dead children and adults in our latest school shooting. (Unless there’s been another school shooting since Covenant School.)

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Why can’t we talk about mass shootings? And doing something to reduce them? For instance:

You can’t have mass shootings without guns to shoot masses. Most of those shooters are not criminals — or at least, they weren’t criminals until they picked up a gun and started killing people. Most of those guns are assault weapons designed to kill a whole lot of people. I know people who hunt, many of whom are very dear to me; I don’t know anyone outside of the military who has an assault weapon. Or who thinks we should all have access to one if we take a mind to.

Could we just talk about assault weapons? Then maybe we could talk about why anybody needs one and why they shouldn’t be banned. When assault weapons were banned, fewer people got killed. Maybe that’s worth talking about.

If we can talk, we can find common ground. I don’t think any of us really love the fact that tiny children are learning mass shooter drills before their ABCs. We could start there.

I may be just an unarmed little old lady, but I am not stupid. I do know that talking — just having civil conversations without shouting and getting angry — is not popularly done any more.

But we CAN. Maybe we need to try harder.

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The Night We Climbed the Water Tower

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It was chilly, and very dark; that’s what I remember most clearly.

But where Mimi went, I followed. Mimi was two years older, my best friend and protector and constant companion. She was also braver than I.

I pretended bravery. So when Mimi and our best friend Beverly Ann made a plan to climb the water tower, I was in. We slipped out the front door — nobody watched (or locked) front doors in those gentler post-WWII days — about 10 PM, after the grown-ups had turned off the Victrola and retired. Barefoot and pajama-clad, we ran through the fields to the water tower at the edge of town.

Mimi and Beverly Ann scampered up the ladder and onto the narrow walkway in a matter of minutes. I followed as closely as my fluttering heart would allow, trying not to look down. We made one lap around the tower, looking down but holding tight to the rail; I may have been holding tighter than anyone ever held onto anything in human history.

There were, unfortunately, no selfie cameras in those days; but there was an iron clad honor system reinforced by community norms and the possibility of being ratted out. The next day we three joined the rarefied ranks of Those Who Climbed the Water Tower At Night. This was not a club whose membership was publicized among grown-ups, but it carried more than a little prestige among the under-10 set.

I still pretend bravery. On occasion I prove actually brave. Most of the credit goes to my sister Mimi, may she rest in well-earned peace.

But I no longer climb water towers.

Look Me In the Eye

AN ARGUMENT FOR PERSON-TO-PERSON COMMUNICATIONS

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Recently I fired my doctor.

She and I had gotten along okay for a number of years, but things were just going downhill, communicatively speaking.

“Dr. W,” I said, “I need for you to look at me when we’re talking. I know there’s a lot of important information on that computer, and you have to input a lot of other important information. But I just can’t handle always talking into the air.” Dr. W continued to position herself northward as I, by design of the examining table, was aimed westward.

One day I couldn’t take it any more. I went to the Kaiser webpage listing General Practice doctors who are accepting new patients and found Dr. G.

I think Dr. G is about 12 — but that is a function of living as long as I have: the doctors all appear to be teenagers. I explained my Dr W problems to the young Dr. G. He turned the computer around and sat beside me so we could look at it together. We could also look each other in the eye when I was explaining very personal data. (Dr. G also showed me where my A1C had been six or eight years ago — whoever heard of A1C before TV ads started shouting about it? — and showed me how he’d start worrying if the line got above a certain point; as opposed to Dr W’s forever telling me vaguely that I am “pre-diabetic.” To be brutally frank, I am pre-dead, but that’s another story.)

Dr. G and I are living in a happily ever after relationship.

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Relationships simply need eye contact. I really don’t care how important that computer is, with all its vital data, or that cellphone, with all its fascinating connections to people tango dancing in Buenos Aires or people in Eastern Asia saying stuff that may or may not be true — all I ask is a teeny moment of undivided attention. Look me in the eye.

Speaking of cellphones and interpersonal communications — which we must, although the two are totally incompatible:

Occasionally I go to dinner in a home where cellphones are not banned at the dinner table. (Occasionally I also go to indoor restaurants; but not often, because you can look someone in the eye in most indoor restaurants and not hear a word he or she is saying over the 95-decibel din, but that’s another story and anyway my age is showing again.)

Cellphones and dinners are 98% utterly incompatible. The other 2% is okay for looking up an interesting factoid that arose in the general conversation. Conversations — one or more persons exchanging thoughts with one or more other persons — cannot occur in the presence of a cellphone. Dinnertime, or lunchtime for that matter, conversations are good for the soul. (And the digestion, but that’s another story too.)

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Sometimes cellphones at dinners are detached from the hand of the owner and placed beside the knife or fork. Well, okay, but face down please. A face-up cellphone competes for attention with other diners; the cellphone always wins. Diners, bless their hearts, have only voices and animated faces. Cellphones have flashing colors and beeping blurps and strobe lights — with which no ordinary human can successfully compete. The human might be the Secretary of State reporting on a front-line visit to Ukraine; it doesn’t matter. The cellphone wins.

Moral of story: humans need connection; machines break connections. Maybe you agree, maybe you disagree, that’s what conversation is all about, and conversation is always welcome.

Just look me in the eye.

Isolation is a Soul-Killer

WHAT WE (HOPEFULLY) LEARNED FROM THE PANDEMIC

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My sister Helen was a hidden covid victim.

Helen, who died recently at 95, never actually caught the virus until it was in decline; being fully vaccinated and well cared for, she had only a very mild case — and recovered. But like uncounted millions of seniors — and more than a few younger people — she was a victim of the pandemic.

Isolation kills.

Helen was a social creature. Her retirement community ran a weekly bus to the grocery store, but that didn’t work for Helen. The bus returned in an hour, by which time she had only begun her visits with the produce guy and the butcher, the shelf-stockers and the check-out lady. Her son-in-law drove her to the store and worked on his laptop until she finished.

“We’re not supposed to walk in the halls,” Helen reported during the worst of times. We had cross-country phone visits several times a week, but I was seldom able to cheer her up.

“This isn’t living,” she would say.

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Living is interacting with fellow creatures. Even the four-legged kind. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA,) more than 23 million Americans adopted a pet during the pandemic; most of them are still with their newfound families. Depression among the elderly, though, even those with pets, was rampant.

One 80-something friend’s depression became so grave that her children — all of whom lived in other states — insisted she videoconference with her physician. He prescribed medication, but it was only minimally successful. “I’ve just lost any will to live I had,” she told me over the phone. “I’m not suicidal, but I go to sleep every night hoping not to wake up. We have no idea how long this lockdown is going to last.” Happily, she outlasted the pandemic and is shopping and lunching with friends (while staying on her meds). That puts her among the lucky ones.

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For the frail, sick, or elderly, the pandemic was particularly punishing. Already suffering, additional isolation only made everything worse. Some, though, came up with creative solutions:

Two casual friends in a San Francisco retirement community had apartment doors across the hall from each other. They formed the habit of opening their doors and visiting once or twice a day during the lockdown. It brightened their days so much that they circulated a note throughout the building suggesting others do the same. There’s no data on how that worked out, but one of the original door-to-door visitors told me she knew of at least four others who picked up on the idea.

In an assisted living building, residents on several floors had music sessions, wherein they would open their doors, keep their masks on and sing. “Anybody could start something,” one reported; “the rest of us would join in. It was pretty awful, but we had a ball.”

On one urban block, a young man sat on his front steps during the lockdown and played jazz on his saxophone at 10 in the morning. Doors and windows opened; strangers waved.

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Some of us simply walked. I walked for miles, daily as soon as total lockdown ended, across my beloved city. We nodded at each other; masked strangers passing on the strangely quiet streets. I never failed to be uplifted, just by our shared humanity.

We will have another pandemic. Hopefully not any time soon, but it will come. Maybe, along with the ongoing research into developing vaccines and protocols and financial solutions, we can address this existential reality:

People need people.

Watch Your #*$%+#@~ Language

Thoughts on National Grammar Day

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National Grammar Day is upon us.

I learned this from my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Kevin Fisher-Paulson, who opines and entertains every Wednesday (print edition for me). Fisher-Paulson was arguing (gently, but well within his rights) with a reader who complained about his overuse of So’s and Ands.

If you’re as fine a writer as Fisher-Paulson — who doubles as a cop, gay dad and all-around Good Person — you have grammatical-leeway rights.

Grammatical rights — “Conforming to the rules of grammar,” thanks, Merriam-Webster — were around centuries before Grammarly. I should get this off my chest right away: A pox on Grammarly. Whatever happened to old-fashioned dictionaries? Strunk and White? I may be showing my age here.

Mrs. Vaughan would have a hissy fit.

Mrs. Vaughan, may she rest in correctly spelled and properly punctuated peace, was my fourth-grade teacher, back before your grandmother was born. She taught Old School in the olden days, with a little help from the ruler she was wont to crack your knuckles with if you went astray. (Corporal punishment was allowed in the olden days, in the form of a sturdy wooden ruler for cracking over small knuckles.)

Certain useful words and phrases — such as having a hissy fit — may not even exist in my Strunk & White; I don’t have time to look them all up, so you’ll have to trust me. In my Virginia upbringing, however, we only hoped never to cross Mrs. Vaughan, whatever it was we were fixin’ to do. Such as knock each other upside the head.

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My Michigander husband, a writer and editor who could quote Strunk & White by the page, once told me our romance was almost over before it began the first time he heard me fixin’ to do something. But pretty soon he was fixin’ to ask me to marry him.

So. We write what the Ghost of Fourth Grade Past allows.

It is the grammar of today, however, that creates pain. I mean, like, could we, like, get through a sentence without, like, interrupting ourselves every four seconds?

And. I have pretty much given up on the lay/lie thing. “Hens lay, people lie,” Mrs. Vaughan would declare, long before people began to lie so blatantly; but I have lain that issue to rest, grammatically at least.

The forces of evil declared themselves victorious the day I had a bunch of teenagers in the back of the car when one of them said she was going to lay out in the sun. Another immediately said, “Lie,” in an aside to me, the driver, adding, “I know it’s right, Mom, but it sounds funny.”

Irregardless. If somebody wants their grammar allright they better watch with bated breath what their doing. I could care less. Mrs. Vaughan’s husband cared, but he died of prostrate cancer.

What can I say? Celebrate the Day.

Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive”

REVIEW of an UNFORGETTABLE MEMOIR

I picked up a copy of Natasha Trethewey’s memoir Memorial Drive at JFK, starting a cross-country flight home just as Black History Month was drawing to a close. Somewhere over Kansas I finished it, wishing for a sequel.

Trethewey spells out immediately, in this brave and beautiful little book, that she is writing about her mother’s murder. So we know it’s not a happy story. But in that same introduction — a dream recalled — her lyrical prose assures us we will be uplifted, rather than weighted down by the tragedy.

Memorial Drive the thoroughfare is a major artery of suburban Atlanta and was the address of Trethewey’s last home with her mother. It’s also a pathway for the reader’s travel.

Memorial Drive the memoir is an eloquent coming-of-age story that explores the complexities of being Black and especially of being bi-racial in the U.S. Trethewey’s early childhood, living in Mississsippi with her educated parents — Black mother, White father — and surrounded by her mother’s extended family, is a happy one. But even in those early days there are foreshadowings of trouble. Trethewey sought to smooth the waters by excelling in all things — specifically school work; the gifts that would prove out in her adult success as a poet and writer are evident from almost the beginning of her life.

When her parents’ marriage falls apart it spells the end of Trethewey’s happy security. She tells the story of how childhood superstitions and obsessions guide her through these years in languid, masterful prose. Moving to Atlanta with her mother when that city and its suburbs were gripped by social and political change, she sees those 1970s days through the lens of a bright but struggling child, wondering always where she might fit in.

Less than halfway into Memorial Drive we meet the man who will become her mother’s second husband — and murderer. We know he’s trouble from the moment he walks in the door. Trethewey knows it almost at that same time. Her helplessness to forestall tragedy or to protect her mother from this monstrous new lover would be unbearable to read about were it not for the author’s skillful, haunting prose.

Memorial Drive is a tale of deep-rooted racial divisions, of family secrets and intrigues and the terrible waste of a tragedy that could easily have been prevented. Bravely and beautifully told, it is a book not to miss.