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.
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 . . .
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Airline passengers fall into two groups: those who can handle turbulence, and those who cannot.
So when we started bouncing around somewhere over Kansas I went into full freak: teeth clenched, hands gripping arm rests, eyes squeezed shut, feet applying brakes via the seat in front of me.
A flight attendant voice came over the speaker: “Garblegarblegarble Emergency garblegarblegarble Emergency.” The seat-belt sign shone a desperate white. Again: “Garblegarble Emergency . . . garblegarblegarble Emergency. Garblegarble.”
I prepared to die. Mainly, I was running through the list of things I hadn’t finished, stuff I had planned to leave beautifully organized for my mourning children, the dead flowers and moldy coffee cup from my departure a week ago. Then I started thinking: my laptop will go down with me; how can posterity survive without my laptop?
The couple next to me kept right on scrolling through their devices. Eating pretzels, for heaven’s sake. Who eats pretzels on their way into the hereafter?
I stole glances at other passengers. You’d think they were relaxing in a stretch limo.
We bounced more vigorously. I opened a conversation with God, who definitively told me She had other things to worry about so that didn’t help much.
After about five minutes, which seemed a small eternity to me, we leveled off. Just like that, the airplane remained in the skies, with me safely buckled into seat 24F. My laptop still connected to wifi.internet.com.
When the seatbelt sign went off I made a trip to the restroom. Before returning to my seat I could not resist asking the flight attendant what she had been saying, in those announcements that were totally unintelligible other than the Emergency! Emergency! Business.
“Oh,” she said with a smile. “Someone had pushed their call button. We were just asking them to push it twice if it were a true emergency, as we were buckled in and could only respond if it were an emergency.”
I was happy when the non-garbled announcement came: “Welcome to San Francisco . . .”
Today’s education wars are giving me a déjà vu headache.
Ron DeSantis would have Florida’s children believe there’s really no significance to African American history, literature or culture — or any history, literature or culture other than that of Euro-centric white America. (Here’s just one list of a few currently banned books. Read it and weep.)
I was jogged to write this piece by a recent Medium post by Deb C, a writer who knows what she’s writing about. She is hardly a newcomer to injustice. In an earlier opinion piece for a small Florida newspaper Deb C had written, “Why is it not as important to everyone as it is to African Americans that our history be equally shared, as an opportunity for all Americans to better understand and coexist in this country?” That was written in 2003.
Why, today, is it unimportant to Ron DeSantis for Floridians to know the history of other cultures, African American in particular? Deb C calls him ‘Roger B Taney DeSantis,’ just in case you’d forgotten the name of the Dred Scott decision judge. (Now we can all remember.) It is all of a piece, but at this point in time it’s education that we should worry about.
We have been here before.
I grew up (white, relatively privileged) in the segregated south — admittedly a very long time ago, the 1940s and 50s. The textbooks I read, many of them still in use well past Brown v Board of Education, taught that the “War Between the States” (we did not use the term “Civil War”) was solely about “states’rights.” Those evil northerners seeking to dictate to us genteel southerners. Gone With the Wind was in our school libraries, but nothing by Frederick Douglas or Richard Wright or the Black writers who would inspire the likes of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and other great African American voices that began to be heard from the 1950s on.
The big literary event of my elementary school was the semi-annual UDC essay contest. As in, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. There would be an assigned title, usually something relating to a Confederate general or other hero, and the essay was part of our Civics assignment. Even had it not been required schoolwork, everybody wanted to submit a winning essay; prizes were awarded at Assembly by the local UDC chapter president, a dowager of local renown. I may have won, occasionally; I would like to think not.
Just to be clear: the mission of the UDC is to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.” If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s woven into the fabric of every white supremacist group in the U.S.
My parents — my father was head of a small college that skirted racial issues in these years — negotiated life in our small town without rippling the waters, though my mother caused eyebrows to raise behind the blue veils of the town gentry by repeatedly refusing to join the UDC and by regularly, though infrequently, hosting visiting Black scholars and friends. (Who of course could not stay in the town hotel.) My sisters and I did not discuss these houseguests outside of our home. Racial injustice itself was seldom discussed in depth around our dinner table. To my parents’ credit, we had books by Douglas and Wright, Langston Hughes and others on our home library shelves, and when there were assignments on the Civil War I was handed an Encyclopedia Britannica. I was more fortunate than most of my friends.
These are the educational roots of millions of Americans: people in their 70s and 80s who studied those lessons. And many of their children and grandchildren are learning by extension. The teachings are from UDC-approved textbooks. One has to wonder who’s approving the books that will remain on the shelves of Florida schools.
Were my family and I complicit in maintaining white supremacy long after it should have been challenged? Of course. Admitting and understanding that, however, does not make me “feel bad,” as today’s anti-CRT advocates fear would befall our poor, defenseless white children. It makes me feel liberated to know truth, and even more appreciative of the countless ways African American culture continues to enrich the lives of us all.
Could someone please explain this to Ron DeSantis?