A MORALITY TALE, OF SORTS, FOR OUR TIME
(NB — Key illustrations for this article were clipped from a video of the aftermath of the crime cited herein, taken from a safe distance. They may not be photographically wonderful, but surely you will get the idea.)
If you plan to travel in Morocco, you might want to engage Take-No-Prisoners Leila and Mild Mannered Abdel, a matchless pair who steered my daughter Sandy and me through the perils (and many remarkable sites) of the country from Tangiers to Rabat to Marrakech.
Fearless guides in their customary, friendlier stances
Considering the fact that much of our time was spent wandering the centers of ancient towns, which feature impossibly narrow, twisty streets with racing motorcycles and plodding carts going both directions at once, not to mention bewildering thoroughfares with traffic circles but no discernible speed limits and few pedestrian crossings or other such niceties, this visitor needed a LOT of guidance and protection.
As far as I can tell, law and order in Morocco is a system unto itself. The unflappable Abdel steered our mini-van through perilous streets and around three-lane traffic circles in the absolute assurance of which lane belonged to him, though this seemed to be a decision in constant flux. I saw occasional policemen — those in Marrakech were old buddies of Abdel — but their primary occupation was to make random stops checking for expired licenses or other signs of malfeasance. Stop signs? Traffic lights? Why bother? (The king goes anywhere, anytime, anyhow he darned well pleases. We watched a few of his shiny Mercedes limos simply being warmed up by zooming up and down a wide avenue just outside of the palace.)
A quieter street; not the one near the palace
To cross a major thoroughfare (there are indeed occasional crossing lanes, but never mind) Leila simply put her head down, grabbed my hand, and plunged into the swiftly-moving traffic. It’s a sort of ongoing game of chicken between drivers and pedestrians; I am amazed by the limited number of dead bodies strewn in roadways.
In all other matters of justice (leave aside the fact that the king does whatever he darned well pleases) it seems to be a matter of swift settlement between evildoer and victim. This is possible, I believe because people don’t walk around with guns. In other words, you might beat up on one another, but you’re less likely to wind up dead — as would be the case in another country that shall remain nameless where anybody and everybody seems to be packing heat these days.
We got a first-hand glimpse of this one day in Casablanca. We were driving peacefully around the city when we passed a park filled with Moroccans of varying ages at rest or play. The latter group included a few young hooligans of a sort common to every country since time immemorial. They were amusing themselves by tossing rocks at passing cars.
They picked the wrong car. A resounding crack against our window startled us all and brought the minivan to an immediate slow-down. Before it had come to a full stop Leila was out the door and jogging toward the hooligans. They were a small group of small boys who appeared to be about 8 or 10 years old. Within moments, Leila had one of them by the shirt collar and was giving him the what-for. It was in Arabic, but what-for to young hooligans is the same in any language.
Leila delivering the opening lecture
Meanwhile, back at the van, Abdel had found a place to park. Leaving the motor running he came to our door, explained apologetically that our health and wellbeing was of his primary concern, but — with a shrug — what could he do about Leila . . . And with that he was off, walking purposefully across the park.
Abdel (left) on his way to join the discussion
The next thing we knew, mild-mannered Abdel was offering his own what-for. To make his point, he administered a whopping swat to the primary culprit. By now a crowd was gathering. Sandy and I, noting how seriously outnumbered Leila and Abdel were, briefly discussed what would happen if one of us were to climb into the driver’s seat of the van. Easy: certain death.
Abdel justice, witnessed by Leila
We learned later that among the adults who gathered around was no one admitting to the parentage of the hooligans. Had I been such, facing the wrath of Leila and Abdel I would not have admitted to it in a thousand years. Leila has rather strong opinions about hooliganism.
Gathering crowd hearing from Leila
With their points made, our two fearless guides walked back across the park to the van. It was apparently all the time they needed to calm down and return to the pleasant companions we had known before the rock hit the window. The evildoing amounted to one small but bothersome shattered spot in the window. Punishment was administered and the issue apparently settled, without bloodshed.
Now, if we could get Abdel and Leila to come to speak with the NRA . . .
SNAPSHOTS FROM AN INTRODUCTORY VISIT TO SPAIN AND MOROCCO
Seville B&B rooftop
There’s something about rooftops, where you can look out over the city and see it anew. Currently I’m seeing actual new cities (wonderful old cities new to me) on a trip to Spain & Morocco. The above came with a view of the cathedral shining benevolently upon us all.
Inside Rabat’s Medina
Later, in the narrow alleyways of Rabat’s centuries-old Medina, people went about their days. To the visitor, life doesn’t seem easy here . . .
Atop Hotel Riad Dar El Kebira in Rabat
but from the rooftop of our hotel in the center of the Medina one could only see beauty.
Rooftop of Olala B&B, Marrakech
While the rooftop of our B&B, a few dozen steps above, was calm and lovely as the muezzin intoned the call to prayer.
Sunset from a Seville rooftop
Maybe rooftops are just their own call to peace and serenity.
WITH A SALUTE TO THE HUMANOID BRAINS OF WRITERS PAST
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.
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.
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 DOING SOMETHING about guns?
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.
But we CAN. Maybe we need to try harder.
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.
AN ARGUMENT FOR PERSON-TO-PERSON COMMUNICATIONS
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.
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.)
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.
WHAT WE (HOPEFULLY) LEARNED FROM THE PANDEMIC
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.