Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Kindred Spirit Remembered

Over thirty years ago, I arrived in Hyde Park to begin law school at the University of Chicago. I was 28 years old and had been married for five years. In those days, most students went directly from college to law school, so during orientation the small number of "older" students among our class of 120 quickly found one another.

One of those I met was Eugene Vaughan. Gene and I soon found we had something in common—prior to law school, we'd both worked as editors. Gene had edited textbooks, while I had worked as a magazine and book editor. We both expected that our writing skills would come in handy in the practice of law.

When classes began, I was delighted to find that Gene was in my Legal Research and Writing class, a small section of about twenty students. The course was designed to teach us how to research legal questions and produce memoranda and other documents typically required of lawyers. Each section was led by a recent graduate of the law school who had received a year-long Bigelow Fellowship. Our instructor, Sam Saracino, was no older than Gene or me, but he was clearly our superior when it came to understanding legal arcana. As for writing, however, Gene and I figured we might teach Sam a thing or two.

In those days of non-computerized legal information, legal research was an arduous and confusing affair and I found the law library something akin to a Dickensian Office of Circumlocution. During the first few weeks of the course, I wandered the stacks like a lost soul. I'd been an English major in college and my research skills were minimal. When I finally located all the information I needed for my first assignment, I felt the hard part was over. Writing the memo would be a breeze.

However, when my memo was returned, I was in for a shock—red ink all over the place. Apparently, Sam found my research impeccable but thought my writing needed help. Gene suffered an equal surprise—his writing hadn't passed legal muster, either. At least we could commiserate with one another and laugh about our own hubris. As the term went on, though, we realized that we really could transfer our writing skills to the legal arena. After mastering a few necessary legal expressions, we persevered in our view that a good legal memorandum is one that's written in simple, accessible language. Even Sam seemed to finally agree—the red ink appeared only rarely.

Gene and I continued a casual friendship during law school, then lost touch once we went our separate ways. My love of writing soon trumped my interest in law and, after a stint writing law book supplements, I turned my attention to poetry, fiction, and personal essays.

Earlier today, I learned that Gene passed away in January, at the young age of 61. His obituary mentioned that, after practicing law for a few years, Gene returned to his first love, editing, and once again became a textbook editor. I'm sad to hear of his passing, but somehow gratified to learn that, like me, the solitary but satisfying work of an editor/writer ultimately drew him back into its fold. I hope it gave him many years of fulfillment.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Stop, In the Name of Love

I'm not much of a singer. My children will attest to this. When they were in grade school, if I began to sing they would shout in unison, "Call 911, arrest your singing mother!" At the time, my ego was only slightly bruised—after all, they were kids, what did they know? But to my chagrin, my husband, Eric, agreed with them. Many years later, he still hasn't changed his tune. Much as he loves me, he doesn't enjoy it when I burst into song. Yesterday was a case in point.

While driving on the Interstate, we hit a major traffic jam. Cars slowed to a crawl, then stopped altogether. I fiddled around with the radio, but couldn't find a station the two of us agreed upon. So, I decided I would entertain Eric with a song or two.

I started with a Motown hit—"I Heard It Through the Grapevine." I have fond memories of seeing Gladys Knight and the Pips perform the song back in the sixties. They were the opening act for the teenage phenom, Little Stevie Wonder, at a concert I attended with my then-boyfriend, Peter. Eric has heard the story many times. Maybe that's why he reacted so vehemently when I launched into that particular song.

"Stop!" he cried and added, in the manner of American Idol's Simon Cowell, "You will never make it as a singer. America will vote you out of this competition."

So much for Motown. Undeterred, I launched into a medley of Broadway tunes, a specialty of mine. I began with a rousing rendition of "Oklahoma!", then put on a cockney accent for "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?" from My Fair Lady.

Finally, unable to persuade me to stop, Eric joined in, singing along in an operatic falsetto. We made quite a duo. Thankfully, we were in an enclosed vehicle and people in the nearby cars couldn't hear us. Otherwise, they surely would have called 911 and begged the police, "Arrest that singing couple!"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Travel Bug(aboo)

I love traveling—in my imagination. I have a voracious appetite for stories, photographs, and films that illuminate other cultures. My niece recently sent me photos from her trip to Thailand. The pictures of fruits and flowers, crabs on the beach, and coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell present a delightful array of local color. The beaches look stupendously beautiful, the rock formations unlike anything I've ever seen. The Grand Palace in Bangkok glows with an otherworldly beauty. I'm so glad my niece shared the record of her experiences with me, especially since I can enjoy it without the stress of airports and long flights, packing and strange beds, unfamiliar languages and that feeling of being a tourist, an outsider looking in.

To satisfy my thirst for exploring foreign lands from the comfort of my own home, I seek out books that help me enter different worlds. My all-time favorite is Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. Hessler, an American who taught English for two years in Fuling as a member of the Peace Corps, literally asked the same questions I would have asked if I'd been there. He transmitted the flavor of the place as experienced by someone from my own culture, the things that surprised him, captivated him, repelled him. I felt as if I were there, without the hassle, anxiety, and expense.

Novels also have the power to transport me to other cultures, as do films. The movie Monsoon Wedding, set in New Delhi, enveloped me in the sights, sounds, and emotional color of that Indian city. Of course, I got only a brief and narrow glimpse of an enormously varied landscape. Reading or watching a film obviously can't convey the smells and textures of a foreign place. But even when I've actually traveled to other countries, I rarely manage to experience more than a sliver of what lies beneath the facade. And I feel the separation more keenly.

I do sometimes rouse myself from the couch and fly off to foreign locales. Invariably, the most rewarding experiences occur when I know people in the places I'm visiting. In 2007, I spent a few days in Nice, where my French cousin and her husband live. Seeing the city through their eyes gave me a deep sense of connection. During a trip to England, I visited academic friends of my in-laws at their charming house in Cambridge, then spent the afternoon touring Cambridge with them. Exploring Christ College with a retired don and his wife made it so much more personal and real. Those trips were worth the jet lag.

Mostly, though, I prefer armchair travel. I'm one of those (apparently) rare people who truly enjoys viewing other people's travel albums. So, next time you're off to exotic ports, have a great trip. And email me your photos when you return!
Click on photos to enlarge them.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Close Encounter of a Vulturish Kind

When you walk along Biscayne Bay in Miami, you never know what you might see. Maybe a manatee will raise its gentle face above the surface and take a deep snorting breath. Or a bevy of blue-bubbled Portuguese Men o' War might float beguilingly across the water, deadly tentacles dangling below. Perhaps a dolphin will surprise you with a series of graceful leaps across the bay. Or you could catch sight of a sting ray undulating along the clear water's bottom in search of prey.

Sometimes the sights on the bay aren't part of the local ecosystem—a psychedelic-green tennis ball bobbing along like a bad imitation of a coconut, or a thousand flecks of white foam packing "peanuts" scattered across the water by the wind. But the the most disturbing things I've seen on Biscayne Bay are the blue bundles that sometimes wash up against the rocks next to the sea wall where I like to walk. These are the remains of Santeria sacrifices.

Santeria is a Caribbean religion that combines elements of Yoruba, Roman Catholic, and Native American beliefs. It has devotees among Cubans-Americans in Miami. Animal sacrifice is part of Santeria practice and the local rituals take place at a restaurant that overlooks the Miami River. Once the sacrifice has occurred, the slain animal is wrapped in one of the restaurant's cobalt blue tablecloths. The knotted tablecloth creates a bulky bundle, much like a hobo might carry. The bundle is dumped into the river. From there, the currents carry it out to the bay. Eventually, at low tide, it winds up on the rocks beside the seawall.

When I see one of these blue sacks, I try not to dwell on the poor creature inside and how it met its demise. I just hope the tide will rise quickly and carry it out to sea to a watery grave. On a recent walk, though, I experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of the circle of life. As I made my way along the bay, I saw something black and hulking on the rocks. I came closer and realized I was staring into the beady eyes of a black vulture, one of four sitting on the rocks, with sooty black bodies and wrinkled gray heads. Two of the four birds flew off as soon as they saw me approach. The other two held their ground. It was then that I noticed the blue tablecloth on the rocks in between them. It had been ripped open by their short, hooked beaks and I could see a few feathers poking out of the bundle.

I've rarely viewed a vulture on the ground. Turkey vultures and, less frequently, black vultures constantly soar high in the skies over Miami, gliding on the wind currents, searching for carrion. But I'd never seen one so close up. It looked enormous, threatening . . . vulturish. Rather than approach any closer, I decided the better choice would be to continue my walk, which would involve circling back to that spot a couple more times.

On my second pass, the two birds were at work on the carcass and didn't even pause to stare me down. They must have concluded I was harmless. By my third time around, about half an hour later, the chicken carcass had been stripped bare and the birds had departed.

Gory though the scene appeared, I saw a certain beauty in it. The poor chicken hadn't been sacrified in vain. Certainly, the Santeria adherents didn't think so. But more importantly, the unfortunate chicken had provided a meal for the hungry vultures. I don't think much of the vultures' appearance or their table manners, but surely they serve an important role in the ecosystem, cleaning up the messes that other creatures make. We humans make the biggest messes of all. Too bad most of them aren't amenable to a quick, devouring, vulturish cleanup.

Photos by Mdf, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Who Obama Should Help

An article in today's New York Times describes laid-off executives who have taken hourly-wage jobs to make ends meet. It's worth reading the article and watching the accompanying audio slide show online. The former executives profiled in the piece are responsible, hardworking members of our society who lost their prior positions through no fault of their own—not incompetence or negligence or even ill health. Their companies simply downsized or went out of business altogether, landing them on the street.

Despite diligent job searches, these victims of our desperate economy quickly realized that the accomplishments listed on their resumes were not yielding any jobs, let alone jobs comparable to the ones they had lost. So they downplayed their managerial skills and over-qualifications in order to find jobs as janitors, fast-food clerks, and UPS package sorters. They're doing whatever they can to earn enough to make the mortgage payments on their homes and hold onto health care coverage for their families.

One of the individuals profiled in the Times prays every morning with his wife, a breast cancer survivor, and then goes off to work mopping floors and cleaning urinals. This is depressing stuff. But, for me, it's also a story filled with hope. If anything is going to bring us out of the coming depression into a better world, it will be the work ethic of people like those described in the article. These men and women embody the concept of personal responsibility.

I hope President Obama's policies will reward their industriousness with appropriate support and incentives. If families who have stopped making mortgage payments receive assistance to help them stay in their homes, there should also be help for those who are working themselves to the bone everyday so they won't fall behind in their payments. Only that way will anything like equity be achieved.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Annie Leibovitz, What Have You Done?

What is the world coming to? It can't be coming to anything good when photographer Annie Leibovitz pawns all her photographs to pay the mortgages on homes she inherited from her longtime partner, Susan Sontag. According to the Daily Mail, Leibovitz has put her photographs up as collateral for a loan from an "art pawn shop." Her photos will only be sold if she defaults on the loan.

So, all is not lost. The artist may yet be reunited with her work. I'm guessing the properties mean a great deal to Leibovitz—after the death of a loved one, sometimes remaining in the home(s) they shared provides tremendous comfort to the surviving partner. Still, the fact that Leibovitz apparently had to choose between her photographs and her real property represents a disturbing snapshot of the times in which we live.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Haiku for the Current Moment

certain as sunset
only death and taxes once
now foreclosure too